This sermon fell mid-way through a seven-part series on Ephesians, entitled "A Church for the World: Paul's Letter to the Ephesians." Our church had just celebrated its 25th anniversary, and I felt a series on the church—her foundation, nature, purpose, and mission—was a great way to follow that up. The overarching argument of this series, which I articulated in the opening sermon, was that the question that vexes church leaders—what should the church be in relation to the world (emerging, traditional, etc)?—is the wrong question. The Bible gives various answers to that question—everything from "come out from among them" to "become all things to all men." But the central question is this: What should the church be in relation to her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? The Bible consistently answers that question, and one of its best answers is the Book of Ephesians. If the church gets this relationship right—what it means to be in Christ, with Christ, and do all things for Christ and by Christ and through Christ—she will, as a matter of course, rightly relate to the world.
I chose to approach Ephesians through seven large "portals"—motifs that get at most of the major ideas in the letter. The seven motifs were: Chosen, Alive, United, Called, Enlightened, Submitted, and Embattled. The purpose of the sermon "United" was to show that unity is not just valuable for its own sake, but as a way for the church to rehearse what God intends for the whole world. Since God will reconcile all things to himself through Christ, the church becomes a massive object lesson and preview of this—at least it's supposed to!
I used material from two chapters in Ephesians—a swath of chapter 2, where Paul lays out the theology of unity, and a swath of Chapter 4, where he spells out the ethics of unity. Looking back on this message, perhaps it was a bit of "vain ambition" to try to cram this much into a single sermon. But I knew that if I stuck to the single theme—that Christ won unity at the cross and we must "make every effort" to keep unity in our lives—I could pull it off. The results, I think, were mixed. But the value is that the sermon links theology to practice, which almost always makes for a good sermon. In an attempt to help the church digest so much material in one swallow, I did two things: (1) I started with chapter 4, addressing the outworking of unity before I went to chapter 2, which shows where this unity comes from and why it's worth the effort; (2) I summarized chapter 4 before reading it, to create in the congregation's minds a structure for hearing it. I'm not sure I would make either move next time.
One additional note concerning the overall series: in order to make the seven motifs memorable, we showcased large artistic renderings of each word in our worship auditorium. Two artists in our church oversaw the project, creating each letter of each word in large enough fashion that a word like "Embattled" was over 20 feet long. They painted each word on cheap, easy-to-hang two-inch foam insulation that was first covered in creamy white paint. Each word was a different font and color. The letters were individually cut as stencils and then spray painted onto the foam. We hung each word as we covered it over the seven weeks. By the seventh week, we were surrounded by all seven words, and everyone could name them from memory.
Have you ever considered that one of the great wonders of the world is a struture of separation? The Great Wall of China stretches over 4,000 miles, separating "this side" from "that side."
This should not surprise us. We have always been expert wall builders. Most of our walls are of a more subtle kind, though. Racial walls. Socio-political walls. Economic walls. And here's the tragedy: perhaps more than any other institution, the church has often led the way. This hasn't always been the case. There are inspiring stories otherwise: Karl Barth in Nazi Germany, refusing to accept Hitler's racial agenda; Desmond Tutu in South Africa, leading a divided nation back toward unity; Billy Graham in Atlanta, personally removing the cordon that separated the blacks and the whites at his rally. There are good stories in the church's history. There are just not enough of them.
Some of the walls the church builds and maintains are good, even needed. We need clarity—definition, demarcation, walls, so to speak—on core doctrine. We need clarity on core ethical issues: the definition of marriage, biblical standards on sexual behavior, how we speak to one another, and so on. The problem is this: God's people often leap the walls God himself establishes, and erect walls that God himself has knocked down.
God is in the uniting business.
Here is a message we need to hear afresh from the Book of Ephesians: God is in the uniting business. His passion is reconciliation. Christ's redemptive work is wall-destroying. The burning heart of God is peace.
I'm going to cover two huge swaths of territory: Ephesians 2:1122 and 4:116. In other words, we're going to look at 27 densely-packed verses. But there's a single theme that ties these 27 verses together: unity.
Here's my summary of what Ephesians 4:116 calls us to do as a church: we must make every effort to keep the gift of unity that Jesus gave his life to win for us. In fact, this section of Paul's letter gives practical counsel on how to keep that unity: we must be completely humble and gentle; we must bear with one another in love; we must find out what part we each play in the church and the world—and play that part. Ephesians 4:116 also provides doctrinal and theological grounds for why we should keep this unity: there's one God, one faith, and so forth. It sketches a church structure for keeping unity: there are five gifts God gave to the church in the form of offices with the purpose of building the church. Finally, Ephesians 4:116 also tells us the fruit of keeping unity: maturity in Christ.
What Ephesians 4 does not provide, however, is an answer as to how we actually got this precious unity. That story is told in Ephesians 2:1122, a passage that narrates the grand drama of how Jesus, by his blood and his cross, won unity not just in and for the church, but in and for all creation. This passage is the fullest biblical statement we have about how Jesus' saving death is the only true power of reconciliation for the whole broken world, the entire cosmos. Ephesians 4, then, pushes us as a church to live out the precious unity that God is creating for the whole world. In other words, a failure of unity among God's people is a refusal to be a part of the mission that God is doing in the world.
