Gentiles by birth

Ephesians 2:11-22

11 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)— 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. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

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. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 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 access to the Father by one Spirit.

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. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

We don’t have any pets in our home. I was once told that this is common for people that grew up on farms because in our minds animals belong in the barn. But then again, we may have snuck a few baby pigs into the house on a cold winter night or two when I was a young man.

While we don’t have any traditional pets, we do have some neighborhood animals that we have kind of adopted. For instance, we have a young rabbit who lives by our vegetable garden, and I blame him for eating all of my carrots this year. He is a white tailed bunny that my children have named Cotton.

We also have a lot of squirrels that live in our oak tree. Normally I can’t tell one squirrel from the next. They all look about the same to me. But there is one exception. There is a squirrel that does not have a tail. We have no way of knowing if the squirrel was born without a tail or if he somehow lost that bushy appendage.

It is very strange to see a tailless squirrel for the first time. I noticed the squirrel while it was sitting in the grass, and didn’t think much of it. I actually thought it was Cotton the bunny. Then it started to run and climb a tree. I thought to myself, “Cotton hasn’t done this before.” I’ve since seen it jump from one branch to another, climb fences, and perch open our tool shed. One thing is clear; it looks quite strange. When you look at a tailless squirrel, you soon realize that close to half of the squirrel by length is made up of tail.

The tailless squirrel is frequently seen in our backyard. When I asked my son about it, he told me that he thought the squirrel was actually a mole and then he rattled something off about the subnivean zone; thank Chris and Martin Kratt. But this creature is clearly a squirrel. It lives like a squirrel, eats like a squirrel, runs like a squirrel, and climbs like a squirrel. But I have a really hard time convincing my son that it is in fact a squirrel and not a mole.

This brings up an interesting question: What makes a squirrel a squirrel? If 50% of a squirrel is found in its tail, is a squirrel without a tail really a squirrel?

Our text for this morning comes from the second chapter of “Paul’s” letter to a group of Gentile converts to Christianity known as the Ephesians. This chapter is filled with important doctrinal information. Paul starts by saying, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived…” Obviously this is a metaphor. Paul is saying that the Ephesians were not living the fullness of life God offers. Their sins kept them from living the way God would have them to live. Later, in verse 12, Paul describes the Ephesians as “having no hope.”

But now these Ephesians were grafted into a system of hope and life. And Paul makes it clear in verse 8 that it is through faith in Christ that they have been included in this community of hope and life.

Our text then begins with the simple instruction for the Ephesians to remember that at one time they were considered outsiders. They were called “the uncircumcision,” which is a strange way to refer to a people group. But consider the word “Gentiles” for a moment. The Gentiles didn’t call themselves Gentiles. They called themselves Greeks, Romans, and Ephesians.

The biblical words that are translated into the word gentile are “goy” in the Hebrew, and “ethnos” in the Greek. You may be somewhat familiar with “ethnos” as it is the root to words like “ethnicity,” and “ethnic.” Both words simply mean “nations.” When the Bible was translated into Latin by Roman Christians, both goy and ethnos were translated into the Latin word “gentiles” which refers to one who did not have Roman citizenship. A Gentile is someone who does not belong.

As I said, the Gentiles didn’t call themselves Gentiles or Ethnos, or Goyim. This is what the Israelites called them. To call them Gentiles, Ethnos, or Goyim was a way of designating that they were not a part of our group. We are we, they are them. Separate, and in no way equal.

From the time that God called Abraham, the Hebrew people understood themselves to be blessed, to be chosen by God. Chosen for what? I’m not sure that they always knew. But there was an understanding that God had selected them. They were the people of God.

This can understandably give someone a pretty big ego. God has chosen me and not you. Add to this that the Torah teaches a number of practices that every good Israelite was to adhere to that enforced separation between the Israelites and the Gentiles. If you are an Israelite, you don’t eat with a Gentile. You don’t marry a Gentile. And you sure cannot worship with a Gentile.

The Temple in Jerusalem was made up of several courtyards. At the center of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, the place where the Ark of the Covenant was stored. Out from there was a series of rooms and courtyards accessible based on your social and religious hierarchical position. There was a room that only the priests could enter. Jewish men in good standing were able to enter the next courtyard. Then there was the women’s courtyard. And outside that was a courtyard for Gentiles.

In the Jewish mind, God’s presence was believed to dwell in the Holy of Holies. So in a very physical way, certain people were able to get closer to God than others. The priests, the men, then women, and finally the Gentiles. Why is this? Because the Hebrew people were God’s chosen people. The Gentiles were by definition “others.”

But come on, how seriously did the Jewish people take this idea that only Jewish people could come to God in the temple? In Acts 21, we find the story of what happened when the Jews believed that Paul brought a Gentile into the Temple. Beginning in verse 27b, “Some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, ‘Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.’ (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple.)”

