This sermon is part of the sermon series "Project Hazmat: Handling Today's Tough Topics". See series.
If you have your Bibles, I invite you to join me as I read Ephesians 2:11-22. Paul writes,
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in 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.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God's people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Whenever we get a chance, my wife and I love to throw some clothes in a suitcase and go out of town, especially out of the country. A couple years ago we went to London, England, and we had a fabulous time there. Last summer I had to speak at a couple of conferences in the land down under, Australia. I tried developing an Australian accent, but I would ruin it. In Australia, we felt like we were really in England. For example, every day at 10:00 A.M. and at 2:00 P.M. they stop and break for tea in both Australia and England. Throughout the day we would hop into a car, either a cab or someone else's car, and drive on the left side of the street in Australia, just like they do in England. I even remember watching a group of Aborigines hurl a ball at someone with a flat wooden stick in a game called cricket, just like they do in England. Even though we were in Australia, a land tens of thousands of miles away from England, it felt like we were back in England.
How did that happen? How did Australia come to look and feel like England? Several hundred years ago, some people boarded ships in England and sailed to Australia. They took English culture, customs, and practices and injected them into the new place called Australia, which was transformed to the point where it looked like a carbon copy of England. They did this in a process called colonization.
This is exactly what the church of Jesus Christ does. Fundamentally, the church exists to take the culture, customs, and practices of a faraway place called heaven, and inject them into this new place called earth—so much so that our society, our communities, our cities begin to look like carbon copies of heaven. This church exists to transform Memphis and its outlying areas, leaving gospel footprints that inject into our city our future, eternal, heavenly reality. The schools we meet in should be different and better because we're here. Families should be strengthened. Our society should be better, our crime rate should decrease. The men in our cities should be strengthened because we're here. If we're not transformational, why are we here?
Specifically, we should take our heavenly multi-ethnic reality and inject it here. When John looks into heaven he says, "After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb" (Rev. 7:9). John did not see a homogeneous vision of heaven in which there was only one type of person. John saw blacks with whites and Asians with Latinos, a multi-ethnic community being shaped and formed. In Matthew 6:9-10 Jesus says, "This, then, is how you should pray: 'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.'" So if we see it in heaven, we should try to mimic it and translate it here on earth.
Today we're beginning a series called "One Hundred Homes." We're calling it that because we want to change the sociological landscape of our city, which for years has been known for strained racial relationships. We want to transform our city into a community of harmony. This is a series on ethnicity and race. Don't worry, that's not a code for "guilting" you or making you feel bad. Guilt will not change the fundamental structure of our hearts. In this series we hope to paint a picture of our future eternal reality, of what the Bible says about this one new humanity we read about in Ephesians 2. We hope you will say, "I want that. I want to experience that in my life." We're calling it "One Hundred Homes" because racial harmony, a sense of togetherness and diversity, and what we see in heaven isn't going to come to earth through just another event. Praise God for events. In the '90s Promise Keepers was a wonderful movement. I'm not anti-events, but we've tried that. If you've been here in Memphis for a while, you know that two churches—one black, one white—would get together at the Pyramid. These were wonderful events, and I applaud them for trying that. But I think true transformation happens through relationships.
Think with me about the venues Jesus used to transform people, ways he got his DNA into people: around the dinner table, in boats, hiking up a mountain, on trips. His method was relational; it was a life-on-life process. The next major movement in the progression toward race relations—and we've already seen a lot of progress—is from the Pyramid to the dinner table. We need to go from the big arena to the local coffee shop. We need to get to know one another. So we're calling this series "One Hundred Homes" because we want this body to take intentional steps to get to know people who don't look like you, who don't come from your side of the tracks. We want to challenge you: what would it look like if, during the next month or the next quarter, 100 homes of the people in our church opened up for dinners, opened up for opportunities to share a meal with someone ethnically different than you? What would it look like if we were radically intentional with one another? In these dinners you don't have to ask about O.J. Simpson or Trayvon Martin. You don't even have to talk about race. Just take intentional steps to share lives with one another. Let's step out of passivity.
I want to applaud some of you. Some of you are doing that, and it's radically shaping and influencing your lives. I want to encourage you to excel even more. But some of you are sitting here thinking, I don't have any genuine, authentic multi-ethnic relationships. Take some moments and ask God to speak to you through this series and to intentionally challenge people to lock arms with you over a meal, over a cup of coffee, over a play-date. Get to know them.
