In seminary they taught us to preach a passage like it’s written. So if you’re preaching a narrative like a parable or story of Jesus’ life, you should try to tell a story. And when you preach one of Paul’s letters that tend to be more logical and reasoned, you should make a more logical and reasoned argument. But rules are made to be broken, especially if you think the Lord is leading you another direction. So today I am going to start my sermon with a story that although is allegorical and metaphorical, will hopefully introduce both our hearts and minds to what the Apostle Paul has to say in Ephesians 2:11-22.
So please imagine with me you live in a brown desert–like land. You were born there and you’ve grown up there. You grew up in a small town with very few job opportunities. You have some family there, but most have them have died. It’s not a safe place to live. You’ve done some bad things there and you know that if you stay there those bad things will catch up with you. This country is the land of no hope. There’s no hope for the present or for the future.
But you hear of a better country—the far country. You hear the far country is a land of opportunity and hope. You hear there are green plants and living animals, birds, cows, horses, dogs, and rabbits. But there’s a problem. Your country, the land of no hope is at war with the far country. They are sworn enemies. As a citizen of your country you are considered an enemy, a terrorist, by the people of that other land. But you decide that maybe, just maybe, they will receive you.
You begin to make the long hard journey. You travel through waste lands and desert plains. You pass dead bushes and trees and ghost towns. Ash falls from the sky. You pass the skeletal remains of cattle and birds and the human bones. And when you think you can’t go any further and are parched and dying of thirst you spot something on the horizon. At first you think it’s a mountain range because it stretches from the left to the right, but as you get closer you realize it’s a wall. It’s a one-hundred foot tall wall.
The wall is straight up. It’s smooth and impossible to climb. No ladder is tall enough, and as you look at the base of the wall, you realize that even if you had a shovel you could never dig beneath it. There is no way over or under this wall. You’re stuck. But as you’re standing there looking at the wall you hear life on the other side. You hear birds chirping and cows mooing and the sound of a waterfall. You know if you can just make it over you’ll be saved.
And then you hear the sound of laughter, so you begin to shout. “Help me! Help me! Save me! Save me!” A handful of people appear at the top of the wall, looking over. They’re each wearing white tunics. They throw a rope down the side of the wall and begin to lower it. You think, “At last! I’m saved.” But just before the rope reaches you they stop lowering it. You hear a voice call to down, “Are you one of us?”
You don’t know what you mean so you shout back, “Who are you?”
There’s a pause and you hear a second question, “Are you circumcised?”
You shout back, “Why do you want to know that?”
A third question, “Have you ever eaten pigs or dogs or cats or horses or donkeys or rats or seafood that has a shell like lobster and oysters?
“Yes! You shout back.”
“Final question,” they shout back. “Do you work on Saturdays?”
“When I have a job” you reply.
There’s a pause, and then those on top of the wall begin to pull the rope back up.
As they raise the rope your heart sinks. “Why?!” You shout.
“Because you’re unclean” they reply. “Get away from here. You’re not one of us. You don’t look like us or act like us or obey our country’s laws. Go away!” And they begin to throw sticks and stones and rotten food down at you. You flee the wall—running for your life.
The people on the other side of the wall don’t want you, but you will die if you stay on this side. Others have died. You notice a burial site a little ways away. And when you walk over you realize it’s an empty grave that looks freshly shoveled. Robbers must have stolen the body. There’s a small wooden cross buried in the dirt with a sign hanging on it. You read it.
“Here lay king Jesus. He shed his blood so that enemies who repent of their sins and believe in him may freely come into his country.”
As you look down at this cross in this land of death and decay you examine your heart. You know you were born in a bad place but you’ve done many bad things by your own choosing. You deserve to die here as an enemy of this king, but this says that if you repent and believe in the king of the far country he will rescue you. Could it possibly be true? You get on your knees and you say a small prayer, repenting of your sins, believing in king Jesus and hoping beyond hope that he will deliver you.
As you pray this prayer the ground begins to rumble and shake and that 100-foot wall that seemed to strong and opposing and permanent comes crashing down. When the dust from the rubble begins to clear you see a new man walking towards you wearing a red garment and a golden crown. He walks up to you, embraces you invites you to follow him. You follow him, slowly making your way through the rubble. And as you pass through the cloud of dust and it begins to clear you begin to see the far country for the first time with your own eyes.
