Monday, August 31, 2009

This week's sermon: Breaking Down and Building Up

Ephesians 2:11-3:13.
In this section of text, Paul addresses the very sensitive issue of racial division. Paul is talking about the division between the Jews and Gentiles. At that time, and still in some places today, there werer very sharp divisions between those who belonged to the Jewish heritage and those who were outside of it.

In the Jewish life in general, there were degrees of holiness based on geographical location relative to the temple. For example Jerusalem, where the temple was located was more holy than towns a couple of days journey out, and those towns were more holy than those like Nazareth where Mary and Joseph were from, about 70 miles from Jerusalem. In the Temple the same concept applied to the areas of worship in relation to the Holy of Holies. There were courts located through the temple, those closest to the Holy of Holies were for the priests only, then the next set were open to Jewish male worshipers. The next courts were open to both Jewish men and women. Finally, the courts furthest away from the Holy of Holies were open to the gentiles. They had no access at all to the place of sacrifice in the men-only court, or the temple donation area, which was in the Court of Women. If you look at schematics of the temple, the only place gentiles are allowed is really outside the temple itself. Any gentile trying to gain access to the temple took his life in his own hands, because the penalty for entering was death. In essence Jewish temple worship sent the message, if you are not Jewish you can hang around outside, but you can never have access to God’s presence.

Paul is writing to a gentile audience in the book of Ephesians. Some of them probably knew what it was like to stand outside the temple with no hope of ever really being a part of God’s plan. Paul is again reminding them of where they were, so that they could rejoice in what Christ had done: so that they would appreciate their currant ability to have a one on one relationship with God. In speaking of that former situation, Paul uses words like uncircumcised, separate, excluded, foreigners, without hope, without God, and far away. And in his typical style, Paul goes on to give good contrasts for those “where you were” statements and says they have been brought near, made one, reconciled, have access to the Father by his Spirit. And as if it was not enough to do it once, Paul reiterates their “used to be” position and how it has changed. He says now you are no longer foreigners, but fellow citizens, members of God’s household, built together to be God’s dwelling! What an exciting contrast!

Christ's specific role and purpose in the crucifixion was to reconcile man to God and man-to-man, he is our peace. I love the way Paul says that. He doesn’t say Jesus gave us peace, or that he supplies our peace. He is our peace. Eerdman’s Bible Commentary says this peace is “not just an absence of hostility, like an armed truce, it connotes well-being and security at every level.” To me it implies that since Jesus is our peace no matter what your earthly circumstances are, if you are in relationship with Christ, you have peace, because you have him.

I want to look at the construction phrases in this passage. Any of you that have built things, pay close attention to what Paul says about Jesus carpentry work in the lives of people. Paul says Jesus has made the two one. He has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. In abolishing the law, Jesus took away any concrete excuse to stay separated. It is as though Jesus came in and knocked out the wall separating the living room from the dining room so that there would be space for everyone to eat together at his table. By taking out the wall he made the two rooms one. Paul says Christ’s purpose was to create one new man out of the two- the Jews and Gentiles, and also to reconcile both to God. And He did this in his flesh, through his body being crucified, buried, and raised back to life.

Paul says that Jesus was not the only one on the cross. He says Jesus crucified, put to death, their hostility on the cross. You know the saying, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” Well, it is true, and Jesus himself is the one who made it that way. He not only broke down the formal external reasons for separation, he killed that hostility which seems to take on a life of its own. He took it with him to the cross. And Jesus did not stop at reconciling man to man.

Do you remember the account in Mark (15:38) when Jesus was crucified, that the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. That curtain was the separation between the priestly most holy place, and the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was the only direct access that man had with God up until Christ. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and that only once a year, and only after a series of cleansing rituals, and even then, there was fear of death should God find him unclean in any way. When Jesus died on that cross, the curtain was torn in two, symbolizing that there was now free access to God’s presence without fear. That is how the gentiles were joined with the Jews to make the New Testament church.

Paul continues in Chapter three to talk about his own personal mission to spread the good news of reconciliation among the Gentiles. God called and appointed him to carry this message of peace. To make sure that the message was communicated clearly, God took one of his staunchest Jewish law enforcers and turned him into an ambassador to those he would never have embraced before Christ’s Holy Intervention on the road to Damascus. Paul is the Gentiles’ own messenger bearing the good news of the redemption of Christ to both Jew and Gentile alike. Which Paul says was God’s secret mission all along. The mystery made known now, but hidden through the ages, that God wanted to reach out to everyone regardless of their nationality. It is because of this revelation that Paul says the church showcases the wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. This double reconciliation God to man and man to man, glorifies God in the highest places.

Today, in the church we don’t typically have the same issue of Jew versus Gentile when it comes to being in right relationship to God. In this church, you would be hard pressed to find anyone with significant Jewish heritage who would consider himself closer to God than those of us with no Jewish background. But the truth remains that if Christ hadn’t come we, being gentiles, would still be on the outside looking in. So this scripture applies to us in that sense of personally no longer being excluded as non-Jews in the worship of the True and Living God. We can approach him in boldness and confidence because of our faith in Christ. This reconciliation applies to us in another way as well. We have other dividing walls of hostility.

In our world, there are dividing walls of hostility between nations, between political parties, between denominations, and between individuals. Jesus did not just come to break down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. He came to break down that dividing wall of hostility for all who would believe in him. As Christians we have no cause for allowing a wall of hostility to continue to exist in our lives while we claim that Christ is our peace. Jesus came on a mission of reconciliation. He came make us no longer objects of wrath to God, but recipients of his blessing. He came to reconcile man to his fellow man, to restore broken relationships, to end the separateness we inherited with the sinful nature.

Think back with me to the story of the fall. Two things were immediately broken when mankind sinned: the relationship between God and Man, and the relationship between Man and Woman. Then the very next story we read in Genesis is of Cain and Able. From there on we read story after story about Man’s broken relationship with God and his broken relationship with his fellow man. Jesus came in part to destroy that separateness we have from one another.

There is a greater purpose in our reconciliation than just personal satisfaction. God is building the Church together to be his dwelling place. Here and elsewhere in scripture we are told that we are building materials that God is using to build his temple. As building materials, we have to be joined together in order for us to fulfill our purpose. If a mason has stones that refuse to fit together, he knocks off the rough edges to make a smoother fit. God is the master mason building his temple out of our lives. He may have to knock off some rough edges in order for us to fit together, but in the end it is worth that loss so that we can be a part of his plan, part of his family, part of his holy temple.

What dividing walls of hostility are you holding up? Are there rough edges you are holding onto? Probably all of us still have some area of our lives that needs the touch of that master craftsman to make join us together. There may be people in your life that you are holding up walls of hostility against. I want to challenge you now to take a step in allowing that wall to be broken in you. I invite you to do it today. If you find that you can’t, I urge you to pray and ask God to work in you to bring you to that place. If there is someone you need to reconcile with don’t delay in doing your part in seeking reconciliation. Remember, Jesus is our peace, and there may be some in our lives who refuse to reconcile with us. We are not responsible for their actions, only our own in offering that reconciliation and praying for the person we are at odds with.

You can only get so close to God keeping others at arms length, because by holding them away from ourselves we refuse to let God do his reconciliation work in us. And He cannot build a temple with stones that refuse to reconcile. If you hear his voice, if you feel his prompting, do not harden your hearts. Be obedient to respond to his calling.

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