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Broken Down and Built Up

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church on Sunday, July 22. The text was Ephesians 2:11-22.

Don’t we all at one time or another wonder about who we are, what is our purpose in life and what we can do to make a difference? This passage in Ephesians speaks to the issue of identity. We have the identity of the Jews and Gentiles and who we are all together in Christ. With the terminology of strangers, aliens and citizens, this passage seems to especially have bearing on our lives today in the United States with the various challenges we face.

Paul wanted to make sure that the Ephesians remembered their former state. Twice he tells them to “remember,” first that they were Gentiles by birth and secondly, in metaphor-laden language, Paul describes them as being “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel,…strangers…having no hope and without God in the world” (v. 12). They had been alienated from the Jewish people and their God. The Ephesians’ circumstances had been that of a dispossessed people. Everything associated with the past was in terms of a flawed existence.

The last two descriptors especially get to me—no hope, no God. Some days the news is just too hard to watch, with bombings of hospitals and schools, with migrants beaten and raped at the border, children separated from their parents, with people murdered and safety nets for those on the margins of our society shredded, as well as the multitude of natural disasters and the lives they affect. It seems there is no hope and that God is nowhere to be found. Sometimes I feel like I want to hide.

The Jewish people understood the Law as a fence around them that kept them safe. It kept others out, making the Jewish community separate—and they liked it that way. Gentile was their term for “everybody else,” those who were not Jewish. Even though such Gentiles had come to faith in Jesus, they did not necessarily have knowledge of the covenant God had made with the Jewish people, including the Law and its tenets.

At the time Ephesians was written, Gentile Christianity had become successful and Gentile Christians were in danger of ignoring their continuity with Jewish Christianity and Israel. They were to remember the grace extended to them so that they would extend it to others. We are to do likewise. 

But now…change is in the air. “In Christ” describes how believers once outside the realm of salvation come to be inside the realm. In Christ, a wider umbrella of God’s love has been opened up. Jews and Gentiles are made one. Christ made peace among all by his death. Christ is our peace and he has created “one new humanity…thus making peace” (v. 15). This phrase draws its origins from a traditional baptismal formula celebrating the new creation in terms of unity and abolition of differences, groups and categories of people (MacDonald). Dividing lines are eliminated because all are equally accepted by God. The peace of Christ contrasts with the hostility and alienation between groups mentioned earlier. Christ brings the message of peace and reconciliation with God and each other. 

Jesus has broken down the dividing wall. He goes right into it, into the depths of the swamp of hostility. Throughout his ministry, Jesus went into poor neighborhoods, into homes of sinners, into the tombs where raging evil had destroyed flesh and spirit. He brings to himself all those who have been marginalized by society. Jesus hangs on the cross for us and also hangs out with us wherever and whoever we are. 

The dividing wall literally means the dividing wall of the fence. This likely referred to the partition that separated Gentiles from the inner courts of the Jewish Temple. Such a division was so strong that this notice was posted, “No man of another race is to enter within the fence and enclosure around the Temple. Whoever is caught will have only himself to thank for the death that follows.”

Hence, Paul can write of the dividing wall being the hostility between the two groups. The fence of the Law contributes to such hostility. That doesn’t mean that God’s Law of the Hebrew Scriptures is the problem, but the way it was interpreted at the time, with 613 additional laws.

The power of such interpretations of the law can be illustrated by a particular Hasidic sect of Jews that live in the neighborhood of Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem. Their strict observance includes the forbidding of driving on the Sabbath. Around sunset Friday, there is always a group of Hasids, ready with stones to throw at any cars passing near their neighborhood, violating their Sabbath rules. While living in the Holy Land, only once was I cutting it close and I saw them preparing to punish sabbath-breakers.

The final section of our second lesson responds to the first section, the plight of the believers in the past, describing the new reality with a composite of metaphors. Where people were once strangers, now they are no longer strangers and aliens. Salvation is presented in terms of being rescued from lost nationhood and homelessness. Being outside the realm of salvation is compared to being homeless in a foreign land. 

Being “citizens with the saints” and members of God’s household responds to their earlier state of being aliens and strangers. The Ephesian believers have become full citizens with full legal rights. 

Not only does Jesus break down walls, but he builds us up. We are now in the season of construction because we all know there are but two seasons: winter and construction. However, God does his building year round. When Ephesians was written, the cutting edge of building technology in the Roman Empire was the keystone or capstone. It was the small, angled block at the top that holds the arch together. Without it, everything falls apart. 

Paul wrote “you are being built” (v. 22). This is not a completed construction project, but a continual, ongoing construction project of the Holy Spirit. God’s house is built on a firm foundation—Jesus Christ. In this new community of the cross, we are all being changed. We are among the members of the house, the foundations being the apostles and prophets, while Jesus Christ is the corner or keystone. The household of God no longer consists of walls, like the Temple in Jerusalem, but it is people and all are invited in. Access is unrestricted.

We see the image of the harmonious, ongoing growth of the organism of the church. We use the word “church” to describe this building, but the church is a living thing composed of all of us (including the so-called outsiders) who are following the Lord Jesus. We become the place of God’s dwelling. 

Paul emphasizes the spiritual entity of the church in direct contrast to the emphasis on the physical barriers that once separated Jews and Gentiles. Those believers did not withdraw to the desert or build some strange place of their own to form an alternate society but continued to live in the world, but as those that did not belong to the world. 

Ephesians 2 calls us to remember our own story, remembering it from the perspective of our present experience of God’s welcoming grace. We have been reconciled to God and one another so that we can be God’s agents of reconciliation in our broken world. Unity is the theme that holds these various sections of Ephesians together. 

Brokenness extends to our political life together. When we think of or hear the word “politics,” especially today, we often throw up our hands in frustration. The true meaning of that word has become warped. “Politics” comes from the Greek polis meaning city or community. Words with this Greek root have to do with cities, communities and the citizens who live in them ( Politics is about the welfare of the community. 

Christ calls us to make peace with those whose politics seems strange to us. Christ calls us to be reconcilers, just as we have been reconciled to God and one another. That means we create a genuine welcome for the newcomer in our community, classroom, workplace and congregation. It means considering the needs of immigrants and refugees, through the lens of Christian faith. Can we welcome such strangers into our midst and invite them to be “citizens with the saints”…members of God’s household, making them our brothers and sisters? Their language and customs may seem strange to us, but if we love people as Christ loves, they will respond with love. Remember that whenever we draw a line of separation, we find Jesus on the other side of it. 

I learned that during my years in the Holy Land. If we don’t approach people who are so different, as objects of conversion to Christianity, but open our eyes, ears and hearts, patiently learning about the other, we may find we have made friends for life. Via Facebook and email, I still hear from the Muslim Palestinian university students we worked with. They now have families of their own, jobs and are just trying to live their lives in a most tenuous situation in their land. These people ask for prayer and pray for us. 

How can we help the outsiders, our refugee, immigrant sisters and brothers? One way is to contact and support the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. For almost 80 years, they have been a champion for refugees and migrants from around the globe. They have made a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who have found safety and hope in our communities. 

The Lutheran church is an immigrant church. Few, if any of our families originated in this country. They immigrated from Germany, Sweden and other parts of Scandinavia, Ireland, France and other places. Our people were once welcomed (or not), so let us be the welcomers and reconcilers, letting the light of Christ shine through us that we may all [foreigner and citizen] be “built together…into a dwelling place for God” (v. 22).  Amen.


Patrick Cabella Hansel, Currents in Theology and Mission, 45:3, July 2018

Margaret Y. MacDonald, Sacra Pagina: Colossians, Ephesians

Robb McCoy and Eric Fistler,


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