CBC – July 31, 2016

Don Westblade


Celebrating Reconciliation

Sermon Text: Eph 2:11-16


Meditation/Preparation   The most joyous of all festive seasons in Israel was that of the “Feast of Tabernacles.” It fell on a time of year when the hearts of the people would naturally be full of thankfulness, gladness, and expectancy. All the crops had been long stored; and now all fruits were also gathered, the vintage past, and the land only awaited the softening and refreshment of the “latter rain,” to prepare it for a new crop. … If the beginning of the harvest had pointed back to the birth of Israel in their Exodus from Egypt, and forward to the true Passover-sacrifice in the future; if the corn harvest was connected to the giving of the law on Mount Sinai in the past, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost; the harvest-thanksgiving of the Feast of Tabernacles reminded Israel, on the one hand, of their dwelling in booths in the wilderness, while, on the other hand, it pointed to the final harvest when Israel’s mission should be completed and all nations gathered unto the Lord.                  – Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services. pp. 268-69


[Text]  We’re continuing today to work through Ephesians, but as Elders we don’t want to lose sight at any point on our way through the book that an important reason for choosing this book as our focus this summer and fall is to set the church’s plan for adding a new building, whose name we are taking from this epistle, into the whole context of Paul’s message in this letter. We envision the purpose of this building as helping us as a church to respond more effectively to Paul’s call in ch. 4, v. 12, to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry, and to build up the body of Christ.” That’s why we’ve been calling it “The 4:12 Center.”


Some day, one of your friends in the community is going to hear you call this addition “The 4:12 Center,” and they’re going to ask you what in the world that means. Is that the address on Manning St? We hope the name prompts that question from the people who hear it. And we want everyone in our congregation not only to have a ready answer but to understand the purpose in  Eph 4:12 and its importance and its urgency in the life of the church. Ephesians 4:12 says we need to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. Ephesians 4:12 says we need to build up the body of Christ. That’s what we do there.


So what does this passage (2:11-16) have to do with equipping the saints and building up the body? Neither of those things may have popped instantly to your mind as we were reading the text. But in fact this passage has everything to do with that purpose, and the connection in this case may prove to be as unexpected to you as it is important.


What does Paul say we need to do? Equip the saints for the work of the ministry. What is the work of the ministry? It is preaching the Gospel of course. But listen to how Paul puts this work in a parallel discussion with the Corinthians:


2 Cor 5:17-20 – “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. [Christ has reconciled us to God.] We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”


Do you see how closely this text in 2 Cor echoes the text we read at the beginning of Eph 2 a couple of weeks ago? “The old has passed away; behold the new has come,” Paul says. That is just like the contrast we heard him stress between what once was true apart from Christ and what is true now if we get planted in Christ, like a seed in his garden. Once we were dead, but now God has made us alive! That once and now corresponds exactly to the old and new creation Paul refers to in 2 Cor. The old man is dead in his passions and sins. The new creation is alive. And how is he alive? The new creation is alive in Christ, just as Paul said in Eph 2:4 –When we were dead in our sins, God made us alive in Christ.   Just like that tree planted in Mexico: We may plant it, but God is raising it up and God is making it alive.


And now back to our question, what is the work of ministry to which we hope our new 4:12 addition will help to equip us? Look at what Paul says is part of the new that comes when Christ makes us alive in him: through Christ God reconciles us to himself. There is the ultimate goal of our ministry – to overcome the hostility we have toward God. Every sin is a fight with God that tells him I know how to run my life better than he does. But Christ rebuilds the peace. He works the reconciliation. If he reconciles us, that means that the state of the old man is alienation, separation, the fight. And now God entrusts that message of reconciliation to us to call others to be reconciled to God and enjoy his peace. That is the work of ministry we want our building to help equip us for.


That’s the very same message Paul is conveying to the Ephesians in the text we are looking at this morning. The logic is the same; the conclusion is the same. Watch how closely they get this same message across.


That same contrast we saw in the early part of ch.2 and again in 2 Cor 5 arranges the stage for this paragraph, too: a contrast between what once was true when we were dead and what wonderful changes occur now that Christ has poured out his life for us. At one time you Gentiles were separated from Christ and had no covenants, no hope, and no God. But now you have been brought near by the blood of Christ and reconciled to the covenants of the Jews and to their God.


On your outline, once you were without Christ. Now you are in Christ. (*…) Just like the first paragraph of this chapter, and just like 2 Cor 5, the key is being planted in Christ. The contrast Paul is trying to emphasize gets a little lost in the translation here. The words translated “separated from Christ” are more literally “without Christ.” Once you were without Christ. Now you are in Christ. And the condition of being without Christ means no hope and no God. That’s the division and hostility Christ overcomes and that our work of ministry aims to overcome. We want alienated people to be brought near to God. We want his enemies to be reconciled to God and at peace with him and in him. That translation “without God” isn’t quite parallel to the phrase “without Christ,” now that we’ve made that change. The phrase translates a single word pretty close to our word “atheist.” It means without God, in the sense of being deprived of God, or God-less.


