This is a complicated passage, and I confess that I have really struggled with it.
It is about the unity that Christian believers have when we are in Christ, and it can be divided up into three sections.
1. Paul tells us what we were without Christ (2.11-12)
We were not part of the people of God
He is speaking to people who were not Jews.
4000 years ago God chose the Jewish people to be his people. He said he would be their God and they would be his people. He gave them his law. And he said that through his people all people would be blessed.
But as Gentiles, as non-Jews, Paul is saying to his listeners, you were not part of the people of God.
And we were at war with God.
We chose to live without God, as rebels against God, enemies of God.
I was wilfully blind and deaf when it came to the things of God, because I wanted to live life my way and to satisfy my own desires.
Yes, we might have spent time in meditation and said it was prayer, or we might have turned to God when we were in trouble, but most of the time we were not praying to the real God but to some make believe fantasy of God.
I remember Eric Delve, who at the time was an evangelist, telling the story of his conversion. His life was in a mess. He had treated his wife like dirt, and had brought her to the point of a nervous breakdown. She was a Christian and at one point the local vicar had gone round to him and said, ‘Eric if there was a man who blatantly deserves to go to the hell of Dante, you are that man’. And he said how, on one occasion, when he was walking across Bristol common, having spent the night with yet another prostitute and feeling awful, he cried out, ‘God help me’. And he said he heard God and God said, ‘No. Not until you surrender your life to me.’
We were at war with God. We blinded ourselves to the reality that we owe God everything and have given him nothing, and that God owes us nothing but has given us everything. And we lived for ourselves and not for him.
Some of you still may be there. And you need to do something about it – pretty quickly – because you are, in the words of verse 12 ‘without hope and without God in this world’.
2. Paul tells us what we are in Jesus Christ (2.13-18)
Because of the blood of Christ, because of the death of Jesus on the cross
i. We have been brought close to God
‘But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ’ (v13)
The language that is used here is the language of the deepest intimacy. It is not just the language of someone who is far off being brought near. Paul says that when we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ and in his death for us, we become ‘in Christ’.
We can understand the language of ‘Christ in us’.
We talk of inviting Jesus Christ into our lives. Of his Spirit coming to live in us.
If you want a graphic picture of this, think of communion. We eat the bread and we drink the wine. We take it into ourselves. And we say that by faith Christ comes into us.
The language of us being ‘in Christ’ is more difficult.
But let me explain it like this.
This is a piece of paper. This is a book. When the piece of paper is placed here, it is in the book. It and the book are totally united. If the book is burnt it is burnt. If the book is honoured, it is honoured.
As believers, God put us in Christ. So when Jesus hung on the cross, in Christ we hung on the cross with him. When he was raised from the dead, in Christ we were raised.
And if Jesus, the eternal Son of God, is always with his Father God, then if we are ‘in Christ’, we too are not only always with Jesus but also with Father God.
That is why Paul writes, ‘through him [Christ] we have access in one Spirit to the Father’. (v18)
ii. We are part of a new humanity.
‘that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace’ (v15)
Again think of this piece of paper. It is ‘in’ the book. But now if I add this piece of paper and this piece of paper, they are not only ‘in’ the book, but they are also part of one another.
And the passage speaks of how Jesus, by his death, has created this new humanity: of people who are in Jesus.
And so Paul speaks of how Christ has ‘broken down the dividing wall of hostility’ (v14)
He is speaking here of the divide between Jew and Gentile. It was a very real divide. Jews despised Gentiles. Gentiles ridiculed Jews. In the temple in Jerusalem there was a physical wall. It was the wall that separated Jew from Gentile. On one side all people could mix together. On the other side, the holy, special side, only Jews could go.
But ‘in Christ’ that wall of hostility is broken down. Jewish believers in Jesus and Gentile believers in Jesus could come together as one. There was something, someone much bigger who united them. And elsewhere he speaks of the hostility or conflict between slave and free, barbarian or cultured, man and woman. And he says that, ‘in Christ’ we are made one.
