What is the Church?
Ephesians 2:11 – 22
What is the Church?
Dundonald Church 6:30 Weekend Away 2020 :: Talk 1
“He has made the two groups one ...”
The country that we know today as Malawi, gained its independence from Britain in 1964. And as we’ve seen in more recent years, and democracy protests in Hong Kong, uprising in Iran, this kind of national upheaval easily leads to violence.
And as Malawi’s journey to independence wasn’t entirely peaceful, the authorities were rightly concerned at the risk of violence between the African population, and the Europeans who had settled there since the days of the famous Dr David Livingstone.
Of course, in the early 60s, it was pretty hard to find out what was going on in the side of the country, so a British reconnaissance plane was dispatched from the capital, to fly over one particular remote area where the local population and Europeans were living in quite close quarters;, A combination that it was thought, would lead to violence.
As the plane approached, it seemed that the worst fears of violence were confirmed, there were no signs of life at all. It looked like the 2 ethnic groups had more or less wiped each other out.
But as they flew over the town, which was called Livingstonia, after Dr Livingstone, I presume, they could see from the plane, large stones painted white, and laid out in the centre of town, spelling out some sort of message.
It looked like a Bible reference, but there was no Bible on the plane, for them to check, so when they got back to the capital, the crew dug out a Bible and looked up the letters they had seen spelled out from the air, Ephesians 2:14
For he himself, that is, Jesus, he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,
That’s the message that black and white people in Livingstonia wanted to communicate to their country’s leaders.
But what does it take, to bring that kind of unity?
A unity that can be maintained even when the very fabric of a society is being torn apart?
A unity that exceeds expectations and surprises all who witness it?
Well, this is where we begin our consideration of the church; with the hope of unity.
God’s great plan is to bring unity to all things under Christ
Paul’s goal in his letter is to explain and unpack God’s great purposes for his creation. And those purposes are stated most clearly, in chapter 1 verses 9 and 10.
he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—, to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth, under Christ. Ephesians 1:9-10
That is God’s great plan for life, the universe, and everything;,
Unity to all things, under Christ.
If you’ve ever wondered, “What on earth is God doing in the world?
What is God’s great purpose?
Here’s your answer, Ephesians 1:10, unity to all things, under Christ.
And this part of chapter 2, shows us how God drives those great purposes forward.
Some of you will remember maths classes in school. One of the few bits of maths class that I remember, is that it was one thing to get the right answer, but you also had to show your working! How did you get to that point?
Well if Ephesians 1:10 is the answer to the question, “What is God doing in the world?”, then this section, 2:11 to 22, is where God shows his working,
He shows how he gets to that end point.
But there’s a problem (v 11 – 12)
But there’s a problem.
God’s great plan is unity, everything together under Jesus,
But how does God bring unity in a world that, let’s face it, our world seems more divided and more fractured than at any time in our memory, doesn’t it?
And especially where human relationships are concerned.
There’s a false problem – you were uncircumcised
Take a look at verse 11 with me, 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)
When I was a kid I had a joke book filled with jokes like:
When is a boy not a boy?
When he turns into a store!
And when is a door not a door?
When it is ajar, a, jar! Get it!
Come and see me for more, later!
Here, though, we could ask, “When is a problem not a problem?”
See, the big problem that it looked like the Ephesians had, was not really a problem at all.
To religious people, anyone who wasn’t circumcised had a problem; Their lack of circumcision was a sign of being cut off from God, they didn’t have the marker of being one of God’s people.
But notice Paul’s air quotes! You know what air quotes are, don’t you? (QUOTES) “I don’t really mean what I’m saying, I’m just repeating what someone else says.”
Clayton says this talk will “short”, that kind of thing.
Well, when the person who’s reading Paul’s letter out to the Ephesians churches gets to this bit, they need to put down the scroll so they can do air quotes.
you who are Gentiles by birth and called, “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision”
Clearly Paul thinks that the circumcision of the Jews, the circumcision that they saw as the great divider between those who were God’s people and those who were not, the Gentiles, he thinks it’s insignificant,
After all, circumcision is simply something done in the body by human hands
In fact, when it comes to your standing before God, any human act, or lack of, isn’t the real problem.
