Anne and I love where we live. We live in an area of town called Clintonville with lots of old homes and families and stuff like that. The thing is, we live just south of a major dividing line in the community. That dividing line in North Broadway, and the division plays out in the form of home prices. For those living North of North Broadway, their homes tend to be a little nicer and significantly more expensive. So you can tell when some people talk, where they come from. Those of us in the south call Clintonville just that, Clintonville. Those living North of North Broadway often refer to Northern Clintonville and Southern Clintonville.
It’s more of a joke than anything else, even to the people who live north of us, but I can see why some people want to make a distinction. If I paid more for my house, I might want to make the division known too! Anne and I always laugh because sometimes we go for a run and we go north of our house and we whisper to one another, “I wonder if anyone can tell we’re actually from SOUTHERN Clintonville, play it cool.”
But some divisions aren’t a joke at all. Human beings have some kind of internal drive to put people, and places, and things into neat and easily identifiable categories. Sometimes these divisions lead to all kinds of evils: Bloodshed, Genocide, Persecution. Sometimes these divisions even lead to hostilities in places where there really shouldn’t be. Churches even deal with divisions and hostilities sometimes.
This was defiantly a struggle for the church in Ephesus. This church situated in a city that was a major trade center of Asia Minor, and as such, was a very diverse place. So the church was made up of all kinds of different people who had come out of all kinds of different backgrounds. And as always happens as humans, we tend to bring our own ways of thinking, our own traditions and expectations, our own ideas about how things “SHOULD BE” into our relationships.
When Anne and I first got married, I realized the hard way that we have very different ideas about what should be done for birthdays. In my house, as we got older, birthdays weren’t really a bid deal. We might go out for dinner, or my parents might let me have a couple of buddies over and get a pizza or something, but there really wasn’t much of a celebration after we got a little older. In fact, there have been many occasions when I have forgotten it was my birthday.
Anne’s family, on the other hand, makes a big deal of birthdays, and Anne does as well. I have learned that I need to adjust my way of thinking. Because when I took Anne out to a hot dog restaurant for our first birthday together, she was a good sport, but I could tell I missed the mark. (In my defense, it was a nice hot dog restaurant). I try harder now, and in fact, I think I do pretty well, but it took me realizing that arguing for my way of thinking isn’t as important as showing love to my wife, and that being reconciled to one another is the main goal and aim, not how I think things “SHOULD BE.”
I mention this because as we look at the church in Ephesus, there were two very different groups of people, from very different backgrounds who were now trying to make life work as a church. It wasn’t easy. Paul opens up this passage describing this division: Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—
There were Jewish Christians in the congregation, who refered to themselves as “the circumcision.” These were people who grew up intimately connected with the Jewish traditions and Laws. They followed the Jewish rules and laws and had a real historic understanding of the faith. The other group was “the uncircumsicion.” This group of people were the non-Jews, Gentiles from all over the place. They came from all kinds of different backgrounds, Roman and Greek pagan religions, and had no real connection to the traditions of the Jews. So you have two groups of people that can very easily make each other feel very uncomfortable. And it seems that they were doing just that.
The Jewish Christians were upset because the Gentiles weren’t following all of the Jewish traditions that they grew up with and thought of as essential to the faith. The Gentiles were getting offended because they were getting looked down upon because they weren’t circumcised or because they didn’t understand all of the traditions. So there was a dividing wall of hostility that was being build in the middle of this church. Not a wall of rock, or brick, but made out of something much harder and resilient: Human emotions, and stubbornness, mortared with Self-Righteousness.
Paul calls all of the people of this church to take a step back from this bickering and to recall what the most important things are. The first thing he says is that they need to look back before they look forward. What I mean is that they need to be reminded of what God has actually done for them. First he talks to the Gentiles: Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
The message is pretty clear. Don’t forget that you were brought into this family of God only by the Blood of Christ. The false gods you worshipped formerly were dead, vain, hopeless, and now by God’s grace and sacrifice for your sins, you have been welcomed into the covenant family. You have been become part of God’s Family, God’s people, God’s eternal promises. Don’t get prideful, remember that you belong to God by his Blood, by His grace, By his mercy.
Then Paul goes on to address the Jewish Christians in much the same way. He reminds them of what Christ did for them, “By abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” Paul is calling them to remember how they used to try to be reconciled to God. That as a people they had neglected the hope they were to have in the coming Messiah, and began to try and focus on good works, and following rules, and their traditions as their means of salvation. Paul reminds them that it didn’t work.