To help with this, I want to lift some key thoughts out of Ephesians 2. Based on this text, we're going to talk about the dividing wall of hostility, we're going to talk Paul's challenge for the one new man, and then we're going to look at the solution, found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The problem: the dividing wall
In verse 14 Paul says that when Christ died, he dismantled the dividing wall of hostility. This is a reference to the wall that was in the temple. In the temple there were four courts separated by walls. The outermost court was the Court of Gentiles, and moving inward, there was the Court of Women, and the Court of Israelites, and the Court of the Priests. True to its name, the Court of Gentiles, was the only place Gentiles could worship. In 1871 archaeologists actually found this dividing wall that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of Women. On that wall it had very strong words: "Do not proceed any further for fear of death." So the Gentiles understood that this was their place in the temple and they couldn't go any farther. They were segregated. This is what Paul means when he says, "You who once were far off …" They were segregated from their Jewish brothers and sisters in the worship of God. But thanks be to God, Paul says that when Christ died he dismantled that wall. And now Jew and Gentile can come together as one people and worship together.
The great tragedy of American church history, one of the deepest stains in the history of our country, is that we have tried to resurrect what Christ clearly tore down. The history of churches in America is trying to rebuild this dividing wall of hostility. So in 1787 there was a black man who was worshipping at an all-white church who had the audacity to pray and kneel in the whites-only section. The white people around him were so appalled that they didn't even wait for him to finish praying. They picked him up off of his knees and threw him out. The other African Americans were aghast at what they saw in that church, and they immediately left. The next day, the African Americans who were a part of that Methodist church went to a vacant, local blacksmith shop. They purchased it and started their own church. That church was the beginnings of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME denomination. This began a sad trajectory in the history of our nation. Just about every African American denomination started because our dear white brothers and sisters sought to resurrect this dividing wall of hostility.
About 70 years later, the Southern Baptists split from the General Baptists over the issue of slavery, and they have since repented over that. I love our friend Fred Luter who is the first African American president of the Southern Baptist denomination, but their denomination began over the issue of slavery, trying to resurrect this dividing wall of hostility. About 100 years later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in very melancholy tones surveyed the church landscape of our country and said these oft-quoted words: "The 11 o'clock hour on Sunday mornings is the most segregated hour of the week." There are still two great institutions of segregation that persist in 2013. One institution is the Greek system on college campuses. That is a system of segregation. And the other system is the church of Jesus Christ.
We are trying to resurrect the dividing wall of hostility that Christ dismantled. Some of you may be thinking, It's 2013 Bryan, give me a break. We've got a black president. Are you saying this wall is still up? Absolutely. Here are these statistics. Sociologists define a multi-ethnic church as one in which no single ethnicity makes up more than 80 percent of those who come. That's a very generous stat.
Sociologists say there are 300,000 congregations in America today—not just Christian congregations, but Jewish congregations, mosques, Mormon temples, everyone who gathers to worship. Using this 80/20 rule, only 7.5 percent of those 300,000 congregations qualify as multi-ethnic. But if you narrow it down to Christian congregations, those who worship Jesus Christ, that number falls from 7.5 percent to 2.5 percent. Just think about how sad that statistic is. Right now our norm is to be in an all-white church or an all-black or an all-Asian church or an all-Latino church. The greater tragedy is that we're okay with the dividing wall of hostility. We are okay with driving down the street and saying, "That's the black church and that's the white church and that's the Chinese church and that's the Mexican church." Paul says, "Jesus Christ died to dismantle the dividing wall of hostility." In verse 15 he says that his whole purpose was to create "one new man."
The dream: one new man
Let's get technical for 30 seconds. In Greek there are two predominant words for "new": neos and kinos. Neos speaks of something that is new as it relates to time. It's the latest Ford Expedition; it's the latest MacBook Pro; it's the latest 747 jet to come off the assembly line. But here, Paul does not use the word neos. No, he uses the word kinos, which speaks of something new as it relates to kind, a new invention. So while neos may be the latest Ford Expedition, kinos is the Model-T, the first car ever invented. While neos may be the latest 747 airplane to come off the assembly line, kinos is the Wright Brothers' plane, the first plane ever invented. When Paul says Christ died to create one new man, this coming together of Jew and Gentile, it's the idea of kinos, the idea of invention. In other words, Christ died to create something the world had never seen. Jews and Gentiles, people who hate each other, coming together, doing life with one another, sharing meals together, and worshipping together. There was no paradigm for that.
I want to tell you that by God's grace he has called us to be one of those churches that fall in the 2.5 percent. We're about 65 percent white, 35 percent African American, and we praise God for that. About 2,000 people call Fellowship Memphis their home church, and I'm so excited by what God is doing. But at the same time, I grieve because I want to change the trajectory of the majority of churches. That's why we planted a church in southern California. We want to plant more gospel-centered, disciple-making, multi-ethnic churches. We want to give the church an extreme makeover. One of the most powerful witnesses to a lost and dying world is to see blacks and whites and Asians and Latinos and Sudanese and Irish come together in the lordship of Jesus Christ in the local assembly.
