Sin and Grace – the bias you want to have
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands – remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated 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 himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
(Ephesians 2:11-22 ESV)
The first time I preached our second reading from Ephesians 2 was in the Outback. I may have told you the long version of this story before – about the twin boys prematurely born (10 weeks prem) and who by God’s grace after about 10 months in hospital became the darlings of the congregation as they wondered everywhere exploring the church and Sunday’s activities. This Sunday, and they’re about 2 years old or just under, they’re dressed in little karate suits – with little black belts of course – and they’re exploring the church as I get into the pulpit – an ore encrusted lectern one step up – and they’re now at the front of the pulpit looking up at me as I’m reading Ephesians 2 – Jesus is our peace – he makes us both one – he’s broken down the dividing wall of hostility – when the bigger twin (they’re not identical twins at all) simply punches his smaller brother who simply crumbles to the floor and cries. As the closest person to them, I step out of the pulpit and comfort him, the outcome of which sees me holding both boys in my arms who are snuggling into me and peacefully looking at each other. Welcome to the Church – the family that’s supposed to get along – but where we can fight and hurt each other – but also where we can snuggle into God’s embrace and rest peacefully for a moment.
We know that like attracts like and we form groups because of some sort of commonality – blood (family ties), trade, profession, age maybe, interests whether it be jazz or country and western or politics, or maybe it is nationality (suddenly someone from Wisconsin feels kin to someone from Nebraska and vice versa) or language. The commonality develops its own ethos and code of behaviour – do’s and don’ts – and whether the group is a club or familial there is an expectation that people will work together, do the same thing, and become like each other. Such is the way of football, the classroom, the orchestra, chess club, a birthday party and this includes religious groups which over the generations might want people to join them – but only people ‘like us’.
This was the issue of the 1st century church. How can they be like us? How can we be like them? In society where there is a demarcation between a majority and a minority, it is usually the minority that feels the differences more keenly, who seek to maintain their identity more vigorously for fear of being diluted by the majority. So it is understandable that the trajectory of a Jew becoming a Christian in the first century could be made a requirement for a non Jew to become a Christian too – hence, according to the Judaisers in the early church, Gentiles needed to become Jews to be under the law so that they could saved by Jesus to then keep the law. The Apostle Paul even went up against the Apostle Peter on this point and the Council of Jerusalem confirmed that the Judaiser thinking was against the Gospel – Jesus met people where they were – saved them as they are (sinners) and then calls them to follow him in discipleship. But a ruling and a teaching doesn’t instantly wipe away the biases or prejudices that have been part of one’s whole life or part of one’s identity for generations and so the church has always found itself having to work on issues of identity, freedom, obedience, and unity.
So, last week in Ephesians 1, Paul painted the cosmic scene of God before the foundation of the world having chosen the disciples of Jesus so that they may live to the praise of his glory. This message bypasses, as it were, one’s labels – as the disciple looks to Jesus and comes to faith in Jesus as the relationship of faith and trust in Jesus is created and established. And now, as it were, she or he is looking around to see what this means for today and noticing all the other disciples of Jesus who are also looking around and noticing her or him and everyone is emotionally reacting as they scan their fellow believers, ‘Oh good’ or ‘Surely not’ while thinking, ‘How are we going to get along?’.
Ephesians 2 begins by stating the truth that we are dead in our sins but God makes us alive in Christ – it is by grace we have been saved through faith, this isn’t our own doing – it is the gift of God, so no one can boast – and we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works. And now comes our reading – and it is targeted specifically to one group – the Gentiles – those who have grown up in a world full of gods to be placated for the good things of life; gods who were often bigger and nastier versions of themselves about whom the philosophers could argue and the playwrights mock – these gods who came in myth and ritual which you didn’t need to believe but still perform to be on the safe side – and now these Gentiles encounter Jesus a person of history – specific time, specific place – specific deeds of life, ministry, horrific death, and resurrection – and in Jesus, through Jesus they discover peace and a freedom (where everyone struggles between absurd legalism or hedonistic mischief) to live with a God who forgives, who is merciful, and who is not a bigger and nastier version of themselves – but who is mysterious – not unknown – just not fully known – but known enough and completely through Jesus Christ. So the Gentiles are spoken to by Paul – the majority perhaps that don’t consider the minority – and the Jewish Christians are not excluded because they overhear the message and are reminded and challenged similarly.
Because Jesus is our peace the dividing walls between them are broken down – perhaps the Jews would remember the signs in the temple marking the points where a Gentile could go no further into the temple precincts or face execution or perhaps the laws of the Old Testament people are broken down in Christ – not that Christians are lawless (which was the Jewish fear I suppose) but the law is fulfilled in Christ and also abolished and what is left when the hostility between people who look to Jesus and his cross has ended – whether nearby or far off – is love.
Psychologists tell us today that we have inherent biases that shape our perceptions and actions, often unconsciously, even when we might consciously consider ourselves not prejudiced in this or that area of life or towards this or that group of people. Such biases are formed, so the theory goes, by our social context – it is the atmosphere almost – the subtext of our lives. I can work with that theory and Ephesians 2 – I don’t think our issues today are Jew and Gentile ones but the last century or so have seen our hostilities, tensions, fights more about colour or class or gender – is reminding us still that in Christ, the Christian is a new creation who sees this world and herself / himself differently because the first label is not gender, family, nationality, interest, like or dislike but a declaration from God that makes me say: I am a sinner – and there goes with that another declaration from God – a promise: Don’t be afraid – your sins are forgiven – take and eat, take and drink – I am the bread of life, I am the living water, I am the light of the world – I love you and I am with you to the end of the age – and that means your death if it comes first – and still don’t be afraid for you will be where I am for I have prepared a place for you – I chose you, you didn’t choose me.
This is the bias, the understanding we bring to the mirror, to the world in which we live and into the church that the people I see – all of them – are first and foremost sinners (like me) and we’re all in need daily of God’s grace. Why do churches get shocked by sin within? Lots of reasons but the start is that they’ve forgotten this truth. Why do we sigh at the cruelty and the incomprehensibility of evil when we live under a cross which declares its existence and its final defeat?
Congregations usually comprise people with whom we’d never want to be stuck on a desert island but we can be together here because our sin unites us – especially when we play any comparison / judgement games for we discover that we both cry, ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’ – but more so God’s grace unites for we both have received his mercy and we discover that in Christ we can be together as God builds a dwelling place for the neighbourhood out of us.
God’s Word shapes us – used constantly, regularly it creates the atmosphere that moulds and orients us – for it is a living word – Jesus and the witnesses of the prophets and the apostles – written and heard – and so the church – local and catholic (meaning ‘universal’) is the place where all prodigals are welcome again and again and again.
- Ephesians 2:11 - 22