Sunday, August 06, 2006

Ephesians 2:13-22 - “FAR and NEAR: A Lesson in Opposites”

Pentecost 7 (Year B - LCMS Readings)
Thursday, August 3, and Sunday, August 6, 2006

In Ephesians, Paul says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” It’s amazing, but I’ve got a video of Paul talking about near and far—well, it’s sort of like Paul. Watch.

Video Transcript (abridged)
Hello there, this is your old pal Grover.
And today I’m going to talk to you about NEAR and FAR. In fact, I, little, furry Grover, am going to show you NEAR and FAR. OK, here goes.
First, this is NEAR.
This is FAR!
etc. . . .
Now you must understand me. You don’t understand?? (SIGH, CRYING)

OK, so little, furry Grover isn’t exactly what you might think of when you think of Paul the Apostle, the writer of 13 books in the New Testament, but did you hear that Grover was talking about far and near, the very concepts Paul is teaching in Ephesians? Did you see Grover getting frustrated that we didn’t understand far and near? Well, take a closer look at Ephesians, and you realize Paul was also getting frustrated that the readers, the Christians in the city of Ephesus, didn’t understand those concepts of far and near yet. So Paul is like Grover, running back and forth, doing everything he can to teach the people.

When Paul says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ,” at first, it seems like he’s talking about what happens to us through baptism. When we are born, we are sinful, far away from God, but then through baptism into Christ, we are brought near to God, able to approach God with confidence that He loves us, forgives us, saves us. Once you were far from God, but now through baptism, you are near to God.

That’s often how we use the concepts of far and near when we’re thinking about God, but that’s not really what Paul is talking about. That’s not what’s making Paul so frustrated.

No, instead, when Paul says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ,” he’s talking about Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians. Gentile Christians were the people who weren’t Jewish but had come to believe in Jesus; Jewish Christians were the people who were born and raised as Jews but had come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Promised Savior of the Old Testament. Paul is frustrated, because somewhere along the line it seems that the Christians in Ephesus weren’t thinking of themselves as Christians. Instead, they were thinking of themselves as Gentile Christians or Jewish Christians. It’s that division that is frustrating Paul, and so that’s why he’s like Grover, running back and forth, repeating himself, trying to help the people understand the concepts of far and near.

Paul wants the people to see that Jesus has made them one—Jews and Gentiles, all believers in Christ are one body. So, then, since I assume most of us fall into the category of Gentile, we weren’t born as Jews, because of that, it’s important for us to see what Jesus did to bring us near.

Take a look at the back page of the bulletin. The first line shows how God saves us. Once you were far, a Gentile, outside of God’s people. In the Old Testament, the promises of God came to a specific people—the Jews. Those who weren’t Jews were foreigners and aliens, and while God allowed for Gentiles to become a part of His chosen people, His salvation still came through the Jews.

While we live generations after this, while we live in New Testament times, it is important for us to remember that once we were far. When we say that we believe in Jesus Christ, we’re not saying that we believe in some God that is completely different than the Jews. We’re saying that we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Promised Savior of the Jews. Once we were not a part of this promise, once we were outside because we were Gentiles, but now...

Now you are near, brought inside of God’s people through Christ. Before Christ, a Gentile could only come near by becoming Jewish, by being circumcised, by becoming part of the Jewish nation. While it was about believing in the true God, it was also about citizenship. Now, though, you have been brought near to God through faith in Christ. Christ came to make it about citizenship in His kingdom not citizenship in the Jewish nation. Christ came to open the doors of salvation to all people.

So that’s why Paul can say that the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians are one body, because it is about Christ. It is no longer about birth or race or circumcision or nation or citizenship. It is about Christ, and because of that, there’s no dividing wall now between the Jews who believed Jesus is the Messiah and the Gentiles who believed in Jesus.

However, it’s important to pause here and explain that the categories of Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians is different than how we use those terms today. Paul is talking to Christians—whether they had a Jewish background or a Gentile background, the people all believed in Jesus. Today when we use the term Jewish, it refers to people who trace their ancestry back to the people of the Old Testament but have not embraced Jesus as the Messiah.

That’s an important thing to remember, because we can’t use this passage from Ephesians to say that Christians and Jews today are one. We are one with all people who believe in Jesus—no matter what their race, ethnicity, or former religion is. However, we are not one in faith with Jewish people who do not believe that Jesus is our Savior.

