11 So then, remember that at one time you were Gentiles in the flesh—called “the uncircumcised” by those called “the circumcised,” which is done in the flesh by human hands. 12 At that time you were without the Messiah, excluded from the citizenship of Israel, and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of the Messiah. 14 For He is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. In His flesh, 15 He made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations, so that He might create in Himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace. 16 He did this so that He might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross and put the hostility to death by it. 17 When the Messiah came, He proclaimed the good news of peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. 21 The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. 22 You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit.
Personally I often find that I am too busy thinking of the now or the future to stop and think of the past. I can easily obsess over the future, over what I am doing in an hour, over what I am doing tonight, over the coming week, over my Masters thesis I still need to write. And as much as I obsess over the future I am often so wrapped up in the present that there is no time to stop and reflect on the past. I’d imagine that this is something you can all sympathise with.
But here in Ephesians Saint Paul calls for us to ‘Remember.’ To look to and reflect on and remember the past, our past, who we were compared to who we are now. Generally speaking when we look to the past we think of two things – failure, pain, and sin, or success, joy and grace. Sin or grace. More often than not when I look to the past I see sin and mistakes – but I never was much of an optimist. The past though changes our identity significantly. Without a past we cannot truly appreciate who we are today.
In the passage we just read Paul uses a common metaphor for sin – sin is separation from God and from each other. Grace on the other hand is reconciliation to God through Jesus.
Not living in the time of Jesus or being brought up in first century Judaism, which is significantly different from what we see today, it is hard to understand why Paul has an obsession in his letters with circumcision – which is a rather uncomfortable subject for half the population! But in the time of Paul ‘uncircumcised’ or ‘Gentile’ was a term used by Jews to describe non-Jews. It was a way of building a barrier, an ‘us and them’ mentality. ‘They are different, they think different and look different than us, we look better and know more and look respectable’ ‘They are unclean and dirty and unholy - uncircumcised, we are the people of Abraham and are clean when we make sacrifices to be holy before God – we are circumcised.’
Being a Gentile meant you could not even get near to God, who dwelt in the time of Jesus in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Gentiles were not allowed within the Temple and the outside wall was covered with writing saying essentially ‘non-Jew trespassers will be shot.’ Being a Gentile and wanting to know the one true God was like getting a ticket to a football game and the seat number saying ‘car park outside of stadium – do not enter the stadium on pain of death.’
Essentially this was racism based on nationality and discrimination based on perceived holiness – and the ironic thing is that the Bible makes very, very clear that ALL people are sinners and are unclean and unholy; none are righteous but God alone. Furthermore many of the greatest men of Israel had none Jewish ancestors – from Boaz who married the Moabite Ruth to King David who married a Hittite. God has always been more interested in the heart than the flesh, the spiritual circumcision of faith.
Paul tells the Ephesians that once they did not know God, they did not have hope, they did not have the promises of the covenant and were excluded from the citizenship of Israel. And what are these promises of the covenant they did not have? They didn’t have Jesus. They didn’t have a God who will without fail always love and lead, care and cherish, forgive and forget, prepare and protect. They didn’t have these promises and the reason was because, as Paul makes clear in 2 Corinthians, all the promises of God find their ‘yes and Amen’ in Jesus.
Some of you here may have always been Christian, had the privilege of having the testimony of being raised to know Christ from the beginning. You may not easily be able to relate to such a sharp distinction between life before knowing Christ full of hopelessness and lacking something crucial, and the life of freedom and joy and faith in Christ. But I am sure you wonder sometimes what all your faith and living is about, why you follow Jesus and do the things you do because of Him. And then you think back to your journey with Him and see how He has built you up and forgiven you when you have been self-righteous or prideful, when you have perhaps not intentionally but at least functionally removed your relationship with Jesus from your life.
I remember clearly the years I spent after abandoning God for being what I thought a capricious bully. I remember the quick highs from the things I did and I remember the equally swifts lows which came as consequence, I remember the depression and self-harm, the longing for something more to fill a hole in my life that nothing or no-one around me could seem to fill. I remember distinctly the lack of freedom, the chains I made for myself which even today the memories of which I often struggle to shake off.