You see birds of all shapes and sizes and you hear all their different songs. You see cattle grazing and horses running in fields of green grass. There’s a tall waterfall and blue streams of living water flowing past the roots of apple trees. In the distance you see a golden city with spires rising up into the clouds.
But before you head that direction the king dressed in red leads you to the group of people in white who called down to you from the top of the wall. With fire in his eyes he picks up their rope and rips it to shreds. As you look into the faces of the men and women who tried to drive you away you see real humans with real faces and real lives and they see you too. With tears in their eyes they tell you how sorry they are and you embrace.
Then you hear the king in the red tunic speak to you all, “Welcome to my country. You are each a citizen and a son. Come and follow me to the far city. I’m still building it and you each have a precious and important part to play.” Together you set off to the golden city. Let me pray.
King Jesus, would this story speak to our hearts? Thank you for delivering us from the land of death and decay to the hope of eternal life. Help us examine our hearts so that we don’t drive others away from you. Help us see our blindspots. Help us follow you. In your name Jesus. Amen.
I told you this story because passages like the one Paul gives us are hard to relate to. But hopefully my story gives us a context to understand what Paul is saying not just intellectually but also with the heart. I want us to feel what Paul is saying. Paul is saying three things:
We Gentiles didn’t have access to the Jewish people’s salvation. (v11-12)
Gentiles means “non-Jewish people.” I am not Jewish. Paul is very clear that God’s plan of salvation was first and foremost for the Jewish people. Verse 12 gives us four reasons we had no hope.
- You were separate from Christ.
God promised the Israelite people he would send them a “chosen one” to rescue them. The chosen one was the Messiah, a king. Christ means “Messiah. If you were born a Gentile, this Messiah wasn’t for you. He was for the people of Israel. You were separate from Christ.
- You were excluded from citizenship in Israel.
To be a Gentile by birth (v11) means you are not born a citizen of Israel. We understand how important citizenship is in America. You have to be born here to be a citizen or have parents who are citizens. To be born into a Jewish family meant you received the rights and privileges of being Jewish, which meant access to the temple and knowledge of the Scriptures and the one true God. If you were a male you were circumcised at eight days. If you were not Jewish but wanted to become one you had to be circumcised and had to keep Israel’s dietary, Sabbath, and sacrificial laws. Those Gentiles who did so were known as “proselytes,” but even then most Jews didn’t consider them to be fully Jewish.
- You were a foreigner to the covenants of promise.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (what we today call the Old Testament) God made promises (which is what covenants are) to some very specific people and their descendants, first to Abraham, who became the father of the Hebrew people, and then to his son Isaac and his son Jacob. It’s through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the Israelite nation that God brought salvation. Although Genesis 12:1-3 tells us that God was going to use Abraham and his descendants to bless all the nations, Israel received the covenants first. Even though God promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34 to make a new covenant, which Jesus made at the Last Supper, it came first to the Hebrew people. We were foreigners to the covenants of promise.
- You were without hope and without God in the world.
Being separated from the Messiah, excluded from Israel, and foreigners to God’s promises we were truly without hope. We lived in the land of no hope and would die there if it weren’t for a Savior rescuing us.
But notice all four reasons include the word “were.” These things were true apart from Christ.
But now in Christ Jesus the wall between Jewish and Gentile people has come down. (v13-18)
Two weeks ago Andy pointed out a transition in verse 4 like ours today in verse 13. He said, “But because of his great love for us, God….” So you’re sinful and broken, “but God…” has all this grace in store for you. Today we see that same transition. You were sinful and broken “But now in Christ Jesus…” the wall that divides Jewish and Gentile people has come down. What is that wall? What is the dividing wall of hostility that I pictured as a border wall or apocalyptic end of days wall in my story?
I’ve brought a picture of a model of Herod’s temple complex. The temple was built on a large plateau called the temple mount. It had a large courtyard called the Court of the Gentiles. This courtyard stretches around the temple but stops before you reach the temple steps. At the steps was a 4.5 foot wall that non-Jews were not allowed to pass on penalty of death. Stone slabs were set all around this wall, which said:
“No foreigner is to enter within the forecourt and balustrade around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.”
