Speaking Of Life 3034 | Walls of Hostility
Speaking Of Life 3034 | Walls of Hostility Heber Ticas You have heard the adage, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But hindsight says, “Bad neighbors, make good fences.” Ever since Adam and Eve turned hostile against God, fences and walls have outlined the history of conflict between neighbors. Stories about Jericho and Jerusalem or Babylon and Berlin are not complete without the rise and fall of their walls. Attempts at peace are often pursued but usually through this cycle of erecting and tearing down walls. Wars and walls go hand in hand. Some believe better walls will bring peace while others believe peace can only be achieved by their removal. But the problem is not with the walls. It’s with the people on both sides of the walls. The walls of hostility are not built from earthen stone but from stony hearts. This is the true wall of hostility that needs to be torn down. And the Good News of Jesus Christ is that he has done just that. We no longer have to argue over which side of the wall to stand on. Jesus has created a new ground of peace in himself where all can stand as one. He breaks down the walls of separation that are so prevalent in our world. Everyone is invited to live in him. The Apostle Paul was accused of crossing a cultural wall of hostility in his day and it landed him behind the walls of a prison. Yet, barricaded behind those walls he was free and at peace to write this about Jesus: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 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, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” Ephesians 2:14-16 Thanks to our Triune God of Grace, there are no walls of hostility between us and God. The Father has made us his children in Jesus and therefore, brothers and sisters to one another. If you have grown weary of building and tearing down walls of hostility, Jesus calls you to himself to belong to a new family that lives without walls and in peace. Mi nombre es Heber Ticas, Hablando de Vida.
Psalm 89:20-37 • 2 Samuel 7:1-14a • Ephesians 2:11-22 • Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
This week’s theme is Jesus the true king. The call to worship Psalm 89 pairs with the story in 2 Samuel, which recounts Nathan’s prophecy of the shepherd David being chosen as king to rule over God’s people along with God’s affirmation and confirmation of it. The Gospel reading in Mark also draws on the shepherd motif where those “like sheep without a shepherd” and shows the true shepherd king providing compassion and healing to the people. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians announces Jesus as our peace who has broken down the wall of hostility that divides.
Jesus Is Our Peace
Ephesians 2:11-22 (ESV)
A sermon titled “Jesus Is Our Peace” may perk our ears in hopes of hearing some encouragement to counter all the division and polarization we see in our world today. Maybe this is the title that will relax deeply held loyalties and differences that divide us. Perhaps the mere announcement that “Jesus is our peace” will help pacify and alleviate the hostility built up between people. If that is what you hope this passage will do, you may want to choose another passage to read.
Let me explain. It may escape our attention when we read Paul’s announcement, “Jesus is our peace,” that in Paul’s context he has made one of the most politically charged statements someone could make. For the church in Ephesus, the tension in Paul’s letter would not have gone unnoticed. Instead of alleviating tension, it probably raised it. If you were living in Asia Minor during Paul’s day you would be living under the iron fist of Rome’s rule. More to the point, you would be very familiar with phrases and terminology that would be considered “fighting words.”
For example: Rome’s emperors—Augustus in particular—saw themselves as the divine saviors of the world who were bringing “peace” to their newly conquered domains. They were self-proclaimed inaugurators of a worldwide peace that would once and for all settle the disputes between rivalries. Their concept of “peace” of course was proclaimed with a sword. The blood of their rivals paved the way to unity. Using their military power, and more specifically, the terror of crucifixion, the Romans declared peace to all who would bow to their rule, or death to those who would not. The proclamation of peace by the emperor was an ingrained rhetoric all would know. Elaborate celebrations, like the emperor’s birthday, would have public speeches that praised the emperor’s “lordship” and lauded him as the “peace-bringer.”
Paul brings up other terms that would draw on very sensitive issues in their culture like “strangers,” “aliens,” and “citizens.” Citizenship for example was highly valued by foreign people who had been conquered by Rome. Citizenship would bring many benefits from the emperor and it would bring you some sense of peace now that you are not marked as an “outsider” of the state. Citizens were treated very differently than foreigners. The dividing wall between the two was significant.
