It is not hard to look around and find division in our country these days. It was already there after several months of the lockdown of society in response to Covid-19. There are many different opinions, and of course you can find support for all of them on the internet … which is course is always right. The virus is a serious danger. The virus isn’t a serious danger. Stay at home orders work. Stay at home orders are preventing “herd immunity.” Masks are helpful. Masks aren’t helpful, or are even harmful. This is an honest attempt to deal with a health crisis. This is a politically engineered attempt to influence an election and extend government control.
And into this already tense time, charges of systemic racism in society and the police have burst into riots, protests and calls for the end of police forces altogether. One side, says that racism is everywhere and that if you question this, you are obviously part of the racist system. The other side says that in fact the real racism is being promoted by the very people who raise charges of racism for the sake of their own ideology and political gain.
Divisions among people are nothing new. In a fallen world they will always exist, even as the reasons shift over time. But however significant they may seem at the time to those involved, they can’t reach the deep importance of the one in our text today.
On the surface, they may look the same. Relations between Jews and Gentiles in the ancient world took on the same sinful character as those we see today. There was contempt for one another. There was anger and violence. In 38 and again in 40 AD there were riots and open conflict between Jews and Gentiles in Alexandria, Egypt. There was clear and sharp divide. A barrier around the temple in Jerusalem separated the Court of the Gentiles, from the areas inside where only Jews could go. On its pillars was the inscription: “No man of another race is to enter within the fence and enclosure around the Temple. Whoever is caught will have only himself to thank for the death that follows.”
Yet the thing that makes this divide different, is what Paul expresses in the verses immediately before our text. He writes to Gentiles and says, “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.”
The division between Jew and Gentile was not simply a matter of opinion. It was rooted in the true knowledge of God and salvation. Yahweh had called Abraham, and through him had created his people Israel. He had brought them into his covenant at Mt. Sinai and given them the Torah by which they were to live as his people. Yahweh was the true God. He was the only God – the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Every other so called “god” of peoples in the Near Eastern and Greco-Roman world was a lie. They were nothing. And they left these people outside of life with God.
That is where the Gentiles had been. But when God called Abraham he said, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” It was God’s will to work through Israel to bring salvation to all people. And now, he had done this in his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. This “now” of Jesus had changed everything. You hear this in the first verse of our text as Paul says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
The words of Paul that we hear this morning are not only true for Gentiles who lived the area of Ephesus in the first century A.D. They are true for you. They are true for you because you have shared in the exact same problem that Paul has just described. He said 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.”
Sin – the problem shared by Jew and Gentile alike – has been answered by the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross. His death was the sacrifice that brings forgiveness to each one of us. The apostle said in the first chapter, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” We have been freed from sin. And we have also been freed from death, because on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus Christ is the risen Lord, and because we have been baptized into his death, Paul can say in this letter that God “raised us up with him.”
God did this for Jews. God did this for Gentiles. God did this for you. And so now, Christ is our peace. Christ means that we have peace with God. Christ means that we Gentiles have been united with the descendants of Abraham and Israel – the Jews – to be one new man. Paul says in our text, “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.”
Baptized into one body – the Body of Christ – we are now united with one another and with all Christians. As Paul says in our text, through Christ we “have access in one Spirit to the Father.” We were sinners. Almost all of us were Gentiles. We had no access to God. But because of Christ, Paul can say, “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.”
This unity that we have in Christ goes beyond any other connection you may have. It transcends race and nationality. Writing probably in the second century A.D., Diognetus described Christians as a new people distinct from all others that exist in the world.
This life together even transcends family for your brothers and sisters in Christ are a relation created by God. They are yours because God has given you rebirth through water and the Spirit. You are a new creation in Christ. They are a new creation in Christ. This is life created by the Spirit of God – life that is eternal. It is a life and unity that extends beyond this life into eternity – but one that only does for those who are in Christ through baptism and faith. On the Last Day the unity provided by a family’s last name will be meaningless. The only name that will matter is the name that gives forgiveness and salvation: Christian.
This is what God has done for us in Christ. This is what God has called us to be through his Spirit. And in this letter Paul emphasizes what this means for how we now live. He writes in chapter four: “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.”
Those who have received the peace of Christ seek to live with humility, and gentleness towards others. We are patient and bear with one other. We are willing to put up with one another in love because that is what is sometimes necessary. Why do we do this? It is because of the unity God has given us in Christ. Paul says, “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.”
This unity in Christ worked by the Spirit is true. But what is also true is the fact that the old Adam is still present. And so in repentance we return to what God has done for us in our baptism. Paul reminds the Ephesians in this letter that they need “to put off your old man, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new man, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
There is the need to call pride, impatience, anger, and hurtful words what they are: sin. As Christians, we don’t make excuses for them. We confess them as sin and repent. In faith we look to God’s promises attached to baptism. We know that through baptism we receive forgiveness for those things. And we also know that because of baptism the Spirit is now at work our lives – the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. As Paul told the Romans, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
It is in this way that we put on again the new man, the new man who speaks truth and not falsehood. It is the new man, created by the Spirit and nourished by the Means of Grace who speaks in ways that build others up, and speaks words that give grace to those who hear.
Christ has made peace for us. He has given us peace with God. He has given us peace with one other as we live united in his Body. And so we put away bitterness, anger and slander. Instead, we live as those who have been brought near by the blood of Christ and in our daily lives we live out the apostles words: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”