Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15). Based on Ephesians 2:13-22.
Crown of Life Lutheran Church; Hubertus, WI. Preached on August 13 & 16, 2020.
Christ Unites Us!
- He breaks down barriers
- He builds us up together
Divisive politics. Internet censorship. A worldwide pandemic. Government mandates in response to the pandemic. Disagreement and debates about the response to the pandemic. Racial tensions. Protests—some peaceful, some violent. Could our nation appear to be any more divided than it is right now?
I know that many of you are troubled by all of this. I am too. And if we are realistic in our views about human nature, we realize that tensions like these don’t disappear in a day.
The hostility and divisions we see in our world today are nothing new. But God has a way of healing those divisions and making them melt away so that his people are truly united. The primary focus in the Bible readings for this weekend speak to these sorts of issues. Even though these words are thousands of years old, they are as timely as ever. Let’s listen to the apostle Paul as he addresses similar issues from his day in his letter to the Christians who lived in ancient Ephesus. Paul’s message to his readers then are just as applicable to his readers today. To people who felt divided from one another, Paul says that Christ unites us! Christ unites us because he breaks down barriers, and he builds us up together. Our reading for today comes from Ephesians chapter two:
13 Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 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, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
We’re jumping into this letter after Paul has already written one and a half chapters, so we’re jumping into an existing context. You probably sensed that Paul was speaking about two groups of people. On one side are the Jews, God’s handpicked Old Testament nation, through whom the promised Savior of the world came into the world. On the other side are the Gentiles, which is basically everyone else. And Paul is speaking directly to the Gentiles in his audience as he writes this section.
There was a barrier that divided these two groups for generations. Paul identifies that barrier in verse 15 as “the law.” Paul isn’t referring to the moral law, i.e. the Ten Commandments. Paul is referring to the laws and customs that were unique to Israel as a nation, especially their worship practices. These God-mandated laws had a good purpose. They were ancient “object lessons” that taught the Jews what they needed to know about the coming Savior. By following these laws, which were unique to them, they stood apart from the other nations around them. Unfortunately, their uniqueness became a source of ill will between the Jews and Gentiles. Even though there were provisions for bringing Gentiles into the Jewish faith, and even though Jews could fall away from their faith in the promised Messiah, there was still a strong sense of suspicion between the two groups. The writings of the rabbis from this era spoke in shockingly harsh terms about the Gentiles—even Gentile converts!—and the negative feelings from the Gentiles were mutual.
But the ill will between these two groups was symptomatic of a larger problem. Those two groups needed first to be reconciled with God. And God had already made that reconciliation reality through his Son, Jesus Christ. “[Christ Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups 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.” Jesus’ shed blood, his death on the cross to pay for the sins of Jews and Gentiles alike, have reconciled humanity with God! Jesus’ death also removed the need for all those Old Testament worship laws and customs that were designed to point forward in time to his future sacrifice. With his sacrifice complete, those customs had fulfilled their purpose and were no longer necessary. And that resulted in a very practical barrier lifted between Jews and Gentiles.
The divisions we experience today are different, but they are no less real. Am I quick to make negative assumptions about others solely based on ethnicity? Do I assume the worst of others because their political position is different from mine? Have legitimate discussions about the best way to respond to Coronavirus turned into the reason we look down on someone else? Even in the church, old and new members or two different circles of friends can look at each other with a certain level of suspicion.
The divisions today are different, but they are no less real. The divisions today are different, but their solution is the same. For there to be reconciliation with one another, we need reconciliation with God for our violations against his commands to love our neighbor. And that reconciliation is not accomplished by “peace talks.” That reconciliation was accomplished at the cross of Jesus Christ. The blood of Jesus, who shared our human flesh and blood, was poured out on the cross to erase our guilt and sin that had kept us separated from God. The blood of Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah who came to reconcile the world to God, has removed the barrier of guilt that our sins caused. And that same blood of Jesus that broke down the barrier of sin between us and God also forgives and breaks down the barriers of sinful assumptions and false projections that we have made toward others. The same cross that reconciled us to God in Christ now leads us to be reconciled to one another, to view one another not through racial or political filters, but to see one another as a beautiful tapestry of people who have been woven together through the blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Have you seen the picture of the siblings who were not getting along with each other? Their parents came up with an ingenious solution. They took an oversized t-shirt, wrote the words, “Our get along shirt” on the front, and stuck both kids in the shirt.
Is that how God unites us? He breaks down the barriers and puts us together and says, “Okay now, you people that haven’t gotten along in the past: It’s time to be nice!”
As you might expect, God doesn’t operate that way. He doesn’t merely break down the barriers that existed without also changing us and our connection to each other. That’s what Paul talks about in the last paragraph of our reading.
He said to the Gentile Christians in Ephesus: “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.” The Gentile believers in Jesus didn’t need to feel like second-class citizens, because they weren’t second-class citizens. They were no longer confined to the outer courts of the temple, because they were no longer defined by worship in the Jerusalem temple. They were built together into a new spiritual temple.
This spiritual temple had a foundation. It was built on the writings of the apostles and prophets. That’s a first-century way to say that this spiritual temple was built on the Bible.
First century buildings were also built with a cornerstone. The cornerstone was a carefully cut stone with a perfect 90-degree angle. When builders filled out the walls based on the cornerstone, they ensured that the building was perfectly square and properly built. So when Paul says that Jesus is the chief cornerstone of the church, he is saying that the message of Jesus Christ—the message of his death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, our sins forgiven, the barrier of hostility removed, reconciliation between us and God and one another—that beautiful message is the message on which the church is built.
And when the church is built up on this gospel news, then the members of the church are built up together: “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.” Paul could tell his Gentile readers that they were as much a part of Christ’s church as their Jewish counterparts. Every one of them was an important brick or stone in the spiritual cathedral that is the Holy Christian Church.
In church life, a common activity often brings people together as friends: You attended a Bible Information Class together with a small group of people; you worked together on the same project with a few others on a campus work day; you were part of a small-group Bible study that met in people’s homes. That common activity or experience often takes a group of people who hardly know one another at the beginning and turns them into lifelong friends.
If those kinds of activities can do that, then how much more does our time together in God’s house unite us as one! We are united by a common rescue from the clutches of Satan and the jaws of hell! We are reconciled together with God through the sacrificial death of his Son! We are growing together right now as he builds up our faith through the message of the apostles and prophets so that we become God’s beautiful spiritual temple. We are fed together with the very price of our salvation at this altar. God’s Spirit dwells in our hearts more and more, making you the perfect stone for your place in this grand edifice that we call the Holy Christian Church.
And the beauty of Christ is that as we see ourselves built together in this grand edifice, suddenly we stop looking at the divisions and differences and demographics that could separate us, and we start seeing the blessings we have in common—the same gracious God, the same forgiveness from Jesus’ cross, the same status as baptized and redeemed children of God, the same hope of heaven thanks to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
What an honor to be chosen by God to be a part of this beautiful, grand, united cathedral called the Holy Christian Church! Christ truly has united us! Amen.