One recent Sunday, we began the sermon by discussing the old tradition in the Presbyterian Church of preaching straight through, in a series of sermons, a book of the Bible. And we decided that while we really weren’t anxious to commit to thirty weeks in a row on a long book like Romans or Revelation, as has been done, we would try a series of four worship services, going through the relatively short letter to the Ephesians, which is one set of readings the Lectionary recommends to us, for July and August.
So we started with chapter one of this Pauline letter to the young Christian Church Paul had started in the city of Ephesus a few years before.
Specifically, we looked at “who you are” – who were these people of Ephesus to whom the letter was written. We looked first at the geography and culture of Ephesus- that it was a city on the western coast of present-day Turkey, a trading center, the capital of its province, and one of the finest cities in the Roman empire; also that it was dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis, and was home to one of the finest temples in the empire, to Artemis, but that it was also open to other religions, including Judaism and this new “Christianity,” as long as they did not interfere with the worship of Artemis. That’s who the Ephesians were as Paul arrived for his first visit.
Chapter one of our letter, however, added a great deal more about who the Ephesians were, once they came to faith in Jesus Christ. And we saw how that part of their description could also fit the Christians here, of Paris Presbyterian Church.
Who you are, the letter said, is also: people who are blessed, who are declared holy and blameless by God’s act of grace, who are forgiven, who are God’s adopted children, who know something of God’s mystery and plan, who are receivers of an inheritance, who are praisers of God, who are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit, and who are, in a worthy response, faithful and loving. Chapter one of the “Letter to the Ephesians”. . . was “who you are.”
Later chapters of the letter, which we will consider in future weeks, will move on from “who we are” to the writer’s hope of “who we will become” as Christians—lessons on how to live out our identity as Christians. We will look ahead. But today in chapter 2, we first take a look back from who we are in Christ . . . to who we were before Christ, and how we came to be who we are now. Sort of a personal history, or biography, or “faith journey,” of developing Christians: “how you became who you are.”
The Christians of Ephesus, all of them, could indeed remember a time before they were Christians; Christianity was, after all, a brand new faith at this point in time. There was a significant pre-Christian part of their lives, years of “who they were” before they knew Jesus. Some of us can’t identify such a time; some of us were baptized as infants, raised in the church, made our own statements of faith as young teenagers, stuck with them, and can’t point to a time we didn’t know Jesus, or consider ourselves Christians. Maybe for those among us in that category, it would be better to think of this section as “who we would be” without Christ, rather than “who we were” without him.
But all of us have had times when we were less close to God than other times, less faithful than others. Even lifelong Christians, with rare exceptions, have periods of some doubt about what they’ve heard, or periods when they can imagine living outside God’s guidance. Even lifelong Christians have succumbed to temptation at times and done what they should not.
So all of us can at least understand what the writer is talking about when he describes, at the beginning of the chapter, a life not in Christ. Without Christ, he writes, “you were dead, through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived. All of us once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of the flesh and senses.” If we’re not following Christ, what we generally end up chasing after is sensory pleasure—things like richer food, bigger homes, more exciting drugs, fancier cars, more sexual experiences, larger bank accounts, more excitement.
And when all we care about is pursuing those things, we invariably break God’s law, especially the biggie about not letting anything be more important to us than God; we sin. And since God won’t tolerate sin, as sinners we end up outside of God’s presence, not with God – “aliens from the kingdom,” verse 12 says, “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.” That’s who we were – or who we would be – without Christ.
But then something happened, the letter continues. What?
Well the first thing about what happened is that it was God’s doing, not ours. God acted, “out of the great love with which God loved us,” says verse 4. By grace, verse 8 continues, by the gift of God, we were saved through faith. And this is not our own doing; it is not the result of good works we have done, so no one can boast that they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. This is something God did. God saved us from being without God, without hope, outside God’s presence.
How God did it, secondly . . . has to do with Jesus Christ. “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near,” verse 13 relates. “We are what God has made us in Christ Jesus.” Somehow, through Jesus Christ, we were brought back from lives of sin and reconciled to God.
So how did Jesus do it. Well here we’re getting onto some touchy ground. One can draw from the Bible several different theories about how Jesus accomplished our reconciliation with God, and many Christians have been known to pick one particular theory, and get quite attached to it, and insist that theirs is the only acceptable one, and that everyone else must believe just as they do. Churches and denominations have been split over quarrels about how it was done.
But the fact remains, there are several theories in the Bible; in fact there’s at least a couple in this very chapter. One goes like this:
Once there was a man named Jesus. And this Jesus had a very unique intimate knowledge of God, and in fact was God as well as being a man. Jesus was aware that all people sinned, and that according to God’s law, all people therefore were disqualifying themselves from having eternal life with God. They were putting themselves outside God’s presence with their sins.
And Jesus loved all these people – so much that Jesus said “I will take upon myself the penalty for the sins that all these people committed. Rather than them suffering the consequences of their sins, and having to live without God, place upon me the punishment for their sins, so their slate is wiped clean. I will pay their fines; I will do their time; I put myself in their place.” Well the penalty for all humanity’s sins, it turned out. . . was the death penalty, so Jesus died, on a cross. And through that death we all were saved, to be with God.
That’s one theory of how we became who we are – and it is represented in this chapter by verses like these, thirteen and sixteen: “you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ”; he reconciled us to God through the cross. The focal point is the cross.