I'll never forget this incident: Several years ago I'd just finished preaching, and I was standing down front shaking hands. An old African American woman came up to me, tears streaming down her face. She gripped my hand as if clinging for dear life. She looked me in the eyes with drenched cheeks and said to me, "Young man, I've come up in Memphis. I went to segregated schools and I served as a domestic. I was a maid; I was the help. I remember being here when Dr. King was assassinated. I remember the curfews. I remember when integration finally happened in the late 60s and early 70s in the school system. For years I prayed that there would be a church where blacks and whites would come together." She looked me in the eyes and said, "Young man, you are the answer to those prayers." One of the strongest indicators that the gospel is alive is when we build churches in which blacks and whites and people from Orange Mound and East Memphis and Collierville and Binghampton come together under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
The solution: the cross of Jesus
As we round third and head for home, I'm quick to say that the epicenter of who we are is not diversity. How do you put together a diverse church? It's not just by having diverse leadership or diverse music. In fact, I'm concerned that for some church leaders diversity has become a church growth technique. It's a gimmick, a fad. So how do we put together a diverse church? Simple: We preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. How do Jew and Gentile come together? Paul tells us: through the death of Jesus Christ and what he accomplished on the cross.
Yes, Ephesians 2:11-22 deals with horizontal reconciliation. I'm reconciled to my white brothers and sisters, regardless of where we're from. But how did that happen? In verses 1-10, Paul says that, because of the mercy of God, we have been saved by grace through faith. So Ephesians 2:1-10 describes vertical reconciliation, and then Ephesians 2:11-22 describes horizontal reconciliation. We can't have this kind of diversity unless we first come to the foot of the Cross. Preaching the gospel brings us together. How do we grow a diverse church? We preach Jesus. His gospel reaches across ethnic lines and brings people together. John said it this way: "How can I claim the love of God who I don't see and hate my brother who I do." When the gospel gets a hold of our hearts it creates a longing to love and embrace people who live on the other side of town. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings us together. Friends, if you're here today and you don't know Jesus, I want to encourage you to embrace him.
Let me end this message by giving you some practical steps you can take to help you experience this Ephesians 2:11-22 community. It takes intentionality. How do Jew and Gentile come together? Jesus Christ intentionally died on a cross. How did Paul have diverse relationships with people like Trophimus? He intentionally sought them out. How do multi-ethnic churches like the church at Ephesus get planted? Paul intentionally went to the synagogue in Acts 19 and preached to Jews, and then he intentionally went to the hall of Tyrannus and preached to the Gentiles. Because of his intentionality, multi-ethnic churches and relationships were formed. If you're looking at your life and thinking, I don't really have multi-ethnic friendships, you're not going to get them by accident. You've got to take some intentional steps to make that happen. Because our default is to live by the old motto "birds of a feather flock together."
Every year the National Football League has its own all-star game called the Pro Bowl. The Pro Bowl takes the best performers from certain teams and brings them together on two new teams. They do it once a year for about 60 minutes. But after the game they go back to their individual teams. Most people who go to multi-ethnic churches do not have multi-ethnic relationships. Why? Because Sunday mornings is like the Pro Bowl. We come and hear from an African American pastor or teaching team, and we hear worship led by an African American or Colombian, but when the event's over we go back to our individual teams. Let's take some intentional steps to come out of that.
So what can you do? First, it's Black History Month. Educate yourself. If you're not familiar with African American history, there are some wonderful books. For instance, Tony Evans has a wonderful book called Oneness Embrace. Pick that up and read it. It's the best thing I've ever read on racial reconciliation. It will give you a great sense of history.
Second, intentionally invite someone over to your house for a play-date, a cup of coffee, or a meal so you can spend time getting to know them. Again, you don't have to talk about race at all, just get to know them
Third, take the class that Dr. McKinney and I teach at Rhodes College. Go online and find out all the details. It's an hour long, and we meet four straight weeks. You'll hear honest dialogue and conversation about race, and you'll be inspired to enter into that dialogue yourself.
Fourth, if you're a family person, send your kids to a different athletic league, one in which they're a minority. Through that process you will get to know the family.
Fifth, for my African Americans friends, attend a Klan rally—just kidding! But, seriously, do something different. Take an intentional step and watch God work.
In Ephesians 2:11-12 we see that Paul argues that Jesus died to dismantle the dividing wall of hostility, to create one new man. My prayer is that we will experience that in this church community. And I pray you will lock arms with me on that journey.
Bryan Loritts is the Lead Pastor of Abundant Life Church in Silicon Valley, California