That’s a difficult thing for us to talk about sometimes, because it seems like it’s wrong to say that God’s chosen people are not saved. We’ve often been afraid to say this, but if we want to stay true to our message that Jesus is the only way to eternal life, if we say that Buddhists, atheists, Mormons, and Muslims need to believe in Jesus for salvation, then it follows that we’d also say that the Jews need to believe in Jesus.

Once we say this, then we realize that it means we want the Jews to know the wonderful Gospel, the beautiful Good News of Jesus. We want the Jews, and all people, to know that they are saved from sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus. What a great message to tell the whole world.

So Jews and Christians today are not one in faith unless those people of Jewish ancestry believe in Jesus as Savior. We are one with all believers in Christ.

OK, back to Ephesians, and Paul running around like Grover. So again, look at the back page of the bulletin. The second line is a reminder of what happens as God saves others. First of all, it is true that the people outside of the Church are far from God. Here I mean people who don’t believe in Jesus or who may not have heard the truth about Jesus.

What’s important to remember, though, is that many of the people we meet who are not Christians may also feel very far from God. It’s not just that they reject God, but sometimes they feel like God would reject them. For whatever reason, along the way in their lives, they’ve felt closed out from God.

But we are sent to bring them near to God through Jesus Christ. God sends us out to tell them that God does love them, forgive them, and will save them. God sends us to run back and forth until they understand the concepts of far and near, until they understand that Jesus takes them from far away and brings them near to God.

Part of the problem back in Ephesus seems to be that both the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians thought of themselves as better than the other. That throws a whole kink in the works when it comes to telling others about salvation. The Jewish Christians thought that the Gentiles needed to become Jewish and Christian. The Gentile Christians thought the Jewish Christians were too hung up on the old ways. So both groups had superiority complexes—kind of looking down at the other group.

Well, that was enough to make Paul run back and forth like Grover, sighing and crying and fainting with frustration as the people still didn’t seem to understand the concepts of far and near. Neither group was better than the other; neither was the better way, the right way, the more true Christian way. Both the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians were brought near to God through Jesus—not through anything they did. Jesus is the common denominator, the common Savior.

Why talk about this today? Because I think that the whole superiority complex isn’t too far removed from us. We’ve got a tendency to do the same thing. We divide ourselves into groups—the people who’ve grown up as Christians, the people who are new Christians; the people who’ve always been members of Redeemer Lutheran Church, the people who more recently became members—like in the last 20 years.

We divide ourselves from the rest of the world, too. We’re Christians, we’re in church, and the rest of the people aren’t. That kind of thinking starts to make us think that we’re better than those other people out there, and that’s enough to keep Paul running back and forth trying to explain far and near.

But in this process of telling people about Jesus, of sharing His Word with those who are not Christians, in this process, we’ve got to remember that it’s all about the common denominator, the common Savior. If the back page of the bulletin shows what happened for us on the first line, God bringing us into His people through Jesus, and then it shows what happens for others on the second line, notice how both lines depend on the cross. From far to near depends on Jesus. Whether someone’s been in the church for years or someone is still waiting to hear about Jesus, both are brought near to God through Jesus.

And when someone hears God’s Word and believes in Jesus, then we rejoice that we are one in faith. The old dividing lines are gone. Mature Christians, new Christians—one in faith. Anglo Christians, Hmong Christians, Hispanic Christians, Black Christian—one in faith. We’ve all been brought near to God through the cross of Jesus.

We are one with all people who believe in Jesus—which is a reminder of something I’d like for us to pray about today and for you to keep in your personal prayers. We are one with the Christians who live in Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel. We often think of the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, or Israel and Palestine as a conflict between Jews and Muslims, but even now, as war between Israel and Hizbullah continues, there are Christians on both sides of the border. There are Christian churches being bombed in Lebanon; those Christians in Lebanon are our brothers and sisters in Jesus. I got an email from a pastor in Tel Aviv in Israel who said his congregation has been busy making a bomb shelter in the basement; those Christians in Israel are our brothers and sisters in Jesus.

If we’re too quick to think of Israel as being Jewish, Palestine and Lebanon as being Muslim, then we’ll miss the fact that Jesus makes us one with people in all of those countries, makes us one with the Israelis, Palestinians, and Lebanese who are Christian, who believe that Jesus is the Savior. Please remember our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, because we have all been made one in Jesus.