In Acts 21:27-36, Leaders in Jerusalem falsely accused Paul of bringing Greeks past that wall and defiling the temple. They drag him out and try to kill him. That same hostility still filled the early church. There was a deep root of racism that ran through the Jewish believers that Gentiles were unacceptable and had to convert to Judaism before they could become true Christians. Paul is saying that’s not the case. You don’t have to practice the sabbath. You don’t have to follow their dietary laws. Christ has fulfilled all the law’s requirements (v15) and is creating “one new humanity out of the two.” He is taking both Jew and Gentile and making them into the one new people. Christ roots out our racism.
Monica and I turned in our Safe Families application this week. Safe Families came in August and told us about an opportunity to help mothers and children in their time of need. Some families don’t have a support network and need somewhere safe for their kids to go when they have to go into the hospital or rehab. We didn’t fill out the host family application but we did fill out the family friend application, so if you haven’t done that yet please turn yours in. One of the things it asks is if you feel any discrimination or prejudices during childhood and adulthood. In the application I admitted that in the past I’ve felt a bit anti-hispanic. I’m from a mountain town in Colorado where it seemed like a lot of illegal immigrants migrated. Instead of seeing them as the precious people made in the image of God that they are, I saw them as harmful to my town, country, and way of life. I didn’t see them as people but as problems. Now I have dealt with that racism in my heart, and I hope it is gone, because this is the type of stuff Paul is addressing. Is there anyone that you look at or think about and have feelings of prejudice or discrimination towards? Arabs? Africans? Blacks? Hispanics? Jewish people? Gay people? Anyone not from New England? But now in Christ Jesus the wall between Jewish and Gentile people has come down.
Christ is building us up into a brand new people with whom he will live and dwell forever. (v19-22)
In the last couple verses Paul sums it up for the Gentile believers at Ephesus. You once were foreigners and strangers, but God has made you citizens of his family. Then he says how we are being built up—“on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” As a church family full of diverse people from different social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds, we don’t gather together for diversity’s sake. We gather around Christ Jesus and the word of God, which unites us as we focus on him and his word. We are united in Christ. Through him we are being built into a new kind of temple where God himself dwells. The temple is no longer made of bricks and stones but of people from all over the world from all ethnicities who love and know Christ Jesus.
I want to take a moment and ask how this applies to each of us by answering three questions:
- How should this change me?
We should each feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude because I’m assuming most of us here are not Jewish. That means God’s plan of salvation didn’t come to us first. It was always intended to come to us, but as ones who are included. We should each feel incredibly grateful that we don’t have to follow specific dietary laws or be circumcised to receive salvation, but that through the blood of Christ Jesus we are saved.
- How should this change our church?
As a church we should seek to reflect the diversity of God’s plan. We should work hard to be a place that welcomes all people from all nationalities and heritages. We should want to worship and do church with people that look different than us. We can each apply this to our lives by intentionally seeking to form friendships and relationships with people who are from different parts of the world than us. Invite families into your home who are from India and Africa and Asia and South America or other parts of the U.S.
- How should this change our worldview?
You may have felt that my story said something political. Paul is making a political statement. He’s saying that our citizenship should not be defined by Rome or America or any other country because we are primarily citizen’s of God’s kingdom. As believers we should think long and hard about how we each feel about immigrants and refugees and how those we vote for treat them. Why? Because we are each refugees and immigrants into God’s kingdom. Even when an immigrant is illegal or comes from the worst parts of the world that is the most hostile to Christianity we must remember that we would each be condemned enemies of God if it weren’t for his grace. Instead of turning us away at the border he welcomed us into his family. This doesn’t mean we will all agree on the best way to welcome and care for immigrants but we should be the first to speak up for them, welcome them, and do our best to love them with the love of Christ Jesus no matter their documentation or country of origin.
My closing big idea is this.
No matter how different we are we are one in Christ.
When we confess our sins and put our faith in Jesus, he transforms us from being enemies into friends and welcomes us into his country. He removes the old sinful and dirty clothes. He removes our old garments and gives us each a new white cloak that covers us in his holiness. As we look at each other we begin to see each other differently. Instead of seeing someone purely defined by their ethnicity or country of origin or wealth or gifts or talents or political party or any other thing, we see them as brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, as valued members of the family of God. We see each other’s differences and we admire and appreciate them. Together we are journeying to that far city covered in the white cloaks of Jesus Christ. No matter how different we are we are one in Christ.
Pastor Jonathan Romig preached this message at Cornerstone Congregational Church. You can download a PDF copy of this sermon above, which includes further endnotes and references. Click to listen to sermons or to read our story.