by Daryl Byler
February 18, 2006
Ephesians 2:11-22; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17
In the early 1980s, we formed a business partnership for junior high age boys in the neighborhood around Hooper Street. One of the first challenges was to help the youth change their image of themselves from being employees to being business owners. Initially, they figured that they were my employees and that I was probably taking advantage of them. Eventually, they began to understand that, as business owners, they stood to do well if the business did well, and poorly if it did not.
The first thing that Jesus did when he called his disciples was to help them think about themselves in new ways. They had been fishermen. Jesus wanted them to understand themselves as fishers of men. Fishing is not a bad thing. Jesus just had something better in mind for them.
Revival is about embracing our true identity as followers of Jesus. Last evening we talked about our identity as God’s children. This evening we’re going to focus on another biblical image about our identity – that we are God’s temple.
What comes to mind when you think of a temple? The Taj Mahal in India? One of the grand cathedrals of Europe? I think of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Or the Mormon Temple in Washington, D.C. Or the National Cathedral. Or the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. All are stunning buildings.
Jesus’s disciples also thought of a temple in terms of a building. Mark writes: “As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down'” (Mk. 13:1-2).
On the other hand, Jesus – and the New Testament writers – are more concerned about the living stones that make up the church. They describe the church as God’s temple or God’s household – the place where God dwells.
Why is it so important that the we understand our identity as God’s temple? Because God’s temple is the primary place where people meet God. It’s true that we can meet God in nature or in personal devotional times. But God’s temple is the primary place where we meet God. God’s temple is the meeting place of the human and divine. God’s temple is the place where people are restored to right relationship. God’s temple is the place where people find healing and hope. God’s temple is where folks come to worship and to find clarity for their lives. God’s temple is a haven from all that is broken in the world.
Indeed, if one looks at the world, it seems like a pretty violent and divided place. U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan recently lamented: “The world is a really messy place. I have not seen it this bad ever since my association with the U.N.” In making his dismal assessment, Annan cited global poverty, AIDS, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, environmental degradation, and serious conflicts in 19 areas of the world.
Our own nation has launched a global war on terror that promises to go on for years if not decades. In Washington, there is increasing talk about military attacks on Iran. If you’re like me, sometimes – given all this division in the world – you may feel helpless and perhaps almost hopeless about what to do.
This evening we’ll look primarily at Ephesians 2 – which, along with a similar text in I Corinthians 3 – speaks about the church as God’s temple or dwelling place. I would argue that this text is perhaps one of Paul’s most important contributions to our understanding of what it means to be Christian.
Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus from his prison cell in Rome. Ephesians is among the most powerful of Paul’s letters.
Chapters 1 through 3 of Ephesians contain a sweeping vision of God’s grand purposes to unite all things in Christ – beginning with the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles. The remainder of Paul’s letter offers more practical advice for living in reconciled relationships. Our text today makes three primary points:
1. Divisions are real (vv.11-12)
Thankfully, divisions are not new to our time and setting. Divisions were felt just as deeply thousands of years ago. The New Testament division was not between Christian and Muslim. Or between Americans and North Koreans. Or between black and white. Rather, it was between Jews and Gentiles.
Paul makes no attempt to paper over the deeply felt divisions between Jews and Gentiles. In today’s text, Paul begins by reminding his Gentile readers of the longstanding hostility between them and the Jews. Folks used derogatory labels back then, too. The Jews proudly called themselves “the circumcision” – the literal mark of their special relationship with God. By contrast, they disdainfully referred to the Gentiles as “the uncircumcision.” There were insiders and outsiders.
Paul reminds his Gentile readers that previously they were way outside the religious mainstream. At one time, they were “without Christ… aliens from the commonwealth of Israel… strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (v.12). That’s pretty bad!