The text goes on to tell about how Paul was beaten, chained up, and how the crowds threatened to kill him. All for bringing a Gentile into the Temple.

Unfortunately, we don’t have an exact date for when this happened. There is no time stamp that says, “May 22, 59 AD.” But I assume that the event with Paul and the Gentile man took place before the writing of today’s passage. This is significant when we look again at the parenthetical line in verse 29. This Gentile wasn’t just any Gentile. He was not just some random outsider. He was an Ephesian.

I remember hearing a story about an umpire that used to work minor league baseball games. This umpire was notorious for being slow to announce whether a pitch was a strike or a ball. The pitcher would throw the ball, it would hit the glove of the catcher, and then there was a pause.

Now this pause was surely not more than a second or two in length, but to those who were really involved in the game, the delay seemed like an eternity. You hear the sound of the ball hitting the leather glove and every eye turns to the masked man standing behind the catcher. The batter, the pitcher, every player and coach, even the devoted fans hold their breath as they wait on the call from the umpire.

“Strike 2,” “Ball 3.”

This umpire was working a close game one summer day in the bottom of the ninth inning. There was a full count, three balls and two strikes. The pitcher tossed a fastball right along the edge of the strike zone as the batter left the Louisville Slugger on his right shoulder. Again, there was a pause and everyone turned to the umpire. The batter asked, “Well, what is it?”

The umpire replied, “It ain’t nothing until I call it.”

We make a mistake if we think of calling balls and strikes as simply stating facts. Sure, there are some clear calls, like the wild pitch that sails over the head of the catcher or the fastball right down the middle. But what about those pitches on the corner? What about those ones that could go either way? Who decides whether a pitch on the corner is a ball or a strike?

Pretty much every person involved has an opinion on whether that pitch was a ball or a strike. If your team is batting, you probably thought that it was a ball. If your team is pitching, you probably thought it was a strike. But in that moment, the only opinion that matters is the opinion of the umpire. The umpire has the authority to make that call, and nobody else’s judgement matters.

This is how a lot of things seem to work in our world. We give authority to a few people who ultimately get to make the decision. But what do you do when the people in positions of authority don’t agree? The home plate umpire has the final call, but what about in other areas of life?

Just this past week we received pictures of Pluto. An unmanned spacecraft was launched in 2006 and traveled about 3.6 billion miles to get close enough to the surface to snap a few pictures. I can imagine the children in my mind, “Are we almost there yet?” Scientists saw mountains of ice, comparable in size to the Rocky Mountains, made up of frozen nitrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide. It is really an amazing accomplishment for the world of science.

The accomplishments of the scientific community simply baffle me, yet scientists can’t agree if Pluto is a planet or not.

When I was in school we learned about the nine planets in our solar system. Now I’m told that there are only eight. Pluto, some would say, is a “dwarf planet.” It has an irregular orbit of the sun and it is smaller than originally thought, even smaller than the Earth’s moon. So because of these and a few other reasons, Pluto is no longer considered a planet. It does not meet the criteria for planet-hood.

What were the criteria for being a Jew, to be a part of the people of God? You had to be born into a certain family line, you had to obey the purity laws, men had to be circumcised. The Ephesians didn’t make the cut (pun intended). And I understand that they were simply following what was commanded of them in the Torah. But the Jews failed to see that God was doing something new among them.

For some reason, we as human beings want to decide who is in and who is out. We want to be in a position of authority. Whether we are talking about who gets to sit at the cool table at lunch or the VIP lounge in the airport or even Christianity itself. I’ve know of Christians that were told that they were not really Christians because they didn’t read the right version of the Bible. I’ve been told that I’m not really a believer because I don’t have the “right” understanding of how God created the heavens and the earth. I’ve been told that I am not “in” because I don’t hold the right beliefs about women in ministry, about the rapture, or about divine providence. But Ephesians 2:8 tells us differently. It is our faith in Jesus that brings us into this community of struggling, bumbling, often wrong and mistaken disciples known as the church. And I hope the first time you walked through our doors here at Staunton Mennonite Church that you felt welcomed and like you belong. You are a part of the in crowd!

Now look at what Paul says beginning in verse 13. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Jesus has “has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” “For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

Who decides if a spinning ball of ice is a planet or a dwarf planet? Who has the authority to call a tailless squirrel a squirrel? Is a pitch a ball or is it a strike? Sure, we may all have our opinions on the matter, but we have one umpire who has been given ultimate authority. God has created a new people group, people invited to share in this ministry of life and hope. And the only criteria for being a part of this group comes down to the single question: Do you want to follow Jesus?

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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