During World War II, as Allied soldiers fought their way across France, a soldier died during a bloody firefight. After the battle was over, his buddies wanted to find a way to give him a decent burial. The only cemetery in the closest village was a Catholic cemetery so they approached the priest, asking for permission to bury their fallen comrade there. “Is he Catholic?” the priest asked. “No, he’s Protestant,” came the reply. With great regret, the priest said, “He cannot be buried here. This cemetery is reserved for baptized members of the Catholic Church.”
So the soldiers found a suitable place just outside the fence that marked the border of the cemetery. With great sorrow, they buried him and then went back to the war. He would be separated from the rest in the cemetery.
Of course, there are many other places and ways we erect fences. According to Wikipedia, “The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965 …. Some examples of Jim Crow laws are the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks”. Though the Civil War was over in 1865 the battle for Civil Rights would continue for the next one hundred years. Plessy v. Ferguson was an 1896 court case that sought segregation in terms of separate but equal. “Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, 396 U.S. 1218 (1969) – changed Brown’s requirement of desegregation “with all deliberate speed” to one of “desegregation now.” As we know from history the wall for desegregation came down – mostly. In Ephesians 2, Paul talks about a similar situation that involved separation.
The Church at Ephesus was a congregation made up of Jews and Gentiles. A Gentile was any person who was not ethnically Jewish. This would be us. At the beginning of our text, Paul calls us to remember what things used to be like before Christ had come. For us to appreciate what Jesus has done and what we are in Him, we need to know what we were and would have been. Paul does just that. He calls the congregation, and specifically the Gentiles, to remember what they were. He has them remember what things were like.
The Apostle begins by bringing up the hostility between the two groups. The Gentiles were called “the uncircumcision” by the Jews. This may seem like an innocent descriptor to us, but it in those times, it was not. It is was a term of disgust and derision. It would be equivalent to a racial slur or bad word. But the hostility between the two groups went beyond name calling. They didn’t get along at all. The Jews said that Gentiles were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell! They said that God only loved them, and that they were His favorites. If a Jew married a Gentile, the funeral of that Jew would be carried out. They were considered dead! If one went into a Gentile house, one would then become unclean. Not exactly a group of people who get along, or think highly of each other.
But there is more to remember. Paul tells them to remember the separation between Jews and Gentiles. Paul says that the Gentiles were separated from Christ, and he elaborates what that means. He says that they were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel. The Gentiles were not part of God’s special covenant people. They were excluded from the privileges and way of life of God’s chosen people under His covenant.
Worse than that, he says they were strangers to the covenants of promise. Notice Paul’s emphasis here. His says “promise” and not “Law.” The covenant that God repeatedly confirmed throughout the Old Testament is defined by grace and promise! It is not defined by “Law” or what a person must do. God’s people had received these promises. They had received the promises of a coming Messiah who would save them from their sins. But the Gentiles didn’t know them. Sad to say, they were strangers to them.
Since they didn’t have these promises, it follows that the Gentiles had no hope and were without God in the world. Because the Gentiles were strangers to God’s people, possessors of the promises of grace, they were truly without hope and without God. Could you imagine your life without Him? Can you picture a life without hope? True hope?
Can you truly deal with sicknesses and diseases like Alzheimer’s, tumors, or depressions without hope? Can you face death without Jesus? How would you handle tragedy without a Savior who conquers sin, death, and the grave? Is there true hope without Christ? Is life better without Him? Absolutely not. This would have been us without Christ’s coming as Gentiles. No Jesus equals no hope, and no God. What a bleak life.
The last thing that Paul has them remember is the division between Jews and Gentiles. In verse 14, Paul mentions the dividing wall of hostility. In the temple, there was a wall called the Soreg, which surrounded it entirely. It was about 5 feet high, and 15 feet away from the outer steps. This was put up to prevent the Gentiles from coming into the temple. The reason Paul is in prison is because he was accused of breaking this with an Ephesian! In 1871, there was a warning sign found in Greek that dates to before Christ that reads: “No foreigner may enter within the barrier and enclosure round the temple. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.” In other words, if you come in, you are taking your life in your hands. Not very welcoming, is it? But who could forget the ultimate dividing wall, the Law, with all its rules and regulation? The Jews and Gentiles were divided. They were separated. They were hostile. This would have been us. Before Christ, you were separated from Him, alienated, strangers to grace, hopeless, and without God. We would have been buried outside the wall. This would have been us! Remember that!
