************ Sermon on Ephesians 2:12-13 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on October 3, 2004
I was on a round-the-world trip for Christian Reformed World Missions.
My first stop was the all white Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa. Except she wasn't all white anymore. In fact, she now allowed – encouraged even – Asians, Blacks, and Indians into her membership, her council, and even her pulpit. I marveled about this. Who would have thought to see the day that people in South Africa no longer worshiped according to race and skin color.
My flight next took me to Indonesia. I wasn't sure which one of the 53 Protestant denominations I would be worshiping in that Sunday. At the very least I would look for a church of the Reformed persuasion and maybe even find one with Dutch roots. No matter how hard I searched I couldn't find a Reformed Church, or Baptist, Presbyterian, Alliance, Episcopalian, and Lutheran. The different Protestant denominations had ceased their existence separate from each other. Obedient to the gospel of Jesus Christ with its charge for unity they had all joined together into one church.
My trip took me to other countries and other places too. Wherever I went, marvelous unity and love existed within the church of Jesus Christ.
Finally I returned home. Piled into a corner were a couple of months of The Banner. I picked one up. I couldn't believe its cover: against a background of two persons shaking hands was the caption, "United Reformed Church and CRC Seek Union." In the same issue was an interview with the Rev. John Rozenboom, Executive Director of Christian Reformed Home Missions. He was predicting that by the year 2010 whites of Dutch ancestry would make up less than 50% of the CRC membership.
I couldn't help but praise God for all this.
It was then that I felt myself being shaken. No, it wasn't an earthquake. It was my wife. "You were talking in your sleep," she said.
I felt like crying. Was this merely a dream that I had, a fantasy of my mind, with no real basis in fact? "O God," I thought, "You can do all things. Why don't you do this?" But, in fact, He has! Apartheid is no longer found in South Africa. And, the political climate in Indonesia has forced most churches to work together.
I The Church of All Nations
A On this All Nations Heritage Sunday we know this is God's will for His church. Through the prophet Isaiah, for instance, God said, "For my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations" (Is 56:7). The Apostle John, in exile on the island of Patmos, is given a vision of persons "from every tribe and language and people and nation" purchased by the blood of Christ and brought into His body, the church (Rev 5:9,10; 7:9,10). Peter, by the grace of God, came to understand his own prejudice and was able to say to Cornelius, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right" (Acts 10:34,35). There is no place for ethnic, cultural, linguistic, racial, or familial barriers amongst the people of God.
B This is not to say that homogeneous churches – churches that are all white, all black, all Dutch, all middle-class, or all from the same family or group of families – are necessarily wrong. It is possible that a congregation is naturally uniform because of population makeup, geographic realities, language, and culture.
C Nevertheless, the Gospel never bypasses those who are not "like us," and neither should we. We must never allow ourselves to become comfortable with racial or ethnic or familial barriers. The church must constantly bear witness to the power of the Gospel – a Gospel which broke down the age old wall between Jew and Gentile.
D At the same time, the church is not meant to be a "melting pot" in which all races and cultures become blurred. Rather, the church should be a "stew pot," in which every race and culture maintains its own identity. Remember John's vision? In his vision of the church in heaven he saw people of every tribe and language and people and nation. In other words, even in the perfection of heaven they were still different and distinct from each other.
II The Division of Jew and Gentile
A Underlying Paul's discussion in our passage is an event which took place on the plains of Mesopotamia some 2000 years before the birth of Christ. At that time God made a covenant with Abraham to be a God to him and his descendants after him. The sign of that covenant was circumcision. The covenant and its sign divided mankind into two opposing groups: Jew and Gentile, the circumcised and the uncircumcised, those within the covenant and those without.
B We, who live after the coming of Christ, can not really appreciate what it means to be outside of the covenant. But Paul's audience in Ephesus knew what it meant. You see, as non-Jews living before the cross and the grave, membership in the covenant was closed to them. They were deliberately excluded.
What does it mean to be outside of the covenant? What are the consequences of exclusion? In today's Scripture reading the Apostle tells us the awfulness of exclusion.
To be outside of the covenant, says the Spirit-inspired apostle, is to be "separate from Christ." In Ephesians 1 the apostle lists all the benefits of being "in Christ." It is in Christ that we receive spiritual blessings; in Christ we are elected and predestined to be adopted as children of God; in Christ we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins; in Christ the mystery of God's will is revealed to us; in Christ we are marked with the seal of the promised Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance. Gentiles, being separated from Christ, received none of these benefits.
Those who are outside of the covenant are also "excluded from citizenship in Israel." As you know, I entered this country as a landed immigrant. According to U.S. law, three years after becoming a resident I could apply for American citizenship. But this was not the case for Gentiles in Israel. No matter how long a Gentile lived in Palestine he could not become a citizen. He was forever excluded – unless he became a Jew and was circumcised. On the other hand, every Jew was automatically a citizen of Israel; even Jews living abroad their entire life could claim citizenship in Israel.
Those who are outside of the covenant are also "foreigners to the covenants of the promise." Central to God's covenant with His people was the promise of a Messiah, a Redeemer, a Mediator. This promise gave His people hope of a deliverance and a future glory that would be theirs. Being outside of this covenant, the Gentiles stood "without hope" for the future. They had no prospect for the future, no assurance of life beyond the present one. Take the Greeks as an example. Instead of looking to the future, they looked back with longing to a golden age that was long past.
