Ephesians 2: One New Humanity in Christ
We are in the second week of a four-week series on Ephesians. Last week we looked at the introduction to Ephesians, which was very complicated! We noticed four things
We are assured of our salvation in Christ because God has loved us from before the foundation of the world, God loves us now, and God will love us after death and into eternity
If we have this assurance, then others do as well. This knowledge helps us to be unified. This is the point we will focus on today in Ephesians 2.
We also learned that God created us for good works from the foundation of the world. We always have something to offer the kingdom of God at every moment in our lives, no matter how big or how small.
These good works also mean holy living, in other words living without sin. How can we do good in the world if our works are sinful? We do our best to live without sin as part of doing the good works that God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Today, in Ephesians chapter 2:11-22, the author expands on the second point from last week, namely unity in the body of Christ. We talked about how this letter is a late letter, probably written by one of Paul’s followers in Paul’s name. While it is hard for us to understand why someone would do this because today authorship is a legal right that is protected, back then it was common to write something after the death of a famous person and attribute the new writing to the deceased. It is interesting to know this about the letter to the Ephesians, because it helps us to put into historical context the situation that inspired the message of chapter 2:11-22.
Last week we learned that from the foundation of the world, God had a plan for us. From the foundation of the world, God intended to reconcile us to God’s self through Jesus, and that this reconciliation is God’s gift to us. We did not do anything to earn this, it is God’s gift that is given to each person. This point is incredibly important for understanding the church as the body of Christ. Normally, we think of the church as a building. But the body of Christ, the church, is not a building made of stone, it is a community made of people. One of the things that God does at different points in history is that God brings people to the church who we think shouldn’t be here. Normally, the way this happens is that these people just show up. They turn to Jesus and they want to be part of the body of Christ. And, as we saw last week, when this happens, they receive gifts from God to use in the church as part of the good works which God prepared beforehand to be their way of life. And so then the church has to wrestle with including these people - should we, should we not?
This happened in the early church. This was one of the foundational challenges that the early church faced. Remember, that Jesus was Jewish. He came from the line of David as the promised Messiah to the Jews. In the Gospels, Jesus is usually talking only to Jews. The foundational challenge that the early church faced was whether to include the Gentiles. What is a Gentile? A Gentile is everyone who is not Jewish. That’s us. When we talk about Jews and Gentiles, what we mean is Jews and everyone else. We are in the “everyone else” category, we are Gentiles. The challenge of whether to include Gentiles or not was not initiated by people in the early church, it was initiated by God, and then the people in the early church had to wrestle with this new thing that God was doing and figure out how to respond. Would they include the Gentiles or not?
When we read the Gospels, we see the beginning of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation for the world. Jesus healed some Gentiles, like the centurion’s servant and the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. This trend of God including Gentiles continued even more in the book of Acts. One of the first was Cornelius in Acts chapter 10. Cornelius first turned to Jesus and became a believer because of a vision that God gave him. Then God sent Peter to visit Cornelius. As a Jew, Peter would not have eaten with Cornelius or stayed in his house, but God told Peter to do both, AND to preach to the Gentiles. When Peter preached to them, they received the Holy Spirit. And it says in Acts chapter 10:45, “The circumcised believers (these are the Jewish believers) who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” Even though these Jewish Christians couldn’t believe that Gentiles received the Holy Spirit, they all agreed that these Gentiles had become Christians and should be baptized. So they baptized them. This was the beginning of a huge controversy in the church.
If we follow the story in Acts, we learn that Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles, which was a very controversial role. There were still Jewish Christians who did not think that Gentiles should be included in the church of Jesus Christ at all. There was a council in Acts 15 that discussed the issue. They decided to include the Gentiles and they decided not to require that they be circumcised, which was a big deal because this was a marker for being Jewish. But there were many who disagreed. We see the controversy continue in the New Testament. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote that Peter changed his mind about including Gentiles and Paul was furious with him. The controversy continued even after the New Testament. I have a book called After the New Testament that has texts that were written by Christians between 100-300 of the common era. In it are some texts that argue for excluding the Gentiles.
For example, one of them is called The Letter of Peter to James and its Reception. This is also a late letter and was not written by Peter or James, but just as Ephesians was attributed to Paul, these letters were attributed to Peter and James. In these letters, there is a concern that Jewish Christians that follow Paul are not true Christians, and Gentiles most certainly are not Christian. It says that true Christians are circumcised. They also argue that in order to follow Jesus, Christians must follow the law completely.
What I find interesting about this is that these issues were a going concern. Issues of whether Gentiles could be included in the church, whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised, and whether the law needed to be followed by Christians were issues that were actively debated in the early church for centuries. These issues were not resolved quickly. People disagreed for a long time.
We have inherited the tradition of Paul in the church, that Jews AND Gentiles were called by God from the foundation of the world to be the body of Christ together. The stance of the New Testament on this issue is inclusion. And it’s a radical inclusion. It is not just coexisting and tolerating each other. God, in Christ, created one new humanity out of the two. God did not just break the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, but also the hostility between Jews and Gentiles. With this historical context in mind, I want to read our Ephesians passage to you straight through hoping that it will be more meaningful for you this second time around.
Starting in verse 11:
"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— 12remember 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. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For 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. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God."
This text has so much more meaning when we know that there were other Christians at that time actively arguing for the exclusion of the Gentiles from the church. When we know there were Christians who said Gentiles could not be Christians unless they were circumcised. When we know that there were Christians who said that in order to be a true Christian you had to follow the law completely. The tradition that we have inherited in the New Testament about whether or not to include people who have been traditionally excluded is one of radical inclusion. It says in Ephesians that those who were once far off have been brought near, by God, by the blood of Christ. That the bringing near of people who have been excluded is done by God. And that Jesus is our peace in this new and difficult thing. It’s not that we have to make peace with each other; rather it’s that Jesus is peace between us that already exists. And that any hostility that we might feel has already been destroyed by the cross. Moreover that God has abolished the law with its commandments. This doesn’t mean that we ignore the ten commandments, but in a context where people are arguing that you have to follow the law in order to be a Christian, this statement is radical. It also says that both groups are now citizens and that God has created one new humanity. It’s not like there’s Gentile Christians who are an add-on, and Jewish Christians who are the real thing. We are all Christians as one new humanity. We are all citizens.
This is important for us to remember in our own lives today, when people come to the church who we would traditionally not include. By making one new humanity out of Jews and Gentiles, God included everyone for all time in the church. As time passes and history moves forward, there will always be new hostilities between people. There will always be new dividing walls that try to keep us apart. But Ephesians 2:11-22 is clear that all of these hostilities died with Jesus on the cross. And the tradition that we have inherited in the New Testament about whether or not to include people in the church who God sends from the other side of the dividing wall is one of radical inclusion, where the church, the body of Christ, is a new humanity where these hostilities and dividing walls don’t exist anymore.
I want to end this morning with a few verses from Ephesians chapter 4, which we won’t have time to cover in our sermon series. These verses sum this up very well. Starting in chapter 4:1, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is above and through all and in all.” Amen.