11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”– a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands– 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (NRSV)
When I went home for lunch earlier this week, my daughter was showing me a Lego treehouse she had built. She showed me the ladder, and the secret hiding place for treasure that you could open and close. She showed me the bed, and all the features of the room she had designed. And she showed me the two Lego people who share the treehouse. Then she told me about how one character gets this half of the treehouse, and the other character gets the other half. It made me chuckle because I was trying to come up with ideas for how to begin this sermon. I thought, ‘That was easy.’
The Lego treehouse mirrored real life for her. Kara and Charlotte share a bedroom. They’ve cordoned off separate corners of the room for some of their doll stuff. When I was a kid, I shared a room with my brother. When we got too annoyed with each other, we would claim territory and mark off sides of the room. Joy and I have a rule in the house, No Toys Upstairs! The kids have the basement, and the boundary for toys is the stairs. They’re not allowed to bring their mess into our living space.
It’s what we do, isn’t it? In Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall, the phrase is twice said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” In the poem, two neighbors meet every year to mend the stone wall that divides their properties. They walk the line, putting fallen stones back into place. But the speaker doesn’t understand the purpose of the wall. When he asks about it, his neighbor merely repeats the line, “Good fences make good neighbors.” It’s just something that has to be for no other reason than it has to be. Good fences make good neighbors is actually a proverb that is found in many cultures and languages.
You can see the shift in American culture just by looking at the architecture of the family home. Older homes often have a large front porch where neighbors used to meet and chat. But that has given way to the fenced-in back yard where no one can see inside. The front porch is now a tiny thing just large enough for people to get to the front door. We have a penchant for marking our boundaries and keeping other people on the other side.
One could even argue that the commandments in the Law of Moses acted as a kind of peacekeeping boundary. Perhaps God saw that we need boundaries for self-preservation and protection, and to keep us from unwanted interference in the lives of our neighbors. The commandments, Do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, all define boundaries. This is mine. That is yours. Let’s keep our hands to ourselves and to our own stuff, that way we can all get along swimmingly.
Ephesians is an occasional letter. It was written to a specific people about specific stuff on a specific occasion. You may remember that one of the major controversies during Paul’s lifetime was the question about how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians fit together. They didn’t always mix well in the early days. The city of Antioch in Syria actually had two church congregations: one for Gentiles and one for Jews.
There was even a group of Jews following around in Paul’s footsteps making demands that Gentile Christians become Jews first. Gentiles needed to be circumcised before they could really call themselves followers of Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus was a Jew. He was the son of David, a Jewish King. He was the long-expected Jewish Messiah. These folks were called the Judaizers, and Paul got pretty mad at them. They wanted to bring Gentiles onto their side of the fence, but Paul argued that’s not how God’s grace works!
The problems between Gentiles and Jews extended much further back than the first days of the church. It’s a problem that has been around since the beginning of the Law of Moses. The Law formed a boundary. It forbade certain kinds of intermingling between Jews and Gentiles. It’s not surprising that conflict and animosity arose between Gentiles and Jews.
One form of insult that both groups had for the other was to describe each other as atheos. It means without God. But it’s an insult. It doesn’t sound too insulting today because so many people claim to be atheists all the time. But in the ancient world to be described as atheos implied that one was uncivilized. Both Gentiles and Jews accused each other of this.
To the Gentiles, who were often simply referred to as the Greeks, the Jews who rejected the gods and their laws were no better than anarchists. They threatened the civility, uniformity, and well-being of Greco-Roman society itself. To reject the gods is a failure of Roman civic duty. If you don’t honor the gods, they might become angry and go on a killing spree. No one wanted to be on the wrong end of one of Zeus’s lightning bolts just because one ethnic group in a dinky little region of the empire failed to honor the gods like good Roman citizens.
To the Jews, the Gentiles who rejected their God as the One True God, were unenlightened fools who, despite their proud philosophical achievements, knew nothing of the truth. There is one God. The pantheon of gods who know nothing of morality or justice is ridiculous.
Yet, Paul uses this word, atheos, in regard to the Gentiles. He says, “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.”
Atheos. “No God.” This is an antagonistic, hostile, insulting word. But Paul uses it in order to show the breadth of the separation between Jews and Gentiles. In using this word, Paul is telling the Gentile Christians, you Greeks were wrong about God. The fact that you’ve now accepted Jesus Christ says that you know you were wrong about God. But in Christ, God has made both groups into one. It isn’t a peaceful coexistence and two separate groups, it’s a new thing. It’s essentially a new humanity!
If you’ve read the book of Acts, you know what a huge surprise this was for the early church. None of the Jewish Christians expected the Gentiles to be included in the promise of salvation.
As Gentiles, the message of Paul in Ephesians is meant for us. We’re the ones who were far off, but have now been brought near. We’re the ones who were without hope. We’re the ones who were atheos, without God. This was us. And it’s only by God’s grace in Jesus Christ that we have been included, brought near, folded in.
The cost for this was the blood of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God didn’t just tear down the wall that divided us, but eliminated the hostility behind the wall. God united us into one.
The Good News of the Christian Faith, here in Ephesians, is that reconciliation is not a dream. It’s a present reality that we can live into now. Even if the world is still torn apart by war, conflict, division, and strife, Christ has become our peace. It isn’t only that Christ proclaims peace or makes peace, Christ is our peace.
The irony of our time is that we Christians have forgotten this in so many ways. Battles are fought between Christian groups who each believe their rivals are atheos. At Annual Conference this year we had elections for the upcoming General and Jurisdictional conferences. And people on both sides of issues are talking about separation from each other as the only path forward. Arguments are still breaking out all over social media. It makes me wonder if we Christians know anything about reconciliation and peace at all. Do we really have a clue about what God has accomplished for us?
Paul was probably wondering the same thing when he wrote this part of Ephesians. The tense of the verbs in this text tell us that, for Paul, this reconciliation and peace is an already accomplished fact. You were without Christ. But now you have been brought near. He is our peace. He has made both groups into one. He has broken down the dividing wall. “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity instead of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”
The reality of our world in conflict stands in stark contrast to the reality of Christ as our peace. When we proclaim Christ, we are proclaiming peace. There’s no other way around it. Christ is our peace. That’s a message that the world, and probably a lot of Christians, need to hear. Christ is our peace. It’s a done deal.
And yet, there’s a bigger picture within view of Paul’s words here. Jesus came to proclaim peace to those who were far off (meaning we Gentiles) and to those who were near. This way, both groups have access to the Father through the one Spirit. So we’re all citizens of God’s kingdom. We’re all members of God’s household. But more than that, we are God’s home. The peace that is Christ is more than reconciliation between differing groups of people. It’s also reconciliation between us and God. We are no longer atheos. Instead, through Christ, we are a holy temple in the Lord. We are built together spiritually as a dwelling place for God.
In the world, good fences might make good neighbors, but in Christ everything that divides us from one another and from God has been wiped out. It’s a stunning re-imagination, not only of how things ought to be, but of how things are. The church is not a place where parishioners gather together—it’s not a building we come in to. Rather, we, the people of God, have become the very household where God chooses to live. We are the community in which God abides. If God lives in each of us, then there’s no room for division. We forget that human divisions can alienate us from God as well as one another.
What are the walls we’ve built up in our lives? Who are the people with whom we might need to seek reconciliation? What are the things that divide us?
Christ is our peace. Christ has reconciled us to God and to one another. This is the Good News: that we can have genuine love and respect for each other even when we feel like cordoning off a room. In Christ, God has removed the hostility that separates us from each other, and from God. In Christ, we are one.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] unless otherwise noted).