As a preacher I’m conscious often that I say these same sorts of things over and over, “No human action, no religious box-ticking, can get you into right relationship with God.”
And I feel the need to say it so often that I sound a bit like a broken record. A record, for those of you who are under 30, is what Spotify used to be called.
But the reason I keep saying this stuff, is because I think that while we know it, we forget it, or we convince ourselves that the opposite is true.
But friends, nothing done in the body by human hands, can contribute to your right standing before God,
See, the church, is not a group of people who turn up,
It’s not a self-selecting group of people who have done something to get in.
There’s a real problem – you were far from God
No, the real problem was not that as Gentiles they were uncircumcised, but that they were far from God.
And Paul lists 5 different ways in which their alienation from God was evident. Look with me at verse 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.
See, it’s not that there was no difference, between Jew and Gentile. There were real and significant differences;, God had called Israel and made promises to them, in a way that he hadn’t done to any other nation.
First of all Paul says, you were separate from Christ
Now, we might think, “hang on, weren’t the Jews also separate from Christ?” They generally didn’t recognise him when he came. Which is true.
But the Christ or the Messiah, just the Greek and Hebrew words for the same thing, this was God’s promised king of Israel, the one who would bring to completion, these purposes of God that we’re thinking so much about.
Everything that God had done in the Old Testament, was done to prepare for the coming of Christ, and yet those outside Israel had no anticipation at all, of God’s coming king.
Because more broadly, the Gentiles were, by definition excluded from citizenship in Israel.
I have certain rights here in the UK, but I’m not a citizen, and so there are some things I don’t get to do.
But to speak of exclusion from citizenship in Israel is more about being outside God’s sphere of activity.
The Gentiles weren’t there when God was making himself known among the people of Israel.
Interestingly, the word translated excluded, is the word Paul uses to speak of being excluded or alienated because of sin.
And perhaps even more interestingly, it has a passive sense, something like “having been excluded.”
It may well be that Paul’s got his eye on the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve are excluded from the Garden because of sin, and he’s saying that’s the moment when you were excluded.
Of course, part of being on the outside of God’s work among the people of Israel, meant being foreigners to the covenants of the promise,
Here, the promise is a probably a reference to the promise of the Christ.
This was a promise that God had made to Israel within the context of relationship, covenant.
The word from which we get our word for church, is the Greek word ekklesia. It just means a gathering of people.
And in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, this si the word used to describe the gathering of God’s people under the Old Covenant.
So the gathering of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai, or when they’re about to enter the Promised Land,
This was the gathering of the church of God in the Old Covenant, in order to hear God speak, to receive his promises,
But the Gentile nations weren’t in this.
Drawing things to a climax, then, Paul says to be separated from God, is to be without hope.
The Gentiles didn’t hope for the Christ,
They didn’t hope for the blessing that God had promised.
To be separated from God is to have, no hope.
And we might think, “yeah, but, the people I know who are far from God, they don’t feel hope-less”, they hope for lots of things;,
They hope for success,
They hope for happiness,
For the right kind of relationships,
But we only need to scratch the surface to see how true this is.
If I know nothing of God’s plans and purposes,
The value that God places on me,
If I think I’m just an accidental co-location of atoms,
If my life is, as Richard Dawkins says, a “chemical accident”, and any thought, or reflection, or anticipation that I have is merely a momentary electronic pulse in my brain, without meaning, apart from any meaning I might attribute to it, and insignificant in space and time that stretches for aeons and aeons, infinitely, to nothing in any direction,
Come and stand with me by someone’s hospital bed as they take their last breath, staring into Dawkins’ abyss, and you’ll see that truly, to be far from God is to be, without hope.
And so ultimately, at the end of verse 12, Paul concludes, his Gentile readers were without God.
They didn’t have the revelation from God that makes sense of the world.
It’s like watching a foreign movie without the subtitles, you know what things look like, but you don’t understand much.
