Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called "Uncircumcision " by the so-called "Circumcision," which is performed in the flesh by human hands - 12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. 17 AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; 18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. In 1983, the Congress established the third Monday of every January as a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and what he stood for. King's birthday is January 15 and, if he had not been assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, he would have been 71 years old yesterday. Imagine what our recent history might have been had Martin Luther King lived during the seventies and eighties and nineties and trumpeted his vision during all those years!
Why do I mark this day with a sermon on racial relations each year?—this is the fourth year. There are more reasons than I can tell you. But let me tell you some of them. The main reason is in today's text, Ephesians 2:11-22 and it has to do with the glory of the cross of Christ. I will come to that in a few minutes. But there are personal reasons that might help you understand why it is something I feel a burden to do.
Growing Up White in South Carolina
Start with my growing-up years. I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. You need to know something of the psyche of this state where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. The population of South Carolina in 1860 was about 700,000. Sixty percent of these were African Americans (420,000) and all but 9,000 of these were slaves. That's a mere 140 years ago. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, largely in protest over Abraham Lincoln's election as an anti-slavery president. And it was in Charleston, South Carolina that the Civil War began. Ninety-five years later, when I was nine years old in Greenville, the segregation was absolute: drinking fountains, public rest rooms, public schools, bus seating, housing, restaurants, waiting rooms and—worst of all—churches, including mine.
And I can tell you from the inside that, for all the rationalized glosses, it was not "separate but equal," it was not respectful, and it was not Christian. It was ugly and demeaning. I have much to be sorry about, and I feel a burden to work against the mindset and the condition of heart that I was so much a part of in those years. And it goes on. South Carolina today will not give state workers a holiday tomorrow and many pride themselves on flying the Confederate flag.
Another Little Boy
Across town from where I grew up, in the same city, five years older than I, another little boy was growing up on the other side of the racial divide. His name was Jesse Jackson. I learned last summer that his mother loved the same radio station my mother did: WMUU, the voice of Bob Jones University. But there was a big difference. The very school that broadcast all that Bible truth would not admit blacks. And the large, white Baptist church not far from Jesse Jackson's home wouldn't either. This was my hometown. And as an aside I ask, should we be surprised that some of the strongest black leaders got their theological education at liberal institutions (like Chicago Theological Seminary, where Jackson went), when our fundamental and evangelical schools, especially in the south, were committed to segregation?
God had mercy on me. In the year that I started seminary in California—1968—Martin Luther King was shot and killed. These were explosive days and I was fortunate to have professors who cared about the issues and were committed to finding the Biblical perspective on racial relations. One of those professors, Paul Jewett, compiled a 200-page syllabus of readings for us called "Readings in Racial Prejudice." These readings were absolutely shocking. You can't read about the crimes of vicious hatred toward blacks and come away without trembling. The Introduction of that syllabus ends like this:
And now let us listen to the groans of Frederick Douglass, feel the lash with Amy, endure the satire of DuBois, and measure the wrath of Malcolm X; let us contemplate the pathos of black childhood and the tragedy of black womanhood. And let us not forget that "he who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it." And let us also remember that if God has given us a revelation of the true nature of man, surely we will render account if we do not live in the light of that revelation, and especially so if we are called to the holy office of the Christian ministry.
Those were powerful days in my life. And now, thirty years later, by God's amazing grace, I am called to "the holy office of the Christian ministry," and God has given us a revelation of the true nature of man, and I will render an account of my life and ministry to God as to whether I have lived and preached in the light of that revelation. Hence some of my passion for this weekend and this message.
As secular as the Civil Rights movement was in the sixties, there is no denying the profound Christian impulses that throbbed at the center of it, especially in the life and background of Martin Luther King, Jr.—as imperfect as he was. One little glimpse of it can be seen in the way his father responded to King's receiving the Nobel Peace prize in 1964. King and other dignitaries were gathered in Oslo, Sweden, and about to celebrate, when the elder King stepped in and said,
"Wait a minute before you start all your toasts to each other. We better not forget to toast the man who brought us here, and here's a toast to God." Then in a quavering voice, he told what his son's prize meant to him. "I always wanted to make a contribution, and all you got to do if you want to contribute, you got to ask the Lord, and let him know, and the Lord heard me and, in some special kind of way I don't even know, he came down through Georgia and he laid his hand on me and my wife and he gave us Martin Luther King, and our prayers were answered."
Called to Be More than We Are
Well, I want "to make a contribution" too, as Dr. King, Sr. said. So I asked God's help, and he came up through Minnesota—I don't even know how—and laid his hand on me and Noël, and gave us Karsten and Benjamin and Abraham and Barnabas and Talitha Ruth, and he gave us a church at the middle of a racially diverse city, and he gave us a people, and he gave us a fresh mandate four years ago for our church in these words:
Against the rising spirit of indifference, alienation and hostility in our land, we will embrace the supremacy of God's love to take new steps personally and corporately toward racial reconciliation, expressed visibly in our community and in our church. (Fresh Initiative #3 in Bethlehem's Vision Statement booklet)
We are called as a church to be something more than we are in living out a manifest, visible racial harmony at the center of the city. To help you see this, and to call you to it, I turn with you now to listen to one clear word from God about racial harmony in our church. This is the ultimate reason for preaching on this issue: God has something to say about it and about how we live together as a church.
