July 18th 2021 homily on Eph. 2:11-22 by Pastor Galen Zook
A Class Divided
In 1968, Jane Elliott, who was at that time a 3rd grade teacher in the all-white town of Riceville, Iowa, decided to conduct a simulation with her class to help them understand what it’s like to feel descrimination.
Elliott divided her class by eye color — those with blue eyes she put in one group, and those with brown eyes she put in the other group. On the first day, she told the class that the blue-eyed children were smarter, nicer, neater, and better than those with brown eyes. Throughout the day, Elliott praised them and gave them special privileges such as taking a longer recess and being first in the line for lunch. In contrast, Elliott criticized the behavior and performance of the brown-eyed children. On the second day, the roles were reversed and the brown-eyed children were praised, while the blue-eyed children were denigrated.
What happened over the course of the unique two-day exercise was a surprise to both the teacher and her students. On both days, children who were designated as inferior began performing poorly on tests and other work. In contrast, the “superior” students — became mean-spirited and seemed to like putting down the other group.
Elliott said, “I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes.” She says she realized then that she had “created a microcosm of society in a third-grade classroom.”
Elliott conducted her simulation again the following year with her next class of 3rd graders, and again the year after that, this time with film cameras present to capture the whole experiment on tape. To this day, the video footage from Elliott’s little experiment provides plenty of fodder for research and discussion in many academic environments.
Elliott’s division of the classroom into two different groups based upon eye color was a rather arbitrary decision. She could have divided her students by the months in which they were born, or the number of siblings they had, or by the color of the shoes they happened to be wearing that day. Of course this is not too different from any of the other number of ways that we divide ourselves in our society today. But the point is that what we’re told about ourselves and others has a tremendous impact on the way we perceive ourselves, and the way we act towards those who are different from us.
A Divided Church
In Ephesians 2, Paul is writing to Christians in Ephesus – the majority of whom were Gentiles. In other words, the Ephesians were not part of the group historically known as God’s “chosen people,” the Israelite nation. In chapter 1 of Ephesians, we saw how Paul tried to counter that narrative by telling the Ephesian Christians that Christ had chosen them (and indeed all of us) “before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1:4).
Now here in chapter 2, Paul addresses head-on the division that existed between the Jewish and Gentile believers, and the many ways in which the Gentile Christians had been made to feel as though they were less than or inferior, or further away from God, because of their ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Paul acknowledges, of course, that the Ephesians had at one time been separated from God. As we talked about last week, the Ephesians had previously been worshipers of idols, and had practiced magic and witchcraft, before they set their hope on Christ. But even now, as followers of Christ, a hierarchy often existed between the Jews and the Gentile Christians – referred to in Paul’s day as “the circumcised” and “the uncircumcised.” Now to us this sounds like an arbitrary division – not unlike brown eyes and blue eyes, or the color of our skin. But in Paul’s day, for Jewish Christians, circumcision was the distinctive mark of their supposed special status and privilege and close proximity to God. And “uncircumcision” was the way they referred to those who didn’t keep the Jewish law and customs, and were therefore seen as being further away from God.
The Dividing Wall
There were in fact real physical barriers in place that made the Gentile Christians feel as though they were still far away from God. If any Ephesian Gentile Christians ever dared venture so far as to travel to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, for example, they would have only been allowed to walk into the outer courts of the temple, where all of the buying and selling of livestock for the temple sacrifices often occurred. If they tried to walk into the interior courts of the temple, they would be blocked by a literal wall and an ominous sign which prohibited them from proceeding any further into the temple.
This one of the several signs that hung on that wall, blocking them from going any further into the temple. The English translation of the sign reads: “No foreigner is to enter within the balustrade and embankment around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his death which follows.”
Imagine walking into church and trying to bring your offering to God, or trying to partake in communion, and being met with a sign like that! But indeed, this would have been the experience for any Gentile, including Gentile Christians, who wanted to go and worship in the temple. No wonder they felt inferior, and no wonder they felt distant from God!
A Temple Without Dividing Walls
This is why it’s especially significant that Paul tells the Ephesians Christians that in Christ the “dividing wall” of hostility has been broken down. Paul tells the Ephesians “in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12-13). And Paul goes on to say, “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
Even though the wall in the temple in Jerusalem was still standing at the time of Paul’s writing this letter, Paul is saying that through Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike can experience close proximity to God. In fact, in Christ Jesus, God has come near to us! That’s why it’s so significant that Christ’s ministry was for the most part outside of the temple structure. Christ brought God’s peace and God’s presence to the streets and towns where people lived, to the fishing villages and farming communities where they worked. He entered their houses, sat in their boats, walked through their fields, attended their parties. He interacted with the marginalized and outcasts of society, touched those who were considered the unclean, and healed and forgave anyone and everyone who recognized their need for Jesus and came to him for mercy.