But turn the subtitles on,
Once you can hear God’s revelation of himself, and all of sudden we’re equipped to understand and take our intended position in the world.
So where does that leave us?
Clearly, the problem for the Ephesians, was not their lack of circumcision, but that without God’s gracious action in drawing someone to himself, human beings are far from God,
And look at the cost of what it took, for those who were far away to be brought near, verse 13,
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
To reconcile both Jews and Gentiles to God, to bring near those who once were far away, cost Jesus his life.
Let’s not be under any illusions as to the seriousness of sin.
It’s sin that puts us far from God,
Remember excluded, Adam and Eve.
Look at the cost, of being brought near.
The next time you’re tempted to think that your sin is insignificant,
Or that sin in the life of our church doesn’t matter,
The next time you wonder if it’s better for our leaders to stay silent, or not take action to encourage and lead someone in our family away from a pattern of sin,
When you think that church discipline, is a bit heavy-handed.
In that moment, read again what it takes for you to be brought near to the perfect and holy God whose eyes are too pure to look on evil;, who cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
It took nothing less, than the death of God’s king.
Jesus built the church by destroying the barrier separating Jew and Gentile (v 14 – 15a)
But notice, and maybe this is a bit of a surprise, God’s intention at the cross was not just to reconcile people to himself, but to reconcile people to each other.
The establishment of the church as the new covenant people of God, is a work in 2 dimensions
Pick it up with me from verse 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.
This is the announcement that those believers in Malawi made with their white painted stones. Of course they were extrapolating it to black and white, African and European.
Paul had his eye one the peace that Jesus brought between Jews and Gentiles,
And notice that he didn’t do this by just commanding peace; like a parent with squabbling children, “You will get along!”,
It wasn’t even by bringing each one, compromise by compromise to the negotiating table.
No, Jesus made peace by taking away the very thing that caused division. No wonder at Christmas time we celebrate him by that famous Old Testament title, “prince of peace.”
He has has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh, the law
Paul’s saying The Old Testament law was a barrier, between Israel and the rest of the world, and that this barrier had to be removed for God’s new community to be established.
Now we think, “hang on, didn’t God give the law? And if God gave the law, how can it be considered a barrier, or something that needed to be broken down?”
But God didn’t give the law, with, what does Paul say, with its commands and regulations, in order to create hostility between Jews and Gentiles.
He gave the law with its commands and regulations, in order that Israel, might witness to the watching world, to all the other nations, what it was like to be the community of God’s people, knowing his blessing.
Into that context, Paul says, Jesus set aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.
The two groups are now one.
The church is a group of people,
You don’t go to church, you’re a part of the church,
Any more than I don’t go to a family, I’m part of a family.
Of course we know that Jew and Gentile being saved together and brought into the community that God builds, this was always God’s plan.
Think of the story of Ruth;, it’s not there in our Bible to teach you how to find a husband or a wife!
But to show us that Jew and Gentile saved together into the family of King David, this has always been what God’s on about.
OK, that’s how we got to now. That gets us to the church.
Jesus built the church by creating a new humanity (15 – 18)
I think one of the most common questions I get asked, as I speak with people who are interested in finding out more about Christianity, is “Why did Jesus die?”
We’ve probably all been asked that by our friends or family.
The presence of our church in the community will confront people with that question this Easter as we door-knock and invite;, “Why did Jesus die?”
And the answer we normally give is;,
So we can be forgiven,
To take away our sins,
Or put it in the language of verse 13, to bring people who were far away from God, near to God.
And that’s all true, no doubt about it,
But Paul gives a slightly different answer to that question here doesn’t he? Though we might say, not so much a different answer, but a more complete answer.
Instead of answering the question with just the part of the answer that directly relates to me, Paul gives the answer that helps us see the bigger picture of Gods’ plans and purposes.
Look at verse 15 with me, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations, His purpose was to create in himself, one new humanity, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross
Why did Jesus die?
To create a new humanity.
The first readers of this letter, predominantly Gentiles, who once were far away, have now been brought near into this brand new community that Jesus has created.
But notice, Gentiles, like us, we don’t, become Jews.
