All right, last week the Ephesian Christians were asking, “How can we be sure we really do have every spiritual blessing in Christ? How can we be sure we really are Christians?”
And Paul’s answer was, “Well, remember: you used to be zombies, animated by evil spirits, motivated by animal cravings, dedicated to destruction. But now God has made you alive, animated by the Holy Spirit, motivated by faith, dedicated to good works in the church.”
So for Paul, the evidence that we are actually Christians is…life itself, life in the church, the body of Christ.
In other words, if you find that your spirit keeps drawing you into living community with the gathered people of God, then that is the physical evidence of the spiritual truth that we are part of Christ’s body seated in heaven.
And that is good news!
Because this means our faith is not this deep introspective spiritualized mystery thing where we’re always wondering if we have enough or if we have the right kind.
This means that faith — Christian faith — is a very physical thing. It’s very measurable. Basically, if you’re wondering if your faith is a real faith, all you have to ask yourself is, “Am I loving my brothers and sisters in the family of God?”
But that is easier said than done, isn’t it? Especially when our brothers and sisters come from other countries, other languages, other cultures, other religious backgrounds.
It can be hard to feel like I really belong to the church when the church is full of so many people who are different from me. It can be hard to help other people feel like they really belong. We all know what it feels like to be rejected; and we have all made others feel rejected. Sometimes we mean to make someone else feel different; most of the time we do this without even knowing it: little words and actions that don’t mean anything to us but mean something negative to someone else.
Unity is hard!
Loving one another is hard!
And so I know that many of us have struggled to feel like we really fit in with the church. I personally have struggled. I’ve felt misunderstood. I’ve felt different. And I’m a kid who grew up in Christian community! — so I know it must sometimes be even more difficult for those of you who have joined us from some other religious background.
Well, many of the Ephesian Christians had the same problem: they felt like they were struggling to fit in to the church. And the painful truth is that some members of the church were making them feel that way.
See, we have to remember that the church began as a Jewish church, because Jesus was a Jewish man, a Jewish Messiah. And the Jewish background Christians had a deep understanding of God’s Word, they knew how to read it, they know how to live it, they had all these advantages.
But very quickly Gentiles — non-Jewish people — began to join the faith. And they did not have a deep understanding of God’s Word. They did not know how to read it, and they did not know how to live it out.
And of course the Jewish Christians were gracious, they began teaching their new brothers and sisters how to read scripture, how to apply it — but there was a problem. It was very difficult for the Jewish Christians to tell the difference between what God’s Word says and what their tradition said God’s Word says.
So, for instance, some Jewish Christians were teaching, “If you want to join our church, really you have to stop eating pork.” And the most strict version of this, of course, was, “If you want to join our church, really you have to be circumcised.”
I’m not sure which of those is worse.
Anyway, this means that the Jewish Christians were not just teaching their Gentile friends how to be Christians, they were actually teaching them how to be Jews.
And as you can imagine this was very alienating for the Gentile Christians in the early days. Really, they were being told, “You are welcome to join our Jewish church! but you have to become exactly like us.”
Well, by this point, twenty or twenty-five years later, the Gentiles are now in the majority. It’s not really a Jewish church anymore. And some of the Gentile background Christians would have been saying, “Wait a minute, who died and left these guys in charge?”
…get it? Because Jesus died, and left…
So there is tension in the Ephesian church: racial, cultural, religious tension. The Jewish background Christians are saying, “Paul, you’re a Jew, you understand how important holiness is for the people of God. Make these new people obey the rules!” And the Gentile background Christians are saying, “Paul, I thought you taught us that what we eat or drink or whether we’re circumcised doesn’t matter. We don’t wanna live like Jews, we wanna live like Gentiles!”
And all this tension is making it hard for these brothers and sisters to love each other. It’s making it hard for them to even know what it means to love one another. Because what one person considers loving, the next person considers offensive! How are these Christians supposed to figure out what is Godly love and what is just cultural expression?
These are the questions Paul needs to answer.
So, Paul has just finished telling the Ephesians that they can be certain they belong to the heavenly body because they belong to the earthly body.
But some of the Ephesians feel like they don’t actually belong. They keep running into religious and cultural differences with their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ.
So Paul begins to fix the problem by telling both sides that they are both half right, and half wrong:  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)—  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.
The Gentile Christians are getting a little arrogant. They’re like teenagers. They out-number the Jewish Christians now and they are starting to think they should run the church their way. And the Jewish Christians are like the parents, saying, “Uh, no. We know better than you, so you better listen to us!”
So Paul has to calm everyone down.
