(Ephesians 2:13-22) …now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in 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.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
As far as Jews were concerned, there were only two races. They did not think in terms of black, white and Asian. There were only Jews and everyone else: Jews and Gentiles. A Jew might be black, or white, or Asian. But a Jew was never a Gentile.
As far as Gentiles were concerned, Jews were not normal. They relished being different. They ate different foods. They worshiped a different God. They did different things on the last day of the week. They were stand-offish. They thought they were better than everyone else.
Jews did not associate with Gentiles any more than necessary. Remember when the Apostle Peter went to the home of the gentile centurion Cornelius. Even though he was sure God had sent him, he still felt compelled to say: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile” (Acts 10:28). And when Peter’s Jewish colleagues heard that he had gone into a Gentile’s home, they “criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them?’” (Acts 11:2-3).
Our country had laws that were designed to keep blacks away from whites. The Jewish law with its Kosher food regulations and its purity conventions did something similar. But in America, the Jim Crow laws were imposed by whites on blacks, whereas the Jews imposed their regulations only on themselves.
That had been going on since Moses, more that 1300 earlier. Indeed, it began 400 years before that with Abraham and ritual circumcision. Jews were set apart by God himself not because they were better than other people (they proved they were not), but because they had a mission to perform for the benefit of the world.
But that separation, as necessary as it was, led to misunderstanding, suspicion, and hostility. Jews were persecuted in Egypt in the 14 century B.C. They were nearly exterminated by the Persians in the fifth century B.C. The Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome during New Testament times.
Around the time Paul wrote to the Ephesians, Jews and Syrians were massacring each other in the streets of Caesarea, where Paul had spent two years. He is not preaching to the choir when he talks about unity. He is preaching to people who are deeply suspicious and hostile toward one another.
There were few certainties in the ancient world, but one of them was that Jews and Gentiles don’t mix. Think of the troubles between white and blacks in the U.S. They have been present continually for hundreds of years. The division between Gentiles and Jews was wider and just as intractable, but it had existed for thousands of years.
When the early church, comprised as it was of Jewish people, first crossed the racial barrier and spoke to non-Jews, its people didn’t have a problem with Gentiles joining them if they converted to Judaism. In other words, the way to become a Christian was through Judaism for, after all, Jesus is the Jewish messiah. What did a Gentile have to do with the Jewish messiah?
But the Apostle Paul and a small group of Christ-followers in Antioch thought differently about this. Their church sent Paul and Barnabas, both life-long Jews, out to tell everyone about Jesus the messiah and they weren’t requiring Gentiles to convert to Judaism before entering their ranks.
The results were explosive in more ways than one. The church experienced explosive growth as Gentiles from around the eastern end of the Mediterranean turned to Christ and became his disciples. But it was also explosive in another way: some Jewish believers in Jesus didn’t think it was right – didn’t think it was possible – for Gentiles to enter into a covenant relationship with their messiah without first becoming Jews. The very idea was, to their minds, outrageous.
The church of Jesus had by this time gone through lots of trouble, but most of it had come from the outside. This was the most serious trouble that had come from within the church. Acts 15 says that Paul and Barnabas had a major dispute and debate with their fellow Jewish Christians. It was so serious that it threatened to unravel the young Christian movement.
The church’s leaders – the apostles and elders – gathered in Jerusalem and carefully worked through this problem. People gave their arguments, debated them and, when it was all over, it was decided that gentiles would be welcomed into the church without first becoming Jews. They didn’t need to be circumcised or eat kosher foods in order to join Jesus. The apostles commissioned a team to spread this decision to all the churches.
But some people didn’t agree with the decision and did their best to overturn it – in practice, if not in principle. They plagued the Apostle Paul throughout his ministry. They told believing gentiles that the way to become mature in Christ was to keep the Jewish law. They believed that the old division between Jews and Gentiles would – and should – always stand.
But Paul understood something that they did not: the church. The church is not the same old thing. It is revolutionary. Prior to the Day of Pentecost, there had never been anything like the church. How easily we take the church for granted. It’s where we go on Sundays—if nothing comes up and we get to bed early enough on Saturday night. It is where we hear teaching and sing songs – where else in our society do ordinary people sing together? The church is an organization that does good things: feeds the hungry, provides clothes, offers medical assistance, holds children’s programs.
But the church is so much more than most of us – than any of us – realize. It is right at the center of God’s plan for humanity. Without the church, the world will never be right, and our own lives will always be incomplete. Let me say that again, because it is not something we are used to hearing: Without the church, our own lives will always be incomplete. I will back those words up during this sermon series, for it is essential that we grasp the importance of the church in our lives.
But the church is also important in the world. That is what we are thinking about in this series introduction. I said that prior to Pentecost, there had never been anything like the church. But it is also true that since Pentecost there is nothing else like the church. It is unique. You may think: “The church? It can’t even get its act together. Its people mess up as much as anyone else. They fail. They can’t get along. They are tempted to self-righteousness.
No one’s denying it, not even St. Paul. He once reminded the Corinthian church members of what their lives were like before they came to Christ: “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). We are not the cultural elite. On the contrary, as Paul reminded those Corinthians, some of them had been adulterers, abusers, and drunks – just like some of us.
Then why even bother with the church? Because there is a power at work in the church that comes from outside the church and is capable of transformative change. Because the church is integral to God’s restoration plan for the world. Because the church is in contact with a kind of life that is outside the range of normal experience: God’s own life, which he shares with humans through his Spirit.