In his commentary on Ephesians, Mennonite biblical scholar Tom Yoder Neufeld says that to allege that the Gentiles were once “without Christ” was to imply that “they were excluded from the community from whom and for whom the Messiah would come.” In other words, they were beyond hope! And later when Paul describes the Gentiles as being “without God” he uses the word from which we get our word “atheist.” This “is exactly how Jews viewed Gentiles: hopelessly adrift in the universe,” says Yoder Neufeld.
Indeed, it may be difficult for us to fully realize how deep was the animosity between Jews and Gentiles. The Jewish practice of circumcision and their observance of many religious rules and regulations created a sense of superiority among the Jews and contributed to their sense of disdain for the Gentiles. At the same time, these practices and attitudes created a strong anti-Jewish backlash among the Gentiles. So the hatred ran both ways.
One of most visible expressions of this hostility between Jews and Gentiles was found in the temple in Jerusalem. There, a wall divided the inner court sanctuary – which was open only to Jews – from the outer court, which was also open to Gentiles.
The historian Josephus tells us that, along this dividing wall – posted at regular intervals – there were bilingual warnings in Greek and Latin. An excavation in 1871 uncovered one of these warnings which read: “No man of another race is to proceed within the partition and enclosing wall about the sanctuary; and anyone arrested there will have himself to blame for the penalty of death which will be imposed as a consequence.”
We can only understand the power of this text if we understand the depth of enmity that existed between the Jews and Gentiles. Dividing walls. Separation. Disdain. Division are real.
2. Christ is our peace (vv.13-16)
In spite of this long history of division between Jews and Gentiles, Paul writes that Christ “is our peace” (v.14). When Paul says that Christ “is our peace,” he means both that Christ restores us to relationship with God and that Christ has made possible reconciliation in the human family. So evangelism and peacemaking are both part and parcel of the good news.
Paul uses a number of phrases and images in verses 13-16 to describe the broad scope of Christ’s reconciling work. In short, Paul says that Christ has eliminated the root causes of the hostile division between Jews and Gentiles. Both groups are reconciled to God through the cross.
Far and near. First, Paul says that those who once were far off – the Gentiles – “have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v.13). In using this image of far and near, Paul cleverly borrows from the prophet Isaiah who once distinguished the Jewish exiles who were far off in Babylon from those who were left behind in a decimated homeland (Isaiah 57:19). And just as God had once restored the Jewish exiles, now, in Christ, God would do the same thing for the Gentiles.
Jews and Gentiles focused on their differences. But, as Paul infers, both groups had this much in common: each had known the experience of being estranged from God. The sacrificial life and death of Christ would benefit all who would believe – both Jew and Gentile.
Dividing wall. Second, Paul says that Christ has broken down the dividing wall that represented the hostility between Jews and Gentiles (v.14). I noted earlier that this dividing wall in the temple kept Gentiles from having access to the inner court of the temple where they could worship God. Instead, they were banished to the outer court where they had to contend with the noise and distraction of the merchants and moneychangers. The wall was a constant reminder that the Gentiles were second class at best. Paul says that Christ broke down the dividing wall in order to make both groups one and offer both groups equal access to God.
When you travel by air, a curtain divides first class – with all of its attendant benefits – from coach class, where the ordinary folks sit! Paul’s point in this text is that, in Christ, there is no longer first class and second class citizens.
Abolish the law. Third, Paul says that Christ “has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances” (v.15). At first blush, this statement seems to be at odds with the comment of Jesus when he said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17).
What Paul is most likely referring to is not the law insofar as that term described God’s divine will for humanity. But rather, the human-contrived law of endless rules, commandments and dogmas of which Jesus was so critical.
Being faithful to God’s law would have drawn the Jews closer to God and to their neighbors. But this human-made law with all its regulations and legalisms, had only served to separate the Jews from God and had been a source of their disdain for the Gentiles. God’s people were to be a blessing to the nations. But instead, they had set themselves in opposition to the nations – the Gentiles.