Through Christ God has come near to us. Christ broke through the wall that separated us from God, and in doing so he broke down the walls that separate us from one another as well. That’s why it’s often been said that there is both a vertical and a horizontal dimension to salvation. That’s why we say that “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” When we kneel at the cross and give our all to Jesus, we are reconciled both to God, and to one another.
That doesn’t mean that our physical differences disappear, but it does mean that our differences do not exclude us from God’s love, and should not divide us from one another either. Our physical differences and distinctions should not make some feel as though they are superior, or others to feel inferior, but instead we are reminded that in Christ we are all one.
And so Paul says, “Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (Eph. 2:15-22).
Did you catch that? As members of Christ’s body, we are to be a holy temple in the Lord. A dwelling place for God! Jews and Gentiles, previously had been prohibited from worshiping together in the same spaces in the temple, but now because of Christ Jesus we ARE the temple! Gentiles, who previously were blocked from entering into God’s house, now together with Jewish believers we have been made into the dwelling place of God! Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. How amazing is that!
Breaking Down the Dividing Wall of Hostility
Of course it’s one thing to believe it. It’s a whole other thing to live it out. And while none of us would ever want to admit it, if we’re honest with ourselves, we do tend to think that there’s some sort of hierarchy in terms of closeness or proximity to God. And while we probably wouldn’t come right out and say it, many of us do tend to think that our way is the best way, and that we have some sort of special handle on the truth.
Sure, we might couch it in terms of theology, or preferences of styles of worship. We might say that certain styles of music or prayer just help us connect with God more than other forms. But what happens when our style of worship or prayer makes others feel excluded? What happens when the way we praise or worship or talk about God makes others feel as though they are welcome here, or that this is not a place for them? How exactly do we break down the “dividing wall of hostility?” And what does it look like to be “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God?”
Growing Together in Christ
As a college student, I attended a predominantly White Chrstian fellowship at a very diverse and multiethnic campus. For our fellowship, growing together spiritually into a dwelling place for God meant diversifying the styles of music that we sang in our worship gatherings. We began incorporating more Gospel music and international songs into our worship repertoire. We learned songs in different languages so that international students would feel more welcome and included. We even began to change up some of the games we played at our game nights and other fun fellowship activities to make sure that we were creating an atmosphere that demonstrated welcomeness and inclusion for a greater diversity of students. It was difficult and challenging, but over the years that I was there as a student and then as a campus minister we eventually saw our fellowship grow to reflect the diversity of the campus – so much so that one day we saw a picture of our fellowship on a flyer that our campus had made about diversity!
But the growth that we saw happen didn’t just come about by changing our structures. Breaking down the dividing wall of hostility involved a heart change, and an attitude change. It involved taking risks and getting to know people who were different from us, learning to value the opinions and perspectives of others who had different cultures and backgrounds than our own. It meant taking the time to hear about the experiences, beginning to care about the types of things that they cared about, and building friendships with those who were very different from us.
One friend who did that for me was a guy by the name of Derrick, who reached out to me and befriended me when we were in college. Derrick is African-American and had grown up in East Baltimore, in a neighborhood that was about 99% Black at the time. As a child, Derrick hadn’t had a lot of positive interactions with White people, and he had a lot of fears and mistrust based upon some of his previous experiences. But in college Derrick felt God leading him to reach out to me, to get to know me, and to extend trust to me, and that was the beginning of a wonderful friendship that lasts even to this day. Throughout our time in college Derrick challenged me and helped me to grow in my faith and walk with God, and I can honestly say that I would not be where I am today in my faith if it weren’t for Derrick’s influence in my life.
Friends, we cannot grow into a holy temple in the Lord if we allow the walls of hostility to remain. We cannot grow together spiritually into a dwelling place for God if we’re only willing to build with people who look like us, or think like us, or act like us. We need the whole body of Christ in order to grow spiritually mature in Christ.
And so let us work, and pray, and love, and extend God’s love even and especially to those who are different from us. Let us not allow even a hint of superiority or inferiority to exist among us. Let us grow together in love for all of God’s people, so that together we can be built into a holy dwelling place for God!