Another theory goes like this:
Once there was a man named Jesus, who had been killed by the method of crucifixion, because people misunderstood him, or feared him, or saw him as a threat to their power or control. But this Jesus was no ordinary man; in fact he was God as well as being a man. And being one with God, he was more powerful than the force of death, and God raised him from the dead, to eternal life. He broke the chains of death!
And because he loved all people, he joined hands with us all, so that as God raised him up from death, God raised us all up with him, out of the death our sins had brought us to. So we were all brought with him to the heavenly places, to eternal life with God. As Jesus Christ rose from death, we all were saved, to be with God, by rising with him.
Verses five and six of our chapter support this theory, which concentrates on the resurrection rather than the crucifixion: “God raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places.” Christ the victor over death.
Now whichever story rings more true with you, the one focusing on his death or the one focusing on his resurrection – or maybe you prefer concentrating on his birth, or his teachings, or one of the other Biblical theories of how it happened; whichever it is, and I see no point in quarrelling over which one it best – the point is: we have “become who we are,” we have been reconciled with God, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s the point; that’s what Christians believe; that’s what all the theories have in common: How we became who we are, back together with God, is through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But this chance to be with God, the chapter continues, is not all that God has given us through Jesus Christ. Peace with God in spite of our sins is not the only peace we have been given.
In the temple of God in the city of Jerusalem, the highest holiest place in the world in Paul’s time, the center of faith in God – the Vatican, the White House, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame all rolled into one – there were several courts. A “court” is like a room with no ceiling – walls, but uncovered. These courts were lined up in a row, leading to the Temple building, the part with a roof. And the building, at the end of the line, was the very holiest place. The court closest to the building was called the Court of the Priests; only priests could come that far toward the holy building. Outside the wall of the Court of the Priests was the Court of the Men of Israel; only Jewish men could come that far, second closest, to the building. Outside the wall of that court was the Court of the Women of Israel; Jewish women could come within three courts of the holy building. And outside the wall of the women’s court, and down nineteen steps . . . was the Court of the Gentiles. Non-Jews could only approach to within four courts of the holy building, at the other end of the line.
On the wall separating the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of Jewish Women was a sign. This sign was actually found in 1871; we have it. It says, in essence: Any Gentile who comes past this wall is guilty of trespassing, and will die. The wall between Jew and Gentile was absolute. Gentiles, you do not go past this wall toward God’s holy place – on pain of death.
Now let’s take a look again at verses eleven through sixteen: So then, remember, you Gentiles, they begin, Gentiles of Ephesus, Gentiles of Paris, remember that at one time you were considered aliens, strangers, far from God, four courts away. But now in Christ Jesus you Gentiles who once were far off have been brought near. For he is our peace; he has broken down the dividing wall between us, the one with the ominous sign on it. He proclaimed peace to you who were far off in the outer court and peace to those who were near in the inner courts, and he broke down the dividing wall between the two, and through him we both of us together have access in one Spirit to the Father. You two groups are no longer strangers and aliens, separated by stairs and a wall and a warning sign, but you are all citizens together, all members of the household of God. Besides the peace with God Christ has brought, he has brought us peace with one another; he has broken down the wall.
The word for “wall” the writer uses means a wall for protection from a hostile group, like the wall around a castle, keeping the people inside safe. It is a wall which signifies “enemy” or “outsider” or “undesirable,” which is a symbol for hostile relationships. And the Temple of Jerusalem, of course, is not the only place such walls have existed. Similar walls were used to fence Jews into ghettoes, into the poor sections of towns, in 1930’s Europe. Such a wall divided Berlin, Germany for many years, a symbol of hostility between East and West, a visible reminder of there being no peace. The railroad track separating the “wrong side of the tracks” from the “right side” is another such wall, Markus Barth suggests. The metaphorical Iron Curtain was another. The rules of South Africa’s apartheid another. Any walls of prejudice we maintain with any of our sisters and brothers, over race, or gender, or difference in class or wealth, are others. All are walls signifying separation and hostility between large segments of humanity, like the wall in the Court of Gentiles in Jerusalem. Some have recently fallen; some have not; some have physically fallen, as in Germany and South Africa, but much of the hostility remains.
Jesus Christ can break down such dividing walls, if we will let him, the letter to the Ephesians tells us. He can be the peace between us instead. He can reconcile both sides to God, making us all members of the household of God together. Besides the peace with God Christ has brought, he brings us peace with one another, if we let him.
Robert Frost wrote a poem about walls, called “Mending Wall.” As has often happened with Frost poems, it has been frequently interpreted as saying precisely the opposite of what he intended. “Good fences make good neighbors,” people will quote from the poem. You gotta have good walls.
But what the poem is about is how people maintain walls when there is no reason to do so, when it’s just empty tradition, when life would be better if we let them fall. “I wonder if I could put a notion in my neighbor’s head,” the narrator writes.
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants is down.”
Something there is . . . that wants walls down
- Who we were, then, chapter 2 of Ephesians tells us, were people without hope, without God.
- How we became who we are, with God, is through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
- Who we are, besides at peace with God, includes the potential for peace with one another, if we will let Christ work in us.
Next in our series we will begin considering what we can become, if we will allow our faith and discipleship to grow and develop. For now, let’s pray:
God, thank you for Jesus Christ, who brought us peace with you. Thank you for his efforts to bring us peace with one another. Encourage us to work for that peace, and guide us in our efforts. Amen.