One of the worst feelings you will ever experience is that of feeling excluded. Just this past week, a mother wrote to an advice column in a major newspaper:
Dear Amy: My daughter is in elementary school. Over the past few years, she has experienced some unfriendly behavior from other girls, mostly in the form of obvious exclusion. There are times when she has addressed these issues, and times when I have contacted a teacher or a parent.
Last year, a good friend stopped speaking to her. She was devastated. It went on for months. I know the parents, but I didn't speak with them about it…
I cannot force this kid to like my daughter, but should I try to contact the parents and find out what is up? Am I over-involved?
You can feel that mother's pain as you read the letter. Most of us can remember what it's like to be excluded as a child at school. But exclusion isn't just a school-age problem. Exclusion happens to adults. At work, it can take the form of "incivility, yelling, spreading gossip or lies, insulting employees, as well as hostility, verbal aggression, and angry exchanges" – or just a cold shoulder. In can also take place in families as one person begins to turn the shoulder on each other. It happens within people groups. In Rwanda, the exclusion of one people group (the Tutsis) by another resulted in the slaughter of over half a million people in just a hundred days.
Exclusion is horrible. Yet there's another type of exclusion we rarely think about: spiritual exclusion. This is very real. Here are a couple of examples, although I have to admit they're extreme. The son of a prominent Hamas family recently became a Christian. He's said, "I know that I'm endangering my life and am even liable to lose my father, but I hope that he'll understand this." He's been told by some to change his name and facial identity for his own safety. In August, a young woman was found guilty of converting to Christianity in Saudi Arabia and was burned alive by her father, a member of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Against Vice.
I told you that these are extreme examples, but you almost have to think of this type of exclusion as you come to the passage we're looking at today. Paul is writing to a church, particularly one that is full of Gentile (non-Jewish) believers in Jesus Christ. The division between Jews and Gentiles in that day was one of the most fundamental divisions in the first century world. These tensions would have been felt as Jews and Gentiles came together in the church as followers of Jesus Christ.
Let me give you a bit of a taste of what the tensions were like between these groups. In the Jewish temple, signs were posted at the barrier separating the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of the Israelites. They've found two of these. The signs said: "No foreigner is allowed to enter within…Whoever is caught will be personally responsible for his ensuing death." Some believed that Gentiles were made as fuel for the fires of hell, and that it was wrong to help a Gentile woman give birth, because it would bring another heathen into the world.
Gentiles were also suspicious of the Jewish people. Plato said said barbarians (non-Greeks) were his enemies by nature. Closer to the time that Ephesians was written, a Roman historian wrote, "The Greeks wage a truce-less war against people of other races, against barbarians." The tensions between the two groups would have been monumental.
Because these tensions aren't part of our world. it's tempting to think this passage has nothing to do with us. But this passage still about us: most of us are Gentiles, so this is about us, even if we don't feel it. Not only that, but our world is still full of these types of divisions. The world is divided into two groups: people who are like us, and people who aren't. We feel these divisions in society when we're with someone who's from a different group than us. These tensions can spill into the church in all kinds of ways as well when different kinds of people come together as followers of Jesus Christ.
This is also one of the most significant passages on the church in the entire New Testament.
So what do we learn from this passage? Three things: we learn how significant these differences are; how the gospel applies to these differences; and what this teaches us about the church.
First, Paul tells us about how significant the differences are.
We've already seen how Gentiles and Jews viewed each other. Besides the tensions I've already mentioned, Paul lists five ways that we as Gentiles were excluded not only from Israel but from God. The background to this passage is that God had chosen Israel out of all of the nations of the world. This was great news for Israel, but really bad news for everyone else. In Deuteronomy 7:6 Moses said to Israel, "For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession." This means that Israel had something that no other nation enjoyed: a covenantal relationship with God.
Paul explains what this means to those of us who are not Jewish. He writes in verses 11 and 12:
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.
If you look at this, there are five things that separate those of us who are Gentiles from the covenant God made with Israel:
- "separate from Christ" – When we read this, we think "Jesus Christ," when we really should be thinking "Messiah." Israel had the expectation of a coming Messiah who would triumph over all their enemies; Gentiles had no such hope.
- "excluded from citizenship in Israel" – God had chosen to known by Israel and no-one else. If you were non-Jewish, you were excluded from all of God's blessings unless you became Jewish. None of God's blessings for his chosen people were yours.
- "foreigners of the covenants of the promise" – God made all kinds of promises in the Old Testament on the basis of his covenants with Israel. The Gentiles – that's us – had no share in these promises.
- "without hope" – As bad as things got in Israel, the faithful always had God's promises. They believed in the promised messianic salvation. Gentiles had no such hope.
- "without God in the world" – Gentiles had gods, but they didn't have the one true God. So it's like Israel had the one true God and the rest of us had fakes.
