For he himself is our peace. Ephesians 2:14
Gospel + safety + time – that’s what the Lord is giving us here at Immanuel. Three sacred gifts from above. One, gospel – good news for bad people through the finished work of Christ on the cross and the endless power of the Holy Spirit. We can breathe again because everything wrong with us was laid on Jesus at the cross. Two, safety – lots of space to rethink our lives in terms of God’s grace. We can be honest about our problems, because we have nothing to fear. Three, time – because we don’t change quickly, and God is patient with us. Every one of us is complicated, and peeling off the layers of false understandings – it takes time. Gospel + safety + time – that’s a gospel culture. It’s what the Lord is giving us here at Immanuel. Let’s steward it well.
Our world sure needs it. 2014 has been a hard year. The top news stories of the year include ISIS ravaging Iraq and Syria, a Malaysian airliner shot down over Ukraine, Boko Haram kidnapping girls in Nigeria, Michael Brown and Ferguson, Eric Garner and New York, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu and New York, and more. Who isn’t wondering how on earth are we all going to get along?
Jesus is our only hope for a better future entering this world and taking over forever. In practical terms, before the second coming of Christ, we experience the future right now in churches defined by gospel + safety + time. That is so meaningful and attractive. It’s a foretaste of eternity. It’s a high calling. It isn’t easy. We need help.
The Bible shows us, in Ephesians 2:11-22, how to live together in the beauty of a gospel culture. The Bible offers us three unifying insights about how to experience not perfection but something of the future even now. And my purpose today is not correction but encouragement. It’s what Paul said: “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another. . . . But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10). So this is a more-and-more sermon today. The Lord is giving us a taste of gospel community. Let’s make a good thing better. Here are three insights to encourage us.
One, Jesus alone is enough for all kinds of people to unite in peace. “He himself is our peace” (verse 14). Jesus, until his second coming to judge the world – he is right now peace and nothing but peace, for all who will receive his peace. John Flavel, the Puritan pastor, put it this way:
Christ infinitely transcends the loveliest of created beings. Whatever loveliness is found in them, it is not without a distasteful tang. The fairest pictures must have their shadows. The most brilliant gems must have dark backgrounds to set off their beauty. The best creature is a bittersweet at best. If there is something pleasing, there is also something distasteful. If a person has every excellence to delight us, yet there is also some natural corruption intermixed to put us off. But it is not so in our altogether lovely Christ. His excellencies are pure and unmixed. He is a sea of sweetness, without one drop of gall.
That is the real Jesus. His grace, acceptance, atonement, power, wisdom, kindness, purity, authority, holiness – all that he is is enough to satisfy and make us happy together. In him, our hearts settle down and we breathe again and his peace washes over us.
Verse 14 says that he has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility and distance and aloofness – for example, the clean/unclean laws of the Old Testament. The people of Israel lived within the boundaries of a kosher culture. But when God drew Israel into his cleanness, he wasn’t abandoning the other nations to their uncleanness; his purpose was to spread heavenly purity through Israel out to all the nations. The Jewish people didn’t understand that. For example, the Mishnah, the Jewish oral tradition surrounding the Old Testament, said that “the dwelling-places of Gentiles are unclean.” In other words, if you went into a Gentile’s house, you got dirty. So it seemed like cleanness was a weak thing on the defensive here in this world. But then Jesus came, spreading his powerful cleansing into our messy lives. And God showed the apostle Peter in the book of Acts that the cleansing power of Jesus was touching all kinds of people at the deepest level, down in our hearts. God commanded Peter, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15-16). In other words, Jesus is creating a new community where everyone is kosher because of him. The old dividing wall falls down by the impact of an inward freshness that Jesus gives to open hearts. And the power of his peace is greater than all the powers of this divided world. When we walk into church, our relationships gain a huge advantage that the world can only imitate.
So here is the understanding that helps us experience his peace together. In this as in every church, there are absolutes, defined by the Bible. We live humbly within those boundaries. And in this as in every church, there are areas of freedom, because the Bible doesn’t address everything. Show me chapter and verse where we’re supposed to dress in just one way or sing just one kind of music, and so forth. In this gospel culture, there are absolutes defined by the Bible, and there are freedoms everywhere else. Verse 14 is saying that God’s sacred absolutes come to a focal point in Jesus himself. And what do we see in him? Peace! The sacred absolute of this church is the gentleness of Jesus. And in our areas of freedom – we don’t waste our freedom in self-indulgence. We use our freedom to make his peace accessible to more people. And every cause of our own, every fear, every desire, every wound – we refuse to be limited by all that, and we stretch out our narrow hearts more widely than ever before, to match the heart of Jesus.
I remember a moment when God helped me take a step forward in this way. We were living in Scotland. A political organization active in Britain back then was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). It was a left-leaning political group, and I didn’t resonate with the CND. But my view is not a biblical absolute. I think it’s consistent with the Bible. I’m trying to be biblical. But my view isn’t so obviously biblical that disagreement with me is disagreement with Jesus. So I take my view into the polling booth, but I leave it out of my relationships. So one day I was down on the high street of our village, where I saw a friend. We were standing there on the sidewalk just chatting, and she told me, “I’m thinking of doing some volunteer work for CND.” Inwardly, I thought, “Really?” But outwardly, God helped me say, “May the Lord bless you in it.” And she said, “Give us a kiss!” Very British! So I gave my dear, leftist friend a kiss on the check there on the high street right in front of everybody. That moment, for me, was from the Lord.
