Sunday, June 30, 2013

One Spirit, One People, One Peace

Texts:  Isaiah 2:1-5; Ephesians 2:11-22

WHEN I WAS A FRESHMAN IN college, I met a guy at a party who introduced me to the concept of world citizenship.  He said he was working with a group who were lobbying the UN to make my hometown of Kansas City a "city of the world."  Somehow, the very mention of this filled me with excitement.  There was something so big and thrilling about the idea, something larger and grander and more hopeful than anything I'd conceived of before, and the thought that I myself might be involved in it made it all the more amazing.

Well, nothing came of this plan as far as I know, and it's been a long time since I thought that humanity united under a single human government is a good thing.  Still, there's something inherently appealing about the idea of human oneness and unity.  How wonderful it would be-- No barriers, no conflicts, just perfect communication and peace between man and man.

But that's not how things are in this world.  In fact, it seems like parties, opinion groups, and factions are more polarized and more in opposition than ever before in human history.  You probably have friends you don't talk to much any more because every time you get together, you end up in an argument about some issue or other.  With some people you can't even talk about the weather without things getting political!  It wouldn't be so bad if people would stick to evidence and facts, but the dividing walls of hostility are erected so high and so thick things too often end up in name-calling and insults.  So we stay in our own camps with that figurative wall standing between us, and human oneness is only a dream-- if we think it's a good thing at all.

With the way things are today, it should give us perspective on the polarization between the Jews and the Gentiles in the Roman world, as we read in St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians.  But their conflict concerned more than current issues; it cut to the heart of created reality, for was over who or what should be worshipped as the true God and what that deity requires of us as humans.

This question is way bigger than the debate over, say, global warming or government-run health care.  In such matters let us take our stands based on the facts as we know them, but allow that more information may prove us to be wrong.  But in this matter of Jew vs. Gentile-- or, rather, Jew vs. pagan, the Scriptures leave us in no doubt as to who was and is right, or at least, more right, in this conflict.  The Jews absolutely were, before the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only people on the face of this earth who worshipped the true Lord and Creator of the universe, while the gods of the pagans were useless idols.  The Jews were the only ones who'd been given His laws to follow, the only ones whom the Lord had made His people through solemn covenant, the only ones to whom He had powerfully revealed Himself with unshakeable promises of blessing. And although the prophets spoke of a Messiah to come who would somehow bring benefit to the nations as well, they were also clear that it was through Israel alone that this Savior would come. When it came to the divisions between Jews and pagans, it was not a matter of each side giving up a little on the human level and coming to a friendly compromise.  Compromise was something Israel could not do and remain Israel.  For whenever Israel compromised with the Gentile nations, that's when they got into deep trouble.

No, as Paul writes in verse 12, time was when we who were born Gentiles were

separated from Christ [that is, the Messiah of Israel], alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

In fact, for many centuries the dividing wall of hostility was a necessary barrier to preserve Israel from total disobedience and dissolution before the Messiah could come.   It was essential that the pagans and their evil influence be kept at a safe distance from the commonwealth of Israel, and the further off the better.  But, Paul says, the time has come for the dividing wall to be taken down.  Better than that, the time has come when it has been taken down, and the two indeed have become one.

How?  By us holding interfaith councils and agreeing that all religions lead to the same god?  By us avoiding controversial subjects and just talking about puppies and kittens and blue balloons instead?

No.  It took Jesus Christ Himself to break it down and bring Jews and Gentiles together.  For as we see in verses 14 and 15,

He is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances . . .

Now when we read that Jesus has "abolished . . . the law of commandments and ordinances," we might conclude that the Jews were wrong all along and we can indulge in and celebrate all sorts of immoral behavior and do it with Jesus' blessing.  That'd save a lot of arguments, for sure!  But we'd be wrong if we did.  For Paul has just finished, up in verse 10, saying that God has created-- recreated, actually-- us in Jesus Christ for good works.  And all the Scripture tells us that a godly life is the only way to please our Creator.  So what is this abolition?

In such a case, it helps to look at the original Greek. The word translated "abolish" literally means "down-un-acting" and, in the case of this verse, scholars interpret it as "made ineffectual or powerless; nullified; invalidated."  So what was the law considered to be effectual or valid for previous to Christ?  Well, the Jews looked to keeping the Law as an effectual and valid way to please God and be justified in His presence.  And that is what Moses had said by the Spirit in Leviticus, "The man who does these things will live by them"-- that is, have life, peace, and fellowship with the Lord of life.  But by the same Spirit he also said in Deuteronomy, "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law."  And who can live up to that?  The Jews never could.  Certainly the Gentiles could not.  We cannot.  The Law which reflected the holiness of God only served to prove how unholy we all were.  But in His flesh-- in His perfect obedience in life and His sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus fulfilled the commands of the Law in our place and set it aside as the way to peace and fellowship with God.

And as Paul writes in verse 13, in Christ Jesus we (and we're included with the Gentile Ephesians here) who were far off from Israel and alienated from God's promises have been brought near by the blood of Christ, shed for us all on Calvary's cross.  In Christ the vision of Isaiah is fulfilled, when the nations would miraculously stream up to Mount Zion and know peace walking in the ways of the God of Jacob.

