Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I don’t think I would be too far off the mark to suggest that we live in a highly divided culture. We’ve segregated ourselves into little competing groups based on our political, religious, or moral views. And, right now, in our culture, divisions go deep and are growing more intense by the minute. There are people, groups, and ideologies that are doing their best to fan the flames of division. Such divisions find their way into our families, our own hearts, and even our congregations.
This morning, I want to zero in on the issue of race. Race seems to be one of those things that continue to divide our culture, even our churches. Yet, none of today’s social distinctions—none of our racial barriers—are more exclusive or unrelenting than the separation between Jews and Gentiles in Biblical times. One of the biggest problems the early Church had to navigate was ethnic division. That’s why there could not be a more crucial text for us to hear today than our reading from Ephesians 2. How do baptised Jewish and Gentile Christians relate to each other in the Church? Here, Saint Paul will point us to the peace and reconciliation we have with God and one another through Christ’s cross.
The Wall Between Jew and Gentile
Like our own land, the first-century Roman Empire was a vast culturally- and ethnically diverse melting pot. But in all of that, there was no more significant divide than that between Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles). The distinction between Jew and Gentile was one that God made. But, the problem is not they with their race. It was not a racial divide. The problem for the Gentiles was that “[they]were separated from the messiah. [They] were detached from the community of Israel. [They] were foreigners to the covenants which contained the promise. [They] had no hope, and no god, and [they] were stranded in the world.” God had bound himself unconditionally to bring blessing upon and through Israel. But the Gentiles had no such promise. That is as bad as bad news gets.
The Jews considered the Gentiles outsiders precisely because they were not faithful Israelites. They had no access to Israel’s covenants with God, and they were not living in response to God’s mercy by seeking to keep the law of Moses. You can see this divide clearly when it came to issues about the sabbath, diet, and circumcision. Jews used these commandments to set up social boundaries between themselves and Gentiles. These created a wall, a barrier of hostility, going between the two groups.
So, the Jews developed an immense prejudice against the Gentiles. The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to fuel the fires of hell. The Jews would not even help a Gentile mother in labour, because that would only bring another Gentile into the world. Marrying a Gentile was like having a death in the family. And the Gentile nations were no better. Gentile authors wrote viscously against the Jews. The history of the Jewish people is one of constant persecution from Gentile governments. A painful and often violent history separated Jews and Gentiles by mutual hostility and suspicion by divergent cultures and convictions. The wall of hatred between them was absolute.
For the early Church, the question of how Gentiles could be welcomed as part of God’s people was a heated debate. Now, you may think that the issue of “Jew and Gentile” is not really relevant for us today. Yet, the divide between Jew and Gentile is as big or bigger than any racial divide that we face today. We might be reminded of the continuing painful divisions in our own day: the Apartheid in South Africa, the civil unrest as a result of the death of George Floyd, the rise of Black Lives Matter, or our current Residential School scandal. Similar hostilities continue to plague humanity down to the present. This is what sin does — it divides us from one another. If we’re not careful, it can happen to us, our families, and our churches. If it hasn’t already. The question then, is what does Paul put forward to heal these wounds and break down these walls of hostility?
Christ has Broken Down the Wall
The answer is found in the sacrificial death of Christ. Paul says we were far off, and we’ve been brought near. That’s reconciliation with God. How? The blood of Christ makes it possible for baptised Jews and Gentiles to come near to God. We were far off, and we’ve been brought near by the blood of Christ. His bloody death on the cross brought peace between God and us. Our sin alienates us from God, but Christ has ripped this barrier down by his death. This means that Jews and Gentiles alike have access to God. Your salvation is not based on who you are or what you do. You do not gain access to God because you have special brownie points. Your race does not give you privileged access to God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” We are saved by grace, not by race.