When we read Ephesians 4:116, we see how God intends life to be within the church. This is not a community that never disagrees—some utopian colony of eternal "yes men." We're to speak the truth in love. Nor is the church supposed to be a community of conformity—where we all look the same, sound the same, and think the same. Ephesians 4 is actually a portrait of rich diversity. God gives different gifts to the church, calling each person in the church to a different role. But this diversity is rooted in unity. We all love and serve Jesus. Our common ground—one God, one faith, baptism, one hope—is vastly wider than our differences.
The purpose of this unity is found in what it makes us: mature; Christ-filled; no longer "batted about" by anything and everything. Another purpose for this maturity is that when our topsy-turvy world looks at a united church, they will see a portrait of Jesus—they will see the whole measure of the fullness of Christ in us. God has set things up in such a way that if anyone asks, "What is Jesus like? Who is Jesus? Is he loving? Is he good? Is he just? Is he generous? Does he comfort the oppressed? Will he confront the oppressor?"—all they will have to do is look at the church to get the answer.
Here is where Ephesians 2 comes back into the picture. When the world looks at the church, the portrait of Jesus that they should see the clearest is one of a Savior who reconciles, a Savior who makes enemies into friends on both a horizontal and vertical plane, a Savior who reconciles people to God and people to people. Jesus' death is a reconciling death. He is a unifier.
Which comes first—reconciliation with God or others?
There's an age old dilemma that has vexed sages and fools alike for millennia: which came first—the chicken or the egg? There's a similar debate among theologians concerning the theme of reconciliation: does Jesus reconcile people to each other and then reconcile them to God, or does Jesus reconcile people to God and then reconcile them to each other? That might seem like a dry, irrelevant debate. It's not! It has enormous implications for how we do evangelism, for how a church lives in and among its community, for missions.
One answer to this perplexing question is, "It's both/and!" You can find examples in Scripture going either way. Zaccheaus is reconciled to God through Jesus, and because of Jesus, he is then reconciled to the whole community he has robbed. In other places it's the other way around. For example, Jesus says that unless we forgive those who sin against us, God won't forgive us. Our reconciliation to God is determined by our reconciliation with one another.
But what does Ephesians 2:1122 have to say about all of this? Before I attempt an answer, let me quickly show you the broad structure of this passage. This particular section of Paul's letter deals with the great divide that rests between Jews and Gentiles—a divide that was the center of much controversy in the early church. Some wondered, Does a Gentile need to become a Jew before they can become a Christian? The New Testament authors offered a decisive answer to the matter: "No!" In Ephesians 2, Paul unpacks the theology behind this position. The whole passage is held together by three hinges. The first is in verse 11: "Formerly you were … ." The second is in verse 13: "But now in Christ, you are … ." The final hinge is in verse 19: "Consequently, you are no longer … ."
What were we? Verses 1112 say we were once separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel, foreigners to the covenant of promise, without hope and without God in the world.
What are we no longer? Verses 1921 say we are now fellow citizens, members of the household.
What made the difference? A divine reconciliation. Jesus and his cross changed our status as foreigners, outcasts, aliens, the excluded, the outsiders—as, in a word, enemies of God and others. Christ has now made us citizens, chosen people, covenant people, members, those who belong—in a word, friends with God and with one another.
It's important to always keep in mind that Jesus and his cross are at the center of our reconciliation with God and with one another. The means through which the whole world is reconciled to both God and others is Christ's work on the cross. Jesus has to heal both the rift between man and man and the rift between man and God. But again, which comes first?
The answer overturns most of what you've been taught. According to Ephesians 2, Jesus first reconciles us to others in order to reconcile us to God. Consider again Ephesians 2:1418:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Did you hear verses 1516? "His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility." The cross of Jesus puts to death our hostility toward others, and it reconciles us to God. You need Jesus to do both in any meaningful and lasting way. But the logic of this passage is that the hostility between us and others is put to death first, and then we are reconciled to God. We first speak and live peace, and then we invite peace with God. Is this not also the most effective manner of evangelism? First we accept people as people, and then they are open to hearing about God. It's exactly what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:1421:
For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Through his cross, Christ is reconciling the whole world to himself. He does not count our sins against us but approaches us as friends—even while we might approach him as an enemy! He does this so that we can hear the appeal to be reconciled to God through him, and then he entrusts this same ministry of reconciliation to us.
All of you, as new creations, must approach all others as friends. Don't look at anyone like you used to before God's Spirit invaded you. Don't count their sins against them. Now, it's not that their sin doesn't matter. Just don't hold their sins against them, because when you treat people with dignity—in love—they start to see what God is like.
Friendship is the foundation for evangelism. Love is the basis for witness. Truly liking someone is the grounds for inviting them to be reconciled to God. Let me put it as practically and as clearly as I can: first, make a friend; then, tell them about Jesus.
I still meet Christians who think that our attitude toward non-Christians should be avoidance and judgment. They take what I would call the Jonah posture. But that's not the church God intends for the world. His desire is for the church to be Christ's ambassadors. He wants us to be filled with the fullness of Christ and not tossed about by every wind and wave, so that out of our divine unity we might preach peace. The church God intends for the world loves the least of these, the worst of these, the best of these—all of these. And when the world sees us, they won't be able to explain us—but they also won't want to live without whatever it is that we have.
To see an outline of Buchanan's sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?