Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Ephesians 2. There’s an ancient Jewish story about two brothers who lived on farms right beside one another. The older brother was in his mid-30’s and had a wife and a few kids. The younger brother was in his early-20’s and wasn’t married and had no family. The two brothers loved each other. They enjoyed living next to one another. They helped each other with projects and that sort of thing.
Well, as the story goes, one day the older brother looked over to his younger brother’s farm and thought (to himself), “Hey, you know, he only has himself. If something happens to my brother, then who’s going to take care of him? I have my wife and our boys are strong and growing. I’ll be fine.” So, the older brother decided that he’d go over to his grain bin at night and load up a sack of grain and take it over to his little brother’s grain bin and return under the cover of darkness and go to bed.
Meanwhile, one night, the younger brother looked over to his older brother’s farm and thought (to himself), “Hey, you know, all I have to take care of is me. If something happens to me, it’s fine. It’s just one person. But my brother over there, he has a wife and children. If something happens to him, then how will he support his family.” So, the younger brother decided he’d go out early in the morning, and go over to his grain bin and load up a sack of grain and take it over to his older brother’s grain bin.
Well, the two boys did this for weeks on end and never bumped into one another. Then, one night, the older brother got out a little later and the younger brother got up a little earlier, and they each went to their own grain bins and filled up a sack of grain and started off to the other’s farm. And of course, this night, under the bright reflection of a full moon, the two brothers bump into one another and finally realize what had been going on all along. And they drop their bags of grain and embrace.
Now, according to this Jewish legend, God looked down from heaven and in that moment, He said, “This spot of their embrace will be the spot where I build My temple – for My presence is most clearly made known when brothers dwell together in unity.”
Everybody loves a unity story. Everybody loves a story of people coming together for the common good. Whether it’s in the movies or real life. Whether it’s a group of individual players on a sports team winning a championship, or whether it’s a community banding together in times of natural disaster. We love these things because we were made for community.
Interesting little bit of trivia here. Did you know that the first time anything is ever said to be “not good” in the Bible is in Genesis 2:18, where God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone…”? The first bad thing ever recorded is that woman wasn’t on the scene yet! (Amen, ladies? By the way, did you see how I wove that Mother’s Day nod into this sermon intro?) But it’s true. We were made to live life together. We desire connection…friendship…unity.
Unfortunately, the gap between the ideal and the real is deep and wide and painful. Sometimes teams don’t come together. Sometimes families fail. Sometimes friendships falter. Sometimes churches split. Not always, but enough so that when we read stories of community we recognize that we’re looking at an ideal that we haven’t quite yet reached. We recognize that each of us has enough relational and social pain in a fallen world that we need to come together.
And that brings us to Ephesians 2 – a chapter that seeks to clearly remind us that it is only in Jesus that we can overcome the divisions that keep us apart. Let’s read verses 11-22 together:
11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands – 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
O God, our Father, there is within us a great feeling of tension as we read this text. On the one hand we know and have experienced the truth of the Gospel – that because of Jesus’ shed blood we have been reconciled with You and one another – and yet, on the other hand, we have seen or even perhaps experienced the reality that there are still so many dividing walls of hostility among us. And so, we come to You in humility. We come to You in dependence. We come to You asking that You help us (Mountain Hill Community Church) to grow into a dwelling place for You by the Holy Spirit. Lord, we pray that You would use Your holy Word to teach us, that we might have clarity in our thinking and in our speaking, and that our hearts might be opened by the shining forth of Your love and Your truth. We offer this prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen.
What we have before us this morning is a passage of scripture that beautifully describes Jesus’ ability to take people who are hostile and divided and bring them together into one family. It’s the ultimate picture of bi-partisan reconciliation. It’s the supreme image of racial, social, and economic justice. And you don’t need me to tell you that this is something we desperately need in our world today.
If verses 1-10 are a description of the power of Christ to redeem us and save us individually (and they are), then verses 11-22 reveal how Jesus brings about unity among diversity in this new body called the church – a group where all prior distinctions of race, gender, religion, and social status are done away with. And now, more than ever, those of us that call ourselves Christians, those of us that call ourselves Jesus-followers, those of us that call ourselves believers in Christ need to be reminded that there’s a world outside these walls and they’re yearning for a unity story, they’re longing to see and know that it’s possible to be a family under one roof, to be a community of people united in purpose and passion.
This morning, I want to highlight three things about the universal body of Christ: we all have the same problem, we all have the same solution, and we all have the same invitation.
The Same Problem: Sin
Verses 11-12 describe our state before Jesus. We don’t typically talk or even think in these terms, nevertheless that’s us: alienated, strangers, having no hope and without God. To be fair, in the context of Paul’s letter, he’s speaking about Gentile Christians in verse 12 where he uses all of those terms. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and leave out the sin(s) of the Jews. In verse 11 Paul highlights a very obvious point of contention (circumcision). Circumcision was the sign that you were part of God’s chosen people.
You say, “How is circumcision a sin? How is simply being obedient to God’s command a sin?” Well, the act of circumcision itself isn’t a sin, but allowing it to lead you to a point of arrogance is. And Paul cuts right to the chase and highlights the fact that the Jews and the Gentiles had the highest contempt for one another. In fact, the hatred that the Jews had for the Gentiles was so immense that the Jews said God only created Gentiles to fuel the fires of hell. They referred to Gentiles as dogs, and some Jewish women even refused to help Gentile mothers in the middle of childbirth, because to do so would be to help bring another Gentile into the world. Talk about racial superiority. For many Jews, being Jewish wasn’t seen as an opportunity to bring praise and glory to God, rather it was license to detest Gentiles.
