11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Actual Label Instructions On Consumer Goods
On Sears hairdryer: Do not use while sleeping.
On a bag of Fritos: You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside.
On a bar of Dove soap: Directions: Use like regular soap.
On some Swann frozen dinners: Serving suggestion: Defrost.
On a hotel provided shower cap in a box: Fits one head.
On Tesco’s Tiramisu dessert:(printed on bottom of the box) Do not turn upside down.
On Marks & Spencer Bread Pudding: Product will be hot after heating.
On packaging for a Rowenta iron: Do not iron clothes on body.
On Boot’s Children’s cough medicine: Do not drive car or operate machinery.
On Nytol sleep aid: Warning: may cause drowsiness.
On a string of Christmas lights: For indoor or outdoor use only.
On a Japanese food processor: Not to be used for the other use.
On Sainsbury’s peanuts: Warning: contains nuts.
On an American Airlines packet of nuts: Instructions: open packet, eat nuts.
On a Swedish chainsaw: Do not attempt to stop chain with your hands.
On a child’s Superman costume: Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly.
Okay, there are some pretty interesting labels out there. Some are helpful, some are strange, some seem quite obvious. And some labels are down-right hurtful. Now I’m talking about the labels that we put on one another, lumping people together in a group, and often disregarding them because of it. Today I want to look at some of the labels that were placed on people in Paul’s day and some of the labels that we place on each other today. And I hope to see that even though sometimes labels are helpful, they can be quite harmful to the body of Christ as well.
Paul begins today’s scripture with a reminder: Remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus, a church made up of converts to Christianity. Paul is giving them a reminder that we all need from time to time: Don’t forget where you came from! Don’t forget how far you have come! You were outside of the new covenant, you were without God, and you were without hope. But here you are and just look at you! Now that you are in Christ you have been brought near. Now you have reason, now you serve a purpose bigger than yourselves. You now are living for Christ.
The reason Paul reminds the Ephesians of their journey is because Paul wishes to address the problem of cliques within the body of Christ. He is noting that the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians are keeping their distance from one another. In other books of the Bible we find Paul addressing the Jewish Christians asking them why they don’t eat with the Gentiles and why they are treating the Gentiles as second class citizens of the kingdom of God. Now he is addressing the Gentiles and saying that they also seem to be trying to keep separate from the Jewish people because of some sense of superiority or inferiority. Or perhaps just out of a sense of being different. Regardless, there is division among the Jews and the Gentiles, and Paul doesn’t like it.
When Paul addresses those in Ephesus he includes that those who are circumcised (the Jews) refer to them as the uncircumcised. This was not a term of endearment. They used this term pejoratively to separate the true people of God from those that God was simply making an exception for. Because the Jews believed that if the Gentiles truly wanted to be like them and be included in the chosen people that they needed to be circumcised. The Jewish Christians would look at the Gentile Christians and think something like, “Yeah, they claim to be followers of Jesus the Messiah. But we all know that they really are not. They are not the true Christians because they are not following the Law that Moses gave to us.” This rightly bothers Paul and this is why Paul is trying to bring unity to the body. There is an unhealthy division among them. Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised.
We know that Paul had a hard time breaking down these ethnic barriers and that this was not the only time that he had to address it. In Galatians 3:28 Paul reminds the believers that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but that they are all one in Christ. Then in Colossians 3:11 Paul writes, “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”
Are you picking up what I’m putting down here? Paul is considered by many to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and he was very effective at leading who knows how many Gentiles into a life of following and serving Jesus Christ. Yet Paul is always coming up against these Jews saying that the Gentiles were not truly the people of God and the Gentiles were fighting for their inclusion and Paul is getting sick and tired of all of this bickering! I can hear him now, “How many times do I have to tell you! Nobody is perfect, nobody is any better than anyone else. It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, purple, or orange; it doesn’t matter if you are young or old, male or female, ethnic Jews or ethnic barbarians. All that matters now is that we are one in Christ.”