"No Longer Strangers and Aliens"
First, let's notice how this text begins and ends. In verses 11-12 it begins with a description of the alienation between Jews and Gentiles—specifically Jewish Christians and Gentiles. "Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called "Uncircumcision " by the so-called "Circumcision," which is performed in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world."
Then in verses 19-22 the text ends with a description of the reconciliation between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. "So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit."
List the changes and the way Paul exults in the change in relationships. First in verse 19 two negatives and two positives: 1) No longer strangers, 2) no longer aliens, 3) fellow citizens with the saints, 4) part of the same household of God. Then in verse 20 he describes the one common foundation of this new unity: "the foundation of the apostles and prophets" with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. Then in verses 21-22 he says that this new unity of Jew and Gentile built on Christ's saving work and his apostles' teachings is a single building built for the unspeakable privilege of housing God. Verse 21: the church (of reconciled Jew and Gentile) is a temple. And what is a temple? Verse 22 tells us: "a dwelling of God in the Spirit."
That is what God is aiming at in our salvation: a new people (one new man, verse 15) that is so free from enmity and so united in truth and peace that God himself is there for our joy and for his glory forever. That's the aim of reconciliation: a place for God to live among us and make himself known and enjoyed forever and ever.
Now keep in mind here that the divide between Jews and Gentiles was not small or simple or shallow. It was huge and complex and deep. It was, first, religious. The Jews knew the one true God, and Christian Jews knew his Son, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Then the divide was cultural or social with lots of ceremonies and practices like circumcision and dietary regulations and rules of cleanliness and so on. These were all designed to set the Jews apart from the nations for a period of redemptive history to make clear the radical holiness of God. Then the divide was racial. This was a bloodline going back to Jacob, not Esau, and Isaac, not Ishmael, and Abraham, not any other father. So the divide here was as big or bigger than any divide that we face today between black and white or red and white, or Asian and African-American.
Reconciliation and Unity out of Alienation and Separation
So here is the question: What happened between verses 11-12 that describes the alienation and separation between Jews and Gentiles, and verses 19-22 that describes the full reconciliation and unity?
Here we could preach for days. These verses, 13-18, are so rich and thick with doctrine that it would take days to unpack it all. So I will leave many questions unanswered and make one main point that I think is the most essential thing.
What happened between the alienation of verses 11-12 and the reconciliation of verses 19-22? The answer is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God died—and he died by design. Yes, he rose and is alive. But the emphasis here falls on his death. Where do we see it? We see it in the word "blood" in verse 13b: "You who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ." We see it in the word "flesh" in verse 15, ". . . abolishing in His flesh the enmity." And we see it in the word "cross" in verse 16, "...and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross."
The rest of the text is Paul's explanation of how the blood of Christ—his death in the flesh on the cross—removes the enmity between God and Jew, God and Gentile and Jew and Gentile, and, therefore, by implication, between every ethnic group of Christians who are in Christ who has become our peace. I won't go into that, as profound and wonderful as it is.
A New Creation—One New People
Let me take this one point and draw things to a close with it and apply it to us as a church. The point is that God aims to create one new people in Christ who are reconciled to each other across racial lines. Not strangers. Not aliens. No enmity. Not far off. Fellow citizens of one Christian "city of God." One temple for a habitation of God. And he did this at the cost of his Son's life. We love to dwell on our reconciliation with God through the death of his Son. And well we should. It is precious beyond measure—to have peace with God (Romans 5:9-10).
But let us also dwell on this: that God ordained the death of his Son to reconcile alien people groups to each other in one body in Christ. This too was the design of the death of Christ. Think on this: Christ died to take enmity and anger and disgust and jealousy and self-pity and fear and envy and hatred and malice and indifference away from your heart toward all other persons who are in Christ by faith—whatever the race.
Now here is one concluding implication of this. Paul says in Galatians 6:14—and I hope we say with him—"May it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." Is this one of the great aims of our church—never to boast save in the cross of Jesus? Does this not mean, among other things, that week in and week out we want the meaning and the worth and the beauty and the power of the cross of Christ—the death of Christ, the shed blood of Christ—to be seen and loved in this place? Do we not want that? Is that not why we exist—to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in the death of his Son?
And if the design of the death of his Son is not only to reconcile us to God, but to reconcile alienated ethnic groups to each other in Christ, then will we not display and magnify the cross of Christ better by more and deeper and sweeter ethnic diversity and unity in our worship and life? If Christ died—mark this! DIED—to make the church a reconciled body of Jew and Gentile, "red and yellow, black and white" and every shade of brown, then to glory in the cross is to glory in the display of the fruit of that cross.
And So . . .
At the risk of sounding trite on such a great theme and a great goal, I will give you some very practical exhortations:
- Welcome newcomers every week. Make a weekly aim to welcome someone you don't know. The loneliest place in the week is in the commons with two hundred bustling people. Talk to the people you don't know.
- Invite people of different ethnic backgrounds to church with you.
- Be glad when different ethnic elements are used in the service.
- Ponder the cross of our Lord Jesus and what it means.
- Pray toward more wisdom and sensitivity.