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Watch the video of the sermon here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dysQIsCV9pQ

Ephesians 2:11-22

Imagine with me that we are members of the early church. We have gathered in the home of one of our members—the largest home because our numbers are increasing. We are all followers of Jesus, but we are not all the same. Far from it. Some of us are Jews. Let’s say the left side of the congregation—you are all Jewish. You have not abandoned your faith in order to follow Jesus. You still keep kosher; you still honor the Jewish festivals. You see Jesus as the Messiah, as the fulfillment of prophecy. So you see yourself as very much a Jew, with beliefs consistent with the teachings of your faith and identity.

But all of a sudden there are non-Jews in your church—other people who are calling themselves followers of Jesus. They do not keep kosher; they do not honor Jewish festivals; they have no sense of Jewish faith or identity because they aren’t Jewish. And you have been taught that they are unclean—no offense, but they don’t follow the purity laws. You aren’t supposed to eat with them. Yet here they are, in your church. And since you are Jewish, they must follow Jewish rules, right? If they’re joining us, it only makes sense.

Now, the right side of the congregation—you are Gentiles. You are not Jewish, not by ethnicity or religion. Those purity laws make absolutely no sense to you. And the Jewish people—well, some of them are perfectly nice and all, but others of them define you by what you are not. They call you “the uncircumcision.” Somebody explained to you that circumcision was the Jewish mark of identity, but there’s no way they’re going to force that particular tradition onto you! Do they really think you should convert to Judaism to follow Jesus? It looks like the Jewish religious leaders are pretty clear about who Jesus was not, and there’s starting to be some really bad blood between Jews who do follow Jesus and Jews who don’t follow Jesus. So maybe they should just give up their Jewishness. It only makes sense.

The arguments have been going on for a while, and there was a council that met a few years back that tried to settle the matter, saying Gentiles did not have to be circumcised. But church muckety-mucks making a statement has little impact at the local level. So you’re in relationship; you’re in community; you’re trying to be the church together. And these underlying issues are still there.

Then news comes that a letter has arrived—a letter possibly from a famous missionary—and you gather to hear it read. So you’re all in the same place, packed tightly in somebody’s house or courtyard, and the words are being read and you’re trying to take them all in and you’re trying to figure out what they mean, when you Gentiles hear yourself addressed:

“So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth… were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise”—Yes, that’s right, you think. We’re not part of Israel. We shouldn’t be made to feel bad for that. It’s not our fault. On the other hand, do we really belong?

The people across the aisle, however, are thinking, That’s right, they’re not part of Israel. They’re aliens, strangers to the covenant. Of course, our scriptures tell us how to treat aliens and strangers. We’re to welcome them, these immigrants to our faith. But is that safe? Will welcoming them change us? Will we lose who we are?

And then the next line is read: “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.” And you gasp. And everybody, on both sides of the aisle, gasps, because being followers of Jesus is not the only thing you have in common. You all are also part of the Roman Empire. And when you live under Roman rule, any talk of peace is politically charged. “Roman emperors, Augustus in particular, were hailed as the semi-divine inaugurators of an unprecedented peace that would settle the turbulent rivalries of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. This Roman brand of ‘peace,’ of course, was an enforced peace wrought through military dominance. When necessary, terror would be used—specifically, the terror of crucifixion for anyone foolhardy enough to challenge peace on the Empire’s terms.”[1] So those words—Christ is our peace—“would be a pronouncement bordering on treason. What is being claimed, after all, is that despite all the swaggering claims of Rome’s emperors, true peace has been inaugurated by a man the empire crucified. The dissonance between the chilling rhetoric of the state and the thrilling rhetoric of the Gospel would set any listener’s blood racing.”[2]

So if we are still in the first century, gathered in this house church, and we hear those words read, we gasp and look to the door. Who might have heard? Are we in danger? Paul, or whoever was writing in Paul’s name, is not offering some vague spiritual promise. Paul is getting really political. In just those few words, Paul is saying: the rulers are wrong. Those in power are lying. Their peace is not real peace. Peace does not come through domination. Peace comes through sacrificial love.

Your head is reeling—at these words and their implication—but you pull your attention back to the person reading this letter, because, good Lord, what might he say next? And you hear these words: “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Both groups. Both Jews and Gentiles. People on both sides of the aisle are made one in Christ. “That he might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross.” We are one body now, left and right, and we start to see each other differently, and we start to think that there could be an end in sight for that hostility.

