Sermon: No Longer Strangers

Scriptures: Ephesians 2:11-22; Acts 22:1-21

Preached: May 12, 2019 at Nottingham PC by Rev. Merritt N. Schatz

 

          “Remember that formerly you … were separate from Christ, …foreigners to the covenant of promise, without hope and without God in the world.” Who were foreigners and aliens? They are the Gentiles, people who are the non-Jews, the nations – any nationality – that was not Jewish. They are the ones not chosen, as opposed to the chosen people of God. They are us, at least the majority of us, any who cannot claim Jewish ancestry.

          Most of us are so accustomed to being in the majority that we may have trouble seeing ourselves as the “other”, the foreigner, the alien, the stranger. But think about it. That is who most of us are. Does this reality change how you think about those who today are called foreigners, aliens, or strangers?

          Well, maybe, we might say, but we have been here for centuries, or we came here legally. The question then might become, by whose rules or laws did we come here legally? Even those of Mayflower descent, of which I am one, came legally according to European law. They settled, sold and bought land granted by a king who only had the right to do so by European law. However, our ancestors did not come legally by the laws or customs that governed the people who already lived here. Nor would this colonization by the Spanish, British and French be legal under international law today!

          I am not trying to argue immigration law here. I just want to help us better understand the debate that was happening in the Church when the writer of Ephesians was addressing it, and to see how this informs us today. By the time of the writing of this letter, the Gentile Christians were beginning to outnumber the Jewish Christians. Gentile Christians, who often considered themselves to be more sophisticated and educated than the Jewish Christians, were introducing new ideas, and challenging Jewish traditions, even at times denouncing the Jewishness of the faith. While this was hard to do since Jesus himself was Jewish, it happened and still happens! On the other hand, Jewish Christians were considering Gentile Christians as the same as converts to Judaism, second-class Jews as it were. These divisions were evident even in the earliest days of Christianity. As you may recall, the office of deacon was established because of there were complaints that Greek widows were not being cared for by the Church in the same way as Jewish widows.

          The writer of the letter to the Ephesians, most likely a disciple of Paul, using the authority of Paul as was common practice, addresses these problems bluntly. The Gentile Ephesians are reminded of their background. Using a derogatory term often used by Jews to refer to non-Jews, the Gentile Christians are reminded that they were once the “uncircumcised”, people who were far off from God, not part of the chosen people. As such, they had no hope.

          Can you imagine the Jewish Christians listening to this part of the letter? Yeah! See, we told you. We should have the greatest authority in the Church. WE have the history. We know that laws. We know the traditions!

          The next part of the letter halts the celebration. “But now in Christ you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For Christ 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. [Christ’s] purpose was to create in himself one new person 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.”

          Oh. But, but, Jesus himself said that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. How can we understand the Scriptures when both statements are in them? It helps when we remember what Jesus answered when asked “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

          Jesus came to fulfill these commandments. Jesus came to fulfill God’s promises and hopes for all creation. The covenant with Israel was a fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham, a covenant which was ultimately to be for the blessing of all the nations. Israel was to demonstrate to all the world the blessings of living in accordance with God’s way and will, the blessing of living in fellowship with God.

          Jesus Christ’s coming in the flesh, his life, death, and resurrection did not negate that covenant, nor did it just shift the wall so that the Gentiles were included and the Jews now excluded. In Jesus Christ a new creation exists! A foundation laid in Jesus Christ, which includes the prophets and the apostles, is the ground on which our faith now builds.

          C. Leslie Mitton, in his commentary on Ephesians (The New Century Bible Commentary: Ephesians, London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott; 1973) offers this illustration of that foundation. “One remembers many years ago watching a single builder starting to build a small brick shelter. The earth had been dug away to the depth of three or four feet, and the ground levelled and prepared for the foundation. The first act of the builder was to choose the brick, a specially strong and well-shaped one, with which he would begin. One was impressed, almost amused, at the laborious care he took to get this placed exactly right, testing it with the spirit-level at each of the four sides, testing it also to make sure it was perfectly upright at each of the four edges, tapping it to ensure that the two sides making the angle were in perfectly true line to make sure that every line, left, and right and upwards, and every level was scrupulously accurate. This was because every line of the building was to be calculated from this keystone of the foundation.” (p. 114).

          Christ is our cornerstone, our keystone, and Christ has chosen to have the mixture of bricks of both Gentiles and Jews in this temple we call the Church. There is no room for one-ups-manship, no claiming of greater glory, no defaming of one another. The Gentiles were reminded of the tremendous debt they/we owe to the Jews. Jewish Christians are reminded that through the blood of Christ we are made one body. Each is to know that “through [Christ] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

          When the letter to the Ephesians was written, the big divide was between Gentile and Jewish Christians. Today there seem to be more divides than we can count, within the church and within our culture and our world. We are called to include people, or groups of people, that may be as unsettling to us as the inclusion of the Gentiles was to the Jewish Christians. We may try to define what makes them acceptable to us as did some of those early Jewish Christians: dress like us, follow our rules, assimilate so that it is hard to tell that you have a different background, and then we might find you acceptable. On the other hand, we might act more like some of the Gentile Christians, wanting to throw out all the rules, retain our sinful ways, yet still claim the privileges of being Christian. What a shaky house either way would be!

          “In Christ the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in Christ you too are being built together to become a dwelling place in which God lives by the Holy Spirit.”

          What a light to the world we can be when we become the dwelling place of the Lord God by joining together as one, rather than arguing and pointing fingers! Love the Lord God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind! Love your neighbor as yourself! Break down the walls of hostility between peoples.

          We were once foreigners and aliens, far away from God. We were the “other”, the uncircumcised, the despised. By grace God has encircled us with love, embraced us with hope, drawn us near through the blood of Jesus Christ, and told us in Jesus Christ to go and do likewise, and not just within the family of Christians. There is no room for arrogance, hatred, bigotry, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or hostility in the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is always room for kindness, mercy, compassion, caring for the vulnerable, comforting those who mourn, lifting the downhearted, feeding the hungry, tending the sick, visiting the future. This is the freedom granted by our religion, our faith, our Savior Jesus Christ. Rejoice in the grace given to you in Jesus Christ. Rejoice and give thanks. We were once far off, now we are drawn near. Let us draw near to one another, in love and faithfulness, joined in Christ to be the dwelling place of God in the Spirit. We are no longer strangers – to God or to one another, or even to anyone who needs hope or help. We are no longer aliens, but citizens of God’s realm and members of God’s household. Let us rejoice and reach out to our brothers and sisters, to all the world, with God’s love and hope revealed in Jesus Christ who breaks down walls of hostility wherever they are found!     

 

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