So there’s Paul’s familiar contrast. And the fulcrum that divides the old past without Christ and the new life in Christ is that key word “But.” You can take note of that key bit of his logic in your outline.


This first contrast we’ve noticed is one between our division or alienation from God and our reconciliation with God. That’s the ultimate contrast that our work of ministry aims to bring Christ in to overcome. Separation from God is our eternal ruin and catastrophe. The bad news is that, left to ourselves, we are hopeless and God-less. The good news is that in Christ we can find peace with a God whose justice would otherwise demand the ultimate penalty of eternal death from us. You aren’t just alive in Christ. You are alive and at peace with Almighty God in Christ!


But that is not the only benefit of Christ’s reconciling work that Paul celebrates in this passage. He mentions another benefit even before he gets to our reconciliation with God, and this one he mentions first is probably fairly surprising to the modern church. We hardly ever hear it mentioned. And yet it seems to be the first thing on Paul’s mind and the one he spends the most time talking about.


That other act of reconciliation is the overcoming of the dividing wall between us as Gentiles (the uncircumcision) and the people of Israel (the circumcision). Gentiles have been alienated from Israel. Gentiles have been alienated from the covenants God made with his chosen people in the Old Testament. Who is this “us” that Christ has made one? Who is this us who are divided by a wall of hostility? In this first reference, Paul isn’t talking about sinners and God. He is talking about the uncircumcision and the circumcision. He is talking about the Gentiles and Israel.


How have we been divided? By the Mosaic Law of commandments and ordinances that tells the people of Abraham to distinguish themselves from other peoples by their dietary practices and their circumcision and their call to ritual sacrifices. This is what sets them apart to be “a light to the Gentiles.” If God hadn’t made a distinction between light and the eye, there would be no vision. If  the law hadn’t made this distinction between peoples, there would have been no revelation by Abraham’s family to the rest of the nations to whom they were called to be a blessing. Think how impoverished we would be in understanding God without the practices and the experiences of the people God chose to be light to us. Without the Hebrew sacrifices for ritual sins, we never would have understood Christ’s sacrifice for our moral sins. The distinction was a good one, but it resulted in hostility when the same chosen people began to think that the distinctives that set them apart from the Gentiles also qualified them to earn God’s favor. Christ came to break down that wall of pride and to fulfill the pictures of the rituals in a way that made their representations no longer essential to communicating the light of his revelation. In the end, God means to bring the branches of the Gentiles back into the trunk of the tree that is Abraham’s people and to bring us all together in our trust in his Messiah, Jesus.


This was the focus of Paul’s ministry: to bring Gentiles into the covenants of his Jewish people on the same basis of faith that God had made his covenant with Abraham in the first place. Paul anguished over this ministry of reconciliation in Rom 9. Paul labored to collect donations from Gentile churches to bring to famine-ridden Jews in Judea so he could get them together accepting one another as they overcame their pride to accept their gifts. Reconciliation of Gentiles with the people and covenants of Israel was a priority for Paul second only to – and in fact all wrapped up in -- reconciling them together to God.


The bad news was: Jews and Gentiles became suspicious and hostile toward one another. The good news is that in Christ God is working a plan to bring them to peace and reconciliation. In Christ, you are not only alive, you are reconciled with Israel and heir to the glorious promises God made to Israel in his covenants of promise.


The ministry for which we need to equip ourselves is a ministry of reconciliation…

… of Gentile branches with our Jewish trunk

… of Jews and Gentiles together with our God in the covenants of promise


This is God’s plan for the culmination of history!


Look at this text that I spent the better part of my life never noticing in the last chapter of Zechariah. When the Day of the Lord comes and God at last ushers in his kingdom and reigns as king, do you know how we’ll be spending our days? Do you know what picture God gave Israel as a light to us Gentiles about what this experience of heaven will be like? This text has an answer to those questions. The prophet says all of us Gentiles will go up year after year to worship the king and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles!


Are you going to know how to do that? Do you want to simply be a wallflower in the Kingdom of God, sitting on the sidelines watching everybody else enjoy the celebrations? We need to equip ourselves to participate in this highest of all the high holy days of Judaism, because that’s what Scripture says we’ll be doing.


The Jewish calendar has a lot of holidays with unrecognizable Hebrew names on them. But the basic structure of their calendar is about as simple as a Christian calendar of Christmas and Easter. They have two major weeks of holiday each year, one in the spring and one in the fall. On both occasions one is supposed to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and celebrate the festival at the Temple there. In the absence of a Temple, that’s what the synagogues were for.


