Scripture Reading: Ephesians 2:11–22 (NRSV)
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— 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. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 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. 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, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
One of the first projects I remember from elementary school was a report on ancestry and family history. Some of the kids in my class came back with a detailed report from their parents, while others reported some uncertainty in their family’s background. When I asked my parents about our origins, I found out that my paternal Great-Grandfather immigrated to the United States from Sweden and that my mother’s family roots are English. These days, if I wanted to know more, I could easily pay $99 to have Ancestry.com analyze my DNA and trace my genetic heritage. Maybe some of you have done that. These services are popular because our cultural heritage and family history are important to our sense of identity. As you well know, there are a plethora of ethnic groups represented in our area, many with cultural heritage festivals where people can gather together and strengthen that identity which would otherwise be lost.
At the same time as we have those cultural identities as people who at one point in history came to the United States from another place, we have a new identity which often supersedes the old. We are citizens, or at least, residents of the United States. We are residents of West Virginia or Pennsylvania. This identity shapes our values and it gives us a voice in local issues that have meaning for us. We might not understand the importance of this new identity, as the newness has long worn off for us. But we can see the excitement in the faces of those who take their vows of citizenship and take on this new identity. Just this past week, the Pittsburgh Seminary community celebrated that the associate director of the World Mission Initiative was sworn in as a new US citizen. He was beaming with excitement.
We may be relatively sure of our identity in the geopolitical sphere, but when we turn to the Old and New Testaments we might be confused. There’s no mention of Swedes, Serbians, Italians, and Germans. Instead we see only two markers of identity: Jew and Gentile. As we read the Old Testament, we read the cultural and religious history of this first group. We hear how God called Abraham and promised him a great nation. We read how the Israelites were caught in slavery in Egypt and how God delivered them through Moses. We trudge through the long and complicated history of the establishment of a Jewish nation under David and how it was subsequently lost to a long line of invaders.
At the same time, we hear mentions throughout the story in the left-hand of our Bibles of the Gentiles. Well, actually, the word Gentile is Latin, but we see mention in the Old Testament of the people called Gentiles in references to the “nations” or “foreigners” and “aliens.” The Gentiles, those whose ethnicity is not Jewish, are mentioned in terms of both separation and eventual unity. God warns his people not to associate with those who might lead them religiously astray, but God also promises through the prophets a day when all nations would worship God together.
As we read the Old Testament, we should realize: none of this story is ethnically ours. No matter where our family came from, as long as we’re not Jewish, we belong to the second category: Gentile, one of the “nations,” a “foreigner” or “alien.”
If that terminology makes you uncomfortable, that’s understandable. None of the Gentiles of the New Testament whom Paul evangelized would have identified themselves as such either. They thought of themselves as proud Romans, Greeks, or Scythians. But Paul, as a good Jew by heritage, reminds them that in spiritual terms they are Gentiles.
Or, rather, they were Gentiles (and so were we). Those Paul speaks to in Ephesians used to be Gentiles. They were by birth. They were Roman, Greek, or Scythian Gentiles. But now, because of the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit after the resurrection (Acts 15), these Gentiles had been given a new identity, along with Jews, like Paul, who confessed faith in Jesus as Messiah. They began to be called those who are “in Christ,” or as we say today, “Christians.”
Paul reminds the Gentiles that, in God’s kingdom, we used to be aliens and foreigners. We used to be part of the out-group, those who were excluded. We used to be, as Paul says in verse 12, those who lived “without hope and without God in the world.” The word for “without God” in Greek is atheoi, the root of our modern word atheist. Paul is saying that we used to be atheists, those without God. We used to not have hope! But now, because of Jesus, we have been brought near to God. We have been given hope and peace even though we were once hopeless and distressed.
Despite their national identity as Romans, despite our identity as citizens of the United States, Paul says we are all given a new identity, an identity that supersedes even though it doesn’t erase ethnic heritage. We are given the identity of being in Christ.
How do you think it would feel to be the group on the outside of God’s covenant? How would it feel to be strangers and aliens to God’s kingdom? We should know, we were once strangers! In the great temple in Jerusalem, there was literally a wall dividing the court of the Gentiles from the place where God’s chosen people could worship. Yet, because of Jesus, we have been grafted into God’s people. We have been brought near. We may be called Germans, Italians, Swedes, Americans, West Virginians, Pennsylvanians, and all sorts of other (sometimes crude) things. Yet, because of Jesus, we are called Christians above all.
Do you think, if we probed our spiritual DNA, if we ran a spiritual Ancestry DNA test, that our Christian identity would shine through? Or, would someone probe into the recesses of our soul and find a different identity at our core?