He starts with the Gentiles. He reminds them that, without the Jewish people, they would still be zombies. Before Jesus came along, the Jewish people had a chance at salvation, because they had the Word of God, they had the temple sacrifices, they had circumcision.
But the Gentiles had zero chance of salvation — unless they got circumcised and became Jews. So Paul is telling the Gentiles, “Hey! A little respect, please! Your Jewish parents are right: holiness is very important to God, and for a long long time circumcision was the only way to become part of God’s holy people!”
But Paul also says something to the Jewish Christians, right here in verse 11, where he says, “Those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)…” Paul is reminding the Jewish Christians that circumcision was just a physical sign, it did not actually produce spiritual holiness. And this is something the Jewish Christians knew very well — they just tended to forget.
But all that was before Christ. “Before Christ,” Paul is saying, “only Jews had access to salvation.”  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Before Christ, there was only one place on earth where people could go to meet God: the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. But only certain people could actually worship there. First, you had to be a Jew. Second, you had to be a man. Third, you could only draw near by the blood of a sacrificed animal — a “peace offering” to purchase peace between the worshiper and God.
But now, in Christ Jesus, everyone can be brought to God through the blood of Christ: Jews, Gentiles, men, women, everybody.
Because:  …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.
Christ is our peace offering. His blood paid for our right to enter into God’s presence and receive God’s blessings. The animal sacrifice required by the Old Testament law was a Jewish sacrifice that only worked for Jewish people at the Jewish temple. But Jesus is a man, a human being. So his sacrifice was not just for Jewish people, it was for human beings.
And this is just what Paul is saying: when Jesus died, his death united mankind, Jew and Gentile, who used to be kept separate by God’s law. It was God’s law that said only Jews may enter into worship at the temple. Jesus’ death broke that system, destroyed the barrier. When Jesus died, the law that kept people separated from each other also died.
Why did he do this? Paul goes on in verse 15: 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.
Jesus’ purpose in breaking down the wall was to create a new race of people. In Christ there is now no such thing as a Jew, no such thing as a Gentile.
But, quick question: why did Jesus want to create a new race of people? Why didn’t he just bring the Gentiles into the Jewish temple system?
Because the Jewish temple system was incomplete. The temple system was a promise that salvation was coming. It was not salvation itself. Having the temple and the law did not bring salvation to the Jewish people. We know this because of what Paul says right here in verse 16: Jesus’ came to “reconcile both of them to God through the cross.” The Jews and the Gentiles both needed to be reconciled to God, and the old Jewish temple system was not enough to do it.
So Christ created a new race because both of the other races needed salvation. He created a new body — the Church — because the old exclusive Jewish system which did not bring salvation needed to be replaced with a new inclusive international system that does bring salvation!
 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
The system has changed. God is no longer locked up in a temple on a mountain in the Middle East, cut off from Jews and Gentiles by the law with its commandments and regulations.
Instead, God has come out into the world and preached peace to the Gentiles (those who were far away from the temple) and peace to the Jews (those who were near to the temple). And now, as part of this new race, this new body, both Jews and Gentiles have direct access to the Father by one Spirit — not a Jewish spirit, not a Gentile spirit; God’s Holy Spirit.
But what does this mean?
How does this solve the problem of Gentiles feeling like they don’t fit in?
This is where Paul finally gets to his main point. He has actually been working toward this point ever since the beginning of his letter:  Consequently —
And “consequently” is just a way of saying, “What this means for you” —
So, verse 19, “What this means for you, is that you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household —
In other words, “You all fit. You all belong. You are all equal members, no matter what background you come from!” —
And now here, finally, is the key that opens the door, that solves the problem of division in the Ephesian church. Verse 20: built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
What does this mean, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets”? And how does this concept resolve the disagreement between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians?
Well, in order to understand what this means, we need to define the terms. What does Paul mean by “apostle”? What does he mean by “prophet”? And how are these people “the foundation” of the church?
For Paul, an apostle is a man who has met the risen Jesus face-to-face, and was commissioned by the risen Jesus to go out and start Christian churches. The apostles were the first generation of Christian preachers and teachers.
And for Paul, the prophets were a class of people who had been specially empowered by the Holy Spirit to help interpret scripture and apply it directly to the situation the first Christians found themselves in.
So the apostles and prophets were a bit like the first church planting teams that went out from Jerusalem. Paul just said that Jesus preached peace to you who were far away. We know that Jesus never preached to the Ephesian people himself. But his apostles and prophets did. They were the preaching of Jesus Christ himself. They were the founders of the Ephesian church.
But Paul doesn’t say they are just the “founders” of the church, he says they are the foundation. How are they the foundation?