Now, I need to make clear that we are talking about the church as biblically, and not culturally, defined. Just because a building has a sign on its front lawn that says “church” does not make it, or the people in it, a church. It may have a pastor with the title “Reverend” before his name, a 5013(c) (3) tax status, and hold religious services, but that does not make it a church.
A group of people is only a church when they confess Jesus Christ as Lord and share God’s life between them. God is actually present when a church gathers in a way he is not present when the Kiwanis gather, or Congress convenes, or the religion department in a university holds a conference.
The church consists of individuals who have been brought to God through the sacrifice of Christ (Eph. 2:13). They all are connected to God through one Spirit (v. 18) and are therefore connected to each other. In the church, there is a distinctive kind of life – not all life is biological – that its people share—a kind of network of life. That means a person can be in a meeting of the authentic church, yet not be in church, because he is not on the network; the life is not in him.
Without this life, a person cannot reach his or her potential, because it takes both kinds of life, biological and (for lack of a better word) spiritual, to be fulfilled. Think of a balloon that is made of the finest rubber. It is dyed the most beautiful color. It is a perfect balloon, yet it only reaches its potential when the magician fills it with air and shapes it into a flower or a bunny.
We have biological life. We may be healthy, strong, smart. But if we are not filled with spiritual life by the Divine Magician and shaped into something beautiful, we are living beneath our potential. We need God to be fully human.
This illustration, like all illustrations, cannot be pressed. God is not a Magician. He doesn’t do tricks; he works miracles. And he does not merely shape us into something beautiful but something beneficial. And he doesn’t breathe his divine life into us to leave us isolated but to combine us with others: not a lone flower but a bouquet; not a piston, but an engine; not a soldier, but an army. That bouquet, that engine, that army is the church of Jesus Christ. We can only reach our full potential together.
Let’s look at how Paul describes the church in verse 15 – it’s like something out of a sci-fi novel – but before we do, we need to remember that Jewish people divided the world up into two races: Jews and Gentiles. It didn’t matter whether you were white, black, or Asian, only if you were a Jew or a Gentile. This led to separation and irreconcilable differences. But God was at work in Christ bringing people to himself (v. 13) and dismantling the wall that separated them from each other (v. 14), which was constructed out of the law with its commands and regulations (v. 15). But he had a purpose in doing all this (still verse 15): “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.”
Remember again that Jewish people thought that world was comprised of two races: Jews and Gentiles. But in some of the earliest Christian writings outside the Bible, we find that Christians referred to themselves as “the Third Race.” The church is the new humanity, a forward step in the progress of world, the key to overcoming alienation, the principal instrument of God’s activity on earth. It is a new humanity powered by love, not hate. A new humanity through which the compassionate and gracious creator interacts with creation. A new humanity with a new kind of life – spiritual rather than physical, immortal rather than mortal, imperishable rather than perishable.
But that is not how most people, including most Christians, think of the church. As Colin Smith put it, many people think of the church as a gas station. It is the place where you fill up your spiritual fuel tank when you’re running low. A good sermon can keep you going.
Others think of church in the same category as movie theater. It’s an escape, a place to be entertained. You can leave your problems at the door and come out feeling better than when you went in. Still others see the church as a drug store: you can fill your prescription for pain there, usually some concoction of moral, therapeutic deism. Finally, some people see the church as a big box retailer, where you can get your children, youth, and senior programs all in one place and always at a low price.
This makes the church unnecessary as least some of the time. If your spiritual tank is not empty, you don’t need the church. If you aren’t in pain, you don’t need the preacher’s prescription. If you have other forms of entertainment (and everybody has a smartphone these day), the church is superfluous.
But when it comes to being united to God and to others in a way that will transform a person from the inside out, bringing peace, changing society, there simply is no other option. The church is it. The church is connected to a source of life and energy – to God himself – in a way that is not true of the gym, the service club, or the political action committee.
But there is more to say. The church is not static and unchanging, but dynamic and growing. This is seen in many places in Scripture, but nowhere more than in Ephesians. In this passage, note verses 19-22: “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”
Note the dynamic processes in play: the church is joined. It rises. You are being built together. That means we are not yet what God intends us to be. The church – this is one of its great New Testament images – is being built right now. It is in the construction phase. It is not finished. It rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. We are being built to become a dwelling in which God lives.
Can you imagine people saying, “I want to go to church because that is where God is”? And they’re not talking about going to a campus or a building but to a people who together are the body through which God expresses himself.
In the Star Trek series, Captain Picard’s archenemy are the Borg, conquerors who assimilate the people of various worlds into their own beehive-like collective. They strip individuals of personality, of independent thinking, and of will so that they can serve the whole.
That is the opposite of the church. The Borg makes people less than they were in order to fit them into the collective. Christ makes people more than they were in order to fit them into the church. Their independent thinking is not squelched; it is ignited. Their personalities bloom. Their wills are set free from sin’s tyranny. They must grow and continue growing in order to fit into the new humanity.
The key to this “new humanity” is that each person shares one uncommon, non-biological life. They are on the network. And because this is true, God can dwell in the church. This is why people in the church must “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). We don’t want the network going down. The church depends on each node of the network.
What is God able to do through the church? I don’t know; but let’s find out. If we come close to him through Jesus Christ and make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit, and see what he can do.
 Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Eph 2:19–22). InterVarsity Press.
 Clement, Stromateis; Epistle to Diognetus. Cited by Peter O’Brien, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, The Letter to the Ephesians, © 1999, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Colin Smith, from the sermon “The Church: Sharing the Passion of Jesus” PreachingToday.com