But Paul calls us to remember what You are NOW in Jesus Christ. The story I opened with is not the whole story. Some months later, the soldiers returned to the tiny village, hoping to provide a suitable marker for their friend. To their surprise and consternation, when they came to the burial spot, they could not find the grave. Not knowing what else to do, they asked the priest if he knew what had happened. He told them after they had buried their friend; he could not sleep at night. So one morning he got up early and moved the fence to include their fallen friend.
That’s what God did for us. He could not rest while we’re on the wrong side of the fence. He wanted so much to bring us into His family that He sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who through His death on the cross moved the fence. Actually, Jesus didn’t just move the fence, He removed it entirely! You are no longer aliens and strangers, but are fellow citizens and members of God’s household because of Him. We have been made one body through the reconciliation by His one body. In Christ, we have been reconciled with God and one another through the life and death of Jesus. He has taken Jew and Gentile, two hostile groups, and made them one, in Him! He has made a new man, a new people, between the two! He has destroyed the hostility, torn down the dividing wall, and fulfilled the Law in our place. He has taken hostility and made peace through His cross and empty tomb. We have peace with God, and peace with others.
This is no easy reconciliation, no easy peace. These are heady words, not because they have to do with ancient and eternal realities, but because these are the words of revolution. “He is our peace.” These are words of treason. These are words opposed to the state. These are words meant for demonstrations and protests against empires.
“It is crucial to recognize that any talk of peace within the context of Asia Minor in the late first century under Roman rule would be politically charged talk,” says Sally Brown in her online commentary. Roman emperors were perceived as vessels of the divine and, therefore, the originators of peace. To say that “Christ is our peace” was akin to denying the political power and authority, specifically, the divinity of the emperor and the legitimacy of the empire. Ephesians declares peace on new terms, a peace forged not by the “lords” of empire in its many forms, but in the blood and bone of the crucified. The cross undermines the wall dividing Jew and non-Jew, but that is only the beginning. This is only the beginning of the revolution of love that radicalizes all notions of peace, community, and church.
As citizens and members of His household, those promises of the past are made ours! We are not strangers to the promises of grace. He gives them in water, word, bread, and wine. We are not strangers or aliens to His Kingdom, but have entered into it through baptism and the His Word.
You are no longer hopeless and without God in this world. We have access to God in the one Spirit, and we call Him “Father.” In the Old Testament, God is called “Father” only eight times. In the New Testament? He is called “Father” over 200 times! New Testament Christians love calling God “Father”. He is as accessible as a Father! He is a good Father. He is kind, caring, watchful, full of grace and peace. He is not mad, malicious, or menacing towards us. With God as our Father, we always have hope, no matter the circumstances!
But, remember this: The new household of God is not a purely spiritual reality that we visit briefly on Sunday mornings – a weekly time-out in which we pretend peace is possible by sitting next to people we 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.
You are no longer defined in the flesh; by outward appearance or ethnicity. You are defined in Christ. You are a citizen, child, member of the family, loved, sealed, adopted, and chosen, and redeemed. We are defined in Him! God bringing diverse and disparate people together is an affront to the divisive powers of this world. Imagine how subversive the church today would seem if “aliens” and “strangers” were all gathered together in our pews? And isn’t this the message that our world needs to hear? Those struggling with perfectionism, high expectations, or self-worth issues? Those who feel unloved, lonely, or not liked? Those living on the fringes; wondering where – or if – they belong? You are defined in Him.
So smile, rejoice. You were homeless, hopeless and hell-bound, but Paul says that in Jesus, you are members of God’s household, hopeful, and heading towards heaven. Others must hear this truth. God reconciles us to Himself, but we live out this reconciliation in courageous and creative ways through our boundary-breaking relationships with each other.