Finally, says Paul, those outside of the covenant are "without God in the world." Yes, they had many objects of worship – gods of wood and stone, of sun and wind, of rain and fertility – yet, they were no gods. The Christian knows that life with God is everything; and life without God – it is nothing, empty, meaningless, devoid of all but the most superficial joy and happiness.
How terrible it is to be outside of the covenant: "separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2:12).
How we have to thank and praise God that we and our children are not outside of the covenant – that most of us have been born and raised in a Christian home by God-fearing parents.
C That covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants divided mankind into Jew and Gentile. But it was never God's intention to have no further dealings with those outside of the covenant relationship. You see, God made Israel into His own distinct people. But He did this for a purpose. To Abraham God said, "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Gen 12:3b). And more than once through Isaiah the prophet God announced that His people were to be "a light for the Gentiles" (Is 42:6; 49:6). Israel was set apart to be God's drawing card for the nations. The nations were to see Israel's relationship with God and want it for themselves. "Come," they will say, "let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways so that we may walk in his paths" (Is 2:3).
God's covenant with the Jews, then, was an act of grace – God was gracious towards Abraham and his descendants; but His intention was also grace towards the Gentiles – the distinction between Jew and Gentiles was designed to draw the Gentiles in.
D That may have been the intention but, on account of human sin, that was not the reality – at least not at the time of Jesus, Peter, and Paul. By that time the distinction between Jew and Gentile had been erected into a massive barrier – a barrier that forbade any fellowshipping or inter-mingling between the two groups.
Within the Temple in Jerusalem there was a wall which gave visible expression to this barrier between Jew and Gentile. This was the wall which divided the Court of the Gentiles from the inner parts of the building open only to Jews. On this wall was a sign, in Greek and Latin, forbidding any foreigner, on pain of death, to go any further.
Between Jew and Gentile there was a "dividing wall of hostility" (Eph 2:14), says the apostle. Jew and Gentile were hostile to each other. The Jew had nothing but contempt for the Gentile. Gentiles were called "dogs," "pigs," "the uncircumcised." Jewish rabbis continually listed "Gentile sins" the people were to avoid. The Jews refused to eat with a Gentile or let their daughters marry one. The Gentiles, in turn, said the Jews were unfriendly and loners. Throughout history, beginning with Pharaoh and continuing with Haman, they have persecuted the Jews.
The Jews used "the law with its commandments and regulations" to enforce the division between the circumcised and the uncircumcised. The law the apostle refers to here is the many rules and regulations dealing with diet, feast days, priesthood, worship, disease, clean and unclean, and the like. This law, in God's plan, functioned to separate Jew from Gentile. This law stresses the election, liberation, privilege, and destiny of Israel. This law tells Israel how to live in contrast to the way of life of the nations. This too was intended by God as a drawing card for the nations. But Israel used the law to make a permanent division and to keep the Gentiles at a distance.
This being the case, I'm sure everyone realizes Israel was not a light to the nations, God's drawing card in this world. Now, more than ever, the Gentiles 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" (Eph 2:12).
And, I must add, when we, like Israel, erect barriers between us and the world, barriers designed to keep those not like us away – barriers of race, culture, social-class, ethnicity, family ties, or whatever – then we too fail to live up to our created purpose of being the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Mt 5:13,14). What is much, much worse is that by doing this we keep people from Christ and outside of the covenant community.
III Christ Brings Peace
A On this All Nations Heritage Sunday we praise God that this situation, this division, between Jew and Gentile was not permanent. For if it was, then all of us here today would be outside of the covenant, "separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2:12).
Praise God for Jesus Christ. "Now in Christ Jesus," says Paul, "you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace" (Eph 2:13).
Those who "were far away" – far away from God on account of sin – have been brought near. In Christ they "have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sin" (Eph 1:7). Christ makes peace between God and man.
B That's not all that the blood of Christ does. As both Jew and Gentile are brought close to God they are also brought close to each other. Christ makes peace between Jew and Gentile too:
(Eph 2:14) For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility ...By His blood, then, Christ made peace between Jew and Gentile. He "made the two one." Or, as verse 15 puts it, He created in Himself "one new man out of the two, thus making peace."
Consequently, Gentiles "are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone" (Eph 2:19-20).
On His olive tree God has two kinds of branches now: the natural or Jewish branch; and the grafted or Gentile branch. These two branches may be different from each other but they are both part of the one tree.
Two kinds of branches on the one tree of God. This means there can and should be diversity and variety within the church: of people, opinion, race, ethnicity, language, culture. That's good; that's wholesome; that's the result of Christ's peace-making mission upon the cross.
Another point: if Christ can bring peace between Jew and Gentile then His blood should also bring peace between all true Christian believers. The fact that there isn't this peace, the fact that we don't worship God together, is not a reflection upon Christ's work but on our sinful tendency to divide what God has joined together and to part from the truth.
Finally, the Gospel never bypasses those who are not "like us," and neither should we. We must never allow ourselves to become comfortable with racial or ethnic or other barriers. The church – our church – must constantly bear witness to the power of the Gospel – a Gospel which broke down the age old wall between Jew and Gentile.
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