But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall; that is, the hostility between us.
Welcome to the 2nd week of our summer preaching series on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Last week we touched on the historic context of the letter and we noted that many scholars think that it was written while Paul was in prison in Ephesus, in the middle of his writing career. We were reminded that Ephesus was a bustling centre of trade and commerce on the western coast of what is now Turkey. Founded in the 10th century BC, at the time of Paul’s writing Ephesus was a pluralistic society and a well-known centre of pagan worship. There was a thriving economy making and selling statues of Artemis, the pagan goddess of the moon and of fertility.
The Letter might have been written as a circular and shared through a network of small house churches in the vicinity of Ephesus. It was written to the first generation of Christians and it is primarily about the church; a community of faith built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets of the Old Testament and now with Jesus as its cornerstone. Almost every paragraph of the letter is structured around the significance of Jesus in some way or another.
It is important to remember that the Letter to the Ephesians is deeply rooted in the 1st century Jewish view of the world. For Paul, creation is God’s good, complex and beautiful world which been degraded, spoilt by human sin and dark forces. But the whole point is to recognise God’s relentless work to rescue, to recover the whole creation from bondage not to abandon creation so that “saved humans” can go and live somewhere else; but to inaugurate the new creation, restored! Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, we pray.
And now as we turn our attention to the second chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians we encounter the way Paul views God’s world and the believer’s place in it. Remember that Paul grew up as a devote Jew, a learned leader and a renowned persecutor of the first Christians. But now, after his own conversation in an encounter with the risen Christ, his worldview has changed; his life has been transformed. Now Paul is teaching the first generation of Christians outside of Israel about who they are and what defines the church. The congregation was diverse – it included people who were brought up as Jews and those who had no experience or knowledge of God.
So what makes the church different from its pagan neighbours and its Jewish foundation? Paul makes it clear that the church is not defined by the familiar symbols and practices of Judaism he knew so well – such as circumcision, keeping Sabbath, food laws and the temple in Jerusalem as the centre of the world, the place where heaven and earth overlapped and interlocked; the place where God resided and would return.
Paul is presenting a whole different worldview, one that is rooted in his own life-changing encounter with Jesus, risen from the grave. Chapter 2 gives us Paul’s vision of the Church, a community of faith, people rescued from the grip of darkness and sin. For Paul the church is the sign of God’s new creation breaking into the world! There was a new way of being human – caring for the poor, tending the sick, eating together, praying together and sharing possessions…and with people who were not of their family origin or race. The walls of separation come down; unity emerges and peace governs lives… People didn’t know you could live like that!
Over and over Paul proclaims that this new reality to which the church bears witness is inseparably identified with Jesus Christ, the cornerstone, the one who holds it all together. For in baptism we are joined to him, signed with the cross and marked as Christ’s own forever – that is, all we have and all we are, and all we will ever be is now in Christ. United in Christ.
That is a tricky phrase. In Christ. In our preaching passage this morning, verses 11–22, Paul shows us what it means to be in Christ.
Turn with me for just a few minutes to today’s passage from Ephesians that is printed in larger font. I have divided the verses into 3 paragraphs so we can follow Paul’s thinking about unity in the church as he addresses the diverse congregation.
First, he calls us to remember along with the Gentiles, people who were recent converts to Christianity, remember what life was like without God… so then remember that at one time…you were aliens, strangers, outside the covenants of promise, there was a wall and you were outside of it, separated, having no hope…
And now notice verse 13: But now in Christ Jesus
BUT NOW in Christ JESUS. BUT NOW. What has changed? Friends, this is the good news, the Gospel, in miniature. “… You who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us” … out of love, out of his unquenchable desire to overcome hostility, to draw all people to God in one family, Jesus took on and defeated the powers of sin and darkness. On the cross Jesus confronted and took down the walls of alienation, rejection and fear one brick at a time, bringing all people into a new unity in Him.
So he came and proclaimed peace to all, making it possible for all to have access in one Spirit to the Father.
For those who turn and follow Jesus, In Jesus, there are no walls, no strangers, no aliens, everyone belongs to God’s household. In Jesus God has initiated a new creation, a new world order where peace, not just the absence of conflict, but the sort of lasting peace that emerges from reconciliation… peace which passes human understanding, peace brought about in the death and resurrection of Jesus, making it possible for all people to be drawn together, united in the power of God the Holy Spirit.
Now what? The third paragraph, verses 19-22 gives us the answer. Paul writes, So then you are no longer strangers and aliens but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; win whom you also are built together into a dwelling place for God.
Imagine growing into a holy temple, a dwelling place for God! As we deepen our relationship with Him we discover that reconciliation with God and one another is no longer just a dream, a longing for what once was and a hope for what someone might be, but something that already exists! Bonds of trust and fellowship deepen and unity emerges, creating a holy dwelling place for God in the world.
We belong to Christ because he has made peace… and not because he merely teaches us about peace, or preaches peace, or encourages peace, but because in his own body he has done what we could never do… he made peace; he shattered the power of sin and death; he broke down the wall, the obstacles between God and humanity and among people… Jesus is our peace and we are called to live as channels of his peace.
Most certainly we are a work in progress – and walls are not just associated with border crossings, fear and unjust government. There are walls in our lives, too. With love and compassion Jesus looks upon the walls of hurt, regret and hostility that we put up one brick at a time, ones that still remain in families, between neighbours and work colleagues… he looks upon them and us and he says, I love you so much I have knocked this down. I have proclaimed peace, the peace of God, peace between you and God…reconciliation has happened…and now beloved, you are being built into a dwelling place for God, now stay close to me and come alive fully, stay close to me and live as a channel of my peace.
How do we do this? Where do we start? Maybe this week we can start with one brick. Think about a wall that is troubling in your life… and choose one brick – one difficult memory, a difficult person, a regret, or something specific that another person did to you or someone you love; write it down and maybe put it on the offertory plate when it comes by… lift it in prayer; ask God to give you the will and the strength to make amends, to let it go so it no longer defines or impedes the future God has prepared for you.
In a few minutes we will bring those burdens to our Lord in the words of confession. God is steadfast in love and infinite in mercy; he welcomes sinners and invites us to His Table so let us confess our sins, confident in God’s mercy. We will hear God’s words of forgiveness and reconciliation and then we will exchange the Peace before we gather at His Table for Holy Communion. Not just a neighbouring greeting or a time to make a lunch date, it is Christ’s peace we exchange, for in him divisions are overcome, reconciliation is real, unity emerges and our hearts burst with gratitude.
For he is our peace.