Grace that Reconciles!
Sermon: Ephesians: Removing the Barriers to God’s Family
By: Donnell Wyche – January 27, 2019
We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. We’re grateful for you and the gifts of God that you bring with you into this space. Together we’ve been welcomed into God’s family through Jesus. As we become the people of God and learn how to neighbor, we choose to reflect God’s love in our gratitude, in our joy, and in our generosity as we navigate the complexity of our daily lives. We pray that whether this is your first time with us this morning, or you’ve been a part of our community for a while, that you will feel the invitation of the Holy Spirit to join in with our vision. If you are looking for a church home, we would love to be your church home, and I, in particular would love to become your pastor.
We are in part three of our recently launched sermon series on, “Ephesians: Removing the Barriers to God’s Family.” Over the next several weeks we will consider Paul’s view of the family of God and the work that Christ performed on the cross to remove the barriers to God’s family so that we can be given over to good works.
On the Wrong Path
Have you ever been so confidently wrong? And when you discover that you are in the wrong, do you do the right thing and admit it, like apologize, and try to make amends? Or do you double down, convinced of your “rightness,” and ignore all evidence to the contrary?
We often need someone or something else to help us understand that we are on the wrong path, but we often don’t trust the report, the information, or the source. We may find ourselves committed to our own way because of confidence in our own “rightness.”
Paul opens Ephesians 2 with three verses that capture the reality that most of us are on the wrong path.
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
Those in Ephesus worshipping at the alter of Diana and the other gods were doing everything they could to appease the sometimes angry and capricious gods. They didn’t know if the gods would bless them with rain for their crops or send pests to destroy the crops. So, day after day, they made their offerings, they purchased amulets, they practiced magic, anything they could do to try to predict what was going to happen or to control the gods that governed them. Can you imagine the uncertainty, the doubt, the fear that that must have governed their daily lives. Is the goddess angry, will she destroy us? Is the goddess in a good mood today? Will my offering be accepted? Or do I need to make a bigger gesture, a large offering, what else can I give? Then Paul comes along and says, “You’re on the wrong path. More than that, gods made by human hands are no gods at all.” They are idols, and idols are deadly, false, and empty. Imagine that moment with me, you are confident on you are on the right path only to have someone show up and challenge your confidently held beliefs. This counter-narrative will require that you abandon the path you are on. In that moment, you have a decision to make, “How open am I to being wrong?” Most of us, if we are being honest, might not be so open to accepting the counter-narrative. Most us are committed to the decisions we have already made, the investments that we have made, the time and energy we have committed. So, when that counter-narrative emerges, we have to consider, “How open am I?” When there is so much on the line, when we have invested so much in our positions, our beliefs, our ideas, right or wrong, we often double down. For the people in Ephesus, this was about their belief in idols. For us, it might be about our inadequate views about who God is.
Back to Grace Again – This Time for Our Salvation
Paul tells us just how it is. He pulls no punches. We were dead in our sins. We were dead in our trespasses. We were dead in our participation in the rebellion against God. We were dead in our disobedience.
“But,” Paul says,
4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5)
“But,” Paul says. The Creator God who you have offended with your disobedience, with your participation in the rebellion, this God isn’t angry, ready to lay waste to you, to everyone who you hold dear, and to everything you have. Instead, the Creator God, Paul says, has made a sacrifice for you already. The Creator has broken into history with grace that saves, not judgement, grace that reconciles. Grace that reconciles you to the Creator and grace that reconciles you to each other. This is the salvation that the Creator offers to free you from the entanglement of the coils of sin that traps you in your rebellion and offers you nothing but death.
In a world filled with uncertainly, fear, and doubt this declaration from Paul is good news, very good news indeed. Then Paul goes on to demonstrate the love, acceptance, grace, and reconciliation of this Creator God by healing those with sicknesses, and delivering those afflicted with evil spirits, signs that the Creator God’s rule and reign is breaking into this present reality with healing, deliverance, and transformation.
“But, wait there’s more…” Paul says, not only has the Creator God sacrificed to rescue you, the Creator through Jesus Christ is offering to seat you in the heavenly realms in order to show the incomparable riches his grace. 6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:6-10)
What god in the ancient world was offering to seat their devotees in the heavenly realms? What god would share their riches? Into this reality, Paul is offering a real alternative. Continue to worship and make offerings to an false, dead idol, or surrender to the Creator, who is heaping blessings on you in his kindness through Jesus Christ.
And Paul keeps going by saying that the Creator is going to partner with you, not destroy you, afflict you, torment you, instead, God is partnering with you for good works. Is there any wonder why those in Ephesus and around Asia Minor were abandoning the goddess Diana in such great numbers as to threaten the livelihood of the city? Paul’s message was unique, hope filled, in a hopeless situation, and transformative.