And then the letter offers good and bad news to both sides. “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances”—and you who are Gentiles get hopeful because those laws might go away and you who are Jews get a little bit afraid because your identity is at stake. “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” and that feels wonderful to you because you get to be citizens of the promise, and that feels wonderful to you because you already are citizens of the promise so your citizenship isn’t getting erased in order to make room for others.

And then the kicker: “In Christ 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.” We are built together into a dwelling place for God. Not Mount Olympus. Not only the ark of the covenant. We are a dwelling place for God! Not as individuals but as a community, together, Jews and Gentiles, left and right, God is at home in us! How is that for good news to a community divided?! How is that for good news to us? We are a dwelling place for God.

“Ephesians declares peace on new terms, the peace forged not by the ‘lords’ of Empire in its manifold forms, but in the blood and bone of the Crucified. The cross undermined the wall dividing Jew and non-Jew, but that is only the beginning. The new household of God is not a purely spiritual reality that we visit briefly on Sundays—a weekly ‘time out’ in which we pretend peace is possible by sitting next to people we [might] scrupulously avoid the rest of the time. The church is the daring practice of a new politics—a different kind of power, the self-outpoured, boundary-crossing power of Christ’s cross.”[3] This is how we achieve peace.

This does not mean we need to go out and convert everyone to Christianity in order to be at peace. “God’s reconciliation and transformation of humanity finds expression in a unity marked by welcoming and hospitality.”[4] “What the church is called to do is be the reconciled community of every race, tribe, nation, sex, class, and language. The church doesn’t force uniformity upon the world; it exists as a peaceful diversity in the world, and the world is changed by it.”[5] In other words, the church is called to be the model of peaceful diversity, and by showing this example to the world, the world will see it is possible.

Here are a few other scripture passages that carry messages about living in the way of peace.

“O you who believe! Enter absolutely into peace. Do not follow in the footsteps of Satan.”

“It may be that God will bring about love between you and those of them with whom you are now at enmity.”

“Had God willed, God would have made you a single community, but [God] wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God.”

The true believer is said to be on a steep path. “What will explain to you what the steep path is? It is to free a slave. To feed people in days of shortage. To bring the orphans near as well as the very poor. Only then he would become one of the believers, who exhorts people to the truth and to kindness.”

Do those passages sound familiar? Or at least the lessons, if not the exact wording? They are from the Quran. Jews and Christians are described in the Quran as “the People of the Book” who are to be treated “with great justice, love, and compassion.”[6] In early modern Europe, before the transatlantic slave trade, slavery was usually based on religion. Christians had a law that they could not slave other Christians, and if a slave converted to Christianity, they had to be freed. But Muslims did not enslave Christians or Jews because they were considered co-religionists. Muslims consider Christians their siblings in the faith.

But none of this comes to mind for many people when they hear of Islam or when they see Muslim people. Too many Americans have believed the lie that Islam is a religion of violence, when the very word “Islam” is derived from the Arabic word for “peace.” Yes, there is some violence in the Quran, but I can show you lots of violence in our scripture—it’s there if you want to find it—and I can show you lots of groups who call themselves Christians who spew hate and violence in the name of our God. (The KKK and Westboro Baptist Church come easily to mind.)So why do we view violent acts by those who claim to be Muslim as representative of their religion, and violent acts by those who claim to be Christian not representative of ours?

It’s called fear. Fear of the stranger. Fear of those who are different. Fear of those we do not understand. Xenophobia.

But as Christians, we are called to live in peace and love, and the New Testament tells us that love casts out fear. Not Xenophobia, but xenophilia—love of stranger. This is one of the keys to peace and peacemaking—to see the stranger, not as someone to fear, but as someone to love.

We are the dwelling place for God. Let’s live like it.


[1] Brown, Sally A. “Commentary on Ephesians 2:11-22.” Workingpreacher.org.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Fever, Kyle. “Commentary on Ephesians 2:11-12.” workingpreacher.org.

[5] Coffey, Michael. “One New Humanity.” July 13, 2015. Ocotillopub.org.

[6] http://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/6-quran-quotes-teach-love-tolerance-freedom-religion/

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