8 Pentecost proper B11
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Ephesians 2:11-22 Sermon
July 22, 2012
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
339 "All Hail The Power Of Jesus' Name"
276 "Come Unto Me, Ye Weary"
284 "Father Of Mercies, In Thy Word"
466 "Christ Thou Art The Sure Foundation"
THE WALLS THAT DIVIDE ARE NO MORE
TEXT (v. 3-4): “19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
It was just this past week that I was watching a documentary on television about Pelican Bay. Now I'm not talking about the Florida holiday resort either. No, the Pelican Bay I'm speaking about is in California. It is the maximum-security prison for the state. This is where society's worst of the worst wind up serving their prison sentences, many of whom will never see life on the outside of those prison walls.
Pelican Bay is located just outside of Crescent City, California on 275 acres of land. The capacity of the prison is supposed to be 2,380 people; however as of April 2012, the total population of the prison is 3,081. The place is definitely overcrowded.
Inside the prison is an X-shaped complex known as the Secure Housing Unit, or the SHU as it is commonly known. This is basically a prison within a prison. This unit is comprised of a series of 8-foot by 10-foot concrete cells, and has a population of 1,107.
The whole documentary is unsettling, if not down right scary. To control the inmate population, Pelican Bay doesn't have the normal prison guards. Instead, it has its own police force, which is a certified law enforcement agency. And when you consider the type of people housed in that facility, it's not hard to understand why they have to take the security measures that they do.
Pelican Bay has highly secure prison walls, and we can be glad that they do. Those walls are designed to keep the bad people inside, so they are isolated from the rest of the population. This is done for the protection of the public. When the bad people are incarcerated, then we can feel safe from them. Even when I drive down South 14th Street in Lincoln and pass the Nebraska Penitentiary, I have thought to myself that I'm glad they're in there, and I'm out here. I appreciate the safety measures that the Nebraska Department of Corrections employs.
If you stop and think about it, the inmates have at least in a metaphoric sense, constructed those prison walls themselves. With each crime they commit, they are adding just a little bit more to those walls. So when they are apprehended and sentenced, they have to realize that they are the ones who put themselves inside those walls. By their actions, they have chosen to be where they are. The old expression is very true: "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime." In Romans chapter 13, verse 4 Paul reminds us: "But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer."
This morning, our Epistle lesson is a portion of Paul's letter to the congregation at Ephesus. One of the things we know about this particular congregation, is that it consisted of a mixed bag of Jews and Gentiles. And there were some huge walls that divided them. It wasn't a division like a prison wall where society's ne'er-do-wells were separated from the public, even though these two groups may have thought that way. These walls were representative of the age-old hostility between two different groups of people. And Paul's objective here is to tear down those walls.
The problem here was that Paul had to deal with a type of hostility that became more and more hardened with each generation. As much as he wanted to do it, Paul couldn't be the one to tear down those walls. This is something that the people had to do themselves. The people had to realize that it was God's will for them to be a united Church, and not one that was divided because of some old traditions.
Today we find it hard to comprehend the great hostility between these two groups. But many Jews had acquired the inflated notion that they alone were worthy of God’s favor. There were some of the Jews who were saying that the Gentiles were merely fuel for the fires of hell. The Jews were highly conscious and very proud of the fact that they alone had been chosen by God as his special nation. And they were quite right.
But they had also forgotten that the whole purpose of their favored status was to be a light for the Gentiles. Remember what Simeon said when the baby Jesus was brought to the temple? Luke chapter 2, verses 30-32 records his words: "30 for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel."
Jesus came so that all people, irrespective of who or what they are, would know the salvation he brought to the world. In John chapter 8, Jesus is having quite a dialogue with the Pharisees. Verses 32-34 is part of this dialogue: [Jesus said]: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
You can see the wall there, can't you? The Pharisees took great pride in their Jewish heritage, and they did so at the exclusion of everybody else. Those walls were built by years and years of tradition and hostility.
But wait a minute. The Jews weren't the only "bad guys" in this scenario. The Gentiles resented the arrogance of the Jewish groups, and were prone to isolate and persecute them. As Paul writes in this letter, a dividing wall of hostility stood between these two groups of people.
The problem is starting to become clearer. An increasing number of Jews and Gentiles were coming to a common faith in Christ. Jews and Gentiles were becoming members of one church. They were sharing a "common pew," so-to-speak. So did those hostilities and prejudices just vanish into thin air? It would have been great if they had. Many Jewish and Gentile Christians still only barely tolerated each other, if that. They still called each other names. The Gentiles referred to Jews as "the circumcised;" and the Jews referred to Gentiles as "the foreskins." That explains why Paul’s letters reflect a deep concern that Jews and Gentiles come to recognize each other as full members of God’s family. Much of Paul’s work consisted of reconciliation between these two groups. And that concern also lies behind today’s Epistle lesson.