God justifies sinners by grace through faith so that both together may become a preview of the new creation. The blood of Christ doesn’t just bring us near to God; the blood of Christ also brings us near to one another. The very purpose of the death of Jesus Christ is to reconcile alienated ethnic groups to each other in Christ. The point is that God aims to create one new family in Christ who are reconciled to each other across racial lines. Not strangers. Not aliens. No hostility. Not far off. Fellow citizens of one Christian “city of God.” This means that a new family is being formed, based not on race but on the utterly astounding grace of God toward the whole world. And God did this at the cost of his Son’s life. Jesus Christ dealt with whatever divisions exist between races. Christ has broken down every division and frontier between human beings. Sin’s power to divide the world has come to its end.
“In Christ there is no east or west,LSB 653:1-3
In Him no south or north,
But one great fellowship of love,
Through-out the whole wide earth.
With God there is no tribe or race;
In Him we all are one.
He loves us as His children through
Our faith in His dear Son
So, bothers, sisters, praise His name
Who died to set us free
From sin, division, hate, and shame,
From spite and enmity!”
This does not mean “uniformity.” We don’t all become honorary white males when we’re baptised. One group does not fall under the power of the more dominant group. Instead, Paul says that God in Christ has made one humanity of the two. Gentiles do not become Jews; Jews do not become Gentiles. Instead, both Jews and Gentiles become united in Christ as Jew and Gentile. No one is a second-class citizen in the Kingdom of God. Differences in ethnicity, class, sex, economic condition, politics, and opinion exist. Still, they must not become walls of hostility among us. We are all family, and no one is to be treated as a stranger or alien. Why is this important?
It’s important because it’s about our identity: Who are we? What is our relationship with others? To say you believe in Jesus Christ is to confess the end of division and hostility, the end of separation and segregation, the end of prejudice and contempt! We confess that in Christ, God draws both those who are “near” and those who are “far away.” We are sent as carriers of that reconciliation for the sake of the world.
The Church is not a loose association of people who have all had similar spiritual experiences and get together from time to time to encourage one another. The Church is the new family. Those who have died with Christ in baptism are no longer identified by race, class, sex, or anything else. No, our new identity is in Christ. We are Christians. The Church is a tiny outpost where people from all tribes, languages, peoples, and tongues are welcomed into one new family. We are God’s workmanship, a new temple, the very dwelling place of God!
There are times when this has been a real issue in the Church. If this is a problem with us, what are we to do? Repent. Use your access to God to the fullest. Confess your sins, receive God’s forgiveness. Ask for strength for reconciliation—and do it. That means reconciliation both with God and with your neighbour. When Jesus talked about the Good Samaritan, he was talking about race. When Paul says “For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” he’s talking about race. There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. We must to expose, condemn, and remove Racism wherever we find it. Racism is an unchristian denial of the the very work of Jesus Christ. God’s love has equally saved, forgiven, accepted, and blessed all nations. Christ died to take hostility and prejudice toward all other persons whatever the race away from your heart. That should cause us to commit ourselves to love and to respect other human beings equally, and to do so in deeds, not only with pious-sounding resolutions and good intentions.
This must not be watered down. This is the answer to alienation, to racism, to prejudice, to hatred, to estrangement. Division and hostility among people comes from sin. All humanity is bound together in sin. What’s wrong with the world is sin; the evil in each of us. Sin is what’s systemic. We can pass laws, and we may curb behaviour, but we’ll never get rid of sin completely. There may be times where we have to rally or march for change, but that’s not going to eliminate the problem altogether. The only thing that can completely address that is Christ. The ultimate answer to racial hostility is not intellectual or political or social but spiritual! Jesus alone is the answer to racism. Christ’s blood was shed for the whole lot of us! Christ can take two divergent people and make them one. He doesn’t remove the differences, but He can unite them together. They are bound together in a baptismal unity that transcends all differences of race, social status, or sex that divide human beings. The dividing walls between people are completely obliterated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ’s work has reconciled us to the Father and, in this way, made peace among us. You are now part of a community, a multi-ethnic family. We are all family, and no one is to be treated as a stranger or alien, not even you.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.