Well, when they first started, the apostles and prophets only had the Jewish scriptures to work with, what we now call the Old Testament. Their job was to show how Jesus’ coming as Messiah changed and fulfilled the Old Testament and made salvation open for every kind of people. Eventually, they began to write down the things they were teaching, and their writings became what we now call the New Testament. The New Testament is really an explanation of how Jesus’ death changed and fulfilled the Old Testament.
So the apostles and prophets are the foundation of the Ephesian church because they preached to the Ephesians as if they were Jesus Christ, and they lived among the Ephesians as if they were Jesus Christ. And this foundation solves the division in the Ephesian church. This is how:
The Jewish Christians want to base the Christian life on the Jewish Old Testament, which makes it very hard for the Gentiles to fit in. But Paul is saying, “Actually, the foundation of the Ephesian church is the New Testament, written by the apostles and prophets.” The New Testament is not Jewish. The New Testament is not Gentile. The New Testament is Christian: it is based on Jesus Christ, the cornerstone — the main foundation stone — of the Church.
 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.  And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
See, Paul has been telling us that when Jesus died, he destroyed the Old Testament law with its commands and regulations. Jesus tore down the old temple system when he died.
But that does not mean there is no temple, and no law! When Jesus rose from the dead and poured out his Spirit on his disciples, he actually created a new temple system, with new laws, to rule over a new kind of people, neither Jew nor Gentile, but something else.
So the Ephesian church has this problem. The Jewish people want to live according to Jewish culture, because holiness is important to God. The Gentile people want to live according to Gentile culture, because openness and acceptance are important to God. And so, one way or another, somebody doesn’t feel welcome in the church.
But Paul is saying, “Actually, there is only one race here: the New Testament Christian race. There is only one culture here: the New Testament Christian culture. There is only one temple here: the New Testament Christian temple.”
And this is the really mind-bending part of what Paul is saying: the Church is that new race of people. The Church is that new culture. And the Church is that new temple where God lives by his Spirit.
And what this means is that the Church is both radically holy and radically open and accepting.
See, under the Old Testament system, holiness only happened by being separate, closed off. In the Old Testament there was only one place on the planet where mankind could meet God. And there was only one race of mankind that was qualified to meet God! And the only way they could be qualified was through this complicated system of commandments and regulations and sacrifices — which they never did manage to keep properly.
But under the New Testament system, holiness and inclusion have been brought together.
Now, in the New Testament, there are tens of millions of places where mankind can meet God! — because every living Christian church is an outpost of the great temple, the great Body of Christ that is seated in heaven in the Father’s presence.
Now, in the New Testament, every race of mankind is qualified to meet God! — because through the blood of Jesus, the human Messiah, that complicated system of commandments and regulations has been torn down and rebuilt to suit every kind of human being. Through the blood of Jesus, the human Messiah, every kind of human being can now be brought into the temple to meet their Father face to face.
And the really good news about this new system is this: God is the one who makes it happen. Sometimes the Jewish background Christians make the Gentile background Christians feel like they don’t really fit in. But feelings don’t matter here. God has declared that they do fit. God has done the work to make sure they do fit. So, they fit.
All right: so what does this all mean for us, two thousand years later?
Or another way to ask that question: what does our Father want us to believe? What does he want us to do because of this?
Well, let’s start by believing this: you fit. If you have been captured by the gospel of Christ, and if you find that your spirit keeps drawing you into living community with the gathered people of God, then…you belong. Your race, your language, your culture, your religious background — none of that matters. In Christ we are actually something completely new, where all our distinctiveness is preserved, even while we are being built together into one beautiful temple in which God lives by his Spirit. That is the reality.
But often that doesn’t feel like reality, does it? As we noticed at the beginning, we often struggle to feel like we fit in. And even though knowing the truth can help…our feelings and perceptions still affect us deeply. If God says, “You are welcome in my church!” but we don’t feel very welcome…that creates a very uncomfortable tension within us. Because on one hand the Spirit within us is saying, “This is your family, this is where you belong!” but your experience is saying, “Ummmm, no, these people want me to be something I’m not.”
We have all experienced that at some time in our lives.
So what does our Father want us to do about this sense of alienation? It’s wonderful to believe that we really belong — and we really do! — but how can we make this belief real in our local church here?
Well, the first thing we have to do is take Paul seriously when he says our church is built on the foundation of the New Testament apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. He is not saying the Old Testament is irrelevant. But he is saying that Jesus has transformed the Old Testament so that it can apply to everyone, not just Jewish people. It is through the New Testament that we understand how the Old Testament applies to our situation.
So the first thing we do is realize that the foundation of CDPCKL is the Jewish Old Testament as it is viewed through the lens of the International New Testament.