Paul spends the first two chapters of Ephesians just trying to get the point across to the Gentile believers in Ephesus that their inclusion in the people of God doesn’t have anything to do with their ethnicity or their “works”. This is the context in which we should read Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” The Gentiles have been included in the chosen people not by any works, not by circumcision or avoiding pork, but by grace.
You want to boast about your inclusion in the body of Christ by your pedigree or your ethnicity? Too bad, we are saved by grace. You want to boast about your inclusion in the body of Christ based on your works? Too bad, again we are saved, included in the body of Christ by faith. Paul is breaking down barriers on the left and right, front and back. And he will continue to do so until the people realize that all men, women, and children have full access to God through Jesus the Christ.
And Paul knows a thing or two about these ethnic boundaries. Paul is said to have been a Jewish Pharisee. He knew the Law and he knew about worshipping God, Old Testament style. In the temple there would have been several different courts that only allowed certain kinds of people into certain sections of the temple. There was a courtyard for women, there was a courtyard for non-Jewish men. Only ethnic Jews could enter into the main part of the temple, and only the priests could go into the Holy of Holies. These were clear boundaries and you better not cross into a section or courtyard where you did not belong. I have even read that there was an inscription on one of the walls before you got into the main part of the temple saying that if you were a Gentile and you crossed that boundary that your life was at risk.
If you read Acts chapter 21 you will find that one of the charges brought against the apostle Paul that led to his being martyred was that he had brought a Gentile Ephesian man into the temple where he was not supposed to go. So Paul was a champion of the cause for equal treatment among all people, regardless of race, color, or gender.
Prepare for the sarcasm: Aren’t you glad that we are not divided in anyway in the church today? We are not divided by ethnicity; we are not divided by color; we are not divided theologically. Oh wait, yes we are. Martin Luther King Jr. once observed that the most segregated hour in the United States was 11 o’clock on Sunday morning. We are just as segregated today as we were back in Martin Luther King’s day, and we are just as segregated as we were back in Paul’s day.
I know that I could spend a fair amount of time talking about the ethnic segregation in our congregations in the US, but I think I would like to focus on a different area this morning and that is in theology. We have so many denominations and so many branches of denominations within Christianity today that it boggles the mind. If church attendance in the US keeps decreasing and we keep on having church splits, soon we are going to have more denominations than members. And to be honest it weakens our witness to non-Christians. “How can they expect me to agree with them when they can’t even agree with one another?” a non-Christian might think. Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, and Mennonites. We fought back in the 16th Century and we either continue to fight today or simply write off one another as wrong, irrelevant, or even worse, throw the H word around…Heretic!
We are divided even within our own denomination. There are the liberal Mennonites and the conservative Mennonites. We see this division even in our district. There are some congregations and pastors that we would call liberal and some that we would call conservative. And I am sick of it, because like when the Jews referred to the Gentiles as the uncircumcision, we are not using the terms liberal and conservative in a loving way. We are using the pejoratively. We are putting labels on one another.
Some of you know my friend John Stoltzfus. John is a great guy with a caring heart. He cares deeply for people, he cares deeply for the church, and he cares deeply for our district. As John was getting ready to pack up his life and move to Cheraw, Colorado, he told me, “Kevin, if I could ask one thing of the Southern District, I would ask people to stop using the words liberal and conservative because those labels are tearing us apart as a district.” I agree.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount he gives us a little, yet golden rule to live by: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I don’t like it when people try to put a label on me, put me into a box, or to silence my opinion by equating me with a group that you don’t like. And I bet that you don’t like it either. So why do we do it? Why do we put labels on one another and then surround ourselves with people that think just like us?
I want a church that is filled with people that think differently than I do about certain issues. That is how we grow, that is how we strengthen our understanding of Christ and what he is calling us to. If we simply surround ourselves with people that think exactly like us we will never grow as Christians. We will never be challenged, we will never search the scriptures and read commentaries like we do when we grow together in community.
