Text: Ephesians 2:11-22
My mother is one of those wonderful folks who never knew a time when she was not a Christian. She was raised in the Church, in a devout family. From her earliest memories she was reading the bible or having the bible read to her. She tells a funny story about a time she was reading the Old Testament as a little girl and went up to one of her older sisters with a question, “What are we?” “What do you mean?” her sister replied. “Well, I know we’re not Jewish,” my mother explained, “and the Gentiles are the bad guys; so what are we?” “I’m sorry, honey,” her sister answered, “but since we’re not Jewish, that makes us Gentiles.”
As we continue in our journey through the book of Ephesians, we’ll see that my mother’s question was not an odd one but was one of the very things with which the early Church had to wrestle. Please open your bibles to Ephesians 2, beginning at the 11th verse:
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. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
St. Paul speaks of the Gentiles as those who were “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.” Because they were outside of Israel, the Gentiles did not have knowledge of God and were outside the Messianic hope. This is why they ended up being the “bad guys” of so much of the Old Testament, as my mother observed. Without God, they were left to their own sinful devices and could not be redeemed. But notice that St. Paul said that this state was “at one time,” or “at that time.” That is, this was before the grace of God broke in, as the bishop talked about last week. Now, the Gentiles have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
St. Jerome speaks of four kinds of circumcision in Scripture. He writes:
By calling the Ephesians Gentiles in the flesh, he shows that in the spirit they are not Gentiles, just as conversely the [non-believing] Jews are Gentiles in spirit and Israelites in flesh. Therefore the Jews and Gentiles are subject to a fourfold division: Some are circumcised in spirit and flesh, as were Moses and Aaron…. Some have been circumcised neither in spirit nor in flesh, as were Nebuchadnezzar and Pharaoh…. A third group are circumcised only in flesh…. Lastly come those of whom he now speaks, … believers such as today we see in the whole host of believing Gentiles around the world.
You see, despite being Gentiles in the flesh, by virtue of being united to Christ by faith and baptism, the Ephesians, my mother, and you listening today, are brought into the covenants of promise. Indeed, we have something even better than the Old Testament saints. Verse 14 of our text:
For [Christ] 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. 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.
No longer is the ethnic difference between Jew and Gentile significant on a spiritual level. The hostility created by the Law’s external purity codes, those commandments that separated Jew from Gentile, has been abolished in Christ’s blood. Instead, Christ has created “one new man in place of the two.”
It is important to note that St. Paul is not saying that the entirety of the Law has been abolished. In fact, he says in Romans 7 that the Law is holy, and that its commandments are holy, just, and good. Rather, a specific function of the Law, the ritual purity codes that set Israel apart from everyone else, is what has been abolished. In our 39 Articles of Religion, we see it phrased this way in Article VII:
Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.
The moral and ethical precepts of the Old Testament, those laws that are summarized by the 10 Commandments, are still to be practiced and obeyed by every Christian. We are still called to live holy, righteous lives of obedience to God. However, since we are not living under Old Testament theocratic Israel, the Old Testament civil codes no longer apply. The Kingdom of God is not a nation in the way Israel was, but rather it consists of all people who are united to Christ in all their respective nations. So, each Christian nation gets to apply the civil principles of the Law as they see fit without being bound to make their civil laws identical to that of the Old Testament. Similarly, since Christ has fulfilled the types and purposed of the Ritual or Ceremonial Law, we are not bound to Old Testament laws regarding religious ceremonies or ritual purity. Indeed, in some ways it would be wrong to practice many of those same laws. Ritual purity simply isn’t a New Testament category. Take, for example, the Prayer Book’s ceremony called “Churching of Women” or “Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth.” Even though it has its antecedents in Our Lady’s ritual Purification according to the Law (celebrated on Candlemas, February 2), our Churching of Women is not a purification ceremony, like it is sometimes falsely portrayed. Rather it is a thanksgiving ceremony because childbirth is dangerous to both mommy and baby!
One of the consequences of the Old Testament’s ritual purity laws was to create hostility between Jew and Gentile. Jews could not eat with their Gentile neighbors, for example. They could not have close relationships because Gentile life guaranteed some sort of ritual impurity.
In our Gospel reading today, we heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan. You may have found yourself wondering why the Priest and the Levite would refrain from helping the robbed man. The answer is found in those purity codes! If the robbed man was dead or died while they were helping him, the Priest and Levite would be ritually unclean and unable to perform their religious duties. Sadly, that was more important to them than their distressed kinsman.
The plot twist of parable is that it was a Samaritan who rescued the Jewish man who had been robbed. In the eyes of Jesus’ Jewish audience, Samaritans were the worst kind of Gentiles. A Samaritan was the ultimate enemy. And Samaritans felt the same way about the Jews. St. Paul tells us in Ephesians that Christians are above such things.
Today we live in polarized and polarizing times. Racial tensions have grown to the point where we have seen a resurgence in White Nationalism among other racial problems. Class tensions have grown to the point where one group is called “elites,” and another is called “deplorables.” Political divides are sharper than they have been in decades. But we Christians are not to live like this. We are called to see Christ as our primary identity. We are called to remember that we are “one new man” in Christ Jesus. If you can’t call a Democrat or Republican your brother in Christ, you need to repent. If you find yourself obsessing over other races or classes, you need to repent. As St. Paul just said, Christ has killed the hostility and preached peace. We are all called to eat at the same Table as we receive Christ’s body and blood.
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.
Those who were usually the “bad guys” in the Old Testament have been made fellow-citizens with the saints. Imagine David and the Philistine General becoming brothers. This is what has happened in Christ. Christ’s blood has become the blood that unites us, despite what is flowing in our veins. God’s household is built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, that witness we see in the Old and New Testament, all built upon Christ, the Cornerstone, so that he could build us into a new Temple.
The word translated here as “temple” refers specifically to the main temple building, God’s house, rather than the whole temple complex with all its courts and outbuildings. St. Paul is saying that the Church as the “one new man” in Christ has become the place where God dwells. In our Gospel reading, Jesus said, “Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see: for I tell you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear and have not heard them.” The idea that God would dwell with his people, the idea that he would be Immanuel, “God-With-Us,” is greater than what the prophets and patriarchs could imagine. The idea that God would unite all nations and people groups to himself by means of his love rather than by force was greater than what the prophets and patriarchs could imagine. This is why we call the Sacrament “Holy Communion.” It is an effectual sign of our unity with God and our unity with each other.
My mother had asked her sister, “what are we?” Her sister’s answer that we’re Gentiles was true. But the greater truth is that we’re something new. We are One New Man made by Christ himself, redeemed through his blood, a people brought near by his preaching of peace. May we share in the spreading of that peace.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.