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|"Joining the Club"
Once upon a
time, private clubs were just that: private. They were
exclusive organizations that let in anyone they wished and kept
out anyone they wished. However, much of that has changed,
especially with regard to exclusion based on race or gender.
Many organizations which were previously all-male now include women in their membership.
Now, although this may sound like a contemporary phenomenon, it is not. The early church went through its own hassles over who should be able to "join the club," so to speak. And, in many respects, even today church congregations can be exclusive in their membership. However, most often people exclude themselves from churches, or do not feel comfortable being members of certain churches.
But one of the problems in the early church was a bit different from that. Paul's letter to the church at Ephesus reveals what this situation was; but most important, his solution to the problem goes far deeper than the specific problem of that time.
Hear the eleventh and twelfth verses of the second chapter of Paul's letter to the Ephesians:
"So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called "the uncircumcision" by those who are called "the circumcision"--a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands--
“remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world."
So there we have the problem of the split--between the Jews of the circumcision and the Gentiles of the uncircumcision. And Paul elaborates on what this means, at least previously. However, things have changed, and Paul points this out in the thirteenth verse:
"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ."
And now, in that verse, an amazing thing has happened. The rules for membership in the club have been changed. It cannot be doubted that circumcision was a requirement to be a Jew, and even the Gentiles accepted that.
But the club itself has changed, so the old requirements have to go out the window. And the new requirements are not of a material, physical nature, but of a higher order. When Paul speaks of being in Christ Jesus and the blood of Christ, he is speaking of matters of faith and of sacrifice. And there is a parallel here with exclusion in today's society.
Rather than asking questions about what someone's race is, or what someone's sex is, or, for that matter, what one’s sexual orientation is, and including or excluding by those criteria, we should be moving to a higher level in our inclusion of others.
"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."
Now, there are two ways to look at the term "flesh" in this passage, and both of them are important. The first is the flesh that was crucified, a sacrifice for us. It was not just a sacrifice for the Jews, but it was for all of us. And the second is the flesh that is the church of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not intend that there be a separate church for the Jews and a separate church for the Gentiles; but he intended that there be one church united in him. A wall had previously separated the Jews as a "chosen race of God" from all others.
The Jews were the in-crowd, and everyone else was the out-crowd. But Jesus was not sent to save only the children of Israel; he was sent to save ALL of God's children.
"He 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."
Now this verse is a bit sticky. And I imagine that there may be some literalists who would conclude that this means that the ten commandments no longer hold. But I don't think that is what Paul is driving at. Rather, I think that he's trying to emphasize the fact that the rules and regulations of being a Jew no longer apply to how we achieve our relationship to God. And Jesus pulls it all together in the thirty-seventh through the fortieth verses of the twenty-second chapter of Matthew:
"He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."’
“’On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’"
Jesus did not so much abolish the Jewish Law as he made that law subservient to a higher law.
And Christ did this so that he "might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it." It is interesting to note here that Paul places the focus of his emphasis on the death, the crucifixion, of Christ, rather than on the life of Christ.
This is not to deny the value of that life, but rather to say that this death, as sacrifice for us, carried particular purpose. And I believe that Paul sees that purpose in three ways.
First, he sees an end to the hostility, the estrangement of the races, their continual separation and moving apart.
But second, not only has this separation ceased to be, but he also sees an active union, in spirit, of the races, a union that should transcend physical and historic differences.
And finally, by Christ's death, he has brought them back to God. For not only have they been separated from one another, but they have also been separated from their creator.
"So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near."
And within Christ's life and within Christ's death, Paul sees no distinction between what was intended for the different races. Christ's message is for all, and Christ's death was for all.
But what is the peace which Christ proclaimed to all? Is it simply the same message intended for all peoples to do with as they please? I don't think so. Rather, I believe it is a message which by its very nature is intended to unite all peoples.
It is not simply a gift which is given to all equally, but it is a gift which is intended to be shared by all.
In contemporary society we frequently hear of policies which focus upon the notion of "separate but equal," but I don't think that was what Christ's message was all about. Rather, I believe that the message of peace was to unite peoples in their equality.
And Paul goes on to say that "through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father." And here we must ask the question, "Why through Christ?" And the answer must lie in Christ's re-writing of the law.
For previously the Jews had come to God through their historic laws, through their covenants, through the circumcision; and so far as the Jews were concerned, the Gentiles had no way to come to God. Jesus erased all that. The new club took on new rules and regulations that allowed everyone, regardless of the accident of their birth, regardless of the previous laws they had followed, to come to God.
In our contemporary society we have done much--and I believe should be doing much more--to create opportunities for those who, because of the circumstances of their birth, have been "outside the club."
"So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God." And there are two images here.
The first image is that of citizenship. The Gentile is no longer of another nation, but all are citizens of God's nation.
But the second image is stronger; for do we not consider ties within the household stronger than ties within the nation?
Yet, if this is all true, if we are all fellow-citizens in God's kingdom, if we are all members of the family of God, and if this is a predominantly Christian nation,
why did it take so long for one group in God's family to be released from slavery, and why did we have to fight a war to accomplish that?
If we are all members of the family of God, why did it take so long to give women equal status in the voting booth, and why is it that when a woman does the same work as a man, she will consistently receive significantly less pay for it?
But if we doubt that there is a new club with new rules and regulations, Paul continues with what I consider to be one of the finest descriptions of the church in scripture.
It is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone."
And what is that foundation?
It is the vision of what God's world should be, seen by prophets who were often considered to be radicals and reactionaries, who were consistently rejected by others because they said things that others did not want to hear and saw things that others did not want to see.
But the foundation is also laid by the work of the apostles, believers in the Word who, even through the worst of persecution, continued to hold to their faith in the vision. Yet none of this is possible without Christ Jesus as the cornerstone.
For it was the life and death of Christ that made the prophetic vision reality. It was the life and death of Christ that gave the apostles the strength to continue in their work.
"In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord."
But not only does Christ hold the building together; Christ is the building. But we are not speaking here of a building of wood and glass and metal and stone; we are speaking of a building of people. And that building may be of one person or many.
But even more important, that building is not a finished product, but is alive and growing. And it is Christ Jesus who makes it grow. Whether we are speaking of one person or many, Christ is the one in whom the structure is joined.
Too often some Christians think of the small congregation that does not increase in numbers as one that has stopped growing; but I would disagree. For our mission is not merely to increase in numbers, but for each of us individually to continue to grow in Christ. Indeed, it is also possible for a congregation to grow in numbers, but for its individual members to cease to grow. The holy temple we seek to build is within us.
And Paul concludes this chapter by saying that "in Christ you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
Periodically, politicians get involved in the process of running for public office. And the leaders test the waters to see if they want to dive in. Incumbents do everything they can to play it safe and not jeopardize their positions any more than they already have.
But even though we may be unhappy with politics, with what our elected officials are doing for us, on the county, state, or national levels, we need to try to remember that the most important club still respects and honors our membership.
In the family of God, the leadership is always watching over us, and is always taking care of us.
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