A Single New Humanity audio
"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" These famous words were spoken by the American President Ronald Reagan in June 1987 during a speech given near the Berlin Wall. They were intended for the ears of the Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev. At that time almost no one expected that the Berlin Wall would be torn down without a fight. Many of us believed that only World War III could tear down the Wall and that because thousands of nuclear missiles were lined up on both sides of the Wall, all of us might die in the process. You may not have heard Ronald Reagan's speech, but most of us here today will remember – and those of us who don't remember may have seen images on TV – when just two years later in November 1989 over a million people came together to begin to tear down the Berlin Wall.
When it was completed the Wall was 140 kilometres long, constructed from 45 000 sections of reinforced concrete, each 3.6 meters (12 feet) high and 1.2 meters (4 feet) wide. It was reinforced by mesh fencing, anti-vehicle trenches, barbed wire, and had over 116 watchtowers and 20 bunkers. But those of us who remember it know that the Berlin Wall was more than a concrete barrier. For the first twenty years of my life the Berlin Wall was probably the defining symbol of what was called the "Cold War" between East and West, between Russia and her allies and America and her allies. Because it was the symbol of a division that ran across the entire world, the fall of the Berlin Wall really was the end of the world as we knew it. But it wasn't torn down by soldiers. It was torn down by members of the public who came to the Wall with sledgehammers to chip off blocks of concrete as souvenirs. This event has taken on greater significance for me in recent years as I am now related by marriage to people who risked persecution, possibly even their lives to escape from East Germany. Former East Germans now call the fall of communism symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall "the peaceful revolution". In today's reading Paul is writing to the Ephesians about another "peaceful revolution" that changed the world as we know it more fundamentally than even the fall of the Berlin Wall.
2: Citizenship image
We have a proverb: "a picture speaks a thousand words". Paul may not have known this proverb but I suspect he would have agreed with it. Although his writings are letters they are packed full of images, of picture language, taken from the everyday life of his readers. This morning I want to draw our attention to two of those images in this reading from his letter to the Ephesians. And the question I hope to answer is: how do those images relate to the breaking down of the "dividing wall" which Paul refers to in verse 14: Christ Jesus "has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us".
It seems likely from the way Paul writes that the church in Ephesus was mostly or even entirely made up of Gentile members – non-Jews. This is a very important fact for our understanding of today's passage. It is important because the Gentiles, as Paul tells us, have, or rather they had, a citizenship problem.
I expect I would be right in saying most of us have one of these [hold up citizenship certificate] or have the right to have one. It says: "I, the Minister of State for Immigration, hereby grant this Certificate of Australian Citizenship to the above named applicant who shall be a Australian citizen on and after" the following date. Whoever has one of these certificates has the right to live in Australia, to the benefits of living in Australia, and to freely come and go from Australia. Of course anyone who is not born here first needs to meet some conditions of citizenship. When Paul talks about the problem the Gentiles had he uses the language of citizenship.
2.1 The Gentiles' radical change of relationship with God in Christ (the outsiders become insiders)
In verse 12 Paul says to the Ephesians:
v. 12: "you were... aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world"
The Gentiles had been people living without the rights of free citizens. Some of you may even know what that's like. There are people in Australia – refugees and asylum seekers – who don't have citizenship rights. This has been a controversial issue in Australia over the past few years hasn't it? There has been a lot of debate about whether the Australian government acted justly in keeping people in detention centres while deciding if they meet the conditions of citizenship, or if the American Government acted justly keeping people in Guantanamo Bay and denying them the rights of their citizenship. And what do people need to know to become Australian citizens? Should they be allowed to become citizens if they don't know Don Bradman's batting average?
Paul begins by saying that the Ephesians were "aliens and strangers" to Israel and to God. But by verse 19 this situation has been reversed:
v. 19: "you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God"
Something has happened. The Gentiles have experienced a radical change in their membership of the people of God. They were aliens and strangers... now they are citizens and members. The verses in between v. 12 and v. 19 are about how this change of citizenship has taken place and what it means, not just for the Gentiles but also for the Jews, in fact for the whole of humanity:
v. 13: "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near..."
Paul makes it very clear, doesn't he, that it wasn't anything the Gentiles did which helped them to meet the conditions of citizenship in God's household. The one and only cause of the radical reversal of their relationship with God was the death of Jesus Christ on the cross:
v. 13: "in the blood of Christ"
v. 15: "in his flesh"
v. 16: "through the cross"
"Now [Paul says] because of Christ – dying that death, shedding that blood – you [Gentiles] who were once out of it altogether are in on everything" (v. 13, The Message). Citizenship in the people of God is now available to anyone, anywhere; far away or near; to anyone who is "in Christ" – whether Jew or Gentile.
