Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Sermon: Ephesians 2: 11-22 Cross Purposes: Peace

‘The wall was right behind our back garden. We went to bed as usual and got woken up by our mum at some point of the night. The first thing I noticed was loud cheering. I got up to look out the window and just saw people running past, jumping up and down and crying and laughing... It was an amazing event to have witnessed and I still can’t believe this happened right outside of our house. I will never forget that night.’

Another person says this: ‘With tears streaming down his face he kept saying, ‘I never thought I would live to see this.’ What are they remembering? The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989. For almost thirty years the wall had stood, 87 miles long, over 12 feet high and four feet wide, dividing Berlin between East and West; between Communist and Capitalist. Then one night, the wall came down, the border disappeared, and shortly after, Germany was reunited. The wall that had divided Germans for so long was gone.

Those images of East Germans with all sorts of tools, chipping away at the wall, taking souvenirs, came to mind as I read the passage from Ephesians. The dividing wall of hostility being destroyed. People long divided coming together. A wonderful celebration of peace. But as Paul writes these words, he’s not thinking about the fall of the Berlin Wall, as important as that was. He’s thinking of something even more significant; even more important; which affects each one of us directly - you see, as we gather here tonight, we can be a part of the action; we can benefit from the wall coming down; we can experience that peace.

This week we’re asking the question - what did the cross achieve? Last night we thought about reconciliation - how God took the initiative to bring us back from our self-imposed separation, to call us into relationship with him. It’s only possible because Jesus was forsaken on the cross, so that we could be welcomed in. We can be reconciled to God through the death of Jesus.

But, as Jimmy Cricket would say, come here, there’s more. You see, sin doesn’t just bring separation from God, it also brings separation from one another. Just think of the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When God comes and asks what happened, Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on! Adam says, ‘The woman you put here with me - she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’ It’s not my fault - it’s her fault!

Ever since that day when they were kicked out of Eden, and separated from God, we’ve also been separated from each other. The selfishness of sin runs deep, every man for himself, so that Adam and Eve’s son killed his own brother, and on and on it goes. You only have to watch the news to see this playing out day after day, division, war, hostility... Each of us is separated from everyone else. It’s as if we put up walls around us and our own. Will it ever change? Could it ever change? Could we really experience peace?

Paul goes to the greatest division in his day, and uses it as a case study of what the cross of Jesus has achieved. If the cross has made a difference here, then it can transform any and every situation.

Just think of the way we divide people - men and women; old and young; English rugby fans and everyone else in the world supporting whoever they’re playing; and, in a few months time, people will be divided over ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the European Union. In Paul’s day, there was an even bigger divide - Jews and Gentiles. The Jews saw themselves as the chosen people of God, tracing their family tree to Abraham, and following God’s commands. They made sure that they kept themselves separate from everyone else - the Gentiles, the unclean, the impure.They wouldn’t eat with Gentiles; they wouldn’t talk with Gentiles; the dividing wall was firmly in place.

And this dividing wall wasn’t even just in the mind - there was a real dividing wall, at the temple in Jerusalem. Gentiles could only go so far; into the ‘Court of the Gentiles’. A big wall prevented them from coming in to the Court of Women, the Court of the Israelites, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies. There were signs on the gates warning of immediate death if a Gentile went any further. (It was the Court of the Gentiles where the trading took place, the stalls preventing the Gentiles from having space to pray in the only part they were allowed to enter - so when Jesus overturns the tables he says my house is a house of prayer for all nations...).

Paul points to the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility in the temple, which separated Jews and Gentiles. Outside the wall, were the Gentiles - ‘separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.’ (12). That wall stood for hundreds of years, but has now fallen, because of the death of Christ on the cross. Those who were far away have been brought near. That’s the reconciliation we thought of last night, but it also means we have peace with one another.

‘For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.’ (14-15).

The wall dividing Jews and Gentiles has been demolished. The wrecking ball has come, the wall is no more. Jesus has dealt with the hostility, by obeying and fulfilling the law perfectly.

At home I have a big box of toys and props that I’ve gathered up from school assemblies and children’s talks. When our nieces come, there’s one thing they always want to play with from the box - playdough. Now imagine you have some playdough, and you make two people. And I know this couldn’t happen, but imagine those two playdough people fell out. Now imagine that you squish them together into a ball, and out of that lump, you make an even bigger person. The two have become one. You couldn’t see the differences any more, you could only see the one new person.

That’s what Jesus has done. ‘His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which we put to death their hostility.’ (15-16)

This happens in Christ. As we come into relationship with God, we also come into relationship with each other; we become part of the same family. The adopted child doesn’t just belong to their new mum and dad; they belong to the whole family, and relate to their new brothers and sisters as well. To call God our Father is to discover that we have hundreds and thousands of brothers and sisters, from all sorts of backgrounds and nationalities, yet we are one in Christ.

Some of you might know that I like to watch rugby. On a Friday night I might even be found at the Kingspan Stadium, standing up for the Ulster men. Think of what happens when Ulster are playing. Thousands of people decide that they’ll watch the game. From all their different backgrounds, homes, workplaces they’ll come near to the team, to cheer and shout and sing. They’re there for the Ulster team. But it’s not just me in the stands on my own, cheering on the team - I might be loud, but I’m not that loud! As each individual supporter draws near to the team, they’re also drawn closer to all the other supporters as well. As the Ireland’s call goes, we’re shoulder to shoulder. We come for the team, but we’re drawn closer to one another as well.

To be reconciled to God is also to have peace with one another. To have peace with God is also to be reconciled with one another. Just think how amazing it would be to have your name in the Bible. And I’m not talking about writing your name in the inside front cover. To be mentioned in the Bible - how cool would that be?

But there are two ladies who might not agree. They lived in Philippi, they were both Christians, but they didn’t get on together. When Paul wrote his letter to the church in Philippi, he singles them out, he mentions them by name. Imagine sitting there, receiving a letter from Paul, and then hearing your name read out. And what did he say? ‘I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.’ (Phil 4:2). In the Lord, in Christ, agree with each other. Get on together, be reconciled, have peace with one another.

Now perhaps as I mention that, the name or the face of someone has popped into your head. And you think... but... even them? After what they did to me? Yes, in Christ, we need to be at peace. It’s what we pray, probably every day: ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ Do we mean it? Are we living in the peace Christ has obtained for us?

Paul gives us a picture of the purpose of this peace. Here’s the reason why Christ died, why Christ took away the dividing wall of hostility - he’s building a new temple - not of stone with the keep out signs - but a new temple, made up of us, his people. A dwelling place for God, built on Christ the chief cornerstone. We’re drawn to God, and drawn to one another, to be joined to one another for all eternity, one in Christ. People from all sorts of backgrounds, nations, religious roots, but all trusting in Christ and his precious death, which brings us peace with God, and peace with one another. Christ is our peace - will we embrace that peace, and share it with others?

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church at the Cross Purposes Holy Week series on Tuesday 22nd March 2016.

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