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Would you pray with me? Father, we thank you for the gifts of this day, and the privilege of gathering in your holy name. And we thank you for the gift of your word, which is living and active and sharper than any two edged sword. And we ask now that your word would accomplish in us as that which you’ve sent it on this day. All these things we pray in the powerful name of Jesus. Amen.
Well, good morning. My high school Spanish teacher was named Mrs. Dietz. She assigned us a project our junior year of high school, and the project was this; we had to find a clip, a scene from a television show, and then we had to translate that scene into Spanish, and then we had to say that entire scene in front of our Spanish class. So, rather than me learning more Spanish, I just looked for the easiest scene possible to translate. I was flipping channels over the next couple days, and I came across Sesame Street, and there was a specific scene with Grover in it. If you don’t remember Grover, he was the little furry blue monster, friendly guy, and in this scene, Grover ran up to the screen and said, “Near,” and then he ran far away from the screen, turned around and said, “Far”. And that’s all he did, over and over. He would run near, far, near, far–and I thought, this is perfect, this is an easy thing for me to translate. Well, Mrs. Dietz would be very proud because 38 years later, I still know that “cerca” means near and “lejos” means far.
But the Sesame Street skit was intended to teach kids the basic difference between near and far, thinking of near and far as this spatial difference. In Ephesians 2, Paul is dealing with much the same idea. Paul is explaining the difference between being near and far to the Ephesians as it relates to their relationship with God. Now, I would encourage you, we’re going to look at the specific words in this reading, so if you would grab your pew Bible right in front of you, and turn to page 976.
The first 10 verses of this chapter are really a before and after picture. It’s a snapshot of what Christ has done before and after in our lives. So, before Christ, we were dead, and after trusting in Christ, we have been made alive. Now, this same theme continues with verse 11. In this section, we see another before and after comparison. So look with me at verse 12, and the words that Paul uses to describe us, the Gentiles who were far from God.
Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
We see words like “separated” and “alienated” and we were “strangers”, we were “without hope” and we were “without God”. Quite a bleak picture of who you and I were apart from Christ. But the good news is, if we jump ahead to the end of this passage, look at verse 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.
It’s quite a remarkable difference, so we have to ask: what happened to cause such a difference between being hopeless aliens and strangers, to now being called citizens and members of the household of God?
Well, what happened? Verse 13 happened.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
It’s one of the great lines in all of Scripture that powerfully, yet succinctly, captures this gospel truth– that we were far from God, but through Christ, we are now near to him.
Now, this idea of being far from God and near to God is not necessarily unique to the Christian faith. However, how one goes from being far to near is what distinguishes the Christian faith from every other religion.
The Good And Bad News Of The Gospel
Other religions focus on what we must do to bridge that gap, what we must do to move toward God to narrow that gap. But notice that verse 13 does not read, but you who were far off have made your way closer to God. Instead, it reads, “But you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” So, the bad news of the gospel is that you and I are powerless to narrow the gap. You and I, in our deadness apart from Christ, cannot make ourselves any nearer to God on our own.
But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus has made that way. He is the one who brings us. It says that Christ has brought us near. Now that word brought literally means to come into existence, or to make alive. Paul is continuing this theme of “from deadness to life” from verses 1-10, and now we see that expounded upon in these verses; this same idea that Christ’s work on the cross did not just bring us a little bit closer to God, he brought us all the way to a full life and relationship with him.
So just simply put, if we were to understand the gospel, apart from Christ we were dead and far from God; in Christ, we are made alive and are near to God.
Promise Of Relationship, Not Place
Now, maybe it’s early, it’s hot, you’re not relating well to Paul’s words. Jesus in John’s gospel says the exact same thing.
In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also.
Those are words of promise that are often heard at funerals and times in which we need comfort about those we’ve lost and the very promises of faith themselves. But notice that these are not promises of a place. These are promises of relationship. They’re words of closeness, of intimacy, of being near to God.
