CALL TO WORSHIP:
I have not often preached from the lectionary here at Trinity River, but today I will. With churches around the world, we will look today Ephesians 2, verses 11-22. I encourage you to have your Bible open there, where you will find the verse, “He is our peace.”
Do you remember the song “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart?” When I was little, Mom taught me that song. When we got to the second verse, she used the King James language that she had learned, singing “I’ve got the peace that passeth understanding down in my heart.” In my six-year-old mind, what I heard was: “I’ve got the peace that passes thunder standing down in my heart.”
There is gospel in that. The peace that passes thunder.
When we talk about “peace” in church, we often focus on our horizontal relationships, how Jesus helps us all get along better. I believe that is true. Romans tells us, so long as it is up to us, to live at peace with all. I believe that God makes us more loving and kinder and more compassionate as we are transformed, and that makes the world a better place. That was a big part of Jim’s excellent sermon last week.
That is important, but that is not the peace that Jesus talks about and it is not what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 2. We are today going to talk about a fundamental gift that comes to God’s children, peace with God. This is the principal meaning of peace in scripture, and it is the one that is much harder to conceptualize, much harder to grasp, much more mystical. But it is of so much value. And it comes because God lives within us, because the canyon we have created between ourselves and God has been bridged by Jesus Christ.
In praying about and preparing for this week, my mind has been brought back time and again to the great hymn we will sing today, “Before the Throne of God Above.” Its words were written 150 years ago, so it is remarkable that it has become, in the last 15 years, one of the most popular contemporary worship songs that our college students and young adults share. Earlier this week, not knowing it would be a part of our service today, my daughter Annessa began singing it at the piano, just because. I can’t get away from it. It has been on my mind all week. As God has directed me in how to preach about our access to Him, He has kept these lyrics in the forefront of my heart and mind:
Before the throne of God above I have a strong, a perfect plea:
A great high priest whose name is Love who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on His hands, My name is written on His heart.
I know that, while in heaven He stands, no tongue can bid me thence depart.
When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there, who made an end to all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free,
For God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me.
Behold Him there, the risen Lamb, my perfect spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I AM, The King of glory and of grace.
One with Himself I cannot die. My soul is purchased by His blood.
My life is hid with Christ on high, with Christ my Savior and my God!
[Charitie Lees Bancroft, “Before the Throne,” 1863]
I look forward to our sharing it together as we worship.
SERMON audio begins here
Peace. Jesus brings us peace, but not as the world gives. [John 14:27] What we get is not what we expect. It is so much better. Those around us have a limited, earth-bound view of “peace,” just hoping that the yelling will stop and all the skirmishing sides will go back to their own corners. Jesus conveys so much more. The peace Jesus brings is peace with God. It is the assurance that comes from knowing that our sins are forgiven and our eternity is secure because God holds us in the palm of His hand, that we need not worry because everything will be all right. Not as the world gives, Jesus is moving and speaking and acting in an entirely different dimension.
In 2004, the reigning Emmy-winning best drama, consistently at the top of the ratings, was “The West Wing.” In its fifth season, it aired an episode that portrayed a mock documentary, a PBS-style behind-the-scenes interview with the White House staff, taking its audience backstage to hear the whys and the hows and the unvarnished “reality,” so to speak, of what the characters were really like. The name of the episode was “Access.”
For 22 years, “Access Hollywood” has found a home on your TV, reporting so-called news and gossip and inside information on the entertainment industry. There is apparently a real audience who wants to know this stuff. Last December, the show shortened its name to just “Access.”
Have you noticed that your nose never itches until your hands are full, until you don’t have access to scratch.
Access is addicting. We want right of entry, an admission voucher, the key. Like Charlie in Roald Dahl’s novel, we want the golden ticket to get into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. When we have access, we are smiling. When access is denied, we are frustrated and itchy, and we are far from at peace.
In the Old Testament, access to God was a struggle. God spoke through law and prophets and donkeys and bushes instead of interacting with the people directly. Moses at least got to go inside the Tent of Meeting. But even Moses, when he asked to see the face of God, was denied.
