|IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 40, November 29 to December 6, 1999|
Fred Craddock tells a story about the poet, Carl Sandburg, who was once asked by an interviewer, "What, in your opinion, is the ugliest word in the English language?" Mr Sandburg's face took on a thoughtful expression and he repeated the phrase, "the ugliest word in the English language." The interviewer and television audience waited, silently. Mr Sandburg was concentrating very hard, and again said to himself, "the ugliest word?" Everyone waited. Sandburg looked off in the distance, as if he expected to see the answer written on a wall or some distant notice board, and he muttered to himself again, "Ugliest? The ugliest word?" The interviewer and thousands of listeners continued to lean forward, waiting for his reesponse. Finally, Mr Sandburg turned toward the interviewer, "The ugliest word," he said slowly, "the ugliest word is ... exclusive."
"Exclusive" certainly can be an ugly word, especially when it describes an ugly attitude that seeks to draw lines and form boundaries, identifying the privileged, and then separating them from those who don't quite make the grade — perhaps because they don't have the right colour skin, or the right cultural/ethnic background.
This sort of behaviour, unfortunately, had become standard operating procedure for the people of Israel. Even though they had done nothing to deserve God's blessings, they nevertheless began to act as if somehow they did deserve them, and as if others did not. So, by the time you have moved through the Old Testament to the time of the Apostle Paul, the Jewish people would have been at this game for many hundreds of years. And their hatred and disdain for Gentiles (i.e., non-Jewish people) had become something of an art form. The "people of God" had become, sadly, an exclusive, "members-only" club. But Paul, in Ephesians 2:11ff., says that with the coming of Christ, all of that changed.
That's what we'll be looking at in our continuing study on "The Church." So far we have seen that the church is: 1) the people of God; 2) forgiven sinners; 3) doers of good; and 4) a portrait of grace. In this lesson we'll be thinking about the church as God's New Nation.
Verses 1-10 of this chapter divide into two main sections. Verses 1-3 talk about what it was like before Christ came along, and verses 4ff. talk about what God had done through Christ, changing everything around. The verses before us now can be broken up in a similar fashion. Whereas in verses 1-3 Paul talked about how all of us, individually, were once alienated from God himself, here in verses 11-12 he is talking about alienation again. But this time he is talking about how the Gentiles were alienated from the nation of Israel. That is, the Gentiles were doubly alienated — from God himself and also from God's people.
Paul uses a number of expressions to describe this alienation that once existed between the Ephesian Gentiles (the "uncircumcised") and the people of God (the "circumcised"). He reminds them that there was a time when they — the Gentiles — did not know Christ, that is, the Messiah. They were separate from him. While the Jewish people were waiting and hoping for a "messiah," the Gentiles were blissfully ignorant of the whole thing, not knowing that there was a messiah, or even that they needed one.
Paul reminds them of this fact. He also reminds them that at one time they were not considered to be citizens of Israel, they didn't belong — and they weren't getting in either. You see, while there was provision in the Old Testament for becoming a proselyte — sort of a junior member of God's people — there was no provision for being considered a card-carrying, full-on descendant of Abraham. No proselyte could ever claim that, no proselyte could ever claim to be an heir to the great promises made to God's covenant people Israel.
Paul further reminds them that they were "without hope" because, although they were part of God's plan, that plan had been revealed to the Jews, not to the Gentiles. You see, way back in Genesis, when God made his covenant with Abraham, one of the things promised was that through Abraham's descendants God would bless the nations, the Gentiles. Later, through his prophet Isaiah (42), God declared, again, that his people would be a "light to the Gentiles." But only after many years, and in spite of Israel's pride and disdain for the nations, would God eventually, through Jesus, bring about the fulfillment of those promises. In Jesus, the promise to bless the nations was made good. But the coming of Jesus didn't happen right away — and so, until he came, the Gentiles were excluded from the people of God, and were without hope.