So, imagine now that you are gathered in someone’s home to hear the letter that has just arrived from Paul. As you are listening to the letter being read out loud, Paul proclaims, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace…” Fighting words. You may be tempted to tell the reader to whisper or skip over that part. You may steal a glance at the door to see if it was locked. To be listening to such a proclamation could land you in treasonous waters. And that, brothers and sisters, is the text we have before us today.
The language in Paul’s letter may not rile up the political elites of our day like they would in Paul’s. But the content and message of his letter still does. Any proclamation of another Lord than the idols the rulers of our day would have us bow down to will be a threat. Like it or not, to proclaim Jesus as Lord, the one who is our peace, is to become an outsider in a world bent on control and power. We would be naïve to think it will not. But we have no control over how the world and its self-appointed leaders will respond to the gospel. We have only ourselves to respond with. After all, this letter was not sent to Augustus—it was sent to believers like you and me, in a small church gathered to hear some good news. And let’s face it, we are not far removed from the divisive and controlling ways of the world. Here too, we would be naïve to think our culture does not rub off on us. Paul has some reminders we need to hear today just as much as our brothers and sisters in Ephesus needed to hear in their time. Notice how Paul begins this section:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:11-12 ESV)
Paul begins by reminding the Gentiles where they had come from. He is trying to guard them, and us, from making the same mistake the Jews did with their differences. The Jews were called to be a blessing and a light to the nations. This is why they were made to be “different” or set apart. Their differences were never intended to become walls of division that separated them from the Gentiles. But that is what happened. The Jews made their distinctives as a dividing point between them and those they were called to bless. Instead of being a light to the nations and pointing them to God, they instead pointed to themselves as the “circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands.” They saw themselves as special. Everyone else became in their eyes, “the uncircumcision.” Anyone different from them got generalized with a label that indicated that they were not one of them.
We see this same dynamic played out in our world today. Labels are used to draw lines in the sand between anyone we see as different from ourselves. Think about some of the labels floating around today that shut down conversation and reduce people to simple categories. “Democrats and Republicans.” “Liberals and Conservatives.” “Pro-Trumpers and Never-Trumpers.” And that is just some current American political labels. I’m sure you can think of many others that may be even more divisive. If hearing those labels made your blood pressure rise a little, then maybe you are seeing why Paul needs to address the issues. This type of division should never be taking place in the church. But it does, and Paul is addressing it here.
Do you see how Paul addresses the issue? He doesn’t tell them to stop being divided, but he reminds them of who they are in relationship to God. He reminds them that they were once separated, alienated without hope and without God. That sounds harsh, but it is an important reminder of God’s grace to us. No one is included or special by the works of their own hands. Paul goes on to tell them and us:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:13-16 ESV)
Notice that Paul is not talking about something they should strive for or telling them about some potential or possibility if they would just work hard at getting along. No, he tells them what is true. He tells them what has already been accomplished in Christ. There is no room for pride here. It is a gift of grace to be received.
Here are some of the things Paul wants us to take seriously:
First, everything he is speaking of is “in Christ Jesus.” We will not find a solution to our divisions and conflict anywhere else. The church need not follow the ways of the world in attaining peace. Peace has been obtained by the blood of Christ. Notice the contrast here between how Christ establishes peace and how the Roman emperors sought to establish peace. The elite rulers of this present evil age, like Augustus, will require your blood for peace whereas Jesus gives his own blood to establish peace. Peace comes by grace, not by the works of our own hands.
Second, in Christ Jesus we “have been brought near.” Paul doesn’t say how we can be brought near or how we can bridge the gap between us and God. Again, he states what is already true in Jesus. This is a gift of grace to receive, not a task to achieve. This may offend our pride as we want to have peace on our terms. But that is not how Jesus brings peace. As Paul emphatically states, “For he himself is our peace.” Again, peace is not found anywhere else—it is to be received in Christ.