The first limitation with talking this way is that we often have a very limited picture of what being a Christian looks like. For some of us, being Christian may be synonymous with being a white American. After all, most of the Christians we know probably look like us and live near us! We don’t think of the multitudes of Christians that live in South and Central America. We don’t think of the growing number of Christians who worship in African languages across the world from us. And we don’t necessarily think of all the immigrants that come to the United States from these countries, bringing their vital Christian faith with them.
Yet, we know that because of the apostle Paul and the many missionaries that followed his lead, there are Christians in every corner of the world. It’s because Paul didn’t just reach out to his own people, the Jews, with the message of Christ. He didn’t just go into the synagogues, what we might think of as Jewish churches (Acts 17:1). No, Paul went out to the “pagan” places where the Gentiles were (Acts 17:22), where we were. Paul and the people who followed him went to the educational institutions, the centers of political power, the bars and pagan temples, the highways and byways, and promised them a new identity in Christ!
So, just as we who were far off from God were pulled into Christ’s body and given a new identity, so were people from every nation of the world. Even while our pews may be half empty and Christianity seems to be on the decline in our country, new believers come to faith every day in South America, Africa and Asia.
Today, on what is called “World Communion Sunday,” we celebrate the fact that though these Christians may not look like us, they are our brothers and sisters and we are their brothers and sisters. When we gather at this table for this most holy of meals, we remember that we are “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry in all the world.”
We may not see those believers physically present with us this morning. It’s a shame. But the Gentile Christians Paul wrote to in Ephesians didn’t have much contact with their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters either. They were sectioned off, just as we are. Yet, Paul encouraged them to recognize their global unity with Christians everywhere. We may be far off from our brothers and sisters in Christ, yet we are one with them.
The second limitation we run into in our thinking is that we forget that though we were Gentiles, part of the out-group that was cut off from God, we are now part of the in-group. We don’t worship in homes or in community centers, but we worship in a church, a building like a synagogue. And we’re so comfortable in our worship space that we forget that God made the effort to include we who were not previously included. We come to imagine that we were always part of the body of Christ, forgetting that God reached out to us and brought us into this covenant. We begin to assume that the love of Christ is just for us and not for anyone else.
Friends, we need to remember today that just as we were once alienated from God, just as we were once atheists (in Paul’s language) without God, there are many in our community who are without God, without hope, and without peace.
Now, don’t get any ideas that we’re trying to differentiate ourselves from them and erect a new wall to keep them out. No, the hopelessness of our world should inspire us to reach out, to patiently reach out and bring others into Christian fellowship.
Our world is changing and has changed. We can no longer expect people to come into our church looking for God. Rather, we need to once again take up the call of Jesus that wherever we go, we should be telling others about the hope that we have in Jesus! When we encounter people who are without hope, who are in bondage to addiction, pain, illness, or anger, we need to tell them that we were once in the same position! We were once without hope, but God came near to us. God accepted us and loved us so that we would be free from our sins.
This is what the church is for: proclaiming hope in every place so that those who most need hope will find it.
It’s often been said that the church is the only institution that exists for the benefit of people who aren’t part of the church. And it’s true! Or, at least, it should be.
Instead, we build dividing walls like that one Paul mentions in verse 14. We build physical walls to bring temporary peace, we build walls of animosity between groups based on race or national identity. We build walls of judgment between cradle Christians and those new to the faith. We wave these divisions like battle flags! These invisible walls are made visible by the ways we only talk about our hope within the walls of the church.
God, through the apostle Paul, calls us to a better way. God calls each of us to listen to those who are without hope, to listen to those who are far off from us. God calls us to see others as ones who have been created by God! Remember, we were once like those without hope! Like our prayer of confession said, we could very easily be the one who thinks church isn’t important, who thinks Sunday mornings are for rest. We could easily be one who lives without God!
But we’re not.
We have been given hope through Jesus. As ones who are included in God’s love, our hearts are full of love for one another and for God! Why wouldn’t we share that? Why wouldn’t we tell others about the way we were once far off from God but how God came near to us.
I’ve heard your stories! I know you have them. You’ve encountered all sorts of adversities. And yet, God rescued us. God healed us. Thanks be to God. Now, let’s tell someone else about it.
As we conclude our reflection on God’s word this morning, I want us to take a moment to reflect. Who in your life is far off from God and God’s love today? Who is lonely, hopeless, or stuck in destructive behavior? Who has God uniquely equipped you to reach? Take a moment. Write down a name. And I want to challenge you to listen to that person’s story. Tell them what God has done for you. And offer a space for God to work in their life.
If you need help, you have my number. That’s what I’m here for. If you can’t think of someone, give it some time. You will.
Let’s take a moment now to write down the name of someone we know who is far from God’s love today. Who is without God in our world today?
We have faith that God who has done a great work in us will work through us to do a great work in the lives of others. We have a sure and confident hope that the God who gave us a new identity will do the same for countless others.
Let us pray…