A sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 23 August 2020
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me. So goes the old proverb. Well it may be old, but unfortunately, it just isn’t true. For one thing, sticks and stones leave wounds that heal. Bruises heal. Cuts heal. Broken bones heal. But words can leave wounds that never heal.
Consider the derogatory names that people get called. They hurt at a level that sticks and stones can’t reach. In fact, it’s no coincidence that many of the racist names that people have been called have military applications. Think of an enemy soldier as your brother in the great human race and it makes it hard to point a gun at him and shoot. But call him a Kraut or a Nip or a Towel head and the job’s half done. These labels we use makes it easier to think that the person who doesn’t look like me, who doesn’t talk like me, is less of a person than me. And that can harbour any excuse for inhumanity against him. The Nazis, for example, had a word for Jews and Poles and Gypsies. They called them Untermensch, subhuman. They treated them like animals. They exterminated them like they were rats.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can kill.
We see it today. The world is drifting apart into greater division. One side sees on the other side as white supremacists. The other side sees only anarchists and Marxists. We live in a time of strife and division, when one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, when opinions are polarized to extremes and people have dug deep trenches in their minds.
What we need in a time like this is a person of peace. Someone who can see both sides of the story. Someone who can reach out to opposing sides and bring them to the negotiating table. Someone who can bring us healing justice, that can help the oppressors and the oppressed to see their common humanity in order to stop the cycle of violence. And while the world looks for a leader, a statesman, someone high in the United Nations or someone respected in the Islamic community, we Christians can yet affirm that God sent his man of peace a long, long time ago. Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians chapter 2 says,
Remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called uncircumcised by those who call themselves the circumcision, remember that at that time you 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. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
The Lord Jesus, of course, was a man who preached peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he said, “for they shall be called the children of God.” Those who can bury the hatchet. Those who can stop the cycle of revenge. Those who can put an end to the feud. Those who have the courage to forgive, and the courage to ask for forgiveness. They will be blessed.
Jesus was a man who preached peace. But secondly Ephesians chapter 2 reminds us that Jesus was a man who made peace between God and humanity in his cross. Every sin we commit, every act of selfishness, every temptation to violence and hate and fear that we go through is like a single brick. And as we go through life, we go on laying brick on top of brick until we have built a wall that creates a barrier to all our relationships. A barrier of fear and guilt and regret that spoils even our closest relationships.
And the greatest barrier is between us and God. A barrier we cannot climb or sneak around or knock over. For his holy law stands against us. James says in his letter that the person who breaks one single law is guilty of breaking them all. So that God’s law that promises life to those who keep them convicts us as sinners and condemns us to death.
But on the cross Jesus suffered that penalty to break down the barrier of sin. Our sin, our selfishness, creates a barrier, a wall of fear and guilt between us and God, but Jesus died to put a love shaped hole in that wall. Jesus himself is our peace. Through him we have been reconciled to God. God showed through the cross of his son Jesus his great love, his courage to forgive us, if we but have the courage to ask him for forgiveness. God has made friends with us, so that we can make friends with him. As Ephesians 2 verse 18 says,
For through Christ Jesus we have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Jesus made peace between God and humanity. But thirdly Jesus made peace between the different branches of humanity. Ephesians 2, verses 14 and 15 say,
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
When the Bible talks here about the two becoming one here it is talking about two kinds of people: the Jews on the one hand, and the non-Jews, called the Gentiles. The circumcised and the uncircumcised. The people of God under the old covenant, and those excluded from that covenant, who were strangers to the promises of God. This distinction is not just racial, but religious and judicial, enshrined in the laws of God’s covenant with Israel.
For of all the pieces of the broken mirror that we call humanity, God chose one shard, once piece, to reflect his glory. The descendants of Abraham. The Israelites. The Jews. It was to them God promised the land of Canaan. It was them he rescued from their slavery in Egypt. It was to them he gave his ten commandments. It was them he led through the wilderness. It was to them he said, “Be holy, because I am holy.” It was to them he sent his prophets, who reminded them of God’s great promises for the future.
And the man Jesus we find in the Gospels of the New Testament, was a Jew, not a Christian. A descendant of Abraham, of the royal line of David and heir of his kingdom. He was circumcised on his eighth day. Jesus himself worshipped in the temple and in the synagogue. Jesus came to give his message of the kingdom of God to the cities and towns of Israel. In all he did Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament laws and prophecies. And the written charge placed over him on his cross, said, “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews.”
Jesus didn’t have white skin or blue eyes. He is not a man like me. I am a Gentile. We are all Gentiles. I am a stranger to his language and his people. Because Jesus lived and died a Jew.
But Jesus was rejected by his own people. His own people’s rulers sat in judgment against him. He was charged and convicted and sentenced as a law breaker, a blasphemer, a false prophet and false Messiah. They led him outside their holy city and they used their law to destroy him. The very law that God gave to Moses, that promised life to the people of God, the very law that divided Jew from Gentile couldn’t protect the only man who ever kept it. Though he kept the law, Jesus died under the penalty of the law. Though born a Jew, circumcised a Jew, the only faithful Jew ever, Jesus died a stranger, an alien, a foreigner to the law just like me.
I mean, if a company found that its entrance requirements for finding new recruits excluded the best candidates who went on to work for its rival and made money against them, that company would change its requirements. If a football team discriminated against its best player who left and joined an opposing team which went on to beat them every week, that team would change how it treated its players. In the same way, the law that excluded the only person to keep the law was shown to be unfit to be used as a sign of who belongs to God. Because then none of us would be included.
What we see then is that the wall of hostility, that barrier that divided the world into Jew and Gentile, the law was clearly seen to be revoked by God, cancelled, annulled, in the death of his Son. Jesus died a stranger, so that I, who was born a stranger without God and without hope in the world, might be brought into the family of God. Jesus died to create a new race of humanity that follows him made up of Jews and Greeks, and Italians and Germans and Chinese and Russians and Australians of all kinds. Jesus died so that we, although we look different and sound different, might be one family in him.
Jesus made peace. He himself is our peace. He came to preach the way of peace. In his cross he made between God and us and between the different branches of humanity. And in his face, we see the stranger that we fear. In his face, we see the stranger that we were until we made our peace with God through him. He came that we might be a new race of humanity, that we might be people of peace.
All the trenches that we dig in our minds so that we can maintain our hostility against people who are different, Jesus came to fill them. All the walls we build to exclude people from our community or from our church, Jesus came to knock them down. All the boxes we draw to fence people in, Jesus came to rub them out.
Who are you treating as different, like they don’t belong? Jesus came to welcome them into his family.
We live in a world that is drifting apart and madly building the walls that will divide the next generation. And while the world looks for a person of peace, the man or woman who can look in the stranger’s face and see their own face reflected, dare I suggest that that person of peace that the world needs is not a statesman or diplomat, but you. What the world needs is people like you who have made their peace with God, people who can confront their own racism and look at someone and see not someone different, but a fellow child of God.