In Christ, the far off are brought near; the dividing wall has been torn down; and the law that separated Jews and Gentiles has been abolished. In short, Christ is our peace, because Christ has dismantled, disarmed, put to death and made a public spectacle of those things we humans construct to make us feel special and superior – things that cut us off from God and from one another. And in their place, God has reconstructed one new family in place of the two (v.15) and has reconciled both groups to God in one body (v.16).
3. The church is God’s new dwelling place (vv.17-22)
There was a lot of buzz in Washington a year ago when a deal was announced to bring the Montreal Expos to Washington, D.C.! The Washington Nationals are – for the time being – playing in an old stadium within walking distance of our house. Meanwhile plans for building a new stadium are creating quite a ruckus because it means tearing down some long-standing businesses and houses.
This is the image that Paul uses here – Christ demolishes the old order so that he can build the new. In this “one new humanity in Christ” – which we call the church – Christ is reconciling former enemies and constructing a new temple where God can dwell.
The old temple, because of its dividing wall, had been a painful symbol of alienation and separation between Jews and Gentiles. But this new temple will be the symbol of reconciliation and unity.
The mother of one of my friends in Washington recently remarried after being widowed for several years. As is often the case, both she and the widower that she married decided that they would each sell their old houses and buy a new house together. That way they could grow into their new home together rather than one needing to make all the adjustments of coming on to the other’s “turf.”
New Testament scholar Francis Beare makes a similar observation about the way in which Christ formed “one new humanity” from the Gentiles and Jews. Beare writes that it was “not by the victory of one part over another, (not) by the conversion of the Gentile world to Judaism, but by the harmonious union of the warring elements into something altogether new… The Gentiles, who were ‘alienated from the commonwealth of Israel,’ are not beaten into submission to the religion of Israel, but are given an equal part in the making of the new (family).”
The struggle in the early church was that some of the Jewish Christians insisted that the Gentiles must first become Jews if they wanted to be Christian. Paul argued against this. He said that, when we come to Christ, there is a new creation that is different than any of the parts.
We face the same temptation today when we insist that people first become Mennonites or Baptists or Methodists or Presbyterians if they want to be a Christian (or at least a good Christian!). As new people come into the church from different backgrounds, we must all make changes – just like in a marriage.
So what might all of this mean for Jubilee in 2006?
Jubilee has had a long-standing involvement with Habitat for Humanity. Habitat has a grand vision to eliminate poverty housing from the face of the earth.
God has an even grander vision. God’s vision is to have dwelling places for His Spirit in every corner and community of the earth. God isn’t so concerned about having magnificent stone temples in every city. But God is concerned about having a place to dwell in every town.
Here’s the interesting thing: God doesn’t demand fancy mansions. But God does have one expectation – that none of his dwelling places have dividing walls. God will not dwell where we humans rebuild the walls that Christ tore down. God will not dwell where we create separate rooms, so to speak, for people from different nations, cultures, races, classes, or denominations. God will not dwell where we create first and second class Christians. When we do rebuild the walls that separate folks into first and second class Christians, it is as if we are destroying God’s temple. It is as if we are opposing the very work of Christ on the cross.
Instead, the church is to be living proof of God’s mighty power to reconcile. If we are not willing to live in reconciled relationships, we should not expect God to be present in our midst.
You are God’s temple. The church is God’s temple – the place where God dwells.
The church has a high calling. When we gather, God dwells in our midst. And that means folks should be able to come through the doors and meet God. It means that people should be able to come to church and find healing for their brokenness. It means that people should be able to come to church and find purpose and direction for their lives. It means that people should be able to come and witness the power of God that reconciles persons from many different kinds of backgrounds. Too often, though, people come to church and find judgment. They find it hard to fit in. They experience divisions. They may feel like second class.
In this community, in this neighborhood, will Jubilee embrace its identity as God’s temple – the place where God’s Spirit dwells? Will God’s Spirit find welcome here? Or will God’s Spirit find walls, divisions, first and second class?