If you have been in church very long, you know the story of the temple curtain. As Jim taught us a couple of weeks ago, the most sacred part of Solomon’s temple was the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies. This area, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, was guarded by gilded cherubim and separated from the people by a massive curtain. The curtain was both beautiful and heavy and was meant to divide God from the people. The Ark – the presence of God – was on one side; the worshipers were on the other. This was not an odd whim of God’s; this was an image, an indication of the sin that separated all people from holy God.
And then, when Jesus was crucified, the curtain of the temple was “torn from top to bottom.” [Mark 15:38] The top of this thirty-foot-high curtain was beyond reach, so this split did not begin with human hands. This emblem of the old ways, the partition between God and His people, was ripped in two. Symbol of all symbols.
Jesus was, during His time on earth, the Word made flesh [John1:14], the exact representation of the Father [Hebrews 1:3]. All there is of the Deity dwelt in Him [Colossians 2:9]. He told His closest followers that when they saw Him, they saw the Father [John 14:9]. This is the meaning of incarnation – God in a body. A singular importance of the coming of Christ was to show us God, up close and personal. Max Lucado’s book dedicated to the incarnation is called God Came Near. Lucado says:
Pilgrims with no vision of the promised land become proprietors of their own land. They set up camp. They exchange hiking boots for loafers and trade in their staff for a new recliner. Instead of looking upward at Him, they look inward at themselves and outward at each other. The result? Cabin fever. Quarreling families. Restless leaders. Fence-building.… Humans were never meant to dwell in the stale fog of the lowlands with no vision of their Creator. That’s why God came near.
[Max Lucado, God Came Near, Multnomah Press, 1987, pp. 160-161]
After His time on earth, Jesus made sure that our intimate knowledge of God was permanent. In our scripture for today, Paul teaches that the cross of Christ provides us access. First God came near to us, now we have been brought near to God.
If I can leave you with one idea today, let it be this: Peace with God results from access to God. The two are inextricably intertwined. The reason that Jesus is our peace is that He has destroyed what divided us from God. He has torn the curtain in two. He has demolished the wall. He has bridged the gap.
Ephesians 2:11-22 :
It is tempting to read this Ephesians passage solely as a call for a termination of tensions between the Jews and the Gentiles. That is indeed a message of Paul, who consistently tells us that, in Christ, there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, male nor female: for we are all one in Christ Jesus. [Colossians 3:11; Galatians 3:28] The early church had struggles between its Gentile Christians and its Jewish Christians, just as the church today has struggles. Doubtless, part of Paul's message is pointing out that through the cross, God has brought Jews and Gentiles together.
But that is not the primary point of this passage.
It is tempting to read these verses as an object lesson on immigration, on accepting the foreigner and ending xenophobia. I believe that when the peace of God enters our lives, we are changed. We look on others differently than we did before and see them not for their labels but as children of God. That is a truth of scripture, but that is not Paul’s focus in Ephesians 2, where he describes our citizenship in an eternal kingdom, built on the cornerstone of Christ. Today’s scripture is not about national borders and political asylum.
It is also tempting to read this half-chapter as a call for what Miss America finalists speak of as “peace on earth.” Surely, we may think, if Jesus came to preach peace, then His coming must mean that hostilities will end, that bullets will stop flying, that politicians will quit sniping, that bullies will quit bullying, that war in the Middle East – and indeed around the world – will cease. But if that is what Paul meant, then he was hopelessly wrong, and Jesus was a failure, for not a day has gone by since Jesus set foot on earth without bloodshed and war. If that is what the angels meant when they sang “peace to those on whom His favor rests” on the night of His birth, then the angels were sadly incorrect. Not a day has gone by in the meantime that can be classified as “peace in the Middle East.” If that is what Isaiah meant when he declared the coming messiah to be the Prince of Peace, then Isaiah was terribly misguided. Not an hour – indeed not a minute – has passed since Jesus came without aggression and meanness and destruction somewhere on this planet. An eighth-grade history student can tell you that the coming of Jesus did not make all nastiness and cruelty stop, did not end all war, did not even put a measurable dent in worldwide hostilities. If that is what Paul meant, then these verses amount to no more than a fairy tale.
