Paul was convinced that he had been uniquely called to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles (non-Jews). He was amazed that God had called someone like him, a highly educated Jew, a militant anti-Christian, turn his life upside down and enable him to become an evangelist for the very religion that he had been so successful in putting down up til then.
Yet here he was, a Jew, preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ to Gentiles. Now that might not seem such an amazing thing from where we’re sitting 2000 years later, but believe me it was.
We know from the news and our newspapers that there’s real tension between Jews and Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories at the moment, but travel back in time a couple of thousand years and it was no better.
A Jew considered himself to be something rather special – after all, they were the chosen race of God, and therefore all other races were obviously inferior. There was a real cultural barrier between Jews and Gentiles, as real as the enormous wall that’s currently being built between Jew and Palestinian today.
This is nothing new, of course! All throughout history there have been cultures who thought themselves better than others. The Greeks thought everyone else were barbarians. Closer to home, think about the situation in South Africa with apartheid, the Berlin Wall, the oppression of blacks and coloured folk in the United States early in the 20th century, the Holocaust, Ruanda… the list goes on throughout history, there have always been cultures who thought themselves better than their neighbours, and that has always led to barriers being built and the resultant conflict and oppression.
In Paul’s day it wasn’t even lawful to help a Gentile woman to give birth – as this would just bring another Gentile into the world, and Gentiles were basically worthless! If a Jew married a Gentile woman his family would hold a funeral service as they considered he was as good as dead. Even to walk into a Gentile’s home would make you unclean according to the Law.
Do you get the picture? Jews didn’t think much of their neighbours! After all, they were the people of the Covenant. Hadn’t God said to them "I will take you as my own people and I will be your God" (Exodus 6:1)?
Of course, the Gentiles did not know God as the Jews did, and why should they at that point in time? They had no promise or hope of a Messiah, nothing to look forward to for future days - unlike the Jews who hoped that however bad the times were now there was something better coming, a time when God would reveal himself in a mighty way in the world and establish his glorious rule once and for all.
The Gentiles didn’t have this hope and therefore their history really didn’t have much of a purpose, it wasn’t going anywhere. The Jews were at least steadily, if falteringly, one step forward, two steps back marching toward God – and that was the hope they clinged to. And this gave them a real sense of superiority over their neighbours, and it created a real barrier.
Now Paul had been brought up in this atmosphere of tension, knew all the rules and regulations concerning contact with Gentiles, but now he saw things differently. The Jews were not "special" in being different from any other people, and if you read the Old Testament you’ll find that they were as bloodthirsty as any of their neighbours, but they were special because they’d been given the awesome responsibility of being the instrument through which the whole world would know and be accepted by their God, and though 99% hadn’t realised it, that would be through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
13: But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ
When someone became a convert to Judaism they were said to have been "brought near" but Paul goes further than that and talks of barriers being broken down and destroyed – barriers that had been erected because of the Law which governed the lives of all Jews.
Now when Paul starts talking about barriers that had real resonance with his readers, particularly those familiar with the Jewish Scriptures. It goes way back to the story of the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve.
At the start of Genesis, Adam and Eve are really enjoying this rather nice garden, walking around enjoying their own company and the presence of God, very self-sufficient and enjoying all the good things and the good life that God had provided for them. Then it all goes pear shaped and sin enters in – cue Serpent!
At that moment everything changes and they are banished from the garden and denied that close access to God that they had enjoyed. A barrier has been erected, and the rest of Jewish history as told to us in the Scriptures is all about the Jewish people struggling to come to terms with a relationship with God which was less than perfect, and trying to make it work again.
Paul makes an amazing statement that this barrier has now been torn down, destroyed forever by Jesus Christ and opening up once again the prospect that humankind can once again have an intimate relationship with the Creator of all things. To quote Paul, Jesus "...has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility"
Throughout the Old Testament the prophets spoke of sin as a barrier to getting close to God, and even when the rituals of sacrifice are instituted as a means of obtaining a form of forgiveness, they’re only a partial solution to the problem – the ordinary man or woman in the street are still denied access to God, because that was the domain of the High Priest.
In the temple there was the Most Holy Place where only a priest could enter – everyone else had only limited access depending on their status. There was the Court of the Gentiles; then the Court of the Women; then the Court of the Israelites; then the Court of the Priests and finally the Holy Place itself.
The poor old Gentiles could only get as far as the outer courtyard, and if he strayed any further he could be killed. The historian Josephus describes the temple and says of the second court "there was a partition made of stone all round, whose height was 3 cubits. Its construction was very elegant and upon it stood pillars at equal distances, declaring the Law of Purity in Greek and Roman letters that no foreigner should go within the sanctuary."
"For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility."
Jesus breaks down barriers, between us and God as well as us and our neighbour. He is the peace that God brings – a common focus of love centred upon the Cross that brings people together rather than drive them apart (which is often the way in a Christ-less society). Jesus broke down the barrier created by the Law and replaced it with a simple love for God and a love for all of humankind.
There’s a story told about the war. In France some soldiers along with their sergeant brought the body of a dead comrade to a French cemetery to have him buried. The priest asked of the man had been baptised and was a practicing Catholic, and they had to admit that they did not know. The priest said he was sorry but he could not bury the body in the churchyard.
So the soldiers had to bury their comrade just outside the surrounding fence. The next day they came to check that the grave was OK and couldn’t find it. They couldn’t understand what had happened until the priest approached them and said that his conscience had troubled him overnight, and so he’d got up early in the morning and moved the fence so that the grave was now included within the cemetery.
That’s what real love can do. Laws and regulations may erect barriers, but love can move or break them down. Paul says that it is through Jesus that all are now included in God’s Kingdom, both Jew and Gentile, and together they become something new.
"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."
What did Paul mean by "making one new man out of the two?" Well, an early preacher explained by saying it was like melting down a silver and lead statue and creating gold ones out of the mix. But God does not want clones, he wants Christians of all cultures - African Christians, Palestinian Christians, British Christians and Christians from all kinds of backgrounds, and the gold that links them all together is the love of God as shown in Jesus.
There is no room for barriers between Christians, despite the fact that we often do get divisions within churches. What a poor example it is to the world, if Christians can’t get along with each other. That’s not why Jesus came and died on the cross. He came to unite, not divide, and that should be our aim also as we seek to show our unity as Christians in this town and further afield.
Isaiah heard God say "Peace, peace to the far, and to the near" (Isaiah 57:19) and Paul picks this up and connects it to the words of Jesus.
"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."
Ephesians is such a relevant letter to any generation. All this talk of barriers and division might seem on the surface to be a long way from where you are at this moment of time, but just think for a second or two. What about the barriers you have erected between yourself and other people – those who perhaps you find difficult to get on with because of their attitudes, beliefs or behaviour? Is that why Jesus died for you, that you could pickand choose who you get along with or reject?
And what about the barriers that you have erected between yourself and God? The feeling you have that you are not worthy of God’s love, that God no longer listens to you, that God would never want to use you – Paul must have felt a bit like that, but that didn’t stop him from being obedient to what he knew in his heart was the truth, that God had chosen him because he was the right person in the right place at the right time. There are no barriers to prevent you from having fellowship with God, to hear his voice and know he hears yours!
We all have to remind ourselves now and again that God wants each one of us to realise that right from the beginning of all time, he intended for us to share in the inheritance of the saints; that hope of eternal life in his presence. God’s timing was such that he revealed himself through a particular people and nation, and through that nation he reached out and touched the world with his love, through the gift of his son, Jesus Christ.