Last Sunday, Chris introduced us to some of the mysteries of the letter which we now call Ephesians and the wonderful mystery that in Christ, God has chosen us, adopts us as children, lavishes his love upon us, forgives us freely, and promises us a wonderful and hopeful future, all because of Jesus. I hope you took time to recall and reflect on your own experience of these things. Perhaps you took opportunity to share your experiences with somebody else, to “tell out your soul” and to proclaim the good news of God’s love?
This Sunday we consider what Ephesians chapter 2 has to say about the church. At the outset, and as we prepare to reopen the St Andrew’s church building, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the biblical understanding of the church is as a community of people (an ekklesia in the original Greek) , and not a building. The only references to the church as a building in the New Testament is metaphorical, the church is like a building made of living stones (i.e. people). More on this next Sunday. Today, we focus on the church’s identity as God’s people or God’s household.
First, let’s notice how Ephesians 2:1-10 sets the scene, reminding us how humanity fits into God’s great plan of salvation and new creation.
1As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.
4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
A dark backdrop
Verses 1-3 remind us that apart from Christ, humanity tends to be disobedient, distracted, and deserving of the consequences. No punches pulled there! Actually, although it’s uncomfortable, It’s important to be honest about what we are really like. Those who seek to recover from addictions know this better than most, with a vital part of the 12 step recovery process involving admitting their need of help (step 1), making “a searching and fearless moral inventory” (step 4) and “admitting to God, to self, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs” (step 5). So I encourage you to peel off the masks and veneers of respectability and assess your own moral state. What are you like at your best and at your worst? What are you like when the pressure is on? How do you act when nobody else is looking? What does the way you use your time and money reveal about your priorities?
Let’s face it, sometimes we are plain disobedient. We know what’s right but we choose to ignore it, whether that be driving through a red light, joining in with a bit of character assassination over a cuppa, or ignoring a person in need. At times we are distracted by the ways of the world around us and we choose to “go with the flow” rather than following God’s ways, afraid of being the odd one out.
When I first visited Uganda, I stepped out of the cultural air of the UK and began to notice how much I had been influenced by a materialistic and “me-centred” way of life. More than we realise, we are subtly shaped by the cultural air that we breathe without even realising it, especially through the media and social media. They can have a big impact on our morality, on our attitudes towards other people, on our desires and ambitions and even on our image of God. Of course, this can be positive influence, but we need to be alert and resist the many influences which lead us away from the truth, away from love, and away from God.
A spectacular display
I enjoy a good firework display. They can be spectacular, especially on a still dark night. But if it’s not quite dark enough, it just doesn’t make the same impact! Ephesians 2:1-3 has started by painting a dark picture. But its not the main point. It simply provides the dark backdrop for a spectacular explosion of light in verses 4-7. In fact, its worth noting that in the original Greek language, verses 1-7 form a single and very long sentence! God’s love and kindness, mercy and grace is at the heart of this sentence. You can feel the writer enthusing that God is “rich in mercy”, God has “such great love”, we are “saved by sheer grace”, which is “unbelievably rich”. I get the impression that the writer is struggling to find words which sufficiently convey the wonder of it all and the darkness.
You may think all this talk of God’s love and kindness is New Testament talk, but it actually come straight out of the book of the Old Testament scriptures. For example:
“Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel: The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.
The light of God’s love was always shining, but it shines even more brightly in Jesus Christ. I wonder what words you can find to describe your experience of God’s love?
The first half of Ephesians chapter 2 culminates in the summary of verses 8-10. God’s people are a people who have been saved from sin and death, not because we deserve it, not because of anything special that we have done, but simply because of God’s grace. Grace is undeserved favour. It’s all gift. A good way to remember is using the acronym:
Our part is simply to put our faith in Jesus, to believe and receive with empty hands. . So, among God’s people, there’s no room for superiority, thinking “I’m better than you”, or for boasting “look how good I am”.
However we have been saved for a purpose. God is Creator. And through Christ, God has started crafting something new. God is weaving together a new people and shaping them to reflect his goodness and to embody his love in the world. With that in mind, lets’ read the rest of chapter 2 from verses 11- 22 and consider what sort of community God is crafting.
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
In a good story there is usually a problem or a mystery to be resolved. And verse 11-13 effectively starts with the problem. Jesus was a Jew and God had begun his new creation among the Jewish people. But what about the majority of people in the world who weren’t Jewish, who were separated from God, from his people, and from his promises?
In many stories there’s a main character who goes on a hero’s journey to resolve the problem. In Lord of the Rings it is Frodo, the unassuming hobbit. Braveheart tells the story of William Wallace who unites the Scottish tribes in their fight for freedom against the English. In South Africa, it was Nelson Mandela who became the leading figure in the campaign to end apartheid and then to unite the nation.
In our story, the hero is Jesus Christ, God’s promised saviour and king. He is the one who will travel the hero’s journey, who will give his life, whose blood will be shed, to unite the people of the world. We often think of Jesus’ sacrifice in a very personal way. We believe that he gave his life for each one of us, that we could be forgiven and set free, that we could enter into a personal relationship with God, and that we could enjoy life in all its fullness for now and eternity. But that’s only part of what Jesus achieved. There’s a lot more to it!
The images used in Ephesians chapter 2 emphasise the communal dimension of what God has done in Jesus. Through his death and resurrection Jesus breaks down the walls and barriers which divide people. Jesus brings an end to hostilities and makes peace. Jesus unites disparate people together. Where people have been divided, his purpose is “to create in himself one new humanity”.
How does Jesus do this? We see in verses 14-18.
· Jesus gives his life for all people, without favour, and says that’s enough, that’s all that’s needed to be reconciled to God. It’s all grace, it’s all gift. It’s all because of Jesus. It’s not our own doing.
· Jesus welcomes all-comers as fellow citizens with God’s people and as full members of God’s household, with rights and responsibilities. Through Jesus, anybody can have access to God the Father by God’s one Spirit and everybody has a part to play.
· Jesus sets an example of humility and love for his followers to imitate. He dismantles the barriers which we build in our hearts and minds, the barriers which say “I’m better than them” or “I’m in and they’re out” or “you’re not good enough”. He throws open the doors of his house and says come in!
In fact, Jesus goes further than that, he sends out an invitation to all people, not forgetting those who are the least in their society –the poor and the marginalised, the homeless and helpless. That was the point of Jesus’ parable of the banquet (see Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke 14:15-24). Everybody is invited!
Verse 19 reminds us that we are not only part of the global church, but that we also belong to “God’s household”. This has the sense of being part of a smaller local family, a local expressions of God’s people. So, If God is in the business of breaking down barriers and uniting people, then we need to ask ourselves if we are doing the same. Are there barriers between us and other people which need to come down? What are our attitudes towards Christians in other churches? Are there people groups in St Helens who are not represented in our church community and how could we reach out to them?
With a number of St Andrews congregations, there is always a danger of each congregation building walls around them as if to say “we’re happy as we are” or “we’re the ones who are doing church the best way” and this can easily become “we’re better than you”. Perhaps the current limitations on church gatherings are a great opportunity to build bridges between our congregations, as initially we have one opportunity to gather on Sunday.
Next week, we'll go on to reflect on the other images of the church as a building and a temple. But for now, lets pray and work for unity in the church and reconciliation in the world. Here are some questions for further reflection or discussion.
Question for further reflection or discussion:
1. What has God saved you from and how would you describe your experience of God’s love and mercy?
2. What barriers do you notice within the church and what could we do to encourage greater unity?
3. How could you contribute to peace and reconciliation in our society?