I wonder do you realise what a miracle we experience every time we meet together as a single congregation? Here are people from all over the world, from every sort of background, age, educational level, you name it. And yet we meet together as members of a single family, a family called together by God himself.
That’s the miracle Paul celebrates as he writes this letter to the Ephesians. In their case you might say the miracle is even greater. There the people have overcome an even greater obstacle than those of culture and language. Look at what he says they were like.
1 Once Alienated from the People of God and without hope
“12Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” Sometimes you need to hear the full diagnosis before you can fully appreciate the situation you’re in, don’t you. You can think you’re doing fine until the doctor says, “I think we need to do some tests!”
Most people today, around here at least, think they’re doing fine. They have everything they need - and most of what they want. They’re basically happy. They’re no different from anyone else, so what is there to worry about?
But of course the same diagnosis applies to them as did to these Ephesians before they came to know Christ: they were foreigners to the people of God, strangers to God’s promises, having no hope and without God in the world. They were as desperately in need as its possible to be. They had a death sentence hanging over their head. There was no way out, no hope. Just like people today. But here’s the miracle.
2 You who were once far off have been brought near - by the blood of Christ.
“13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Jesus death and resurrection brings them into the circle of God’s people. It provides them with hope - as we’ll see next week, a living hope. It connects them with God in a personal, intimate way.
And what’s more it connects them to God’s people in a new and intimate way. Because ...
3 Christ has created in himself one new humanity
“15He 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, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”
You may remember that back in Genesis 11 at the tower of Babel, there was only one language used among all the people of the earth. But the people wanted to make themselves great, presumably as great as God. So God decided to confuse their language, to separate people so they’d be scattered over the whole earth. And so the disintegration of society that started with the fall became complete. And of course that’s the heritage that we have today: countless languages that separate us from each other.
So one of the problems we find in multicultural societies is the desire by each cultural group to remain isolated from the rest, or at least to maintain their cultural identity in distinction from the rest. Now there are often good reasons for that but it means that the whole is lessened to some extent by its separation into smaller groups.
Well, God is doing something about that. Christ has torn down the walls that divide us from each other. In the Ephesians’ case that was the law that had been given to the Jews but not to the Gentiles. For us it may be less obvious barriers. What has Christ done to break down these barriers? He’s reconciled us all to God through his death on the cross. He’s made us part of his one body. We're now part of a new humanity. A humanity that’s been remade, overcoming the separation caused by the fall, joined together by our common membership of Christ’s body. We come from many different backgrounds but we have a common heritage, the heritage of the children of God.
What’s more because of what Christ has done this common heritage is now available to all people. So Paul says:
4 Peace is proclaimed to those who are far and near
17So [Christ] came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.
The picture he gives is of a conquering king who makes a peace treaty with those he’s conquered bringing all sides into the one empire. Or you might think of it like this: I think I’ve used this picture before, of a pyramid with us on the sides and God at the top. The closer we get to God the closer we are to each other. So although we may have different backgrounds and interests this new found relationship with God brings us close together, forms the foundation for a new relationship with each other.
So what’s the result of all this work that Christ has done?
5. We are fellow citizens
19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
Here’s the miracle being worked out in practical terms. We’re brought together into God’s kingdom he says; but then he adds, it’s even more than that. Not just into God’s kingdom but into his household. And we come as both members of and the framework of the household. It’s as though God is building a household structure with us as the building blocks. Again we’ll think about this some more in a few weeks when we get to 1 Peter 2 but for now we need to think about what it means for us to be members of the household of God built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
We’ve called our building project “Building for Community” to make it clear that we’re not just constructing a set of buildings for the sake of the buildings. This isn’t going to be a landmark of Burwood, or a historic building. People aren’t going to drive to the end of Station St to see our fantastic buildings, no matter how good we might think they are, no matter how much money we may have put into their construction. No, what we’re building is a place for the community of God’s people to gather and minister to one another and to the community around us.
But neither are we building just for our own community. This isn’t a self-centred project. No, we’re building so our community becomes an attraction for the rest of the community.
What I hope people will come to see is this community of people who are united in their love for God and for one another. What will make our church remarkable will be the way the barriers of culture and education and gender and age are broken down, removed, abolished, because we’ve been brought into the realm of God’s love. What will attract people to us will be the peace they see in our meeting together, in our interactions with one another.
We’re building so this community of God’s people can grow and expand, so we’ll have a place where the ministries we already do quite successfully can flourish and become even more successful. That is, so that more and more people come to faith in Jesus Christ; more and more people discover the peace with God that transforms them, that brings them into the unity of God’s people.
Is this something that people around us need? Do you know people who fit this pattern? People who seem alienated from God and without hope in this world? They’re all around us aren’t they? And God has given us this opportunity to share our faith with them. He’s called us into his church to show how wonderful is his plan for those who choose to follow him; to demonstrate by the unity we have what a change he can make in every person’s life. We’re to create a model community, a household structure that gives outsiders a feel for what it will be like to live in God’s household in heaven.
You know, Mother Teresa once said that the greatest problem facing humanity wasn’t poverty, rather it was loneliness. That is, alienation. This is true at both a personal as well as a corporate level. On a personal level when we’re reconciled with God it’s a lot easier to be reconciled with one another. At a corporate or community level our awareness of our place before God helps us work at being united with one another, the presence of God’s Holy Spirit within us helps us to bear with one another to forgive one another, to show love and patience with one another.
One of the great things I’ve seen happening this year is the way the Rainbow Fellowship has bonded together as a community, supporting one another, welcoming in new members, reaching out to students, taking responsibility for one another, caring for one another. It’s a real sign of the growth in maturity in that group over the past year or so, but especially I think this year. What I’d love to see is that sense of community spreading to draw in a much wider cross section of St Thomas’. But I don’t think that will really happen until we’re all worshipping on the same site, meeting with one another over coffee or tea after church, perhaps sharing meals together on a regular basis. So that’s part of my dream for this new building for community. That it’ll allow us to build stronger bonds with each other across the language and cultural barriers that will no doubt always be there.
The message of this passage is that none of those barriers is strong enough to resist the power of God to bring about unity in the body of Christ.
I find this whole project an exciting prospect, not just because we’ll have a shiny new building with everything that opens and shuts, but because it’ll help us in our desire to live together in unity.
We didn’t read a psalm together earlier but I thought that I might finish this sermon by getting you to read Psalm 133 together with me now.
1 Behold how good and how lovely it is:
when God’s people live together in unity.
2 It is fragrant as oil upon the head,
that runs down over the beard:
fragrant as oil upon the beard of Aaron,
that ran down over the collar of his robe.
3 It is like a dew of Hermon:
like the dew that falls upon the hill of Zion.
4 For there the Lord has commanded his blessing:
which is life for evermore.