Yes, God’s peace means that the lion and the lamb will lie down together one day, but that is not here and now; that is on the Holy Mountain of the Lord after the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. [Isaiah 65:17-25] Yes, they will beat their swords into plowshares and study war no more, but the prophet tells us that too will be on God’s mountain in the last days. [Isaiah 2:4]
None of that is what Paul is getting at here. Paul is talking about something else, something much more immediate. This scripture is about peace with God because we have access to God. Peace comes because the presence of God is with us and inside us. That is why Emmanuel – God with us – means peace on earth. The angels were right. We are “no longer strangers” because He has broken down the wall, bringing near all of us who were far away, giving us access to the Father by the work of the Spirit through Jesus Christ.
The first half of this great second chapter of Ephesians focuses on what we were – dead in our sins and gratifying the cravings of the flesh – before God, who is rich in mercy, saved us by grace through faith in Jesus Christ to do good works prepared in advance for us. Then, in verse 11, the Apostle moves from discussing members of his audience as individuals to discussing his Gentile Christian readers as a community. Just as we were formerly dead in our sins, so too were the people of Ephesus, home of the great pagan temple of Diana, formerly excluded from the children of God. They were known as uncircumcised Gentiles. In that time and place, circumcision was what the Jews thought of as the crucial distinction. Paul says the Ephesians were hopeless, separated from Christ and without God. This is not racial or ethnic commentary. This is a continuation of the first half of the chapter, another way of saying that they were dead in their sins.
Paul hastens to verse 13, telling the Ephesian church and, by extension, us – those who have been saved by grace through faith - that they, and we, have been brought near by the blood of Christ. No matter how far away they were, the salvation of Christ is sufficient to bring them to God. No matter how far away we are – no matter what we have done, what thoughts we have cultivated, what words we have spoken in anger, what selfish ambitions we have recklessly pursued, what greedy passions we have gorged – God’s saving grace brings us near.
This is the good news. We were not far away because of nationality or address. We were not far away because we had been blown there by a typhoon. We were far away because we went running full speed in the wrong direction, because our addiction to sin left us so separated from our holy God that we could not even see Him from there. There was so much more than a curtain between us and God. We had no sense of His presence and no desire to walk with Him. We were so removed that there was no way we could get back.
So, God reached through time and across the chasm and brought us near.
Despite the disappointing recent movie adaptation, I strongly recommend to you Madeline L’Engle’s classic novel A Wrinkle in Time. The title comes from L’Engle’s explanation of the tesseract. In higher geometry, a tesseract is a cube of a cube. If you think of the first dimension as a line, and the second dimension as a square, then the third dimension allows the cube. And squaring the square renders the fourth dimension, called time; and cubing the cube – the tesseract – is the fifth dimension. You cannot draw it with a pencil.
The characters in the novel explain how the tesseract allows them to whisk across the universe:
Mrs. Whatsit sighed. “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.” Mrs. Whatsit looked over at Mrs. Who. “Take your skirt and show them.”
Mrs. Who took a portion of her white robe in her hands and held it tight.
“You see,” Mrs. Whatsit said, “if a very small insect were to move from the section of skirt in Mrs. Who’s right hand to that in her left, it would be quite a long walk for him if he had to walk straight across.”
Swiftly, Mrs. Who brought her hands, still holding the skirt, together.
“Now, you see,” Mrs. Whatsit said, “he would be there, without that long trip…. We travel in the fifth dimension…. The fifth dimension’s a tesseract…. A straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.”
[Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, (1962, Appreciation edition, New York: Square Fish, 2007), pp. 85-88]
If the theoretical mathematics are beyond you and if the science fiction language is not your cup of tea, that’s ok. The point is this –through the work of Jesus, God moves in dimensions for which we have no vocabulary to fold the laws of the universe, to wrinkle time, if you will, to bring us near to Him. We are, by comparison, an insect, so remote that we could never even map out the route. The line to get us back extends way beyond what we could ever travel.
God has brought us near.
Verse 14 is critical to Paul’s point. “He is our peace, who has made the two groups one and destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” Yes, Paul is saying that the Jew and the Gentile are reconciled as the wall between them is torn down, but there is so much more here. He does not say that Jesus brings peace by tearing down walls. He says that Jesus is our peace, and that one thing that peace does is tear down walls. In other words, peace comes first and then peace removes barriers, not the other way around. Jesus walks on water long before he quiets the wind and waves.
Too many settle for asking Jesus to be a subtractor, to take away what bothers us. We don’t achieve peace by stopping our hostilities; we receive peace despite the surrounding hostilities. Jesus has come to add to the world. The easy way out is to ask for the storm to be calmed; the mature Christian finds Jesus in the midst of the storm and understands peace even as the thunder rolls. The peace that passes thunder, standing down in my heart.
