No Longer Strangers – May 2, 2010

Isaiah 52:1-10, Ephesians 2:12-22

May 2, 2010

In this scripture, Paul is trying to explain one of the hardest and most controversial things the early church had to learn. It was that this amazing plan of God in Jesus Christ was for all people – just like the Christmas Angel said! And the hardest part of that was that it included the Gentiles – people outside the Jewish faith. And that was tough for those people to accept!

Can we even imagine what that was like for Paul to be telling them this stuff? He was a former Pharisee. That meant he was once one of the most ardent “keepers of the faith!” All his life he concentrated on preserving the “purity” of the faith, and the strict adherence to the teachings of the Law. We also know that Paul was a young Pharisee – when he was Saul. (Lets not start that again!) And the youngest people in any group often tend to be the most zealous for the cause!

It was hard enough for him to accept finally this Jesus. And he had to be knocked off of his donkey in order to do it! I know we’re jumping the gun a bit on that story. But imagine what that was like. And then imagine what it was like for him to abandon all his long-held prejudices about the “impurity” and “unworthiness” of the Gentiles! I think that would have been even harder. At least Jesus was Jewish!

Then, really thinking ahead, Paul, the writer of this letter, Paul, this former Pharisee, now considers himself to be “missionary to the Gentiles.” That’s as much an amazing part of his “transformation” as accepting Jesus in the first place – maybe more! And now here in our passage, we find him ‘splainin’ all these amazing things to the Gentiles in Ephesus. And remember, if the Jews had an “attitude” – if they had a “‘tude,” as some people say today – if they had a “‘tude” about the Gentiles, the Gentiles certainly knew it! So think about how they felt all those years! How willing do you think they would have been to hear what this Pharisee had to say – at least at first?

We find a lot of this played out in the book of Acts. Acts is the continuation of the Gospel story, and it’s actually written by one of the Gospel writers, Luke. And a big part of that ongoing story is the transition from Christianity as a Jewish sect, to a universal faith for all people. And as I said, that was not an easy transition. We have been looking these past months at the “historical Jesus.” And I think we’ve found that we’ve also needed to rediscover the “historical early church!” Because, like Jesus, there are probably a lot of ways we’ve also “institutionalized” the history of the early Christians over the last two millennia! I hope we’re getting a better picture of that as well!

So think about this transformation! If you do read Acts, you’ll find about halfway through the book, that the Church leaders held a council in Jerusalem, which was still the center of the Christian faith. And that council was all about this issue. They debated about the inclusion of the Gentiles. And it was Peter who finally convinced the council that was God’s plan. That was the first step. After that, they had to figure out how the Gentiles were to be included. Did they have to follow all the Jewish laws? And if so, which ones? The simple question in the early church became, “If a person was going to become a Christian, did that mean they had to become Jewish? There were many who said “yes.”

That’s the background of this letter. And I think that adds so much light to this “No longer strangers” passage. Who are the strangers? And who is included? I also think that focuses this issue for us. Because sometimes we in the modern day church “get used to” who’s around us, don’t we. It’s too easy for a church to become a sort of “club,” which is filled with people with whom we’re “comfortable.” And the age old question is, “What would we do if people we’re “not as comfortable with” start coming?” Too many Outreach Committees in too many churches have asked that. “What if we invite the neighborhood, and some of those ‘undesirable’ people come?”

Patty and I had a good laugh a few weeks ago when we were talking about the bikers, which we seem to have a lot of here in Bensalem. Maybe you’ve heard me before “lamenting” about how loud they are out here on the pike. Well, last year, Patty’s brother got me into actually riding motorcycles, so he’d have a riding buddy. So that day, when Patty and I were going somewhere in our car, a particularly loud bike went by. And I said to her, “You know, I used to think of those guys as ‘jerks.’ But now I refer to them as ‘my righteous brothers.”