But highlighting circumcision also clearly revealed a sore spot for Gentiles. They were separated from Christ. They were on the outside looking in. They had no hope. They were hopeless. That’s what verse 12 says, “…having no hope and without God in the world.” That phrase “without God” is the Greek word atheos. It’s the English word for “atheist.” That’s what people are that don’t know Jesus. At one point in time you and I were atheists. Maybe not dogmatic or confrontational anti-believers, but we had no hope. We were without God in the world.
Jews were eternal optimists – they had hope for a glorious future. Even in their darkest days, the Jews never doubted that the Messiah, the Deliverer, the King’s anointed would come. But the Gentiles had no such hope. For the Jew, history was always going somewhere. For the Gentile it was a dead end. For the Jew there was at least the joy of worship in the Temple, but even that was off limits to the Gentile.
The outer most court surrounding the Temple was the Court of the Gentiles. There was a partition, a little wall that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of the Women and at designated intervals along that wall were signs written in Greek and Latin that prohibited foreigners to come any closer. In fact, in 1871 one of those signs was discovered and the inscription reads: “Let no one of any other nation come within the fence and barrier around the Holy Place. Whosoever will be taken doing so, will himself be responsible for the fact that his death will ensue.” It was clear. If you were a Gentile you could only get so close to God.
So, Paul reminds the Ephesian church – both Jews and Gentiles – that they have the same problem: sin.
The Same Solution: Jesus
But just like last week; we’re reading along last Sunday about being dead in our sin and trespasses, carrying out the desires of the body and mind, natural children of wrath and we came upon those two glorious words “But God…” Well, just like that, Paul is reminding the church that they had the same problem and then he writes, “But now…” and the story changes. The emphasis shifts. The spotlight is redirected. The page is turned. And verses 13-18 are one big long reminder of the power of Christ to save and redeem, to change and transform, to cleanse and make new. Just listen to the language that Paul uses:
Verse 13, “you who once were far off have been brought near,” Verse 14, “[Jesus] has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility,”
Verse 15, “[Jesus] might create in Himself one new man in place of the two”
Verse 16, “reconcile us both to God,” and…
Verse 17, “[Jesus] preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”
Verse after verse, sentence after sentence, image after image, Paul is reminding the church that we have no ground to stand on if we want to boast. As Billy Graham so often said, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” There should be no division when it comes to our salvation. Hear me carefully, I didn’t say there shouldn’t be any division. There are plenty of admonishments in the Bible telling us to guard against false teaching and incorrect doctrine.
Paul told Timothy, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). In Romans he writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17). And his most dramatic and forceful admonition is in Galatians where he writes, “…even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). So, don’t misunderstand what Paul is saying or what I’m saying. Paul isn’t saying that anything goes in the church and we should never have disagreement and that we should always and forever stand in a circle holding hands singing Kum ba yah.
No, he’s saying that when it comes to the fundamental point of our salvation the solution for our sin problems isn’t limited to the color of our skin, or the language we speak, or the education level we attain, or the amount of money in our bank account, or our age, or even our gender. All of these categories are external. They’re man-centered. The unity we have (as a Church) isn’t in the fact that Jesus makes all Jews into Gentiles or all Gentiles into Jews. The solution Jesus offers doesn’t turn all men into women, or all women into men. It doesn’t force white people to become black people, or black people to become white people.
As the late William Barclay writes, “The unity which Jesus achieves is not achieved by blotting out all racial characteristics; it’s achieved by making all men of all nations into Christians… it produces people who are friends with each other because they are friends with God; it produces people who are one because they meet in the presence of God by way of the cross.”
All of us have the same problem: sin. All of us have the same solution: Jesus. And all of us have the same invitation.
The Same Invitation: Family
In verses 19-22 there are two images that come out in the language: family and home. Listen to the words: “no longer strangers and aliens” but “fellow citizens with the saints and member of the household of God.” And then, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself the cornerstone,” the “whole structure… a holy temple… built together… into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Did you hear it? Fellow citizens. Saints. Members of the household of God. Foundation. Cornerstone. Holy temple. Dwelling place for God.
We don’t come together each Sunday on the basis of some general commonality. We don’t come together because we’re of the same generation, or we like the same kind of music, or we have the same taste in fashion. We don’t come together because we use the same language, or because we’re from the same part of town. No, no, as much as some of those things do bring us together, none of them are the essential and real reason for Christian community. The most fundamental reason for Christian community is that we have the same problem (sin), we share the same solution (Jesus), and He calls us to the same invitation (family).
I’ve shared this from the pulpit before, and will likely continue to do so from time to time, but one of the things that I cherish most about you is that we are a community church. And many of you share a similar sentiment. In fact, that’s precisely why some of you have joined this faith family, and it’s one of the reasons that others of you continue to visit. Do we fully reflect the diversity that’s found within global Christianity or that will be present in heaven? No, but we do a fairly decent job of bringing people with varied backgrounds and experiences together under the authority of God’s Word to worship, praise and exalt King Jesus.
There’s a Latin phrase that goes like this Ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia, which means “where Christ is, there is the Church.” When other people ask us where we go to church, or what we find most attractive or appealing about our church, I hope that one of the things that comes to mind is that we have the same problem, we have the same solution, and we share the same invitation.
Now, I don’t believe the ancient Jewish parable about the location of the temple, but I do believe that God’s presence is most clearly made known when different kinds of people come together in Christ. The world is still watching. Let’s show them what Jesus can do.