But not only were they without hope, they were "without God in the world," as Paul puts it. To be sure, they had no excuse for being without God. In Romans 1 Paul makes it clear that God has not left himself without a witness. He has revealed something of himself through nature. Nevertheless, the response of sinful humanity was to suppress the truth they might have known about God through his creation and instead to turn away to idols and false gods. Humanity responded by coming up with other things to worship and place at the center of their lives.
All of these realities were once true for the Gentiles, alienated as it were, not only from God himself (vv.1-3), but also from his people (vv. 11-12). They were "excluded" (v. 12). But, as we saw last week, just when things looked pretty grim, just when the picture was at its blackest, God stepped in:
"But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have been brought near through the blood of Jesus For he himself is our peace who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility" (Eph. 2:13-16).
The alienation that existed between Jews and Gentiles has been dealt with, once and for all, at the cross of Christ. As Paul writes later:
"This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 3:6).
"Together, together … together," Paul says. Once the Gentiles were separate from Christ. Now they are "in Christ." Once they were excluded from citizenship in Israel, now they are "heirs together with Israel." Once they were "foreigners to the covenants of the promise," now they are "sharers together in the promise." God has brought the two together.
And how has God done this? What is the agent or mechanism by which Paul says God has brought these things about? Simply put, Jesus' death is the means by which he has brought the two together:
verse 13 — In Christ they were brought near
verse 13 — brought near through the blood of Christ
verse 15 — in his flesh
verse 16 — through the cross
God has dealt with the Ephesian Gentiles' alienation — both from him, and from his people — in the same way: through the cross. Well, okay, it's through the cross, you say. But how? What is it about Jesus' death that has brought down the barriers between Jews and non-Jews? How did Jesus' death do that? The answer is seen in verses 14 and 15: Jesus has "destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations."
Now what does Paul mean by this? In what sense did Jesus' death abolish the law, and what does that have to do with breaking down barriers between Jews and Gentiles? John Stott is quite helpful here, he asks:
"How can the apostle declare that Christ abolished the law when Christ himself in the Sermon on the Mount specifically declared the opposite, that he had not come to abolish it but to fulfill it? … The discrepancy is only verbal; in substance they were referring to the law in two different senses. In the Sermon on the Mount the context shows that Jesus was referring to the moral law — [the Ten Commandments]. He was teaching the difference between Pharisaic righteousness and Christian righteousness, and urging that Christian righteousness involves a deep and radical obedience to the law. [However] Paul's primary reference here [in Ephesians], seems to be the ceremonial law ... that is, to circumcision ... the material sacrifices, the dietary regulations and the rules about ritual ‘cleanness' and ‘uncleanness' which governed [Jewish] social relationships."
It was these particular commandments and regulations which Paul primarily had in view, for it was especially these commandments that had erected such a strong barrier between Gentiles and Jews. Circumcision set them apart, the dietary laws made table fellowship between the two difficult, if not impossible, the laws about "clean" and "unclean" made mixing and living with anyone other than Jews quite difficult, and so on. These ceremonial laws had become an occasion for promoting and highlighting the differences between Jews and Gentiles. For the Jews, they had become an excuse for ignoring and despising all non-Jews.
But at the cross, Christ fulfilled all the realities to which these various Old Testament ceremonial laws pointed. The holy calling symbolised by these things and which was to characterise God's son Israel was fulfilled by God's true Son Jesus.
However, while Paul has in view primarily the ceremonial aspects of the law in the Old Testament, it is also probably the case that he had in mind the moral law as well, or at least a certain view of the moral law. As Paul argues elsewhere in his letters, Christ's death on the cross forever put to rest the idea that one can become right with God through being good, through keeping the moral law. By putting to rest that sort of view, another barrier came down between Jews and Gentiles because that sort of view encourages one to think in terms of who is "in" and who is "out" — who has the law, and who does not.
But, again, Christ's death has abolished that sort of view and that sort of hopeless approach to God. God abolished the old distinction of "in" and "out" by showing that, in the cross, we were all "out" until Christ brought us "in." And so, the effect of that on perceived differences between Jews and Gentiles would have been like taking out a map of the world and erasing all the boundaries between the nations, and then drawing instead one line which encompassed all the land within a single, solitary boundary.