I asked Jim to preach twice for me this summer and I know that Jim and I do not see eye to eye on a lot of subjects and issues. But yet I asked him to bring the morning message and I did not try to influence what he would preach on. I did this because I know that Jim comes to his perspective based on his reading of the Bible and years of experience. I know that Jim cares deeply about people and I believe that Jim’s opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s. So by presenting you with differing ideas, I believe that we are all able to grow better as a community of people seeking to follow Christ. I could have put a label on Jim and said, He’s just a liberal or conservative or evangelical or charismatic person. He’s just wrong and therefore we shouldn’t have to listen to him. But I believe that our differences should not drive us apart, but rather bring us together to learn from one another.
We as Christians need to learn to get along with one another even when we disagree. We need to learn how to have conversations with people that view things differently than we do. That was Paul’s desire for the Ephesians, all of the Gentile Christians, and the Jewish Christians. Don’t just surround yourselves with people just like you. Gather together, eat together, talk together with people different from yourself because we all serve the same God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I’m tired. I’m tired of this griping. I’m tired of the complaining. And mostly I am tired of this one-up-manship, trying to look like a better Christian, a stronger Christian by demeaning someone else’s faith in public or to other people. I am tired of people trying to make other people look like less of a Christian so that they look better. And I really think that is what so many Christians are doing when they go around and complain about what other people are saying or doing as Christians. We are trying to make ourselves look better by making others look worse.
And yes, I am including myself in this. I am not innocent, as I have criticized what other Christians have said in public, even from the pulpit. I have named names, misquoted, and put a label on my fellow laborers for the kingdom. And I am done with that. If you catch me complaining about someone else’s theology without them present to represent themselves, please stop me. Jesus taught us not to point out the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye while ignoring the plank in our own eye. This is gossip, this is slander, this is a sin.
When we start complaining to other people about a third party’s theology we are becoming just like the Jewish Christians and the Ephesian Christians going back and forth trying to show that one group is the true children of God and that the others are failing miserably.
Now that does not mean that I will not continue to preach what I believe to be true, and this does not mean that I won’t call your attention to theology that I believe is misguiding. That is my job as a pastor. I still believe that the prosperity gospel is misguiding and the fundamentalism is close-minded. But I don’t plan to name names. I am not here to critique people as much as I am here to critique ideas and theologies.
I know that this has been a pretty negative sermon up to this point and you might be asking yourself, “Where is the hope?” Well if we return to our scripture from Ephesians 2 and look at verses 14-17, “For he (Jesus) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”
Jesus is our peace. This isn’t some little peace sign hanging around Jesus’ neck or printed on his t-shirt, which seems to be so popular these days. Surely Paul was thinking of the Hebrew word Shalom when he wrote that Jesus is our peace. Shalom isn’t just the absence of conflict, but it is a sense of well-being and wholeness. Shalom is a sense of well-being and wholeness with God, with one’s self, and with others. It is a sense that all is good.
So Paul is saying that we find our well being and wholeness in Jesus. Jesus has broken down the dividing walls among humanity and created in himself a new humanity unified in Christ. Jesus has brought well being and wholeness to those who were far off, the Gentiles, and to those who were near, the Jews. For he has reconciled both groups to God through the cross.
The cross is a symbol of unification. In Christ there is no long male nor female, Jew nor Greek, rich or poor. So if the cross is to be a symbol of unification, why have we been so divided by the cross? I can only assume it is because of our selfish ambitions. We are still tempted, and we still succumb to sin on a daily basis.
Today I would like to encourage you to not critique someone else’s theology when they are not present to defend themselves. Essentially I am saying don’t talk about someone behind their back. If you disagree with someone, talk to them in person, not to someone else. Because if we are honest, when we talk about someone else behind their back, we are trying to make ourselves look better by making someone else look worse. I would also encourage you to not use labels like “conservative” or “liberal” to describe people or churches, because when we put these labels on people, we are not doing it in love, and we are probably not adhering to the Golden Rule.
Let us remember that we are all one in Christ and that Jesus is our peace. Outside of Jesus, we will never be unified as a body. May we be united as one to do the work of our Lord and Savior. If we are going to put a label on someone, let it be that of a Christ-follower. The cross was meant to unify us, not to divide.