The following article was written to provide preachers with some suggestive options for a sermon that proclaims the message of Ephesians 2:11-22. If you were preaching a sermon on this text ... or listening to one ... where would you want the emphasis to fall? What is the Word from God from these verse for our time and place? for you at this point in your life?
This text is one that every congregation needs in its repertoire. Here Paul describes the shocking nature of the church. Reading these verses one guesses that it did not take long for the church to forget the radical nature of its life together. Yet Paul does not sound impatient. “So then, remember ... that you were at one time without Christ” (vs. 11-12) he begins. “So, then, you are no longer strangers” (vs. 19) he concludes. A sermon grounded in this passage will do well to adopt this moderate “so then, remember” tone as it unfolds the extraordinary story that it tells.
The congregation may struggle to identify itself with those to whom Paul is writing. “Remember”, he writes, “that you were at one time without Christ, being aliens ... and strangers ... having no hope and without God in the world” (vs. 12). Many in our congregations have been born and raised in the church. They may not remember a time when they were “far off” and were “brought near by the blood of Christ” (vs. 13). Of course, just because we have been raised in the church does not mean that we have always been near to God. The preacher will do well to remember with the congregation the various ways in which the church itself wanders far from Christ, becoming alienated from life in the kingdom of God and estranged from the ways of Jesus. It is not only those outside the church who live without hope and without God. This journey from far off may remind the preacher and congregation of the parable of the prodigal son. and reinforce Paul’s contention that the church is a holy experiment in reconciliation
The heart of the text is Paul’s reminder that in Jesus Christ the two distinctive peoples - Jews and Gentiles - have become “one new humanity” (vs. 15). The powerful image of the dividing wall of hostility being broken down provides the preacher with direct links to the hostilities and division that emerge in the reconciled community called the church even now. Encampments form and the dividing wall of hostility is reconstructed in spite of our best intentions. Instead of ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile’ it is now right and left, orthodox and progressive, mainline and evangelical. We fall into habitual battles, dreaming of the day when “our side” is finally triumphant. But the text dreams of another day. It says that Christ has already “made both groups into one” (vs. 14), “putting to death that hostility” (vs. 16). A sermon that announces this text will not implore the congregation to break down the dividing wall in order to end the hostility between us. Such a sermon might instead re-frame the rite of passing the peace of Christ, reminding the congregation that it is not a simple greeting. Instead, the peace of Christ is a shocking new reality in which former enemies who would not touch or eat with one another now reach out to one another in recognition of their common humanity. The deconstruction of the “dividing wall” that has been accomplished by Christ is good news for our divided selves, divided households and workplaces.
The sermon, like the text, will remind the church of the message it carries in its life together when it remembers its shocking origins. When the neighbors in ancient Ephesus saw who was eating together in the little church they were shocked. And when the preacher in that infant congregation saw those shocked faces all that needed to be said in the sermon was: “You are witnesses to God’s kingdom come, God’s will done”. Perhaps this contemporary sermon will be like that. Perhaps the preacher will point to the places in the congregation’s life where the dividing wall of hostility is being broken down. Paul’s rhetorical style suggests that the preacher not cajole or berate but instead encourage and remind. This tone can keep the congregation open and receptive, not closed down or turned off, as the sermon moves to the surprising twist that concludes the text.
Having broken down the dividing wall that is the hostility between us, Christ is now the crucial building block (or keystone) of a new structure - a holy temple in the Lord. The final verses of the text imagine this new holy place to be built not of stones but of people. It may be difficult for congregations to imagine Paul writing to a community that has no conception of the church as a building. Contemporary congregations will need help in imagining a time when the word “church” does not mean a building but is, instead, a synonym for a reconciled community. Then the word church - “ekklesia” - means this odd group of aliens and strangers who had become “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (vs. 19). When Paul describes this church as a building “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (vs. 20) he intends that the Ephesians wonder who the space is for.
In a surprising twist Paul says that this community exists to be “a dwelling-place for God” (vs. 22). The sermon turns at its conclusion to re-imagine the church not as a place for parishioners to come into but instead as the household where God chooses to live. A people who live together after hostility is the kind of community in which God abides. So says Paul. This surprising ending may push both preacher and congregation back into the text to note a verse that slipped quickly by, unattended. There Paul describes Christ’s peace as reconciling “both groups to God” (vs. 16). We imagine that reconciliation involves two parties. We forget that human schisms cause an even greater separation than the hostility between clans, tribes and nations. They alienate us from God. Our re-union in Christ not only re-unites us with one another. It is the path to our reunion with God.
- Edwin Searcy (from "Feasting on the Word" Year B)