So how is then, that these two groups can come together? The answer is stated so profoundly in verse 14. The answer is Jesus: For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. The answer is that these people, for as different as they are, for as much as they don’t have in common, for as different as their experiences are, can find unity in the cross. They can find unity in the empty tomb. They can find unity in their need for a Savior. They can find unity in Jesus who as our lesson says will, create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
It was remarkable that these two groups of people, who had such pride in their own histories, and citizenships, and heritages could be one church. But the truth is that they could only be truly united when they realized that they had a citizenship, and a heritage that was far more important than being a Roman, or a Jew, or anything else. Paul writes: And Christ came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
The picture of this peace, of this unity of all believers is that we as believers are built together, are fitted together to be God’s own house: built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Isn’t that a challenging picture of what we are supposed to be as followers of Christ? That we are bricks that God wants to fit together for the noble purpose and calling of not just worshipping in His House, but BEING his House! But sometimes we make the picture very different and we focus on our differences. We tend to try to rebel against what God wants to build us into and we want to build ourselves into walls of hostility, lines of demarcation, staunch castles defending our own ideas, and desires, and wishes.
How many differences can we find in our churches? How many ways can we find to say, “us and them?” Some people like more modern hymns, some like the traditional ones. Some churches have screens up for the liturgy, some use bulletins, and others use a hymnal. Some churches have lots of money, others struggle to pay their bills. Some celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, some once a month. Some serve Donuts, others Bagels. We can find all kinds of differences can’t we.
When I did my vicarage, it was at a Lutheran Church outside of Chicago. Two blocks down from the church was another Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. 100 years ago they were one church. No one is exactly sure what caused the division, but everyone knows that there was a big fight in the church that bled out into the street and that people were hitting each other with umbrellas.
I’m not sure what caused the fight, but I am sure that Christians fighting in the street isn’t a good witness of the hope we have within us. I hate to even think it, but I’m sure there were people who were turned off to the faith because of this fight. I hate to even think it, but I wonder if there are people in hell right now because of that scene, that one argument, because of that crowd of bull-headed, self-righteous people.
Like I said, I’m not sure what caused that fight, but I am sure that it wasn’t that important. I’m not sure what caused that fight, but I am sure that what differences they had weren’t nearly as important as the similarities that they had. All those folks fighting each other were sinners. All of those folks were people who depended upon the same cross for their salvation. All of those folks were people who were given a gift in Jesus that not a single one of them deserved; forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
Brother and Sisters, there is nothing more important in our lives than the Blood of Jesus, the means by which we are brought near to a God who was once far off. There is nothing more significant in our lives than the Cross on which Jesus died for our sins, and the tomb he left empty as our promised inheritance of eternal life. And there is nothing more important for us to do than to share this message of hope.
The reality is that we live in a sinful and fallen world, and that we are part of this sinful and fallen world, and we often lose sight of the things that are most important. I told you about that church where a fight broke out in the street, but can’t we recall things that are just as ridiculous in our own lives. I know I can recall so many things that I have let get in the way of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m sure that there are things coming to your mind right now.
The question we have to always ask ourselves when we have hostilities, whether those are between people in the church, or between you and another person, a spouse, a family member, or friend, or neighbor or whatever, is a simple one. Are the things dividing us more significant that the grace that unites us? Are the things we are fighting about a bigger deal that the blood of Christ that saves us both? Is my agenda more important than the relationship I have with my fellow brother or sister in Christ? Is getting my way more important that pointing people to THE way of life and salvation? Tough Questions.
That’s not to say we can’t have disagreements or difference of opinions. It doesn’t even mean we can’t have arguments. But what it does mean is that we can’t ever lose sight of the fact that we are united as one in our need for a Savior, and united as one in the joy of having a Savior who suffered and bled and died for our sins. And instead of having killer hostility, we have a hostility killer in Him.
We aren’t perfect at this, not by any means! I love how Paul writes the last verse, In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. “Being Built,” it’s an ongoing process isn’t it! A process that involves, sinning, repenting, being forgiven, over and over again. But no matter where we find ourselves today in our need to be reconciled to others, we celebrate what is most important, the fact that we are reconciled to God, not by our own deeds. But in spite of our sinfulness, and selfishness, and falling short, we have been brought near by the blood of Christ, for he himself is our peace.
Everything else is secondary AMEN.