I've heard that outside the United Nations building in New York there's a sculpture called "Let Us Beat Our Swords into Plowshares," frankly taking its title from the verses from Isaiah 2 that read,

They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks.

In other words, let's bring about peace on earth.  Well, people, if you're trying to achieve that by what goes on in that building, good luck.  You'll be at it a long, weary time.  No, the Scripture is clear: Man cannot end hostility: Our peace is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone.  In Him is the one and only peace that can make Jew and Gentile one and create one new man out of the two warring peoples.  It took the Son of God made Man to make peace between God's covenant people and those who before had been excluded from His covenant, and He did it by His atoning death.

But His death accomplished even more.  As wonderful as it was that Jesus should make one people out of the warring human factions of Jew and Gentile,  He also reconciled humanity to Almighty God.

And we all needed reconciliation to God.  Because as we can read in Ephesians 2:3, by nature-- fallen human nature-- we are all children of wrath.  In our natural sinful state we are at war with God and God is at war with us.  But in Christ and through Christ and because of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God who is rich in mercy chose us in love to be saved through Him.  And so now, as verse 16 says, He has reconciled both groups "to God in one body through the cross, bringing the hostility to an end."

But how does this come to be true for you and me?  Verse 18 answers that question: it is the work of the Holy Spirit who gives us access to the Father through Jesus Christ our mutual Lord.  By His gracious work we're no longer illegal aliens who deserve no amnesty; God Himself as in Psalm 87 has declared us to be born citizens of the heavenly Zion and by Christ His living Word it is so.  In Jesus we are made fellow-citizens with the saints-- and by that Paul would have meant the holy men and women of faithful Israel-- and members of the household of God.  In Christ the earthly nation of Israel is redeemed and rebuilt together with the elect Gentiles into the spiritual Zion, founded upon the apostles and prophets with Jesus as the head and cornerstone.  The dividing wall has been broken down, and in its place one building rises under His power.  Together we are that building, and it is no ordinary house: it is a holy temple intended for the dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

I hope you have a sense of how beautiful this is!  But beyond that I want us all to understand the power these beautiful truths must have for our lives in this fallen world.

First of all, we were not saved to be lone-wolf, individualized Christ-followers.  Back up in verse 11, the apostle begins this passage with the word "therefore."  In the previous verses he was reminding us of our salvation in Christ and God's will for our lives in consequence of that.  But we are not on our own.  God raised us up in Christ to be incorporated into one holy people by the ministry of one Spirit.  It is absolutely false that you can be a perfectly good Christian without being part of Christ's church.  Membership in Christ's church is a fundamental part of what you were saved for.  Indeed, everyone who has been reconciled to God in Jesus Christ is a member of His Church whether he or she is able to sit in a pew or not.  Therefore, let us support and build up and act in love towards one another, for Jesus Christ is our peace.  In Him and in the power of His Spirit we can demonstrate that we are one new man, as we look out for the good of on another just as we would for ourselves.

Second, we cannot take our position as citizens of the heavenly Zion for granted, as something that simply comes with our living in our particular time and place.  No, for if things had kept on going as they had for hundreds of years, we who are not ethnic Jews would have remained strangers and aliens, unforgiven sinners, with no hope and without God in the world.  It is by grace you have been saved, just as it is by grace that the Jews who believe in Jesus as their Messiah have by grace come to know that reality.  This should give us all a sense of humility before God and a heart of compassion towards our unsaved pagan neighbors.  For we were once as they are, and the blood of Christ that brought us near to God will, in His mercy, one day bring them in as members of the household of faith, too.  So let us conduct our lives in the power of the Spirit so Christ indeed will be seen in us, that through us others might also be reconciled to the God who made them.

This brings us to the third and final truth I believe we should take from our Scripture readings today.  Despite our compassion, there will always be plenty of people around us who are perfectly content to be without God in this world.  We Christians, they charge, are the ones who are unenlightened.  Indeed, when we conduct ourselves as citizens of God's holy nation and stand up for His righteousness in this world, we will be reviled as fools, bigots, even as enemies of humanity.  It can be hard living as a Christian in this world, the way things are going.  It may threaten your position, your income, and your reputation.  But you are members of Christ's one holy nation, and our heavenly citizenship takes precedence over all other loyalties.  Yes, let us be good Americans, good members of our political parties, good trade union members, good service club members, good members of our families.  But when any direction or practice or mindset of our nation, party, union, club, yes, even of our own families contradicts the will and nature of God as we know it from His revealed Word, He calls and commands us to stand firm in the Spirit and hold fast to the truth of Christ.

It won't be easy, but we can do it.  We can do it because we are God's one new people through His one Holy Spirit.  And the one peace we rest in is Jesus Christ Himself.  He is the Peace that will always last and never fail.  He has already accomplished the cosmic work of making peace between Jew and Gentile, and between both of us and God.  And so we can find our peace in Him, no matter what our conflict with the world may be.  Rejoice, Church of God!  We are His people, bought with His blood and brought together by His Spirit.  We are God's holy temple, His dwelling place on earth, and He will see to it that His temple, His spiritual Zion, stands forever, to the glory of His name.

1 comment:

Greg Gardner said...

Do you mind telling me about the image / art work you've included in your post? Who is the artist and what is the subject of the work? Thank you.