Another song you learned in a long-ago Sunday School class or perhaps Vacation Bible School was absolutely right: “With Jesus in our boat, we can smile through the storm, as we go sailing home.”
Paul says that Jesus makes peace within Himself, reconciling all of us to Christ. And doing so took a cross, where God looked on Christ and pardoned us. We were brought near from far away, across what my late friend Grant Cunningham called “The Great Divide.” God made a way. There is a bridge to cross the great divide. There is a cross to bridge the great divide. [Grant Cunningham and Matt Huesman, “The Great Divide,” BMG Music Publishing, Inc.,1996]
As Jeremiah and Ezekiel warned us, there are many in the world who proclaim “peace, peace,” when there is no peace. [Jeremiah 6:14; Ezekiel 13:10] The best the world can offer is something like the fantasy John Lennon sings about in “Imagine,” perhaps the worst song of all time: people living in peace because they have imagined away all countries, all possessions, all religion. The song is right about one thing – he is a dreamer, but he and the world are so wrong about what brings peace. The Dalai Lama is wrong when he says that peace is the manifestation of human compassion. [https://www.oneindia.com/2007/01/31/peace-is-manifestation-of-human-compassion-dalai-lama-1170257607.html] Please do not mishear me. I am happy for John Lennon to inspire people to be nice and live in brotherhood. I understand that the Dalai Lama is tapping into a universal truth about compassion. Jim challenged us last week to change the world through friendship. I know many people whose entire life’s course has been changed for the better because someone showed them kindness and benevolence; but peace, the kind of peace that Paul is talking about and that Jesus gives, is not something that we humans create. Peace is Jesus, tearing down the wall between us and God.
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?... Consider the lilies of the field…: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ … Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you…. Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself…. [Matthew 6:26, 29, 31-34 (ESV)]
There is much in the world that can bring worry, whether it is 110° days; or the news, with word of politics and wildfires and hackers and tropical storms; or the latest report from your doctor, with cautions and concerns and prescriptions and lists of things you are not allowed to do anymore; or your bank statement or the silence when you wish phone would ring or the state of our schools or those kids today or whatever. And yet Jesus says, “Do not be anxious, Consider the lilies of the field...” In Philippians, Paul says:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7, NIV]
The Living Bible paraphrases that: “Don’t worry about anything. Pray about everything…. [and] you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand.” [Philippians 4:6-7, TLB]
That is peace that passes all understanding, and it is not what the world gives. Jesus is telling us that, despite all those things that cause most people to worry, everything will be all right because He is present. We revel in our access, in having been brought near, as we seek first His kingdom and His righteousness – trust Jesus and have faith in God - and it will be all right. That is peace.
In Ephesians 2, Paul says that the cross means that all of us – Jew and Gentile, those far away and those near – are reconciled to God in the here and now.
Think about how we use that word reconcile in other contexts. People get divorces because of “irreconcilable differences.” We reconcile our checkbook, or at least we are supposed to. When you reconcile it, you bring it into balance, you make sure that your records match the bank’s, that there is agreement.
When we are reconciled to God, we are brought into equilibrium, into accord, even though our lives were a mess, unbalanced and completely out of harmony with God. We are reconciled to the Father, Paul says in verse 16, by the cross, where our hostilities with God were ended. We have peace because we are no longer separated from God, for the two have become one. He is our peace, who has broken down the wall.
And if it were not clear enough, Paul writes verse 18: “For through Him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” How wonderful. All persons of the Trinity working together to be our peace. Through Christ, to the Father, by the Spirit. The paragraph that begins with “He is our peace” concludes with “we have access.”
Jesus said: “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep…. [W]hoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture.” [John 10:7,9]
Why are peace and access inseparably woven together? Why does access bring us peace? When we frame the question that way, then the answer jumps out at us. We are not at peace when we are not near God. When we are brought near to God, we are at peace. The Psalmist says:
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Those who are far from you will perish… but as for me, it is good to be near God. [Psalm 73:25-28]
Now, we get to the punchline. Verse 19. We are no longer strangers to God. The NIV says we are no longer “foreigners and strangers.” Other translations use words like “aliens,” “sojourners,” and “outsiders.” The Message says, “wandering exiles.” Paul is not speaking derisively of people from other lands; he is describing us, before we knew Christ, as homeless, souls with nowhere to land, people condemned to a peripatetic, rootless life of drifting, with nowhere to go and nobody waiting for us when we get there. That is as good a description of hell as I know.