Something is happening in this world more important than any politics or any cause or any crusade. Jesus is moving among otherwise divided people with his peace. He only is sacrosanct. He is why the Bible says to us all, “Whoever restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19). Have you ever, even once, seen a debate on Facebook result in everyone involved falling into each other’s arms in heartfelt joy? There are so many issues we don’t debate or even discuss, because they are land mines. The Bible says, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Colossians 3:15). It doesn’t say, “Let the peace of Christ be present in your hearts as one voice among others.” No, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” When we put him first, then people of clashing political views, people of different races, people with different backgrounds, people who in some ways don’t even understand each other – we can all together enjoy gospel + safety + time, because we together love Jesus above all the rest.
If you will allow Jesus himself to be your peace, he will stretch your heart way out toward people you never would have loved on your own. As we revere him together, he will make us living proof that he really is the Prince of peace. So the next time you’re tempted to make an area of freedom into an absolute, you’re tempted to insert your opinion into a relationship that needs Jesus more than it needs your opinion, remember this. Why did the Lord even call us together? What was his purpose? To form a debate club? I don’t think so. His purpose is that we will make the real Jesus non-ignorable by proving that he is enough to unify diverse people here in this angry world. What a privilege!
Two, the display of the gospel in this divided world requires unity in diversity. I am taking this from verses 15-19. But look at verse 15: “. . . one new man in place of the two, so making peace.” That “one new man” is the Christian church, a new human form standing in this world, unlike everyone else. Every other human form in this world is getting older and older and on its way out. But this one new man is always young, renewed in every generation. And what’s new about this one new man is that, because of Jesus, this new man unites all kinds of people. The two Paul mentions here in verse 15 are the Jews and the Gentiles. But his point applies to all the ways we fragment and form factions and sinful divisions. But the point is that the diversity of the Body of Christ is not a problem; it’s an advantage, a strategy, God’s strategy for displaying the power of Jesus. How can his peace be seen, unless, in ourselves, we’d run away from each other? For the one new man to be impressive, we need the two coming together. We remain who we are – in gender, nationality, ethnicity, preferences and tastes and so forth. Our human diversity increases his glory. No one here needs anyone else’s permission to be who they are in Christ, and we walk together in gentle harmony for his sake. But the main point here is this. Diversity is not an optional add-on for churches who prefer that sort of thing. It is God’s own plan. It is beautiful. It is striking. It is non-ignorable.
In Deuteronomy chapter 4 God says an amazing thing. He says (and I paraphrase), “If you will walk in my ways, it will be your wisdom in the eyes of the surrounding nations. They will wonder, where did those people figure out how to be so beautifully human?” That’s a high standard. It is God’s high calling upon us at Immanuel. So I want to get a phone call from City Hall. I want our beauty to be so striking, the two and the three and the four becoming one new man right here, so that the Mayor calls me up and says, “Pastor Ortlund, the city council would like to meet with the elders of Immanuel Church. We want to ask you guys how you did it. All we can do is manage the competing factions in our city. But you guys there at Immanuel actually love one another. We’re wondering what insights you might have that could help everyone in our city get along like that.” I haven’t received that call yet. So we still have some growing to do. Because that level of beauty is God’s high calling upon us. Let’s reach for it, for his glory alone!
Three, a church of diverse people, rallying around Jesus alone in worship, is where the power of God comes down into the world today. Verses 21 and 22 unveil the glorious mystery of what we really are. We are a holy temple in the Lord, where his presence dwells, where sinners find peace with God because the blood of the Lamb flows here and forgiveness is free. When we gather in the Lord’s name and for his glory, this holy temple is what we become. The Lord himself is here, and his presence is thick and wonderful. And the Bible is describing not only the Church universal but also every faithful local church. Verse 21 refers to “the whole structure,” the entire Christian church. But verse 22 says “you also,” you also in the church at Ephesus, you also at Immanuel Church and every faithful local church. We also are a holy dwelling place of God by the Spirit. Oh, this is sacred! May every idol fall down! May Jesus alone be worshipped here!
If you’re not experiencing God’s power in your life, maybe this is the reason. Maybe you need to take a risk and move toward, rather than away from, people who aren’t like you. If we put the Lord first and build his temple his way, he will sweep us up into relationships we wouldn’t have had the courage to attempt on our own. But in those risky moves toward people different from us, the power of God is present. If you’re bored as a Christian, if you’ve become stagnant, there is a reason. So, for example, when was the last time you invited into your home, as an honored guest for dinner at your table, someone unlike yourself? Are you stretching your heart further than ever before, simply for the glory of Jesus? If you want his presence and power, step into his temple, the holy place where he is wonderfully present, that holy place which is defined not by your culture but by the apostles and prophets of the gospel. The Lord will bless you there.
So here’s where every one of us can go this morning. Put Jesus first, and let everything else take a back seat. Now that he is our peace, our hearts are no longer limited to the familiar, the predictable, the comfortable. Our hearts are free now, softened and broadened by the love of Christ. We don’t have to be perfect right away. We’re free to try and make mistakes and learn and grow. But let’s put Jesus first. I’m thinking of the wonderful words of Mary, when Christ was born in her: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Let’s begin this new year of grace, 2015, with that humble prayer. “Lord, I am your servant. I want to be defined by your gospel. Take me where you want me to go. Let me glorify Jesus in his holy temple.”