Ephesians 2:11–22 (NRSV)
One in Christ
11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Do you remember? This is a phrase that we often hear especially as we all get older. Do you remember when we used to…? There is an importance to remembering the past. It is important to recognize what has happened before and where we are now. The biggest problem with remembering is we rarely remember correctly. There is a big concern among many that people are rewriting history, writing out the truth so that it will confuse the present and the future. I am sure it is an issue, but too often we fail to remember that there is more to history than we fully know. We only get a brief glimpse through a window and beyond that window the rest of the world. Remember?
We want to remember the greatness of our past, we want to remember the beauty of our heroes, the magnificence of our nations, but all of that is history skewed through ideology and in some cases idolatry. I love my country but it has done some terrible things. I have many heroes, people that have encouraged me to try harder and to seek more, but I have to admit that even George Fox was kind of a jerk sometimes. I would like to think I was a pretty good kid, but if I am honest I was a far from being a saint and really I am not much better today. I am human prone to error, my heroes are and were human and they too are prone to error, and my nation is a nation of humans that can get caught up in the emotions of a situation and overreact and cause great harm. Remember.
Paul wrote this letter to the early church in Ephesus. He wrote them calling them to remember. For centuries we assumed that the church in Ephesus was dominated by Gentile believers but as we learn more about the various histories of the people in that region we are finding out that this letter was largely written to the Jewish community that had called this city in Asia Minor home for over 300 years. It is important to know this because that context gives us greater understanding to what is being said throughout the rest of the letter. Paul calls these people to remember.
“[R]ember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands.” You might want to stop me right there and say that I am wrong in saying that this book was largely written to the Jewish community because Paul just said he was writing to Gentiles, but hear me out. During the first century there was diverse religious expression among the Jewish community, there were at least four expressions of the Jewish religion that was being taught in Israel, and then there were the communities that were scattered throughout the empires that each had their own interpretations of what it meant to be a child of the promise. In this portion of the letter Paul is actually being very derogatory to make a point. A Gentile is anyone that is any individual outside the nation of Israel. And when there was contentions within the larger community many begin to make claims that they have the true knowledge and everyone else is just wrong. Paul is using very colorful language to make a point. That point is that every human being is born Gentile. Every male baby that is born is by all physical appearances born outside the community of Israel, every male is born uncircumcised. To be joined into the community someone within that community had to physically get involved to bring that child into the community, someone had to quite literally pierce the skin and cause blood to flow before even the highest of high priest’s son could be call a Jew.
Everyone is born a Gentile. This goes right along with the teachings of John the Baptist, who was crying out in the wilderness that all should repent and be cleansed. He stood there in the waters of the Jordan and said “and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.” Every person is born outside the Kingdom of God. Every Ephesian that was born to parents that worshiped in the temple of Dianna, and every child of the synagogue at birth are equal in the eyes of God, uncircumcised Gentiles.
The reason that Paul wrote in such a fashion is because this is a very diverse city and therefore a diverse church. There were people that responded to the Gospel of Christ that were once dedicated to the gods of Rome, and people once dedicated to the teaching of Moses. This diversity among the church was causing division along cultural backgrounds and heritage. “Remember,” Paul continues, “that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
Having no hope and without God in the world. The terminology in this statement is very profound. Paul is quite literally saying that every one of the people within that church were atheists without any hope. Today this term is thrown around all over the place, but it was used quite regularly in the ancient world to identify anyone that had a different belief than the common religion of an area. Christians were often regarded as atheists by both the pagans and the Jews. Many of the earliest Christian writers had to defend their faith against the claim of atheism. But Paul is using the very same statements to prove his point. You were atheists at one time without hope, without Christ. This is a powerful claim especially since he is saying this to a religious community that was largely comprised of people that claimed to be children of Abraham. They did not have God with them. They did not have Emmanuel. They were children wondering through the wilderness without hope.
With Christ thing change. Paul takes both the actual Gentile and the Jewish members of the community all the way back to the beginning of the history of Israel. Back to the original promise to Abraham. God did not say that Abraham was to be the father of a nation, but many nations. Many nations, consider this for a moment. What is a nation? It is simply a group of people with a common history and culture. The promise of Abraham was not to make one nation but bring the nations with their various histories back to the God that created them. The gentile people do not lose their cultural identity to become Jews, and the Jews do not lose their cultural identity, instead God brings the nations together under one promise in Christ. No longer atheist without hope but people with God and God with them.
In Christ we have a commonality, in Christ we have hope, and in Christ we have peace, because in Christ the walls that separate the nations break down and we are seen as we truly are. All of us are the same Jew and Greek, Catholic and Orthodox, Baptist and Quaker all of us are humans that recognize that our hope can only come through God with us, without that there is no hope. And Paul tells us to remember this.
In Christ there is no division, there is no separation of greater or lesser nations, and there are no aliens or strangers, because we are all similar. The physical divisions within the temple of God were ripped apart revealing that God is not held in a box but freely among the people. If God is not held in the temple of the Jewish people, why are we building walls? This has profound power in our contemporary age. For half of a century there was a wall that divided Eastern and Western Europe, this wall was built recognizing a division of ideology. On each side of the wall different nations, different cultures no unity only division. I was alive when that wall came down, many of you witnessed that event too. Maps were redrawn nations uniting and others dividing. Today our children learn a different geography than we did prior to the 90’s. That wall gave us a visual indication of the difference that nations can have, the divisions that can occur when we focus on ideology instead of humanity. There are other walls that show the same thing. But Christ came to break down the walls, to unite the nations under the promise of Abraham, not to diminish cultural identity but to build a kingdom of which there is no other type on earth. Uniting people in grace and mercy instead of national identity. Uniting people and urging them to live the holy lifestyle that God himself lived with us in Christ.
I know that most of us have read this letter to the Ephesians as a text to Gentile believers, a letter that is encouraging them that they too are part of this great promise that God gave to Abraham that was fulfilled in Christ. It is that but it is also a letter written to Jewish believers encouraging them to remember that the promise was not for them alone, but for the nations. It would be extremely difficult for an established community that lived three centuries under a certain framework to change their thinking. We are no different today. We remember history in ways that support our current ideals, and we conveniently forget the portions of history that contradict our stances. We must remember. We must remember that we were once something else. We were once without hope, but we now have it. That hope came to each of us freely through Christ. We have hope because God so loved the WORLD that He gave his only son, not to condemn the world but to save it. God loves the world. He loves the Canadians, the Mexicans, the Russians, and the Chinese. He loves the Germans and the Israelis. He loves the atheists as well as the Christian, he loves the Hindu and the Muslim, and He loves the CEO and the Union member. All of those nations, or groupings of people are things of flesh, things that man has defined to divide and define. Those divisions are not seen by God and have no place in the Kingdom because God loves the world. We have hope because the God first loved us and gave his son to redeem, free, and build a bridge of reconciliation with us. Remember. Remember that we were once without hope. Remember that we were once caught behind a wall of separation, but Jesus broke down the wall so that we could be free to love the nations. Remember that we too were once like those that do not yet know the God that loves them. Remember that each of us are here today because someone was led by Christ to see beyond the outward expressions of life and cause us to see that spark of God trying to take hold in our souls. Remember.