However, there's even more to it than that. Because the demands of the law are so high that we cannot meet them, we are as a result condemned by the law. That is, it exposes us for the frauds and sinners we are. But again, Christ rescues us as, through his death, the condemnation and penalty of the law are forever removed from us.
And so, to summarise, through Jesus death the ceremonial law has been fulfilled and is no longer binding. And, at the same time, the wrong use of the moral law has been abolished, as well as the condemnation that comes from not living up to it. Since both the ceremonial and moral law had been barriers between Jews and Gentiles, by "abolishing" them through the cross Jesus has cleared the way for Jews and Gentiles to come together. As Paul says, "For through him we both have access to the Father, by one Spirit" (Eph. 2:18). Christ has made the two groups into one nation — not Pauline Hanson's "one nation," but God's "one nation," God's new nation. Through Jesus, God's church has "shed its cultural skin," so to speak, and has moved beyond the bounds of ethnic Israel.
Now there are a number of implications that flow from this truth — implications which impact upon us as we are concerned with being God's church today:
1) Just as the Gentiles were once far away, and have been brought near through the blood of Jesus, God is still in the business today of bringing near to him those who are far away. And considering how completely alienated the Gentiles were, from God and his people, we can be encouraged that no one is so far away that God cannot bring him near, that Christ's death cannot do for them what it did for the Christians in Ephesus.
2) Secondly, notice that God's brings people together through the death of his Son. That is, God's principle for uniting human beings is not essentially intellectual, political, or economic, but rather spiritual. He unites people to the person of his Son and, through that unity, reconciles them to himself and to each other.
In Australia we have a denomination called "The Uniting Church." And the reality is that every church in Australia ought to be a "uniting church" in the sense that every church unites people around the cross of Jesus Christ and, through that process, breaks down needless, meaningless human barriers. Conversely, a church that tries to unite people around something other than the life and death of Christ, or by abandoning that truth, will never be a uniting church, regardless of its label, because it will have ignored the most fundamental dis-unity in the universe — that which exists between the Creator and his creation. If that rift is not repaired, if that problem is not addressed, then no matter what other issues you tackle, there is ultimately no hope for repairing human relationships with one another. The repair job has to start between us and God. Every church should strive to be a uniting church, pursuing God's principle of unity around the cross of Christ.
3) Thirdly, these verses address the problem of racism. If God's purpose was to "create in Christ one new man out of the two, thus making peace," as Paul puts it, we should take these things to heart. As Christians we must cooperate with God's purposes and stand against racism, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head.
Sadly, I have seen racism still operating within some churches in the southern United States. In one particular church which my wife and I used to attend, it happened one Sunday that a black couple came to the church to join with the rest of the people in the corporate worship, only to be met at the door by one of the elders of the church. A few minutes later the couple left from the front steps, having never entered the building. Later on I discovered that it had been suggested to them that "perhaps they might like to go up the road to a black church where they would feel more comfortable." I can't tell you how angry that made me. And it was the end of our association with that church. There is no place for that sort of attitude or behaviour in God's church. It is an offense and insult to the cross of Christ to exclude people on the basis of race and culture.
On the positive side, I recently read of a missionary in an African church who was deeply moved when, at a communion service, he looked around and saw people from many different tribes, all together as Christians in that place. The amazing thing about these particular tribes was that they had been sworn enemies for years. In former years these tribes would brag about how many men, women, and children of the other tribes they had killed, raped, or maimed. But where the spilling of blood once divided them, now the shed blood of Christ had united them and done what nothing else seemed capable of doing. Stories like that are a powerful witness to the strength of the gospel and the goodness of God. Stories like that give me hope that if it has happened once, it may happen again.
Imagine people from among the various factions in Kosovo gathering around the Lord's Table, sitting side by side in a church service somewhere in Belgrade, praying with and for each other. It may be difficult, but it is not impossible. And it's the sort of thing we ought to pray for.