I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience where maybe you’ve been on a long family road trip. And at the end of the day, everybody’s hungry, they’re worn out, the kids are especially whiny, and you finally roll into that hotel parking lot. And you roll out of the car, you grab all the suitcases, you grab the kids, you grab all the kids’ stuff that they’ve been messing with over the past ten hours, and you make it into the hotel lobby, and you drop everything there. And you check in. The man behind the counter gives you your keys and then he pulls out the little map of the hotel. At that point, is there any more discouraging word than him saying, “You’re going to want to get back in your car and drive around to the back side of the hotel.” Is there anything worse for team morale in that moment than turning and telling your kids, “We’ve got to get back in the car.” In a sense, you are in the right place, but it seems so far away, it might as well be another state.
In some ways, friends, I come across too many Christians who would very much relate to this metaphor. That in some ways we’re in the right place: we have the head knowledge of what Christ has done for us. And yet, God feels so far away that he might as well be in another state. If that’s you, then listen to Jesus’s words again. “I have gone to prepare a place for you. And I will come again and take you to myself.”
You see, Jesus has not prepared a place for us just to drop us off somewhere; he’s prepared a place for us that where he is, we may be also. So heaven is not just a place of destination. Heaven is the fullness of relationship that he has prepared– a place for us to be with him. Just as Paul wrote that it’s the blood of Christ that brought us near, it is Jesus’s own words that said, “I have prepared a place for you and I will take you to myself.” Salvation is not merely knowing what Christ has done; salvation is also knowing how close he is to us. By putting our faith in Christ, we have been given the right to be called children of God. By trusting in His Word, we can stand upon the truth that he will never leave us or forsake us, no matter what our circumstances may look like. Christ’s death on the cross established a right, vertical relationship between God and us, and that God has done the great work for us to be near.
Christ Removes Human Division
And if that isn’t enough to celebrate, Paul goes on to share more good news in this passage. Paul reminds his reader that the power of the gospel does not just establish a right relationship vertically between God and His people, but also horizontally between men. Now to understand this, we have to go back to the temple in Jerusalem as Paul would have known it in the first century.
It cannot be overstated how important the temple was to the Jews. The temple was the headquarters of the Jewish faith. And it wasn’t just that it was the center of their worship. With God’s presence there in the temple, the temple was the epicenter of the Jewish life. The sacrificial nature of the Old Covenant required the temple. The different festivals and feasts required the temple. Giving of your tithe and offering of the harvest required the temple. The Jewish world revolved around the temple and the God-fearing Gentiles, that would have been you and me, the non-Jews who were still looking for salvation in who God was, we were invited to be part of things as well. But we were invited to be participants at a distance.
You see, at the very center of the temple, there was this place called the holy of holies. it was the place in which God’s presence actually dwelt. And outside of the holy of holies, there was an inner sanctuary, surrounded by an outer sanctuary, surrounded by a courtyard, which was then surrounded by this wall with gates for individuals to pass through.
But the Gentiles weren’t allowed to pass through those outer gates. The closest they could get to the presence of God was on the outside of that wall, looking in. With that picture in mind, now go back to what Paul wrote in verse 14.
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.
You see, the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile was not just a metaphor that Paul came up with; it was a real physical, wall. Under the old covenant, the Jews had a closer spot to God than the Gentiles did. And because of that, there was resentment, there was pride, there was elitism, and there was hostility. So when Paul wrote that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross broke down the dividing wall of hostility, he was saying that in Christ, there is no longer division between Jew and Gentile. As Christ’s death makes a way for us to be in a right, peaceful, vertical relationship with God, Christ’s death also allows us to be in a right, peaceful, horizontal relationship with one another. And the fullness of this we celebrate, as he writes in verses 15 and 16, that Jesus might create in himself, one new man in place of the two.
That he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
Do you hear this unity? And actually, the fulfillment of this is more familiar if you attend a wedding ceremony where the two become one. This is the same mystery found in Christ that Paul is speaking of here. That the two are made one, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. Such a profound line that the wrath of God will be poured on the one body Jesus, so that the two separate bodies might be made one, killing the hostility between them. Jesus’s death allows us to put to death the divisions between Gentile and Jew, and the gospel then becomes the means of breaking down hostility between any two people, or people groups on the earth.