No, Jesus death for sin creates a new group; The church is one new humanity.
I had to buy some new socks recently. My wife Kathy was complaining about the state of my old ones.
When I go and buy socks, I try and get just exactly the same type as my old ones, just a couple of new pairs.
When Paul speaks of a new humanity in verse 15, he doesn’t mean just the same as the old humanity, just the next one in the series. He uses the word that means a whole new kind of humanity.
It’s the opposite of me buying socks.
It’s more like when Apple first brought out the iPhone. It was a new phone. But it was a new phone that was a completely different kind of phone to anything that had come before.
In his death,
In removing the law,
The way of relating to God that said you had to be a Jew,
In throwing the gates open to anyone who would come to God in repentance and faith,
Jesus creates iPhone humanity, a completely new kind of humanity;,
People who don’t relate to God on the basis of the law,
But who relate to God only on the basis of his grace, which is ours through faith in Jesus.
The purpose of Jesus’ death, was to create a new humanity.
You know this rhyme that we say to kids;,
Here is the church,
Here is the steeple,
Open the doors,
And here’s all the people!
That’s a bad rhyme! Don’t ever say it!
The church isn’t a building!
Buildings are useful, but not very exciting!
The church is a new humanity! A completely new kind of community. That’s way more exciting than a building!
Not many here have kids, but if you have little cousins or nieces and nephews, or one day if you have your own kids, this is what you have to teach them, OK?
Here is a building,
Here is a peculiar neo-gothic architectural feature of the building,
Open the doors, and there is a new humanity created in Christ Jesus!
It doesn’t rhyme!
But it’s much more exciting, and it’s true!
I don’t know what you imagine when you think about the church. Our church, the Dundonald 6:30, or the church more generally, and we’ll think about that distinction in a bit, but let’s make sure we have this part of the definition right.
The church is not just like a sporting club,
Or a political group,
A group of members with shared interests, there have always been groups like that,
The church is a new humanity, a completely new kind of gathering.
The gathering of the church is not even the same thing as a gathering of Christians people because they all share an interest in some topic,
While our society puts the church alongside the football club and the birdwatching society,
The church is intrinsically different, to any other gathering of people, and the church, according to Ephesians 2, depends on Jesus’ death for its existence.
That is, there is no church, without the cross.
We all know that, but I think we tend to associate Jesus’ death only with my membership of the church, my entry into it, but let’s just realise that even apart from my entry into the church through faith in Jesus, it took Jesus’ death to create the new humanity that is the community of God’s people.
As I said, those other explanations that we give for Jesus’ death are not wrong,
They’re perhaps a more personal way of answering the question. But I do think it’s important that in answering the question personally, we don’t become individualistic, failing to see that there’s more to the work of Christ than me and my standing before God.
The church gives us a taste of God’s plan - all things united under Christ (v 19 – 22)
And so we see, that God’s great plan from chapter 1 verse 10, unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ, has become reality.
At least in part.
We don’t see the finished product yet. We still look forward to that, but we see the beginnings of it.
Now, because of Jesus, humanity, whether Jews or Gentiles, can relate rightly to each other, and rightly to God.
Listen to the picture of unity that Paul describes from verse 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.
It’s almost like Paul realises that no single metaphor on its own can adequately carry the momentous news, of humanity united under Christ.
He started with body language up in verse 16, describing Jews and Gentiles as one body, both a link to Jesus’ death in his physical body, but also the new community he’s creating, for which this image of a body is one of Paul’s favourites.
But that illustration on its own isn’t even enough;,
In verse 19 he uses political language;, not foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens
Then he goes into family language, members of his household,
And then he switches into a construction metaphor, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
Here is unity, under Christ. The first taste, of what we know is coming.
Unity is a word that we hear used a lot among churches today.
We know that Jesus prayed for unity among believers,
But what does this united people of God look like?
Well, notice, this is unity, centred on Jesus.
Do you feel Paul’s emphasis as you read it? With Christ, Jesus, himself, as the chief, cornerstone.
If all God wanted was unity, we could just go back to the Tower of Babel couldn’t we? Genesis 11? Humanity was united.
