Sunday, July 22, 2012

3 Things to Remember

[This was shared this morning during the 10:15 worship service with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Ephesians 2:11-22
Our second Bible lesson for today, Ephesians 2:11-22, was written to a Gentile (that is, non-Jewish) Christian community in the first century who lived in an area then called Asia Minor, which you and I know as Turkey.

But there is more than musty history to be found in these verses. In the midst of the demands and challenges of our everyday lives, these verses remind us to do three things:
  • Remember who we were. 
  • Remember who, by grace through faith in Christ, we are. 
  • Remember who, by grace through faith in Christ, we are to be. 
Please go to our lesson, Ephesians 2:11-22.

Look first, please, at verses 11 to 13. We’re told, “Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands—  that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

To understand this passage, we must remember a simple Biblical truth: God is the giver of life. Without a connection to God, we are dead, even if we have a strong pulse and heartbeat. We are dead in our sins and we face an eternity divorced from life and an earthly lifetime of futility and meaninglessness without connection to God.

While the Bible tells us that there have always been people who have believed there was a God and who sought Him in their own ways, God first disclosed Himself and His nature to a single people, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, the Jews. The Jews were called by God to be His own people.

God evidently had His reasons for focusing His attention and energy on one people.

For one thing, the Jews were meant to be “a light to the nations,” showing the whole world the glory of God.

For another, the Jewish people became a laboratory showing the whole world how God’s law, grace, and forgiveness work, what repentance and faith are all about.

What we see when we read the Old Testament’s account of God’s interactions with the Jewish people is that He is no different from the God we encounter in the New Testament in the Person of Jesus. (See here and here.)

Look at Genesis 15:6. God has promised Abraham that he and his wife Sarah will have a son and become the ancestors of nations. It’s an outlandish promise--almost as outlandish as promising eternal life to those who repent and believe in Christ. Abraham and Sarah were old, well beyond child-bearing or child-rearing years. Yet look at Genesis 15:6: “And [Abraham] believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.”

Now, flip back to Ephesians 2:8 and see the remarkably consistent way by which God brings salvation or righteousness to imperfect sinners like you and me: “For by grace [that’s God’s charity] you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.”

Verses 11 to 13 of our lesson tell us that the miracle of salvation, once a gift belonging only to the Jews now belongs to all who believe in Christ. As verse 13 says, “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

It used to be that only Jewish men who had been circumcised, along with their wives, daughters, and sisters, could claim to be God’s people, reconciled to God, one with God. Those who weren’t Jewish were aliens, foreigners, strangers to God. But God has brought all who believe in Jesus close to Himself.

It’s good though, to remember who we once were without Christ. It’s good to remember that, in spite of not being “members of the club” and in spite of our sin, Christ welcomes all who repent for sin and believe in Him with open arms.

Nobody I know is more critical of me than me. There are times when I get so angry at myself, thinking, “How many times do you have to commit the same sin before you learn your lesson? How many more times do you intend to disappoint God with your hard-headedness and hard-heartedness?” But then I go to God in prayer and I read His Word and I’m reminded of passages like Isaiah 1:18, where God says: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

Or, Jesus’ words from the cross, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

I remember who I once was: A sinner without hope. Through Christ, like all who believe in Him, I have been transformed: a forgiven sinner with an eternity of hope.

Look at the next section of our second lesson, Ephesians 2:14-18. It says: “For He [Christ] Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances [this refers to the Jewish ritual and civil laws, not to the moral laws, like the ten commandments, which still stand], so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.”

I heard a man say of his son, “He came out of the womb, cigar in hand, barking out orders.” Truth is, we all came into the world that way, more or less. The Bible, in Psalm 139:14, tells us that each of us is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” But, we also come equipped with an inheritance from our imperfect human parents: an insatiable commitment to having things our own way, a desire to “be like God.” King David speaks for us all in Psalm 51:5, when he writes: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”

We are born at war with God. But Jesus Christ has come to make peace between God and us.

Peace with God is what Christ has come to give to us. But it’s a peace that can only be ours when we surrender to Christ!

Jesus wants us in His eternal kingdom. But we can’t get in if we insist on holding onto our sins, if we insist that our favorite violations of God’s will for human beings are “no big deal.”

To God, every sin--from taking His Name in vain to sexual intimacy outside of marriage between a man and a woman, from murder to false witnessing (what we call gossiping)--every sin is an assault that disrupts and destroys the peace in which He wants His creation to live.

1 John 1:8-10 contains words familiar to most Lutheran Christians: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar and His word is not in us.”

The  peace of God comes to those honest enough to admit their sin and honest enough to own their need of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to change their lives. In Romans 5:1-2, the apostle Paul writes: “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

In Christ, repentant believers in Jesus have peace with God and even with those who hate us.

I once read about a Lutheran pastor and psychologist doing graduate work in a major US city in the east. We’ll call him Bill. Bill began attending a local congregation and made himself known to the pastor. The pastor was happy to have Bill in the congregation and took Bill up on his offer to help in any ways he could. Bill saw a few congregants in counseling situations and occasionally led worship and preached.

As time went on, Bill became aware that, to some parishioners, the pastor seemed like an angry person whose venom was creating a lot of ill-will. Bill initially discounted it until one Sunday, just before a service at which Bill was to preach, the angry pastor lit into Bill, accusing him falsely of all sorts of maliciousness.

The service began and, silently, Bill begged God to help him get through it, knowing that the entire time the pastor was staring at him with searingly angry eyes. Bill says that God not only gave him peace internally, but also peace in his relationship with that pastor. He was eventually able to get the pastor to the help he needed for healing.

In Christ, God makes peace with you and if you will let Him, He promises that--in the words of Philippians 4:7--”the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Remember by grace through faith in Christ who you are right now: a person at peace with God and with others.

Look, please, at the final verses of our second lesson, Ephesians 2:19-22: “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”

After remembering who we were without Christ and who we are with Christ, Ephesians reminds of who we are becoming through Christ. Once foreigners to God, now members of God’s own household, confident of God’s love for us and His presence with us right now, we also have a lot to look forward to.

Through the witness of the apostles and the prophets found on the pages of our Bibles, God is building us up to be part of a temple, the very place God lives. And, as much as we may like our church buildings, it isn’t in brick, mortar, or plaster that God lives, but in people who dare to give their lives to Jesus Christ. As someone has said, “Christians don’t go to Church. They are the Church.”

And it’s this Church into which you and I are being built for all eternity. It’s the Church in which sin, death, grief, and futile toil will come to an end. Every tear will be wiped from our eyes and we will live with joy and purpose alongside all who have trusted in the Name of Christ.

The world has brought sad and tragic news to our doorsteps this past week. This life is fragile and fleeting. But when we who trust in Jesus, remember who we were, who we are, and who our God is making us to be, we do not despair.

This morning, we thank God for Christ and we recommit ourselves to that commission which Christ has given to every follower of Jesus. Turn to that commission, please, in Matthew 28:19-20. The risen Jesus commands all who have been saved by His grace:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” 
God has given us His peace through Christ. Share that peace with others by sharing Christ with them. That’s the work to which you and I are called while on earth. May it be our way of life. Amen!

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