Brought Near

Jeremiah 23:1-6 | Ephesians 2:11-22 | Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Jeremy Richards        

As many of you know, Brie and I went back to Idaho for two weeks while we were on parental leave. And, as many of you also know, we’re from neighboring towns, so every time we go home we see both our families. When we went home a couple weeks ago, we stayed the first week at Brie’s parent’s house and the second week at my parent’s house.

Becoming part of another person’s family is a strange thing. Think about the first time you went to a significant other’s home and met their family, or the first time you visited a friend’s house as a child. Everything is new, because every family is unique – every family has its own distinct culture. The way they interact with one another – verbally and nonverbally – the arrangement of the house, the decorations, the pets, even the smell is unique.

When it comes time to eat, you always hang back (or at least I do). Is the table set, the food brought out, everything “just so”? Or is it a free for all, the food on the counter, buffet-style, go at it? Is there a prayer?

What conversation topics are acceptable? What are not? For example, my family thinks bathroom humor is always a great dinner-time topic. Most families do not.

Brie and I have now been together for 10 years total. We’ve gotten pretty familiar with one another’s families. I don’t think twice about opening the refrigerator, or turning on the TV at her parents’ house. But it wasn’t always that way. I used to overthink everything I said or did, because her family culture is quite a bit different than my family culture.

Even after all these years, Brie and I will sometimes realize that there’s an underlying difference in our perspectives base on the families we grew up in, and that difference causes us to understand and react in different ways, sometimes causing tension. In certain scenarios her default reaction is very different than my default reaction.

And we still, even after all these years, occasionally hear a story we’d never heard before that surprises us, or we hear another perspective of a story we thought we knew.

But, by and large, I know most of Brie’s stories. In fact, let me just tell you a few. My favorites are the ones about how mean she was as an older sister. The best one is the time she convinced her middle sister Anne and Anne’s friend Carlie that a closet in her their house was haunted. Once she’d convinced them of this, she grabbed Anne, hog-tied her, and threw her in the closet. When Carlie started laughing Brie said, “What are you laughing at?” and hog-tied Carlie and threw her in the closet as well.

Other stories include telling Anne a piece of lard was cookie dough and watching her eat it, making her youngest sister Jessye paint her toes when Jessye simply said she wanted to play with her and if she went outside the lines at all, she’d make her take all the polish off all her toes and start over, and, when her sisters asked if they could hold their cat when Brie was holding it, she’d say, “Sure,” and shake the cat then throw it at them.

I wasn’t there for any of these stories, but I know them all. In fact, we tell them so much that other members of my family know Brie’s stories. In a certain sense, her stories have become my stories. I know them, I can recite them, as I just did.

In our reading from Ephesians this morning, Paul reminds the Gentiles – non-Jews – in the Ephesian church that they weren’t always part of the family Israel, the family of God. Israel’s stories are now their stories, but they weren’t always. It’s important to note that he isn’t speaking to them as individuals, but as an entire people. We have a tendency to read everything in Scripture as if it’s directed at us personally. This has to do with our modern, Western point of view, something we’ll talk more about later. But Paul is talking to a group of people, of which most of us here belong: Gentiles.

Prior to the coming of Jesus, and the early church’s subsequent witness to the Gentiles, God’s self-revelation was primarily to the Jews. With the exception of a few Gentiles in the Old Testament like Ruth and Rahab, most Gentiles didn’t know about Yahweh, the God of Israel, and if they did know anything about Yahweh that was the extent of it: Yahweh was Israel’s God, not theirs, because back then specific God’s typically belonged to specific peoples.

But then, through the work of the Holy Spirit and the missionary zeal of the early church, Gentiles were invited into the fold, which was God’s plan all along, going back to Abraham. A couple months ago, before I went on parental leave, we heard the story of Cornelius from Acts, a Roman centurion who heard the Gospel from Peter, received the Holy Spirit, and was baptized along with his whole household. And this marked a huge turning point in the life of the Church because now the Gentiles could be part of what was then called “the Way,” what we now call Christianity.

And I’m sure the Gentiles’ late entry into the Jewish narrative must have felt a lot like walking into a someone else’s home for the first time. The culture was different, the lingo was unfamiliar, perhaps members of this new family viewed them with distrust. As Paul says, previously there had been a wall of hostility between the Jews and Gentiles. Now all of a sudden that wall was gone?

But more than anything, what was different for these Gentiles was the stories themselves.

Israel’s entire identity was based on stories about their interactions with God. The God of these stories was unlike any god the Gentiles had known before. Not an angry, violent God – ok, well sometimes, the Israelite God was angry and violent – but for the most part Yahweh was not a God of destruction but of creation. A God who created the world out of love, who reached down and formed humans with God’s own hands, breathed God’s own breath into their lungs. A God who heard them when they cried out as slaves in Egypt. A God who didn’t side with the powerful but with the powerless. A God who walked alongside Israel through the highs and lows. A God who remained faithful even when they were faithless.