Put this altogether and you have a picture of our exclusion: cut off from the Messiah, cut off from God as king, as well as all of his promises; cut off from hope, and from God himself. Paul wants the readers of this letter to feel the significance of their exclusion, not only from Israel but their exclusion from a covenantal relationship with God and all of its benefits.
Paul's telling us that we need to see the enormity, the significance, of our exclusion, both from Israel and from God. Part of the reason is that perhaps the recipients had forgotten the gravity of the situation and had forgotten the Jewish heritage of their faith – something that is probably very true of us as well.
One of the major themes of the book of Ephesians is God's eternal purpose to bring all things together under Christ. Paul wrote in chapter 1 that God purposed "to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ" (Ephesians 1:10). What Paul writes here is significant not only for the Jewish/Gentile divide, but also for all the ways that people are excluded, even within the church. Most of us are tribal by nature. We divide by class, race, economics, age, music. This is true not only in society, which is very fragmented. It's also true within the church.
Paul says that we need to understand – not only understand, but feel – the significance of these divisions.
But then Paul applies the gospel to these differences.
You may be thinking, "What does the gospel have to do with any of this?" There's a lot of confusion about the gospel today. We tend to think it's about how someone becomes a Christian. For Paul, though, the gospel is much more comprehensive than that. The gospel isn't just about individual souls going to heaven. It's not just that God has reconciled us to himself; he's also reconciled us to each other.
Read what Paul says in verses 13 to 18:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Paul is clear: the solution to exclusion and alienation and division is nothing less than Jesus Christ and his work at the cross. Peace is found in a person: Jesus Christ. That's why verse 14 says, "He is our peace." He has overcome every division that separates Jews from Gentiles.
And you can't miss this. Before, the world was divided into two kinds of people: Jew and Gentile. But Paul says now there are three kinds of people: Jews, Gentiles, and the church. "His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two…" (Ephesians 2:15). There's a new category of people now. God has already begun to bring together people who would otherwise have nothing in common, and make them into a new people. In other passages, Paul make it clear that this obliterates all that separates us and makes us one in Christ Jesus. The Gospel is the good news that God reconciles us to himself, and also to one another.
This means, by the way, that whenever we separate in the church according to our distinctives – age, class, culture, economics, music – we're acting contrary to the nature of the gospel. One of the purposes of the church is to show to the world what it's like when God's reconciling power brings people together who would otherwise have nothing to do with each other. We're like a pilot project showcasing God's reconciling power. Tullian Tchividjian writes:
Plainly stated, building the church on age appeal (whether old or young) or stylistic preferences is as contrary to the reconciling effect of the Gospel as building it on class, race, or gender distinctions. Negatively, when the church segregates people according to generation, race, style, or socioeconomic status, we exhibit our disbelief in the reconciling power of the Gospel. Positively, one of the prime evidences of God's power to our segregated world is a congregation which transcends cultural barriers, including age.
The Gospel is the good news that God reconciles us to himself, and also to one another. It breaks down all the barriers and makes us into a new humanity in which all the divisions that separate us are destroyed.
Let's close with what this means for the church.
Verses 19 to 22 say:
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God's people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
We're tempted today to think that the church is an optional extra. What matters is our relationship with God. Here, Paul challenges that view. He wants us to see who we really are. He gives us three images, and each one is more intimate than the one before:
- We're citizens in God's nation. We're not second-class citizens. We're part of his kingdom, part of his new society.
- But then it gets even tighter: members of his household. We're related by blood. If you're a fellow citizen, you're still distant. But if you're family, the ties are intimate and the bonds are tighter. We're related to each other. God has brought us into intimate relationship.
- But then it gets even tighter. We, together, are the temple in which God lives. You're a living stone in God's dwelling place; we're part of where God has lives all throughout this earth. Alone you're just an isolated stone; together, we are where God himself has chosen to live.
Eight in ten Canadians say that you don't need to go to church to be a good Christian. Seventy percent of Christians say that their private beliefs are more important than the church. But that's not what Paul says. It's not private, and it's not even going to church. It's much more than that. It's that you become family, and together with other Christians, where God lives. You can't do that alone.
The Gospel is the good news that God reconciles us to himself, and also to one another. He's made us fellow citizens, family, and the dwelling place of God.
This all comes together as we come to the Lord's Supper this morning. What we're about to celebrate has different names. Eucharist means giving thanks; when we think of what Christ did at the cross for us, we have many reasons to give thanks. Communion refers to the communal nature of this meal.
In his sermon "The Sinner's Feast," Lee Eclov describes what this means:
This table is different. This table of the Lord isn't where sinners find Christ but where sinners celebrate being found …
Maybe some morning, instead of solemnly passing these trays, we should dance for joy. Maybe we should sing every born-again song we know. Maybe we should tell our "homecoming" stories and laugh like people who no longer fear death. Maybe we should ask if anyone wants seconds and hold our little cups high to toast lost sisters found and dead brothers alive.
Let's celebrate communion this morning.