13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
On June 12, 1987 President Ronald Reagan delivered one of the most memorable speeches of the 20th century. He stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate closed off West Berlin from East Berlin and symbolized the Cold War struggle between the communist Soviet Union and the democracies of Western Europe and the United States. Addressing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he famously exhorted him, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” The wall of course was the physical as well as ideological wall that separated the peoples of Europe from the end of World War II until the mostly peaceful democratic revolutions of 1989. The wall literally sealed off peoples, nations, and cities from interacting with one another.
Our text in Ephesians is a celebration of the elimination of a wall that hindered God’s purposes in extending grace and blessing to the world. The burning question in the early days of the Christ following movement was the proper understanding of the relationship between Gentiles and the Gospel message. In particular, the issue turned on the extent to which a Gentile convert to the Gospel had to practice Judaism as a means of following Jesus. In other words, did a Gentile have to first become a Jew in order to become a Christian, or could any person—Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave or free—find God directly through faith in Jesus? Did the Gospel constitute another wall to be scaled as a precondition to reconciliation and relationship with God? Our passage announces boldly that God through the work of Jesus has opened the door to all people.
A Person Instead of Precepts
From the beginning of the Scriptures, God has called a people to himself to serve as agents of grace to rest of the world. This mission began formerly with Abraham. It shifted from a family to a nation after the Exodus from Egypt. On Mount Sinai, the LORD forged a formal agreement or covenant with the people of Israel to serve as God’s missional people in the world. Part of this agreement included authoritative instructions for the ordering of the community in order to serve as God’s witnesses to the world. The Torah or Law helped to establish Israel as God’s holy people. By the time of Jesus, these instructions had created a divided world: Jews and Gentiles. These people were divided over belief in Israel’s God for sure, but also by dietary laws and the practice of circumcision. Even those Gentiles interested in Israel’s religion were not always willing to embrace Israel’s regulations.
In our text, Paul declares that this former division is now past. In place of the Israel’s governing precepts, God has revealed a person who through his life, death, and resurrection from the dead served to explode the former categories. Jesus did not so much do away with Israel’s precepts as He fulfilled them in his person. In Jesus, there is no insider or outsider. Persons are neither far nor near. Jesus has made peace through his actions to create a new humanity that transcends the old categories.
A New Humanity
To say that Jesus came to make us human again is not to reduce the power and scope of the Gospel. Instead, it captures a key piece of the good news about Jesus that is often missed. An essential core of what it means to be human involves community and relationships. In fact, God created women and men for authentic community with God and with one another. Jesus died to make this possible. Paul’s language in terms of his understanding of Jesus’ death is telling: making peace and bringing reconciliation.
Twice in our text Paul uses the language of “near” and “far off” to describe humanity in its pre-coming of Jesus Christ state. The world consisted of static, unbridgeable divisions between Jew and Gentile. There were other walls in the ancient world as well: male and female, slave and free, rich and poor.
In one of Paul’s most powerful statements in the New Testament, he testified to Jesus’ power in deconstructing all of these divisions: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
In his person, Jesus forged a new humanity. The Gospel does not call for persons to meet “half way” in an attempt at compromise and reconciliation. Through the person of Jesus, the former categories are annulled. All persons are called to align themselves under a new banner: “in Christ.” Persons are no longer “near” or “far off” on the basis of birth. This new identity is found through faith in Jesus the Messiah.
By making us human again, Jesus unleashes us to live the lives for which we were created: genuine community with one another while doing God’s good work in the world and enjoying peace with God.
Peace with God
Jesus death and resurrection not only broke down barriers separating humanity from one another; it also opened up the possibility of reconciliation with our Creator. Jesus came to restore humanity’s broken relationship with God. It is a testimony to God’s love that he refused to settle for brokenness and estrangement as the final word on his relationship with the jewel of his creative activity.
The story of the Scriptures is the narrative of God’s active work to bring women and men back home. Jesus is the climax of God’s reconciling activity. Reconciliation and peace would never have been achieved through mere human effort. God loved each of us so much that God the Father sent the Son into the world to live as the ultimate human–modeling the character of God before others and then dying sacrificially on behalf of all people to forge a lasting peace between a new humanity and God.
Verse 17 emphasizes the active nature of Jesus’ mission. He “came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” The implication for the original recipients of Paul’s letter was that these words were to serve as marching orders for their community. The Church of Ephesus was to model this new humanity and follow Jesus into the world on mission to proclaim the good news to all who would receive it. This mission must become ours as well. It is not enough to enjoy peace with God individually. Peace with God is a reality intended for all people.
Tearing Down Our Walls
Robert Frost penned the line “Good fences make good neighbors” in his memorable poem “Mending Wall.” Frost put these words in the mouth of the narrator’s neighbor as the justification for a stonewall separating their fields. As we find ourselves in the early days of the 21st century, the Church in the West finds itself in a position of decline in numbers of adherents and influence in the wider culture. It is time for the dawn of a new day. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have torn down the walls that separate and enslave humanity. It is time for us to rediscover this reality. Jesus’ life was about movement for the advancement of God’s mission to extend grace and blessing to all nations. To be true to Jesus’ life and to live in light of his death and resurrection we must realign our priorities and programs. This means recapturing the missional center of the Christ following movement. Jesus’ earliest followers immediately became witnesses to the truth and power of the Gospel. Following his resurrection from the dead, Jesus unleashed his followers to carry the Gospel message to all people (those near and far). Their work literally changed the course of history. We can as well.
What is stopping us from extending the Gospel into the world in our day? How do we take care not to reestablish walls that the Gospel has already torn down? What practices divide Christ followers today from those who need the Gospel?
It is not enough for us to wait inside the walls of our places of worship for the world to come to us. Our buildings serve as metaphors for the walls separating the Church and world, the Gospel and humanity as a whole. Jesus consistently modeled movement. He encountered women and men in the ordinary aspects of life—meals, gathering water, in fields, along roads. Our text is an invitation to realign our lives with the priorities of the Gospel and work to forge with Jesus a new humanity shaped and aligned with God’s mission.
A key question that must be answered by us today as we close is this: Who is my mission? Who in my life appears to stand outside of the reach of the grace of God? What am I willing to do tear down the walls? Jesus was willing to take the division to the cross? What will we as his followers do in our day?
How we answer these questions will make all of the difference in the world. Amen.