Certainly this God was a shock to the Gentiles in Ephesus, who were used to fickle, angry gods, gods who must be appeased at all costs.

But nowhere was this God more shocking, more unbelievable than in the person of Jesus Christ. A crucified God? That’s an oxy-moron, a contradiction. If God is God, God could not be crucified, could not die. And God wouldn’t come as the conquered, a Jew, but as the conqueror, a Roman, right? Or, if God came as one of the conquered, God would certainly flip the script, overthrow the powerful. But Jesus did no such thing. He was born poor, lived with the poor, healed the sick, and preached peace while rejecting all forms of violence.

And yet, it was through this Jesus, this unlikely Jewish Son of God, that the Gentiles could now enter the story of Israel. Israel’s stories could become their stories.

And that’s just what happened: Israel’s stories did become their stories. The crucified Jew became the Lord of the Gentiles as well as his Jewish followers. Gentiles moved into places of leadership within the small communities of faith that broke out throughout the Roman empire in places like Ephesus.

And now Paul reminds them, reminds us, as those who were once on the periphery but have been brought to the center of this new branch of Judaism, that they can’t forget that they were once on the outside and that it’s only through the grace of Jesus Christ, who is our peace, that they’ve been brought in, adopted into the family of God.

There are two reasons they need to remember this: 1) they need to first and foremost remember the Jewishness of Christianity and 2) they need to let their past shape their present and their future. Now that they have power within this movement, they cannot forget where they came from. We can’t forget where we came from. The Gentile Ephesians’ story is our story as well.

I believe both these points are as relevant for us today as they were for the Gentiles in Ephesus 2,000 years ago, so let’s look at each of them in turn.

First, they (and us) need to remember the Jewishness of Christianity. Today, in Western Christianity, we often forget the Jewishness of Jesus, the disciples, and the rest of Scripture.

Pictures of white Jesus, white apostles, and white prophets fill our churches. We think the Scriptures have always been our Scriptures.

We assume God’s promises to Israel are promises to the United States.

We think that we have always been at the center of God’s story of redemption, instead of remembering that, as Gentiles, we were actually pretty late to the party. Our distant ancestors had no knowledge of the God of Israel, and in the early days of the church there was debate about whether or not the Gospel of Jesus Christ was for us, or only for the Jews. Thanks be to God, the Spirit moved the early church leaders to accept us into the fold, not as second-class Christians, but as full-fledged members of the family of God. In the words of Paul from our passage in Ephesians today, we are “no longer strangers and aliens, but are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

But if we’ve been fully integrated into the family of God, if we have been grafted into the tree that is Israel, in the words of Romans 11, then why do we need to be reminded that we were once “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise”? Why does Paul need to bring that up? Why do we need to rehash it? Is he trying to make the Gentiles feel bad?

Because it’s so easy to unintentionally co-opt the Scriptures to validate our own existence. When we put ourselves at the center of these narratives Jesus easily becomes the Savior of modern Western values and ideals, justifying our presumptions instead of challenging them.

The Church has a long, tragic history of anti-Semitism, which is the result of forgetting the Jewishness of Jesus and the Scriptures and putting ourselves instead at the center. This is, of course, most evident in Nazi Germany when the “German Christians” used faulty theology to erase the Jewishness of Jesus and paint him instead as an anti-Semitic Aryan.

But this anti-Semitism isn’t reserved to the past. Just this week, a politician in Austria proposed a new law requiring Jews to register.[1] In our own country racism and nationalism has exploded, often taking Scriptures out of context to argue that white, Western society has replaced Israel as the people of God.

For this reason we must remember that history matters. The particular way that God has orchestrated salvation matters. God appeared first to the Jews, and it is through the Jews that we have come to know the one true God, Yahweh. This God was revealed to us through Jesus, himself a part of this particular group of people, the Jews. Jesus was not a white. Jesus was not American. As American Christians, we haven’t always stood at the center of these stories, but began at the margins. In the words of Paul, we “who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

So that’s the first point Paul wants the Gentile Ephesians and us to know: Christianity is deeply, deeply rooted in Judaism. It is, in fact, distinctly Jewish.

The second point asks the question, now that we who were far off have been brought near, now that we’ve been made into new humanity with Israel (not replacing Israel), how does this shape who we should be? How does looking back affect our vision going forward?

In God’s uniting Jew and Gentile through Jesus Christ, we see that the movement of God is always toward unity. Therefore, if we are the direct recipients of God’s breaking down a wall of hostility, we also should work to break down walls of hostility that exist between us and others.