But racism doesn't just happen in other countries, it happens here in Australia. It happens here in Melbourne. It can happen here in our own church. We can, in subtle ways, re-draw lines and boundaries that Christ has abolished on the cross. We can make unwarranted assumptions about those who come from cultural backgrounds different from our own. We can assume the superiority of our own cultural biases, at the expense of others. We can confuse cultural preferences with biblical truth. In other words, people do not have to become western to be Christian. People have to trust Jesus to be saved. They don't have to like organ music, eat haggus or wear 3-piece suits. We can impose and inflict our own western — or eastern — values on people with little thought to the message we are sending. We can come here every week and ignore people who aren't of the same cultural background as we are. We can have blind spots, not recognising whole areas of our immediate community that are culturally different from us. There are all sorts of ways we can practice a subtly implied racism.
Especially in the church we have to fight break down barriers of race. God intends his people to be a visual model of the gospel, to demonstrate before the world's eyes the good news of reconciliation. And if we're going to fight against it, then we need to get serious about evangelism. You can go to rallies, carry placards and demonstrate all you want against it but, at the end of the day, the only way to fight racism is to evangelise racists themselves. You can hate the Pauline Hansons of the world all you want, and nothing will change. But do you pray for them? Does your heart break that they are lost? Are you are eager to share the love of Christ with them? Until God changes their hearts — and ours — there will be no lasting or significant change.
4) Now, to be sure, putting all this emphasis on the way the gospel breaks down barriers might lead one to conclude, wrongly, that human differentiation and distinctiveness is a bad thing. It isn't. The gospel does not obliterate distinctions and distinctiveness, but it does put them in perspective. Clearly, God's people in the Old Testament were a distinctive people, and God's people in the New Testament are to be the same way. God's church is a church set apart. It is salt and light in the world. But the basis of our distinctiveness it not money, power, influence, sex, intelligence, appearance or culture. What distinguishes God's people is the presence of God's Spirit evidenced in the Spirit's fruits of godliness and holiness.
And, certainly, even in the body of Christ there will be people who are culturally different and bear their own distinctiveness in various ways. That's okay. That's good. That's great. We don't need to flatten out these things and reduce everyone to a common world mono-culturalism. The problem is not with distinctiveness, but rather with the basis of what sets you apart and with what you do about your distinctiveness as God's people.
How do you respond within the body of Christ to your own and others' differences? Do you allow differences to become a barrier, or do you celebrate differences and enjoy each other? And what about as a combined people of God — how do we, together, respond to the truth that we are to be a distinctive people? Even the call to be holy and godly people — spiritually and ethically distinctive — could become, for our church, a means to exclude people.
You could respond to that truth in a wrong way too, using it as an excuse not to venture amongst the lost for fear of "contamination." It could be used as a reason for judging and condemning people, for looking down upon them. But it does not have to be that way.
As God's people, we can retain our distinctiveness, but without distinguishing amongst ourselves on the basis of race. More than that, we can retain our distinctiveness by pursuing holiness, and at the same time have a heart of compassion for those who do no know God, seeking to bring them in. We can nurture a desire to include as opposed to exclude those who do not yet know Christ. And, in going out to others, we don't obliterate or apologise for our distinctiveness to achieve that goal. We don't abandon our belief in absolute truth, we don't relax our moral and ethical convictions. That's not the way to go about things (although it is the way that the church, in various places and time, including our own, has sometimes attempted it). Paul shows us the proper way here — the way of the Cross. We point people to the Cross — modelling for them a church which has no racial barriers, and maintaining an ethical distinctiveness at the same time. That's the way forward.
Years ago, Robert Frost wrote something which has always haunted me. A piece titled, "Mending Wall:"
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me,
And I wonder if I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours?
Isn't it where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down."
* * *
What is the church?
It's the people of God
It's forgiven sinners
It's doers of good
It's a portrait of grace
And it's God's One, New Nation.