Removing the Wall of Hostility
Taking this vision of what the Creator was at work doing in Christ, Paul continues to say that the outcome of this transformative work in Christ, this rich grace, these good works is to make a new humanity. One that’s no longer separated by the cultural, racial, economic, educational differences that pits us against each other. But to form a reconciling community that reflects the goodness, rich grace, and salvation offered by the Creator God.
Paul describes it this way,
11Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:11-12)
Paul doesn’t sugar-coat it as he described the condition of the world. Gentiles (who represented most of the known world) and Jews are separated. Pauls says that the Gentiles were without hope and without God in the world. It’s pretty bleak. As Paul continues to make his way, he also references “the circumcision,” which was a sign in the body indicating that you belonged to the family of God and the covenant–the agreement between God and those freed in Egypt. But Paul was more concerned with whether there was a circumcision of the heart and spirit to break allegiances with the powers of sin, evil, and death. As I noted last week, Paul believes that our baptism and the seal of the Holy Spirit are the signs that we belong to God.
After describing the hostility, Paul shifts gears and offers hope for those on the either side of the dividing wall,
13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Ephesians 2:13-16)
As the pastor of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, politically diverse church, I’m walking on ground that is full of land mines, and I won’t know I’ve hit one until you send me an explosive email.
Let me start by saying that we are political, religious beings living in a racialized society. This should be a completely unremarkable statement. Politics most basic concern is about the ordering of relationships. It’s about the way we live together and how we get along. It’s about people. Relationship, love, and getting along are central to the practice of Christianity. We believe that God has something to say about how we live and the way we relate to one another.
I would refer you to my sermon series, God, Jesus, Politics, Race, and You for an extended conversation on the need for us to be political.
Now let’s address that wall of hostility.
Paul mentions a wall. Walls today are like they were in the ancient world, they were political and controversial. They serve one primary function which is to demarcate who was in and who was out. However we understand the wall, it can be concluded that anytime we erect a barrier between groups whether physical or metaphorically, Paul tell us that the cross of Christ, when lifted up, tears down walls.
If there’s time, you might comment on your thoughts here…
It is helpful to understand Paul in context. Paul grew in faith in the multi-ethnic community in Antioch. For Paul the church was always multi-ethnic, so the idea that the people of God would maintain, repair, or resurrect dividing walls was anti-Gospel. For Paul, the cross is everything. This was the hope of every prophet and great leader in scripture, that God would tabernacle with God’s people. This was their collective hope, and Paul announces that he has come. If we can tabernacle, have fellowship with God, why would we exclude anyone, why would try to horde God for ourselves? God is the hope for a hopeless world.
Paul says that because of the work of Jesus on the cross, we can have hope again. We can return from exile. We can hope for reconciliation because Jesus is our peace, he has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility. This reconciliation between God and humanity, and person to person, ethnicity to ethnicity. This doesn’t mean that we lose our ethnic identity, it’s that our ethnic identity doesn’t automatically exclude us. Anything less is anti-Gospel, anti-Christ; and it’s anti-cross. Simply put, it’s demonic.
But history shows us that as we have tried to figure this out, we have largely missed the mark. We have instead, upheld our individual preferences, especially when we encounter differences. There’s a reason — because it’s easier for connect with those who are like us, who look like us, who talk like us, who think like us. We even developed this is into a principle, called the Homogeneous Unit Principle. And lots of churches throughout time have taken up this principle in one form or another. It’s easier to plant, develop, and grow churches where all the differences have been resolved. But Paul in Ephesians challenges us because he says division is not from God. Christ destroys whatever divides us, but it requires us to take up the cause of cross, it requires that we take up the cross of Christ. As we accept the grace that God has for us, are we willing to allow that grace to motivate us to die to that which separates and divides us?
Preaching Peace & Reconciliation
Finally, Paul gives us more hope because Jesus came and preach peace,
17He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 19Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:17-22)
This peace that Paul refers to is not some key to internal serenity, Jesus is not a good luck charm. Peace in this context is spiritual, physical, social, and political.1 Peace like this shapes us, reframes us, and compels us.
I’m mindful this prayer of Saint Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
Our prayer ministry team has shared these prayer senses with us, please consider getting prayer this morning.
- Healing and direction for those struggling with depression.
- Hope for reconciliation for relationships.
- The Lord wants to renew and reveal purpose to those who feel aimless or don’t know what they are called to do. The Lord is releasing strength. (Isaiah 40:30-31)