In May of this year, there was a rather unusual protest in Carbondale. Now of course, as a university town, protests of various types are nothing new there. But this one was quite different from anything I have ever heard about before.
On the sidewalk in front of University Mall, a group known as the “Bloodstained Men” were protesting the practice of circumcision. Dressed in white clothes, they had stained the crotch of their pants bright red and carried signs that said things like: “Circumcision harms humans”; “Circumcision is sexual mutilation”; and, “Foreskin is not a birth defect.” The group was on a sixteen day protest tour in Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee as they spoke out against the practice of circumcision.
Now this probably strikes most of us as being just weird. Circumcision is not at all something we think about as being an important issue. It’s a very common practice. According to the CDC, about 81% of the male population is circumcised. As a nurse who has dealt first hand with this subject, Amy says that it’s a no-brainer – yes, it’s a good practice.
While circumcision is something that we give almost no thought to, it was an incredibly important subject in the first century A.D. as the Church began to expand. Circumcision was, of course, the sign of the covenant for Israel and those who descended from the nation – for the Jews. Jesus came as Israel’s Messiah. His apostles and first disciples were Jews.
However, as soon as the Gospel began to be preached to Gentiles, circumcision became an issue. Did Gentiles Christians need to be circumcised in order to be part of God’s people? This wasn’t just an abstract theological discussion. It was a highly charged emotional issue. Circumcision set apart Jews from Gentiles. To Gentiles the practice was an abhorrent mutilation. To Jews it was a point of great importance and solidarity that marked them off as God’s people.
Writing to the largely Gentile church in the area of Ephesus, Paul says just prior to our text: “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called "the uncircumcision" by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands--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.”
Before they heard the Gospel, the lack of circumcision really did mean something for these Gentiles. It meant that they were not part of God’s covenant people. Instead, they were trapped in their sin, slaves of the devil and under God’s wrath. Paul wrote at the beginning of this chapter, “ And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience-- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
However, Pauls says in our text that the good news of Jesus Christ had changed all of that. He writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Cut off from God by their sins, Jesus’ death on the cross had brought them near to God through forgiveness. And Paul says they had also received life through the resurrection of Jesus. The apostle has just said in this chapter, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, he made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved--
and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
Because God has done this in Christ, Paul says in our text that he has reconciled Jew and Gentile into the one people of God – the Church. He says, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 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, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”
Now having heard all of this, it is quite possible that your response is: “So what? What’s the big deal?” After all, no one cares about circumcision any more. Well … no one except the “Bloodstained Men,” and I don’t think any of us are going to take them too seriously. The one Church is now basically a Gentile church, and it has been that way for a long time. There is no great hostility as it existed in Paul’s day.
And that is true. But let’s think a little more about the implications of what Paul is saying. The apostle has said that Christ is our peace – that he has brought peace. Then he adds in our text, “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
Jew and Gentile is not the only relationship where there is the need for peace. So, how are things in your marriage? How are thing between you and your children, or between you and your parents? How are things between you and your brother or sister? How are things between you and your extended family?
When we look here, we find all kinds of ways that that sin – our sin and their sin – creates hostility and fractures peace. And Paul’s words about what Jesus Christ means for Jew and Gentile apply directly to these too.
The apostle says, “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Christ’s death and resurrection provided access to the Father through the Spirit who has worked faith in Christ. The same Spirit has worked faith in each one us and has joined us together. Paul says at the end of our text, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,
built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
Each of us is forgiven because of Jesus Christ. Each of us has been joined together with one another in the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit through baptism. This means that our calling as Christians is now to live in forgiveness towards one another. Our calling is to seek to restore peace with one another.
Paul says this very thing a little later in the letter:
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
As Christians then, walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called. Your calling has been made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Chris for you. That’s why Paul says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Christ calls us to live in peace with one another. He does so because he has given us peace with God through his death and resurrection. He does so because he has united us as one through the work of his Spirit. Paul says in this letter, “There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Do you hear it?: Paul mentions one seven times - one body; one Spirit; one hope; one Lord; one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all. God has acted in Christ through the Spirit to unite us as one. He has united us to forgive one another and act in love toward one another. The apostle says in the last chapter of this letter, “Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and give himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
We can do this because through baptism the Holy Spirit has made us a new creation in Christ. As Paul says in our text, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”
In Jesus Christ the risen Lord we have the cornerstone that upholds our life and every aspect of it. Upon this cornerstone we have the foundation of the apostles – the Spirit breathed apostolic witness in by which Christ sustains faith. Though we were once far off as Gentiles, here Jesus preaches peace to us. Because he has, we are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. And so we walk in forgiveness and peace with one another.