The week in the spring is called Passover (and also called the feast of Unleavened Bread; these might originally have been two holidays, but they eventually collapsed into one). This is the holiday Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate in the week before his death. A “chag” means a pilgrimage (it’s related to the Arabic term “hajj,” the name of their pilgrimage to Mecca).


The week in the fall is called Booths or Tabernacles. It was the final harvest festival of the year, so one feasted well, and this was the holiday Jews looked forward to the most. Shortly before this week are the New Year holiday, Rosh HaShanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. The week of celebrating Booths or Tabernacles has another added day, an “Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly,” Shmini Atzeret. And the whole collection of holidays from Rosh HaShanah to the 8th day is a pilgrimage festival, like Passover.


Passover has an 8th day, too, but it’s separated from the spring week by a week of weeks, and so it came to be called the Feast of Weeks. It’s the second of the three pilgrimage festivals. The Greeks called it by the name Pentecost, because a week of weeks makes it the fiftieth day after Passover.


Now take a quick look at the Meditation in the bulletin. Edersheim’s book on the Temple gives a nice summary of the significance that these holidays took on as Israel’s history unfolded. 


“The beginning of the harvest had pointed back to the birth of Israel in their Exodus from Egypt, and forward to the true Passover-sacrifice in the future; the corn harvest was connected to the giving of the law on Mount Sinai in the past, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost; the harvest-thanksgiving of the Feast of Tabernacles reminded Israel, on the one hand, of their dwelling in booths in the wilderness, while, on the other hand, it pointed to the final harvest when Israel’s mission should be completed and all nations gathered unto the Lord.”


This was Zechariah’s expectation. All the nations would be gathered together in reconciled unity and then gathered together with the Lord himself. That’s exactly what Paul is echoing here in our text this morning: a reconciliation of Israel with all the nations or Gentiles, and then a reconciliation of them both with God.


That means that the ministry for which we need to equip ourselves with the help of our new building is a ministry of reconciliation, of Gentiles and Jews, and together with God. This is not only God’s plan for the culmination of history. It is the way in which Scripture anticipates that we will build up the body of Christ. Ephesians 4:12 gives our building a mission to equip the saints for the work of the ministry of reconciliation and to build up the body of Christ from Jews and Gentiles together. It is a mission to prepare one another to celebrate reconciliation, and a mission you might not have expected in a New Testament church: to prepare one another to celebrate the Feast of Booths.


Two more quick but important observations about this text and we’re done. First, notice that Paul not only celebrates reconciliation. He also provides the reason why our celebration stands on such sturdy ground. As Gentiles you may have been at one time alienated from Israel and from God, but in Christ you who once were far off have been brought near by his atoning blood. Why? For… Because… Christ himself is our peace. Christ doesn’t just do the work that makes for peace. He is that peace. You don’t honor your son because he mows the grass or your daughter because she walks the dog and takes out the trash. You honor them because they are the sort of joyful children who have a heart to do things like that, and more, out of their love for the family. God is like that. He doesn’t simply look at Christ’s faithful life and his suffering and death on the cross and call that work worthy of a reward. God the Father looks at Christ the Son and loves him and his complete and utter trust in his Father. He himself is our peace. That’s why we need to be in him to be brought near to God by his blood.


When does his ministry of reconciliation go to work for us? Not just at one time when we were without Christ. Not just now because we are in Christ. He is our peace in the present. He has made us one already when we were yet sinners and he died for us. And he will create one man out of the two in due course of history, and he will reconcile us, both Jew and Gentile together, to God in the Kingdom he comes to rule. Christ himself is our peace in the past, our peace in the present, and our peace for eternal ages to come.


He is our peace as Gentiles with Israel . And he is our peace with God . He is the reason we who once were alienated and far off can be brought near. He himself is our peace.


And one last important piece to fill in: This whole passage begins with the word “Therefore.” (One always needs to ask a text like this what is the “therefore” there for!). If we look back to see what arguments are building up to a conclusion in this passage, we only have to go back to the last week or two of texts to hear how Paul’s logic is developing to this point. In Christ, God made us alive and raised us up and seated us in heavenly places, not because of any good works that we did but because he loves to pour out grace on those who honor his beloved Son. So (therefore!) now that you are alive in Christ, don’t forget that it is in Christ that you live, and that it is to Christ you owe your reconciliation with hostile people and to Christ you owe your peace with God.


Remember! That you are not merely alive, but you are alive in loving friendship and peace with God. Remember! That you are not merely alive but reconciled with God’s chosen people who have shown you God’s light of revelation. Remember! That without Christ you are hopeless and alienated strangers of all that is good in the universe. Remember! That Christ has accomplished all these things for you out of his gracious love.


Celebrate reconciliation! But above all Celebrate Christ!






Heb 13:20f — Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.