Also, in Christ Jesus, he “has made us both one.” Paul also includes that Jesus creates “in himself one new man in place of the two.” So, this is something new that Jesus has done. We often think the only way to peace is that one side comes over to the other side, like the foreigners under Roman rule would try to become citizens of Rome. But Jesus does not establish peace by having one side join the other, creating winners and losers. He creates a third “new” place of peace in himself for both sides to flourish and be a blessing to the other. He is not trying to do away with differences. Differences are meant for blessing.
The church will become better as we come to “remember” that each of us and our God-given differences, not differences “made in the flesh by hands,” are blessings for the other. Whatever group you are in, do you view the other groups as blessings? Do you seek to be a blessing to them? To be Black or White, for example, should not be a point of division but a distinct gift for the other. The same can be said of all nationalities. Also, male and female are differences that are intended for blessing. These differences should not be smoothed out in some androgynous pursuit to peace. This is one reason it is critical for the church to maintain the distinction between male and female. It’s not a political thing—it’s a reality thing. If any of this language makes you uneasy, just remember, Paul is not trying to smooth out feathers here. He is making a clear distinction between what it means to be the church in the culture of the Roman empire. A little discomfort is par for the course in this text.
One further thing to bring out is that Paul reminds us the “dividing wall of hostility” has been broken down. Further, Paul says the “hostility” has been killed. Notice it is not the differences that are destroyed but the hostility we have over those differences. What a wonderful reminder of reality we have from Paul’s provocative letter. We do not have to cling to any hostility we may have over our differences. Differences are no threat to who we are in Christ. Instead of fighting others to acknowledge and praise your differences or to denounce theirs, in the church we can be thankful for one another in Christ. We can accept one another as the gift we are from God to the other. Any hostility we may have has been destroyed, so don’t try to hang on to it. It’s going away. Like holding on to a sinking ship, holding on to hostility will only drag you down with it.
Let’s finish the passage:
And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:17-22 ESV)
The peace we have in Jesus adds up to a beautiful picture to live out as a witness to a hurting and divided world. In Jesus we all “have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Now there’s some unity for you that runs deeper than anything we could accomplish ourselves. This means we “are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens.” This means we acknowledge that Jesus is the chief cornerstone of this spiritual temple.
This is a great picture of the permanence of belonging we have in Christ. This is a belonging that cannot be shaken. When we see each other in Christ, with all our God-graced differences, we can look each other in the eye with thankfulness and call each other brothers and sisters. What refreshing good news this is for all who are “strangers and aliens” in this world! What a refreshing call to belonging for any who are labeled as outsiders and feel “far off” from belonging. Paul may be agitating some sore points, but he does so to call us to a family where lasting peace is enjoyed. We will not find it anywhere else. Only in Christ can we be “built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
Small Group Discussion Questions
From Speaking of Life
- What did you think of the twist on the adage, “Good fences make good neighbors” to say instead, “Bad neighbors, make good fences?” Can you think of examples where “bad neighbors, make good fences?”
- Discuss how understanding the problem of division has to do with the “stony heart” of neighbors rather than the walls built “from earthen stone.” How might this change our pursuits of peace between one another?
From the Sermon
- How did the understanding of the “fighting words” in Paul’s letter strike you? Can you think of ways the gospel in our culture also creates this tension?
- Discuss Paul’s approach to dealing with divisions. Instead of rallying them to unite, he “reminds” them of who they are in relationship to Jesus and to one another. How might we do this today in our churches?
- Can you think of other labels that are used to generalize people where differences are ignored? Can you think of labels we may have even in the church that need to be repented of?
- Discuss how differences are meant to be a blessing to others and how they often get turned into lines of division. What are some ways we can remind one another that we are blessings to enjoy rather than differences that annoy?
- How does the reality of Jesus destroying our hostility change how you want to relate to others? In the church, why do you think we respond to differences with hostility?
- Discuss what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ. How might knowing this and being reminded of it affect our relationships with one another in the church and with those who are not yet believers.