Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ephesians 2:13-22; Pentecost 9

There should be no hostility between Christians.  We have been chosen ‘in Christ’—all of us.  Also, in Christ and because of what Christ has done, he has reached out to us all with the same forgiveness.  And yet, some stay away from church because they feel that they will not be welcome here.  How can some feel that they belong, while others do not?  There always seems to be a certain amount of hostility and resentment between those who have been good Christians and those who have not been.  The impression is out there that only good people belong in Church.  The good people look down on those who have not always been good.  The Christians who have messed up and would like to come back to church nevertheless resent being judged by the people at church.
It can seem like there is almost a wall between you and God, if you don’t feel that you have done a very good job of keeping his commandments.  To a certain extent, that wall is real, as long as the Law is in force to accuse you of sin.  “Your sins have separated you from your God,” says Isaiah 59:2.  You might feel that even without the Bible telling you.  Your heart tells you that you aren’t good enough, and God isn’t going to listen to you.
If you don’t feel that you’ve been a very good Christian, there may be another wall that keeps you away from God.  When other Christians look down on you and judge you for the things you have done, you feel a wall rising to keep you out.   Even if they don’t actually say anything, you feel it in the looks they give and you can imagine what they must be thinking.  The hostility keeps you away.
There is a wall of hostility between Christians.  Which side are you on?  Do you find yourself more often judging others, or feeling like you are being judged?  Maybe you’re on different sides of the wall, depending on how the day is going.  Today you may feel like you belong in church, but tomorrow you will feel like you are not good enough to come to this place, even though it is meant to help sinners. 
Either way, that wall of hostility is not a good thing, and God has taken action to remove it.  He went to the root of the hostility—the Law, with it’s demands and accusations.  By his perfect life and death on the cross, he nullified the Law, so that it does not hang over you as a barrier between you and God anymore.  And there can be no hostility between those who appear to be good Christians and those who have not been, because both have the right to come to God for the same reason.  Paul explains that we have been brought near to each other and to God in the same crucified and risen body of Christ.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Ephesians 2:13-22

The same life and death of Jesus has given all of us peace.  In that one body we have all been brought near to God.  All of you, together, you who look like good people and you who have not always looked like good people—

In Christ, You Belong With God.