2.2 The radical change of relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Christ (insiders and outsiders are united)
Paul tells the Ephesians that in his death Christ tore down the wall that separated (1) people from God. But he emphasises that in his death Christ also tore down the wall that separated (2) people from each other – the Gentiles, the outsiders, from the Jews, the insiders. Notice how often Paul refers to Christ as a peacemaker:
v. 14: "He is our peace"
v. 15: "thus making peace"
v. 17: "he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near"
The result is one new humanity:
vs. 14-16: in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.
And in those famous verses in his letter to the Galatians, chapter 3, verse 28, Paul made it clear that this reconciliation applies to other relationships, not just between Jews and Gentiles: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (NIV).
It seems to me that one of the things Paul was especially concerned about is that he didn't want the Ephesians to take their citizenship for granted. He wanted to remind them that it was privilege they received "in Christ":
v. 11: "remember that at one time you [were] Gentiles by birth"
v. 12: "remember that at one time you were without Christ and without God in the world"
Laurence Binyon's poem "For the fallen" was first published on 21 September 1914 less than seven weeks after the beginning of World War I and before the landing at Gallipoli. But it has been used in ANZAC Day commemorations since 1921. It is in that poem that we find the words still used at commemoration services:
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Paul says to the Ephesians: don't forget who you were before Jesus died for you!
"...don't take any of this for granted. It was only yesterday that you outsiders to God's ways, had no idea of any of this, didn't know the first thing about the way God works, hadn't the faintest idea of Christ. You knew nothing of that rich history of God's covenants and promises in Israel, hadn't a clue about what God was doing in the world at large". (vs. 11-12, The Message)
"Lest we forget", I'm positive that if Paul was here today he would still say to me: Bill, don't forget who you would be if Jesus hadn't of died for you! And then I think he would say to me: Bill, don't forget those who are still outsiders to God's ways. Don't forget those who have no idea of any of this, who haven't the faintest idea of Christ. It is true, Bill Stewart, that you were baptised at three months of age; it is true that you have gone to church all your life (well, almost all your life!); it is true that your are an ordained minister in the church; but Bill, Paul would say: don't you forget that if it wasn't for the grace of God and the death of Christ, you too would still be an outsider to God's ways.
3: Temple image
You'll be glad to know I'm going to speak more briefly about Paul's second image. In verse 19 Paul says: "you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God". In the Bible the temple is often called the "house" of God. Paul's conclusion to today's reading assumes his readers know this:
vs. 21-22: "In [Christ] the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God".
In the ancient world a temple was the dwelling place of God, not just a place of public worship. God's own household is the place where God lives. Here Paul calls the church – that is the people, not the building – a New Temple. The church is now the place where the living God displays his presence in the world – a living house created by the Holy Spirit. The foundations are the "the apostles and prophets", that is the people who preached the good news about Jesus. But the cornerstone is Christ; who supports the entire building.
Now, Paul says, the Gentiles are part of the building – they are like new bricks built upon the top of the earlier walls. Paul assumes that as God's house would continue to be "built together spiritually" upon Christ. God is always adding to the building. More and more bricks will be placed upon the foundations of the teaching of the apostles and prophets and held together by the cornerstone of Christ.
We look forward to laying the foundations of a new worship centre laid at Station Street. But it seems to many of us (especially the Vicar, Vestry and Building Committee) to be taking a long time. We are all reminded this morning that God has been working a lot longer on his building project. In the first-century the New Testament tells us that God took some believing Jews, mostly Aramaic speakers, and built them onto the cornerstone of Christ. A decade or two later he added a layer of Greek-speaking Gentiles from Ephesus. A few centuries later in another part of the world God began to add layers of English-speaking people into the holy temple he was building. Today, to cut a very long story short, God's building has turned into a skyscraper, and God is building in people from every nation, culture and language. Our own church, St Thomas' Burwood, is a great multicultural and multi-lingual example of the different people God has "built together spiritually".
I would like to conclude this sermon by changing the order of the service just a little. Paul's theme is found in what we call the "greeting of peace". Can I ask to stand and we will greet each other in peace. But for this morning I'm also going to ask that we change the word "body" to the word "temple". It doesn't greatly change the theology of the greeting but it makes it reflect the way Paul expresses this theme in Ephesians chapter 2.
We are the temple of Christ.
His Spirit is with us.
The peace of the Lord be always with you.
And also with you.