Worship Reflects The Unity Found In Christ
Now, maybe you’ve never realized it, but this is actually an incredible truth of the gospel that we celebrate every Sunday when we gather together. Think about what we do in the midst of our liturgy. We begin with a declaration of the law; it’s the standard of holiness. We have the reading of Scripture, and then we move into a time of prayer that concludes with confession. And the confession is acknowledging that all of us have fallen short of the glory of God– that all of us are in need of His mercy and grace. At that point, we then hear the absolution, those great words of comfort, the reminder that Jesus is our advocate, and that we’ve been forgiven when we put our trust in Him. It’s at that point in the service, that then we turn and we share in the peace. “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” Why is that possible? Because we have just acknowledged before the Lord our need for forgiveness, and what binds us together is our common need for mercy.
So the peace is not just to greet one another. It doesn’t mark halftime of the liturgical service. The peace is there as a declaration of the gospel; that no matter our differences, we can turn to one another with a handshake or a hug, and say, “This we have in common, that we both need God’s mercy. And that is what binds us together more strongly than anything else.”
Now, consider what happens in the service at that point. After the peace, we then turn toward the table in the sharing of the meal of remembrance, and what Christ has done that offers us that peace. And the very last words you will hear as we leave here today are “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.” It’s the reminder that we haven’t just come to feel good, we’ve come to be reminded of the peace of God that surpasses all understanding and only what he can offer. And that when we go, we are ambassadors of that peace, as we love and serve the Lord in the world. The peace we have received from Christ becomes the basis of mission for when we leave here.
Ambassadors For Christ
Paul gives us one more visual that we should take from this section. Paul wrote in verse 22, that we are being joined together in our growing into a holy temple of the Lord.
In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Because of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, the temple is no longer the primary expression of faith. Because of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, we, as the people of God, are now the primary expression of faith. We are the temple and where we go, we are called to be ambassadors on behalf of Christ.
I don’t know what that looks like for you. But it changes things, doesn’t it? When we can look across this room and say, “Yep, I like that person, it’s easy to have peace with them.” It’s different when we go outside these walls, and we’re confronted with neighbors or coworkers, or family members who it’s difficult to have peace with. And yet, this conditioning is not optional. You and I have been told we are ambassadors, and you can only be an ambassador for something that you have already experienced for yourself.
That is why we gather, to be reminded of the humility we need in how we approach reconciliation with others. And I would just encourage you, if there is division or strife in your families in any way that relationships have been broken down, would you reconsider re-engaging and trusting the power of the Holy Spirit to bring two back into one? I would encourage you on this day as you think about what it is for us to be a church.
We are not bound by a building, but instead we are the temple.
Where we go, God’s presence goes.
And I would encourage you as you come forward to Communion, as we spend time in prayer, that you look at the cross, maybe differently, on this day. The cross is actually made up of two pieces, that there’s a vertical piece and a horizontal piece.
The vertical piece is that great piece of comfort, being reminded of what Christ has done for you and for me, that allows us to know his nearness.
The horizontal piece is there to remind us that there is no separation between us and someone else when it is given to the cross, trusting what Jesus has done to reconcile us to that person.
Encouragement When God Feels Distant
Paul would later write in Corinthians that we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. The next time you feel far from God, and we all go through the seasons in which God feels distant, so my encouragement for you is not to first think about how you are going to work your way back into His presence. It’s not about trying to get back through this wall that he has somehow kept you on the outside of. Instead, let it begin by trusting afresh in what the Gospel says: that our God took on flesh to come to us because we could never get to him. And if you need one line to come back to about the good news of the gospel, and how close God is to you right now, let it be back in verse 13. “But now, in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
Would you pray with me? Father, I thank you for this incredible gospel truth, that we are powerless on our own to draw near, and yet, through the loving embrace of Christ, you have reached your hand down into our lives and circumstances and you have pulled us close. Lord, if there is anyone here this morning who has felt like they have tried to work their way into your presence would your grace cover them and would they hear those words, that you love them, and you care for them, and that you have prepared a place for them, that where you are Lord, they will be also? And Lord, would you allow us to be the ambassadors you call us to be among one another, but then also outside this building, in our community? Lord, would you use us to bring reconciliation where there is currently strife? And may we not do it in our own strength, but may we trust in the power of your Holy Spirit. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.