Grace Presbyterian Church
July 18, 2021, Pentecost 8B
Remember What You Were; Remember Who You Are
One thing that was mentioned in last week’s sermon, introducing this little trip through the book of Ephesians, is that this letter seems to have been addressed to a situation in which the church or churches being addressed consist more of Gentile converts to Christianity than of those who were of Jewish background. This differs from most of the letters of Paul, which address church groups that seem to be more evenly divided. The content of chapter 2, of which we just heard a portion, suggests that this shift did not occur without some measure of conflict or at least stress between the two parties.
Here the author (again, most likely an associate or student of Paul’s trying to consolidate his teaching some years after Paul’s death) seeks to address this particular strain in the body of Christ. What is left unmentioned, however, is how this particular shift came to be. We don’t actually know why the church had come to consist of more Gentile converts than Jewish. It could be simply that more folks of non-Jewish background were welcoming to the gospel as it was proclaimed across the Roman realm.
On the other hand, we see in other epistles situations where such conflict could have been triggered. Much of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, for example, addresses a situation in which that church had succumbed to a handful of teachers who insisted that to be “really Christian,” the Gentile converts in the church needed to undergo the Jewish ritual of circumcision. Paul had firmly opposed that teaching at the time, and upon learning that the Christians there had been swayed by this teaching he frankly blew a gasket, chastising the “foolish Galatians!” and asking “who has bewitched you?” (3:1)
Whatever the source of this conflict, the author of Ephesians takes pains to sort out the division. We are reminded here that the author (like Paul) was of Jewish background. The Gentiles are addressed as “you” as early as verse 11; by verse 14 the author is giving away his (or her) own status by speaking of “the hostility between us” in verse 14.
The thrust of the author’s argument is to remind those of Gentile background that, for all their apparent superiority of numbers and status in the church now, they had originally been the “outsiders” – being “without Christ,” “strangers to the covenants of promise,” and “having no hope and without God in the world.” They had plenty of false gods, to be sure, but in that previous state they were cut off from the one true God.
To be sure, the Jewish Christians aren’t let totally off the hook. This chastisement is more backhanded, however, and refers to the conflict previously mentioned from the letter to the Galatians. The reference in verse 11 to Gentile followers as “called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called the ‘circumcision’” seems perhaps a bit clunky until the author drops the next line: “a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands.” Nobody gets off the hook here; whatever the division was, both sides have culpability.
Into this division comes the good news of verse 14: “in his (that is, Christ’s) flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” By referring to Christ doing so “in his flesh” – in his bodily crucifixion – the author contrasts the new condition of Gentile and Jewish converts with the division that had come before through another act upon the flesh, the act of circumcision. The one act unites those whom the other separates.
Much of the rest of this passage elaborates upon and even celebrates this act of Christ, culminating in verse 19 with the joyful declaration “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Finally, the metaphor of building is introduced to suggest how, “upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone,” we all – no matter where we came from – are built together into nothing less than the dwelling place of God.
While this passage is vitally important for understanding what unity in Christ looks like and the degree to which any unity we have is Christ’s doing, it can be difficult for moderns to take in or understand its application to us. After all, for many of us in these pews at appropriate social distance, we find it difficult to see ourselves in the author’s description of strangers or aliens or those on the outside. We’ve been good church folk all our lives, haven’t we? When you’ve grown up in the church, it can be hard to process this bit of instruction.
There are two ways to work through this conundrum, one of which is a historical acknowledgment. Most folks who you might find on the pews of Christian churches of whatever variety this morning did not come to Christianity via Judaism. In the language of the time of this writing, we would just about all have been “Gentiles.” It is this act of transcending divisions that enables us even to be here in the first place. Even after nearly two thousand years, this is no small thing to remember.
The second way of understanding our situation requires us to remember one inconvenient fact: your presence on a church pew does not automatically render you as being in unity with Christ and with God’s household. There are churches out there this morning full of zealous devotees whose true allegiances, whose ultimate loyalties and passions and beliefs and behaviors, place them squarely in opposition to Jesus Christ and his gospel, no matter how much they (and their ministers, to be sure) try to bathe those allegiances and loyalties and passions and beliefs in churchy talk. We would all do well, in light of this scripture, to examine our own lives and histories to discern whether we have at times pursued such loyalties and allegiances and beliefs that placed stumbling stones in front of other seekers, or brought disrepute to the gospel, or sought to drive out or exclude those whose lives or beliefs or faith somehow failed to match up squarely with our own, or tried to pass off our petty hatreds and prejudices as somehow Christlike. None of such things build us up into a dwelling place for God.
We, even we lifelong churchgoers, need to remember what this passage teaches us here. We didn’t earn this. We really don’t need to be strutting around the Church Universal as if we own the place. It is God’s grace alone that even allows for us to be the church that we are. And we would also do well to remember that the same grace of God that brings us into God’s household brings in all of those who would come into that household, even if they’re not our favorite people. God is the one who breaks down the barriers; God is the one who invites; God is the one who welcomes. It is only God’s doing that we are no longer strangers or aliens or outsiders, but citizens and members of the household of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #761, Called as Partners in Christ’s Service; #—, Remember There Was Once A Day