Once that foundation is in place, the second thing we do is make sure to only teach what is clearly taught by Christ in scripture. If we do this, friends, we will go a long way toward making our local church here an open, accepting place for people from every background.
Let me give you a couple of examples of how this works.
Two hundred years ago, British culture was quite obsessed with modesty. Men and women walked around fully covered up most of the time. The British also sent out a lot of missionaries. They went out preaching the gospel — but they also brought their culture with them. They said, “Jesus loves you, but please, put some pants on!”
But if they had looked a little more carefully at scripture, they would have seen that when scripture talks about modesty, it is not really about how much clothing you wear, its about how much jewellery you wear. Modesty in the bible is about not showing off how rich you are.
So by adding their cultural assumptions to scripture, some of the British missionaries added a stumbling block to the gospel. They didn’t mean to, perhaps, but they were saying, “Really, if you want to be a Christian, you have to wear British clothing.” And it’s easy to see how this could make people from other cultures feel like they don’t really fit into the church.
Another example: about one hundred years ago, American culture got quite obsessed with not drinking alcohol. The obsession was so strong that they actually made alcohol illegal for about ten years. The Americans also sent out a lot of missionaries. They went out preaching the gospel — but they also brought that obsession with alcohol along with them. They said, “Jesus loves you, but a real Christian doesn’t touch alcohol!”
But, again, if they had looked a little more carefully at scripture, they would have seen that scripture does not say don’t drink alcohol, it says don’t drink too much alcohol. Don’t get drunk.
And so by adding their cultural assumptions to scripture, many American missionaries were not just teaching people how to be Christians, they were actually also teaching them how to be Americans — which can be a bit alienating if you are not from that culture.
So the second thing we need to do is be very careful not to inject our own cultural assumptions into our preaching and teaching. We need to stick as closely as possible to what scripture actually says.
Now, I have to say: we are going to fail at that. Our cultural backgrounds do affect how we read scripture. But there is a solution for this problem also — and this leads us to the third thing we need to do in order to make CDPCKL as open and accepting as possible: as Jesus continues to build our church on the foundation of scripture, and as we do our best to only teach what scripture teaches, we must also do our best to read scripture together, as a community, as a church.
Our diversity here at CDPCKL can make unity difficult. But our diversity is also a great strength. If we were all from exactly the same background, we would all interpret scripture exactly the same way — but then who would keep us from inserting our culture into our interpretation? The advantage to our diversity is that we can challenge one another. We can say to one another, “Are you sure that all Christians have to wear pants? Are you sure that all Christians should not drink alcohol? Can you show me where you find these commands in scripture?”
So the third thing we need to do is come to scripture together, and challenge one another, and always be asking, “Where do you find this or that idea in scripture?” And if we cannot find it, then we need to be very careful and very wise about how we apply what we are reading. We need to check and check and check again to make sure we are teaching one another how to be Christians, and not just trying to make everyone else just like me.
So, in conclusion, Paul is telling us that we can be certain we belong to the heavenly body of Christ because we belong to the earthly body of Christ, our local church. We belong even though we don’t always feel like we belong.
And so, because we actually do belong, Paul is telling us what to believe and what to do, in order to make the heavenly reality an earthly reality in our worship and in our community life.
First, let us believe this: in Christ, we belong to one another as one small part of the universal church. The church is the new temple, which has filled the earth at ten million points. This new temple is built on the foundation of scripture, it is centered on Christ, and it is filled with the Spirit of God.
What should we do to make this unity real in our congregation? Three things:
First: let’s make sure that CDPCKL’s foundation is the Word of God, centered on Christ.
Second: let’s be very careful to only speak strongly where scripture speaks strongly. Where scripture is silent, let’s be as kind and gracious and as flexible as possible.
Third: let’s make sure to keep reading scripture together. We are all drinking the living water from the same central well. We do all approach the well from slightly different directions, but that doesn’t make us competitors, that makes us contributors. By speaking up, by asking one another, “Where do you find this idea in scripture?” we are helping one another remain centered on scripture, centered on Christ.
If we focus on believing these things and doing these things as a community, God will protect us from becoming like the Jews and their temple: singular, closed off, impossible for outsiders to enter. By believing and doing these things we not only help ourselves feel like we belong, we also show the outside world that our church is part of the new, open, inclusive, international temple where anyone may approach, and claim the blood of Christ, and enter into God’s presence.
That’s what we wanna do. That’s what we wanna be. This is the first of the good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do as a church community. So let’s figure out together how we’re gonna do that — always remembering that it is our Father who is building us together to become a dwelling in which he lives by his spirit.