So think about it. What if we started to have a group of bikers come to worship with us on a Sunday morning. What if we were to look around here and see a lot of leather jackets, and chains, and tattoos, and “do-rags?” For one thing Bill wouldn’t be able to start playing until they all turned off their bikes! Nobody would hear him! But how would we feel? Would we all think of them as “our righteous brothers.” One of the questions this passage compels us to ask is, “Who are the strangers among us?”

Remember also that the landscape of this country has changed. It used to be that most people in our society were pretty much either Christian or Jewish, with a smattering of other faiths. Most people had that background, and they knew at least some of the major stories of the faith. Now, there are many different beliefs among us. When people come through those doors, we can no longer make assumptions about their understanding of God. They may have different understandings. Or they may have none. Or, as seems to be more the case these days, they may even have a “hostility toward God.” They may actually have a “dividing wall” as Paul described it in verse 14.

How do we reach out in love to those who don’t look like us, or who don’t believe the same things, or who don’t believe at all, but who are searching? We can’t use the same terminology and jargon. For some it would be like we’re speaking a foreign language. My friends, that is the big question for the Church of the new millennium! And we in the church need to come to grips with that. Who are the strangers among us? And how do we reach out to them?

The other possibility here is that it is we who are the strangers. When Paul said “once you were strangers,” he was talking about us, too. Maybe some of us feel like we are still strangers. (Or worse, maybe we’re made to feel that way!) Do you ever feel like a stranger in God’s house? Maybe you feel like you just aren’t as good a Christian as someone else, or that God can’t possibly want to have all that much to do with you. Maybe you’ve ignored him or pushed him away too many times.

Paul is ready to tell us again that in Christ we are no longer strangers! Then he goes on to tell us what we are. And listen to this description! We are “fellow citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Christ himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows in to a holy temple in the lord…” I love it when Paul gets on a roll like that! We are “fellow citizens with the saints!” We are the temple of God’s spirit! Not “we worship in a temple of God’s spirit.” We are that temple! We are, as he says, “…a dwelling place of God…”

Sometimes it’s hard for us to buy all that. Sometimes there’s quite a “spiritual self-esteem” problem in the church. We don’t feel worthy to be God’s people. Well, there’s a reason for that. As one theologian said, “The reason we don’t feel worthy is that we aren’t worthy.” “But,” he said “what we have to get through our heads is that God makes us worthy!” That means all of us! And there’s no “minimum of worthiness.” We aren’t “just barely” part of his kingdom. We are “fellow citizens with the saints!” “We are one in Christ Jesus,” “in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” I really am glad for passages like that from Paul’s pen. When he does “get on a roll,” then we start to understand what it’s really about! Don’t we? He’s so good at convincing us of these things!

We may have been strangers once, but no longer. We may have felt like the Gentiles probably felt in those days, but we don’t need to feel that way any longer. We need to realize, again and again, what an amazing relationship God has called us into. You’ve heard me refer to those who are content with doing “the minimum of faith.” Well, don’t we sometimes also minimize God’s love and Grace? Sometimes we do think, “Yeah sure, he made us worthy – but just barely!” Sometimes we do think, “I just ‘squeaked by.’” Or we think, “I got into the household of God through the back door!”

When we read Paul, there’s no way we can reach that conclusion. God has showered us with love! He has poured his spirit into us! He has lavished his Grace upon us. That’s what’s so sad about doing the “minimum of faith.” That’s like coming close, but missing out on amazing, incredible things! It’s like only scratching the surface of something huge, but then not caring to find out any more!

As we close, I’d like us to consider that one of the most important pursuits in the Christian faith is to attempt to discover and understand the depths of God’s love and grace. Otherwise, we will begin to take it for granted. Maybe you already have! So think about that today. Remember that you are no longer strangers. Remember that you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God! Let that realization grow in your hearts. And let it change your whole outlook on this life – every day!

Prayer.

Help us, Lord, to see and to know the depth of your love and the power of your Grace. Forgive us when we think we are still strangers, or when we treat others that way. Help us to live the glory of your kingdom, and to be people fully alive in you. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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