But that is no more. We are no longer strangers; but instead we are fellow citizens with God’s people and members of His household. We have been brought near. We have access. We have been given the garage door code. We can get in, and we don’t have to sneak. We have an engraved invitation and a place set at the table.
And it does not stop there. He is, with us as a part, building something better that is rising to become a temple which will be God’s very home. “Fix in us Thy humble dwelling.” [Charles Wesley, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”] Isaiah would call that the Holy Mountain of the Lord.
The verses we read responsively from Hebrews place the exclamation point on this whole idea of peace and access. Just as the ancient High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place, we approach the throne with confidence and, in words that echo Paul, we “draw near to God” with a sincere heart and full assurance. Peace comes because of that assurance, because it is here, before the throne of God above, that we receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
John Lowe says:
Christ is the author of peace between God and His people. Sin separates men from God; nor can any man, on his own, make his peace with God; what he does, or can do, will not do it; and what will, he cannot do. Christ is the only suitable person for this work, for He stands between God and man, and is the only One able to bring it about, seeing that he is God as well as man. His peace is a lasting one. [John Lowe, “The Peace Which Christ Accomplished in His Death,” 5/9/18, https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/8-8-lesson-10-the-peace-which-christ-accomplished-in-his-death-john-lowe-sermon-on-law-of-commandments-230632?ref=SermonSeriesDetails]
Let me tell you what peace means to me, in my life, as I live out my faith. Peace means that everything is going to be all right. Yes, it will be all right eternally, in heaven, on the Holy Mountain of the Lord. But it is more than even that. It will be all right right now. Peace is not the absence of trouble. Peace is the presence of Christ in the middle of my storm. Before the throne of God I stand. I have access to the one who is our peace, who has broken down every wall, the wall between me and my God and the walls between me and the people around me. I can hurt, but it will be all right. I may not understand, but it will be all right. I can commit the same sin again and again and again and know I am wrong and feel guilt and even shame as the Holy Spirit convicts me, and I must work on that and repent because sin robs me of some of the joy of my salvation, but it will be all right. I can be abused, people I love can hurt and die, I can face disappointment, politics can disillusion me, my wife can be mad at me, my kids can move away, work can be unsatisfying for weeks on end, and this church can grow all too slowly as we founder looking for a permanent place and time, but it will be all right.
It will be all right because I have access to the Creator of the universe, to the savior of the world, to pure love, to peace, to the One who has already accepted me and pardoned me and made a way so that I am no longer a stranger, who brings me near and abides with me and has given me the golden ticket to something much greater than a chocolate factory. Come to think of it, it will be a lot better than all right.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Many Christians, when they think about peace, limit that to two things. One is that if we are good Christians, we will be nice to each other and inspire the world to less conflict. Of course, we should show kindness and compassion. That was last week’s sermon. In Ephesians 2, Paul is going deeper, talking about what is primary and what has to exist for there to be real world peace, on God’s Holy Mountain, when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.
The other way that many Christians think about peace is in relation to death. They read passages about the peace of God as a comfort to themselves and others as death approaches, and of course God offers a special measure of serenity to His children as we walk through the valley of the shadow.
I am so grateful to Russell for singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” We tend to think of that hymn as a funeral song, a song about death. And indeed, it is a consolation at the end. You may remember the string quartet playing it in the movie as the Titanic sinks.
But death is not really what that hymn is about. We do not have to wait to die to grow nearer to our God – He has already done the work, already bridged the divide. Sarah Flower Adams actually wrote those words about Jacob’s ladder at Bethel, thinking not about death but about new life after an encounter with God. One stanza of the hymn that was not in the arrangement Russell sang says this:
Then with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I'll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
[Sarah Flower Adams, “Nearer My God to Thee”|
Jesus has come and preached peace to those of us who were far away, for through Him we all have access to the Father by the Spirit. And His peace, which passes all understanding, is not limited to kindness and helpfulness and being able to face the end. His peace breaks down every wall and brings us near to God.