I remember often having, and seeing friends having, optimism but not faith, desperation for something more but not certain hope it was coming. Today people struggle with hopelessness, depression, low-self-esteem. So much in society forces people into this and then pushes forward thinking good thoughts and optimism, a trust that all will turn out well or that with perseverance we ourselves can change and make things get better. But the truth is that people feel this way because they are honest about themselves, for all the optimism we might have we can’t change ourselves – because we don’t have the true promises, the certain hope, and the only God – we don’t have a Saviour!
After diagnosing the condition that the Ephesians and many of us and most of the world were or are in Paul then uses my favourite word in the Bible. BUT. BUT in Jesus, in His death, God comes close to us who need Him. We don’t have to get close to God, God comes close to us. Our certain hope is not in us being good and saintly and thus getting closer to God for that is impossible, to try and get to God through good deeds we might as well try and walk through walls. But we believe in a God who comes close because we can’t, a God who is recklessly devoted to loving us in a close relationship – a love so reckless that it costs God His life because the wages of sin, that which separates us, is death.
On the Cross Jesus dies, on the Cross the Father turns His back on His Son and separates Himself from Jesus just as we were from God, The Father turns His back on Jesus because God is Holy and sin cannot enter His presence and, for love of us, Jesus BECOMES our sin and shame. Jesus takes on all that separates us from God and one another, takes on the burden of our divisions. And Jesus takes God’s righteous anger at our sin on Himself. Yet because Jesus did this, because Jesus took our place, took our shame and darkness and separation, we are given His perfect righteousness, we are given His purity, His sinlessness, and perhaps most importantly His closeness to the Father and the Holy Spirit.
And of course, having lived a perfect life on earth and being the Lord of Life Himself, Jesus vanquishes death, perhaps the greatest divider of all, and rises from the grave on the third day to become the Prince of Peace. Though we were once far off, separated from God, now by faith we are brought near by the Blood of Christ who is our peace.
God has smashed down the dividing walls between Jew and Gentile and torn apart the curtain in the Temple separating Him from His people because of their sin. He has gotten rid of the Law and regulations that separated His people from others and kept them apart so that history would work itself out till at just the right time Jesus could come into the world and save all those who believe in Him.
Jesus Christ in His incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension, does away with Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, black and white, old and young, city dwellers and country dwellers, rich and poor, Manchester United fans and Chelsea Fans. He has done away with the need for hostility between cultures and languages, different preferences in music and all the other silly things we make to be barriers between us and other people. Jesus has done away with all division for those who are in Him – for those who are in Him are given a new identity and made one people under Christ.
Paul says that all these divisions have been reconciled through Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus preached peace to those who were already near to Him and to those who were far away. And as our passage says: “through Him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” Jesus says in Saint John’s Gospel that “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” And in His epistles Saint John writes “whoever doesn’t have the Son, does not have the Father.” When we believe in Jesus, and only in Jesus, we by the Holy Spirit working within us are given access to the Father. Jesus is the door to Heaven and the access ramp to the Kingdom. It is open for all to take and enter, but we can only enter through faith which brings repentance.
And when we enter, who ever we were or are, we become citizens of a Kingdom with Jesus as its King. And just as in Britain we have rights, rights which allow us to be unique and have distinctions from one another, so we also have responsibilities, responsibilities which forbid there is be divisions among one another. In the Kingdom of Jesus distinctions are good but divisions and forbidden.
We also become members of God’s household; we become His children and have God as our loving and perfect Father. Whilst some of us here may not have come from loving home with loving Father, God is the perfect Father who never abuses you, who never turns up late to your football game or you dance recital, who never gets drunk, who always provides for His children and who is always there to listen. Again, as His children we can have distinctions, but not divisions.
And finally when we believe we become stones in the great Temple of God which is the Church – a Church built on the words of Prophets and Apostles about the Cornerstone, the load bearing central foundational stone, the Rock of Ages, Jesus Christ.
And when we are believe Jesus, when we are citizens, children, and building blocks through faith, we become a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit who brings us to repentance, brings us to forgiveness, brings us to freedom, brings us to Jesus and through Him, on the Cross, to the Father in whom is found perfect joy and eternal life. Once we were sinners before God separated from Him and each other, but now in King Jesus, we are regarded in God’s eyes as saints and called to see each other in the same way. Let us never forget this Good News, this Gospel.
Let us pray…..