No, this unity has Christ as its cornerstone, Christ as the basis for unity, which must mean, not just an acknowledgment that Jesus existed, but a unity based on the foundation of the apostles and prophets
The apostles and the prophets were those who brought Gods’ Word about Jesus to his people.
They were witnesses, and messengers of God’s self-revelation in Christ, and to have them as your foundation, means to be built on their definitive normative message, and to remain in that.
This very verse tells us, then, the shape of the church, for all ages.
Not, what style of music should be sung in church,
Or what kind of governance structures a local church should have, but the heart and the message of the church throughout all history is established here.
A church built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets
That is to say, when the message of the apostles and prophets is announced, when the gospel of Jesus is proclaimed, in any gathering where that that happens, then the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple, as Jesus builds his church.
And maybe you think our local church is not much of a holy temple to God, that is, it doesn’t look like something God would take much pleasure in.
I mean, we look OK don’t we?! At the 6:30?!
But among the 70,000 in Wimbledon, we’re just a few, and not the most powerful, or influential few,
And in London, we’re hardly even noticed, among 9 million,
One could look at this city and not even see that we exist.
But if you sometimes feel like that, take encouragement from these words of John Owen, 17th Century puritan church leader “The Lord Jesus sees more beauty and glory in the weakest assemblies of his saints, coming together in his name, and acted and guided in his worship and ways by his Spirit, than ever was in all the worship of Solomon’s temple when it was in its glory.” (Works, 9:83).
At the time, Owen was the pastor of a church of about 36 people.
And yet in the weakest assemblies of his saints, on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, is beauty and glory for the delight of Jesus.
But if you move off your foundation, you’re in trouble aren’t you?
And if your foundation is wrong to start with, you’re in trouble!
A friend told me once about a building he was involved in constructing, where the builders poured the concrete foundation in the wrong place., In fact they laid the foundation a metre over the boundary onto the neighbouring property!
If your foundation is wrong, everything is wrong.
Those who would encourage our church, to move on, from the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
Those leaders in the church of England and other denominations, who would seek to modernise Christianity, by leaving behind this foundation, which cuts across our culture, in so many ways, doesn’t it, they cannot have unity, with those who are built on Christ.
So, Stephen Cottrell, who will become Archbishop of York in June, he’s gone on the record as saying, the “Bible has to fit the current culture.”
Clearly that’s a move away from the foundation.
That’s not seeing the apostles and prophets as your foundation, but as something disposable!
Like how everyone ditches their Christmas tree in January and the footpaths are filled with them! We don’t want it any more and so we just get rid of it.
And those who are built on Christ can have no unity with those who approach the foundational message of Christianity like that.
Church unity doesn’t come about because of denominations, or because other churches like to do things in similar ways to our church.
It is in Christ, verse 21, that the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.
Start with the wrong foundation,
Move off the foundation,
Branch off from your Cornerstone, and this building cannot rise.
God’s great plan, is for unity, under Christ,
Centred on Christ,
Built on Christ.
What a great picture the church, the body of Christ can be, for God’s ultimate purpose;,
Joining people together, under Christ.
That story about Malawi is a great one, I often wondered if it was really true.
Things that happened in remote parts of East Africa in the 1960’s are a little hard to verify!
But I was intrigued by the story, and so I was reading a bit about Malawi, and started looking at different parts of the country in Google Maps, looking at the satellite photos of the towns and villages, imagining what they must have been like back in 1964.
I typed in “Livingstonia, Malawi”, and the photo taken by a satellite just a couple of years ago came up.
Livingstonia is a tiny, tiny town. Just a handful of houses.
But as I looked down, as it were, from outer space, I could not believe my eyes.
Because there, visible from space, were the white painted stones, spelling out “Ephesians 2:14”
I couldn’t believe it!
I’ve since learned those painted stones are among Malawi’s most treasured monuments of the journey to independence.
And not surprisingly!
They give us a tiny taste, a future glimpse of what it will look like, when all humanity,
Everything on heaven and earth, reflects the unity that we see now in the church;, united under Christ.