So remember that once you were Gentiles by physical descent, who were called “uncircumcised” by Jews who are physically circumcised. At that time you were without Christ. You were aliens rather than citizens of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of God’s promise. In this world you had no hope and no God. But now, thanks to Christ Jesus, you who once were so far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.
When he came, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near. We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit. So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household. As God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. The whole building is joined together in him, and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit.
Just this past week in the Tuesday Morning Bible Study, the group worked their way through the second to last chapter in the book of Matthew, covering Christ’s death on the cross. I was reminded by the group that Matthew and Mark both speak of the rending of the temple curtain at the moment Jesus died. This curtain divided the rest of the temple from the inner holy of holies where only the priests could enter, and even then, only once a year after some serious purification. In a single act, we are reminded that no curtain, no building, and no one people can contain the fullness of God. Instead, as we explore Ephesians again, we will find that God has picked out a different dwelling place altogether, one found in the body of Christ, that temple is now found in you and me. Even now, we need to be reminded that no one church, no one denomination, and no one set of people can contain the fullness of God. God’s dwelling, as Ephesians delves into this week, is one without walls or curtains or any kind of obstacle. God is constantly on the move, bringing outsiders inside expanding the fullness of the body. We are invited to do the same, to bring welcome outside our doors, to find unity with those who might be different from ourselves and share together the peace of Christ.
Now, the early church had its share of struggles with unity, and one of the chief issues had to be the uneasy coexistence of Gentiles and Jews trying to not only figure out how to imitate Christ but how to live together in a new kind of community. The letter to the Ephesians seems to be addressed to Gentiles in the church trying to figure this out. They had been the outsiders: on the outside of the Hebrew covenant, outside of Israel, and not participating in many of the physical practices of Judaism like dietary restrictions and circumcision. The Jewish members of the church were familiar with how to be in relation to God through these physical markers, and they struggled to see how Gentiles could participate without sharing in the same things. The two groups had a real insider versus outsider problem, and it would probably take a miracle to resolve the conflict.
Luckily for them and for us, God is really good at miracles, and it is through Christ that these two could become one body, one church. Previously, there had been barriers. Barriers that kept Gentiles away from God. Barriers that kept the Jewish people distinct as the people of God. Jesus tore down those dividing walls through his actions on the cross. Take the temple, not only did it have its dividing curtain but it even had walls to keep Gentiles out. The outer court of the temple was as far as Gentiles could get in approaching God. Now things have changed, the temple curtain is torn and God moves and acts outside the physical temple, beyond the land of Israel. The dwelling place of God is now found wherever a follower of Christ is. It is in those early Gentile communities and in our communities that God’s home can be found. It is through Jesus that this is made possible.
Let’s look back to our scripture reading this morning, and see how Christ makes this new reality possible. Look back to Ephesians 2:17-19 where it says, “When [Jesus] came, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near. We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit. So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household.” Both Gentiles and Jews are one people in God’s house. The covenant has been thrown wide open, and now all the peoples of creation can have a renewed relationship with their creator and an expansive kind of community with one another. No one is a stranger there. There are no barriers, no walls that keep people out. There is only a God that goes out to bring in the overlooked, the forgotten, and the unloved in this world. The outsiders become insiders, and they all find belonging together in the dwelling place of God.
Like any good home, such a dwelling needs a firm foundation. Epheisans describes Jesus as this foundation, as a cornerstone, but I think another translation of the Greek word used here fits better, as it can also be understood as Jesus as our keystone. Now, I do not know how many of you are familiar with arches, but they are essential in many buildings and bridges. A stone stands at the top of an arch and it is the piece on which the rest of the arch leaned against, so it is the key to holding up everything else. While the cornerstone is the first one laid in a foundation, the keystone is the last piece and most vital part that keeps the rest together and prevents the whole place from collapsing! You see when the walls and barriers come down, like between the Gentiles and Jews, everything that made the two seem so different remains. The miracle through Christ as our keystone is the unique character of these groups does not go away but the hostility arising from those differences can be eased. Explaining it another way, Rev. Karen Chakoian from First Presbyterian in Granville, OH explains, “Peace comes only by eliminating the hostility behind dividing walls [so] God does not merely tear down walls, but unites people in the One who is our peace, creating a new humanity.” The One that Rev. Chakoian speaks of is Christ, acting as our keystone.
You see, it is by realizing that our peace and our unity comes through Christ. Christ is the keystone of these two, just waiting to be put in place when the walls come down. Here is the miracle. Here is the unity that seems absurd without Christ. Jews and Gentiles became Christians. Ephesians reminds them that this identity in Christ is the most important thing. Their differences which seemed insurmountable before have become part of the beautiful diversity of God’s dwelling place. Remember, we are described as the body, and the body has many diverse parts that all have unique aspects united in Christ. A body made of all the same things, like all hands or eyes, wouldn’t work very well, so we must be careful not to confuse unity and conformity, that in order to be at peace with one another we must be of the same mind. These differences are not walls or barriers but strengths that enable the body to be a body. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul reminds us that just as an eye or a hand cannot call itself a body, the body of Christ cannot be the body without those hands and eyes. To be the church, the dwelling place of God, means to have the full richness of humanity present within.
How do we find that full richness in our own community of faith, right here in Thermopolis? Following the example of God and Christ in Ephesians isn’t a bad place to start! Throughout today’s reading, we are reminded God and Jesus went out and “brought” in folks, and they “made,” “joined,” and “built” a place where all these people could be united and at peace with one another. Now, I feel we need to ask ourselves, are we the Gentiles who are far away and being brought close, or are we more like the Jewish Christians who are already on the inside that need to seek out and welcome others into the body, into this community of Christ? We may be more like those early Jewish Christians with some key differences. You see, I heard it from many of you, and I have seen for myself how welcoming and warm and supportive this community can be. You truly desire to have all kinds of people come through those doors. The shame is that anyone who never comes through those doors will know that welcome. Like the God we worship and Christ who saved us, we need to move beyond our walls to those we don’t see here in our community to warmly welcome and care for all those children of God across this wide creation.
Sadly, even when we have done this, some of these folks may never enter these walls here, but thankfully we have been reminded that we worship a God who doesn’t need walls to move and act and form communities of grace. We have even seen this in this community as well. Think of the PTL service in the Community Hall. There we have a whole group of folks that for whatever reason do not always see themselves being able to come into these doors. However, are they any less a part of our community? They may not sing quite the same songs or worship the exact same way the services here do, but they are no less part of the body. It is as Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, director of Preaching Ministries, reminds all of us by asking, “How do we make room for those who are not like us in some ways and yet very much like us in the ways that matter?” They hold Christ at the center like we do, and so we can both lean on him together to find unity and peace, to find strength in the unique ways we express our love of God and desire for connection with one another. Christ will be the bridge to help us all move past the barriers to bring welcome and love to one another and see how God is already moving in our midst. We can do that with PTL, and I firmly believe we can do that with all the people to be found here in Thermopolis and beyond. Amen.
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Pastor Paul Grossman