1.  God has given you peace.

It hasn’t always been that way, though.  Before Christ came, God wanted people to feel sin separating them from God, so that they would be drawn to his promises of a Savior.  Only the Jews, who kept his Law, could come into the temple to offer their prayers and sacrifices to God.  But even the Jews could only do that if sacrifices were made for their sins.  Blood had to be shed for them to come into God’s presence.
Anyone who did not keep the Law was unclean, and was not allowed in the temple.  The Jews were commanded to keep away from the things that would make them unclean, including unclean people who didn’t keep the Law.  God said in Leviticus, “You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them.”  God was talking about the tabernacle, which would later become the temple, and he was threatening death to any ceremonially unclean person who did not keep the Law but entered the temple.  So the Gentiles, those who were not Jews and did not keep God’s Law—those Gentiles were not allowed to come into God’s presence in the temple.  God wanted the Gentiles to feel their separation from God, so that they would reach out for him and find him in the laws and sacrifices of the Old Testament faith.
However, the laws of the Old Testament Jewish faith created an opportunity for pride and hostility.  The Jews became proud of the way that they were keeping God’s laws, and the looked down on the Gentiles who did not.  They kept God’s command to keep all unclean things and persons out of his temple, but they took it too far.  Not only did they keep Gentiles out of the temple, but they kept them from going near it.  They built a wall around the courtyard nearest the temple entrance, and posted a notice by the door that prohibited Gentiles from coming any further.  It read, “No outsider shall enter the protective enclosure around the sanctuary, and whoever is caught will only have himself to blame for the ensuing death.”
The wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles extended even further, so that Jews would not eat with Gentiles or go into their homes.  This is why the Pharisees criticized Jesus for eating with Gentiles.
The Gentiles, naturally, resented the way that the Jews looked down at them and excluded them.  Even as members of a Christian church like Ephesus, the Jews made them feel unclean and inferior.
The dividing wall of hostility lives on, though in a different form.  We are all Gentiles here, but there can still be hostility when those who keep the Law and appear to be good Christians look down on those who have not always done so.  It happens that Christian people will hear that someone in the church has committed some horrible sin and they will look at that person differently after that.  Even though he may have repented and been forgiven, they will judge that person’s faith and think he is not as committed to Christ as he should be.  They will think he is weak.  They will shy away from talking to that person.  They make him feel cut off.
For all of us who feel inferior and cut off from God, the solution is found in Christ.  For all of us who struggle with the temptation to think highly of ourselves and judge others, the solution is found in Christ.
Paul wrote,
For he 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. His purpose was to create in himself one new man 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.
If you are feeling pretty good about yourself, and you have a hard time understanding why other people are not so good, you need to remember that the only reason why you have peace with God is because you are “in Christ.”  Paul began chapter 2 of Ephesians by saying that all of us were at one time “dead in our transgressions and sins.” –unable to do anything good for God, and even unable to know him, just as much as a dead man is unable to get up and walk around.  The Law stood between you and God and gave you no peace.  It condemned you to hell.  But Christ took your sins on himself, and he suffered the punishment of the Law.  In his flesh hanging on the cross he took away the effect of the Law.  He pushed it aside, so that it would no longer accuse you, and no longer separate you from God.  The only reason why you can sit here with a peaceful feeling that heaven’s door is open is that God has made that peace for you.
When you remember this, there can be no judging of other Christians who have fallen into sin.  We all have been dead in our sins.  We all have been reconciled by the same body of Christ.
If you are feeling pretty bad about yourself, and having a hard time feeling like God will hear your prayers, and feeling like everyone at church will judge you—you need to remember that Christ has done what you have not.  God’s Law says that you must be good, Christ says it has been done, because he did it for you.  God’s Law says that sin must be punished, and Christ says that it has been, in his death.  The Law with its accusations that you don’t belong with God has been pushed aside.  The barrier has been torn down.  Then also, all of those people who might have judged you have no basis, because the law had to be pushed aside for them too.  All of us stand before God on equal ground, in Christ.  In one Savior, by the one body heaven’s door is opened God’s voice calls out to you with peace, peace for those far and near.
But really, those who were far from God, those who felt like they were far from God, and those who had been treated like they were far from God are all brought near to God in Christ.
2. God has brought you near.
God has brought you near as a citizen of his kingdom.  Paul wrote, “You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people.”  Remember that the citizens of Israel were considered God’s chosen people.  They were the ones God had selected out of all the nations of the world to be the people who would believe in him and put his glory on display for all the world to see.  They were the ones who had the Word of God; they were the ones who had the temple.  They were the ones who were allowed to go into the temple to offer sacrifices and prayers.  They had God’s promise that a great King would be born for them who would save them from their sins.
Even though you are not Jews, God has made you citizens of that kingdom.  Though you may feel far from God, God has chosen you to believe in him and display his glory.  The Bible is yours.  The church is yours.  He has pushed the demands of the Law aside and given you the right to come into his holy presence in the Word and Sacraments, and receive his forgiveness from the sacrifice of Christ.  You have a great King whose kingdom lasts forever, and you will be with him in eternity.
God has brought you near as a member of his family.  We all have access to one Father, Paul wrote.   We are members of God’s household.  You have come to the right place to be in God’s presence, but you are not here like a stranger or a foreigner.  You belong, like a member of God’s family.  The Law with its demands has been pushed aside, and your prayers will be heard.  Even if you are like the infant of the house, who doesn’t know what to say or how to say it, but cries out anyway—the Father hears you.  Even if you are like the Prodigal Son who wasted everything the Father has given you and ran away from him—when you come back the Father hears you.
God has brought you even closer than that, though.  You are not just in the right place to stand in God’s presence.   You don’t just belong in God’s house.  You actually are the house of God.  He has pushed the Law with its demands out of the way so far that he can actually live in you.  Paul wrote, “In him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

You, each of you, are part of the house of God.  Why would any of you feel that you do not belong here, in front of God’s pulpit, where God’s Word is given to you?  Why would anyone feel that he doesn’t belong there, at the Lord’s Table, where he feeds his people?  The Law makes us feel that way.  When God tells us that he hates sin, we feel the accusation, and we feel that God must hate us.  People who don’t feel those accusations will look down on us.  The house of God, however, is not built on the Law of God.  According to Paul, it is built on the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.  The whole thing, in fact, comes together only in Christ.  He is the foundation, he is the mortar, he is even the one who makes us bricks worth using.  Christ is everything.  We need to remember that in him, and through faith in him, the Law with its accusations has been pushed aside.  It doesn’t hang over us as a barrier between God and us anymore.  It can’t stand between us as a wall between those who look like good Christians and those who have not always.  We are all one, you and I and Christ.  He has given you peace.  He has brought you near.  In Christ, you belong with God.  Amen.