In the book Sapiens by Harari, which is a brilliantly written version of the history of Homo Sapiens – even if it is from an overtly Atheist-Buddhist perspective – Harari writes, ‘Evolution has made Homo sapiens , like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Us’ is people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for ‘them’. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human. In the language of the Dinka people of the Sudan, ‘Dinka’ simply means ‘people’. People who are not Dinka are not people. The Dinka’s bitter enemies are the Nuer. What does the word Nuer mean in Nuer language? It means ‘original people’. Thousands of kilometres from the Sudan deserts, in the frozen ice-lands of Alaska and north-eastern Siberia, live the Yupiks. What does Yupik mean in Yupik language? It means ‘real people’.’
But as people who are ‘in Christ’, as homo Christianus, we discover that it is not us and them, that we are not over against others. We are part of them – whoever they are, whatever background or culture they come from. It does not matter whether they are African, Asian, American or European. And we realise that we are not complete until everyone who God has called is included ‘in Christ’.
iii. We have knelt together at the foot of the cross.
v15 tells us: ‘He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances’.
It could be talking about those specific laws that separated Jew from Gentile, such as laws about circumcision and food and ritual uncleanness. It is interesting how we use laws – whether written or cultural - to keep people who are not like us away from us.
There is the story of the South African who tried on 3 weeks, in the days of apartheid, to go into a particular church. On each occasion he was turned away because he was black. In desperation he prayed: ‘God I’ve tried to get into that church on 3 Sundays, and they won’t let me’. And God replied, ‘I don’t know what you are complaining about. I’ve tried to get into that church every Sunday for the last 20 years and they won’t let me’.
But I think that this is probably talking about the law in a different sense. People see the law and think that if they can keep the law, if they can live good lives, then they would earn enough brownie points to be let into heaven.
And that of course leads either to an arrogant pride which thinks I have done it, and looks down on all others – who are not ‘as good’. We hear it all the time, ‘I may not be perfect but I am better than them’. Or it leads – if people are more honest about themselves – to a crushing sense of failure and inadequacy and fear.
But by his death, Christ has abolished the external law. You are not going to be put right with God by keeping the law. You can’t. All we can do to put our trust in him and in his death on the cross. All we can do is to kneel down at the foot of the cross and receive him by faith.
And that is the astonishing equaliser.
I am not in Christ because I am good or worthy or humble. I’m not. I cannot look down on you.
And you are not in Christ because you are good or worthy or humble. You are not. You cannot look down on me.
You are in Christ, I am in Christ, the believer in Eritrea or Peru or Tehran who is in Christ because we are nobodies with nothing who have come to Jesus, because we need his mercy, his forgiveness, his new life and his hope.
iv. We have been given peace
The word peace is mentioned 4 times in this passage.
Peace with others (v14)
Peace with God (v16)
This is the peace that comes from knowing that we are right with God – because of Jesus. The peace that comes from knowing that even though God knows me completely, including all the rubbish, he still loves me. The peace that he pours into our hearts by his Holy Spirit.
I was speaking with someone the other day and he was struck by the line in Micah 5, which speaks of the coming of Jesus. And it says, ‘And he will be our peace’. And Michael said how 30 years ago he was drawn to go into a church. And God met with him and gave him a deep peace. He speaks of that as being his moment of conversion and of how that peace has never left him – even now as he suffers from a fairly advanced form of Motor Neurones.
3. Paul tells us how our unity in Christ is seen in the world (2.19-22)
We are no longer aliens and strangers, but fellow citizens and members of the household of God.
And we are being built together to become a temple.
We are not talking about a literal building. I know that we pray prayers and sing hymns that speak of our church buildings as temples, but they are only shadows of the real temple. The real temple is not made up of literal bricks or stones, but of people.
We are built on Jesus, on his death for us, and on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, the teaching of the New Testament.
And as people who have been brought close to God, who share in a new humanity, who have knelt down together at the foot of the cross and who have been given the gift of peace, we are being built together.
And this temple has a purpose: to be a place of worship, but more than that, to be the place where God is.
When Christians live in unity,
when we remember who we are in Christ,
when we dismantle the walls that are so easily built up – those deadly walls built of the bricks of selfishness, pride, jealousy, unforgiveness, resentment, status or power seeking, envy and fear
then God is there.
There is a story told about a father who brought his daughter to church. He told her, ‘This is God’s house’. On the fifth visit, the little girl asked, ‘Daddy, if this is God’s house, why is he never at home?’
When God’s people gather in the name of Jesus, when the doors are wide open, and the walls come down, then God is at home.