I’m sure you all can see how this is relevant today. We remain a world torn apart by divisions. Our country is, right now, perhaps the most divided it’s been since the Civil War, and, unfortunately, our churches often look no different. The chasm between conservative/liberal and Republican/Democrat is as wide in our churches as it is in society at large, with both sides mirroring the same arguments, the same strategies, and the same rhetoric as their worldly counterparts, without offering anything new or fresh. It seems Jesus has nothing unique to say to this day and age.

We may also feel that our personal lives, like our country’s politics, are fraught with division, as well. We’ve all had fallouts between friends and family. At times we have been innocent, and at other times we have been the ones at fault.

Peace can seem impossible. Befriending someone on the other side of the political spectrum can seem impossible. Reconciling with a friend who betrayed you can seem impossible. In fact, it might be impossible for us. It may be impossible to make peace with those we fundamentally disagree with.

Thankfully, we don’t have to figure it out on our own. Paul doesn’t commend the Gentiles in Ephesus because they figured out how to make peace with the Jewish Christians. He says peace came from outside them. He says peace came through Jesus Christ. Actually, he says Jesus is peace. “For he is our peace,” Paul says, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Notice the present tense. Paul doesn’t say Jesus was our peace in the past. Paul says he is our peace – present tense. According to Paul, Jesus is more than just an example we should follow, or a teacher we can quote. Paul says Jesus is an active and dynamic present Peace. Jesus broke down walls and is breaking down walls.

It is in Christ and Christ alone that peace becomes possible. Indeed, as we sang just a few minutes ago, in Christ alone our hope is found.

I was reading a book by Henri Nouwen this week, and in it he says, “To forgive our enemies doesn’t lie within our power. That is a divine gift.”[2] The walls that divide us are too thick to dismantle on our own. But Nouwen does tell us how we might begin the process, how to open ourselves up to the transformative peace of Christ. It’s actually not original to him, though. It’s almost directly from the mouth of Jesus. He says, “If you wish to learn the love of God, you have to begin by praying for your enemies…Within your prayer, you quickly discover that your enemies are in fact your fellow human being loved by God just as much as yourself. The result is that the walls you’ve thrown up between ‘him and me,’ ‘us and them,’ ‘ours and theirs,’ disappear. Your heart grows deeper and broader and opens up more and more to all the human being with whom God has peopled the earth.”[3] The people we can’t imagine reconciling with are the ones we need to pray for the most, because those are the people we can’t reconcile with without the help of Jesus. We need Jesus to do a transformative work in them and in us.

Last summer, when Brie and I went to Rome, we visited the Colosseum (of course). And, as I’m sure you’ve seen either in pictures or in person, a huge portion of the outer wall of the Colosseum is gone now. So while it still looks pretty impressive, the Colosseum definitely has the look of a ruin. Do you know why so much of the Colosseum has been destroyed? Brie and I both assumed that the Colosseum was attacked at some point, or that it fell into disrepair. But the Colosseum wasn’t destroyed so much as it was deconstructed, it was actually intentionally dismantled to use the stones to build churches. In fact, some of the stones that once constituted the Colosseum were used to build St. Peter’s Basilica.

Now, to a tourist centuries later, this is kind of a bummer. It would’ve been awesome to see the Colosseum in all of its glory (or, at least, more of its glory). Couldn’t they have used some other stones for St. Peter’s? But when you think about what the Colosseum stood for, and what St. Peter’s stands for, it’s actually a beautiful pictures, one that resonates with Paul’s words from Ephesians.

The Colosseum was a place of violence and death. It was a place where mobs of people watched men and women be brutally murdered, either by other people or by wild animals. In fact, many Christians are thought to have been martyred in the Colosseum during various persecutions. The Colosseum was a place of blood and death and…hostility.

But the Catholic church broke down the walls of this place of glorified death, and used it’s very stones to construct something else – a holy temple, a dwelling place for God.

We live in a world that loves dualism. We can’t help categorizing everything into “us and them,” and we love to find our people, dig in our heals, and circle the wagons. But so long as we continue to fall into “us vs. them,” we will continue to rely on walls of hostility built up between people, and in doing so we will betray our own history.

We will forget that we were once divided from God, enemies of the Gospel, and that it is by grace we have found a place for ourselves in these Jewish stories. We will forget that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us,” that the only reason we love God is because God first loved us, that Christ, and Christ alone, broke down the dividing wall of hostility and formed us into one people, a holy temple, built on the foundation of those who came before – Jews and Gentiles – with Jesus as our cornerstone.

Let’s not forget where we came from. Let’s remember.




[2] Henri Nouwen, The Spiritual Life, p. 509.

[3] Ibid 507.