It's interesting to see how Paul handles this situation. He simply reminds them of what Christ did for them on their behalf. By his death and resurrection, Jesus demolished that wall of hostility. There was no dividing wall between Israel and the rest of humanity any longer.
When Jesus brought these people together, he didn't tear down the wall and just walk away. He didn't say, "Okay people, the wall is gone, let's see if you can get along now." He remains alive and active in his Church today. He has promised that wherever two or three are gathered in his Name, he is right there with them. Jesus himself is the true cornerstone of the church that is built on the foundation of the Prophets and the Apostles. And that took a unified effort where Jew and Gentile had to work together for a common mission. He picks up this scattered people and through the Holy Spirit, unites them in one true faith. Through faith in him alone, all people become part of God's one family, which is not only to be seen in the Church on earth, but in heaven for all eternity.
Well here we are, many years removed from that original congregation at Ephesus. And do you know what? We're every bit as talented at building walls as those Jews and Gentiles were back then. And in my years in the ministry, I have seen those walls being built. Like those Jews and Gentiles, everybody was blaming someone else for all the problems. In reality however, it was more like one person was making the bricks while the other person was mixing the mortar. The result was a wall every bit as tight as the walls surrounding the prison at Pelican Bay in California. The difference is that the people separated by that wall are prisoners on both sides of it. It's a lose/lose situation.
I think that we can all look at our lives and see places where those walls exist. We might not like to admit it, we might want to turn a blind eye to it, and we might like to point our fingers at somebody else and blame them for everything without accepting any blame for ourselves. That's the way human nature works. It's like the old saying goes, when you point a finger at somebody else, you always have three fingers pointing back at yourself.
The problem is like I stated earlier, the only people who can tear down that wall are those who built it in the first place. We can swing the wrecking ball of the law at those walls all day long, and nothing will happen. In fact, the walls may even get stronger. As a pastor, I've tried doing that very thing, and I can tell you that it just doesn't work. It can indeed be frustrating too.
It's only when the Gospel turns and softens the hearts that things will happen. That's why Paul speaks to the Ephesians the way that he does. Listen to verses 14-18 of our Epistle lesson: "14 For [Christ Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 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, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father."
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only way that walls of hostility can be broken. If we think about our own relationship with God, the wall of sin is what has separated us from him. With that wall in place, there is no access to the Father in heaven. There is nothing we can do according to our own power to break down that wall. We might as well be attacking that wall with rubber balls and water pistols.
That's why the Apostle Paul and others in Scripture point us to Jesus Christ and him alone. Christ has done what we are powerless to do. Through his death on the cross, he paid the price for our sins and the sins of the entire world. He bore the punishment for all of those sins, and that punishment is what has brought us peace and reconciliation.
Through Jesus, sin has been defeated, death has been defeated, and Satan himself has been defeated. That wall of hostility between sinful mankind and a holy and righteous God has been forever broken.
Faith alone is what brings us into a relationship with Jesus our Saviour. For most of us, that faith began right at our baptism. The Holy Spirit gave us a saving faith in Christ Jesus, and made us a part of God's holy family. The Holy Spirit continues to work in our hearts as we grow in our faith and gather together as a body of believers in the visible Church on earth. We are a group of people who have individually had that wall of sin removed in our lives because of our God-given faith in Jesus Christ. Through faith in him, we have a relationship and not just a religion.
This is what we have in mind now as we consider the final words of our Epistle for this morning. Verses 19-22 read: "19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit."
Think of it this way. Paul is telling us that we need to be building walls, but not walls of hostility and separation. The walls we need to be building are the walls of Christ's Church. These are walls we build together so that the Church of Christ increases and grows stronger.
Within these walls there is no room for walls of hostility and separation. Christ's Church gathers people from every race and clan, irrespective of who they are or what they have done. The Gospel of forgiveness is for everybody, and it excludes nobody. All who have faith in Jesus as their Saviour is a part of his Church. That's why we can so confidently say at the beginning of the service: "Beloved in the Lord! Let us draw near with a true heart and confess our sins unto God our Father, beseeching him in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to grant us forgiveness."
Paul reminds us that Christ's Church is indeed built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself as the cornerstone. We cannot forget the importance of God's inspired and inerrant Word. As Christ's Church, we have to continue in this Word as his disciples. That's where God speaks to us as clearly today as he has down through the ages. That's where we look for hope and comfort. That's where we find our Saviour.
As Lutherans, we often use the term: "pure marks of the Church," which is the way we identify Christ's Church on earth. There are two marks, namely: where the Word of God is preached in its truth and purity, and where the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper are administered according to that Word. When the Church is built upon this foundation, its walls are stronger and more secure than Pelican Bay prison, or any structure known to mankind.
This morning, we can rejoice because the walls that divide us are no more. We are all one in Christ Jesus. As one in Christ, may we always be focused upon building the walls of his Church, and not waste our time on building walls of separation, discord, and hatred.