TEXT: Ephesians 2:13-18; Luke 15:25-32
Division, arguments, polarization, barriers, frustrations, anger, fear… while these things have been around since the first sin of Adam, it seems all around us (and in us) in a new and alarming way these days. Do you feel it? It’s not just politics, economics, or race; those are manifestations of something deeper and more pernicious. Last week we looked at the wideness of God’s mercy in welcoming home the lost, wandering, and far off. We focused on the character and compassion of God, portrayed so vividly as the loving Father in Jesus’ parable of the lost or prodigal son.
This week we will focus more on what God did out of that character of mercy and compassion. We left off with “But now in Christ Jesus, you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (v.13) Today we’ll look at the verses that follow and unpack what that means for humanity and for us.
Sin Remembered: Civil Rights Museum, Birmingham, AL
I don’t know that you need an illustration of the division, arguments, barriers, anger, and fear, but I want to share one. One of the most significant memories I will have of the high school mission trip to Birmingham, Alabama, was the time we spend in the Civil Rights museum. We met in the park outside the museum where different historical civil rights moments have been captured in bronze. We walked a path between bronze, life-sized snarling dogs unleashed on black citizens. We walked through a door to see bronzed full-scale water hoses turned on us as they were on children in one tragic and historical moment in Birmingham. The museum itself was well-done, a walking tour through black and white history, with things to see, touch, and listen to. We saw a jail cell like that where Martin Luther King, Jr., penned his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” urging the white clergy and Christians not to remain silent or aloof in the face of racial injustice. We saw the difference in desks, books, materials, and more in reconstructed classrooms from segregated schools. It reminded me of much of what I’ve read in the Color and Character book of Charlotte and West Charlotte history that I’ve been reading this summer. Our whole group moved slowly as we saw the history of barriers and division and contemplated how many obstacles and division continue to this day.
As I read today’s text all this came to mind, not because the distinction of Jew and Gentile are the same thing exactly, but because it is fruit from the same tree of human sin and selfishness. I want to take a moment to look at Paul’s focus in the passage, but then broaden out the discussion to speak to some of what we face today.
Breaking Down the Barriers and Division (vv. 14-16)
Verses 14-16 describe what God did through the sacrificial death of Jesus. In this context it is focused on the reconciling of Jew and Gentile, those described in Ephesians as being either inside or outside the blessing of the covenant promises and presence of God. Yet Paul has reminded his readers that God’s intent from the beginning was hope and salvation for all people. And that promise is fulfilled in and through Jesus. Listen to those verses again:
14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. (vv.14-16)
Jesus portrays the core division of Jew and Gentile in the parable, with the rule-keeping older brother portraying the Pharisees and their adherence to the letter of the Law. For all that the older brother kept the rules (like a Pharisee), he was unable to welcome the wandering brother home or join in the joy of his father. What was going on in him? Was he jealous that he did not get to go wild like his younger brother? Or did it feel like throwing the feast for his rebellious, returned brother was robbing him and eating into his own wealth and inheritance? Or did he see his father’s love and joy over his brother and wonder if his father felt that way about him? Who knows? All those are human responses that are possible; all those are feelings I’ve had towards people that seem to receive undeserved generosity – that is, GRACE.
And if I’m really being honest, that’s where the older brother in me really struggles. I want to earn God’s favor. I want to be a self-made man. I want to compare myself to others when I can come out on top. And grace doesn’t account for any of that. In my strength and pride that makes me angry. In my weakness that makes me afraid. If I can’t count on me, who can I count on? Listen to how the father answers all those spoken and unspoken questions:
31 “His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—32 but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’”
While I have had periods where I felt more like the prodigal, most days I identify more with the older brother. And these are God’s words to me: be at peace, you are my son. Try to rest in that and experience the joy and freedom of my grace. One mark of struggling with being an “older brother” is struggling to experience joy and freedom. And yes, we might be jealous of what the prodigal did, but that’s not where joy and freedom is found either (remember his desperation?). It’s in the father’s love! It’s in the father’s acceptance.
Peace and Access Far and Near (vv.17-18)
Look back in Ephesians 2 at verses 17-18. That’s where we read of PEACE. We read about the result of Jesus breaking down barriers and division between humanity and God, and among people:
17 And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; 18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.
I’ve always read this in terms of justification; in Christ we are no longer at war with God. And that is true. But alongside the Parable of the Prodigal Son (and Older Brother) I think there is more to understand here about peace. I am reminded of the quote often attributed to Augustine, “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in Thee.” The prodigal was restless and wandered far away in search of satisfaction or peace. The older brother showed his restlessness in the anger over the party for his brother. And in the midst of it the father was offering them both what they sought: peace to you who were far away and peace to you who are near.
And don’t miss that last part, because I think it is what was at the heart of both sons’ longing for their father: “through [Christ] we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.” Access to the Father, whether you have been wandering or whether you realize that’s what you need and want. That’s Good News!
So, let me return to my experience in Alabama. I believe there is much in both these texts to speak to the systematic racism in our history and in our present. Interestingly, white supremacists often identify themselves with a kind of new Israel, new Phariseeism, where a distorted form of God’s covenant is specially passed down to them and all others are excluded, outside the covenant. But that kind of exclusion and dividing wall was not part of God’s original covenant to begin with and here in Ephesians it is explicitly expanded to all peoples. This is why elsewhere Paul writes that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, male or female, slave or free. All are one in Christ and have access in one Spirit to the Father.
But closer to home and much more practically day-to-day I see the strain of older brother in me where it’s easy to feel like something is being taken from me if my kids have to change school zones or share resources or include people different than me. I think, “What about what I’ve worked so hard for?” “That isn’t fair?” “Is anyone still looking out for me?” and the list goes on… older brother style. And I’m missing out on the joy of seeing another person, perhaps in need or perhaps from a “long way off” experience the blessings I have come to take for granted.
There’s a lot there to unpack and I think it takes a softening of spirit and openness to learn and face our past to do so. I continue to invite you to that. This fall, I’d love to have some more reading groups around Color and Character. It’s a history of education and race in Charlotte, a history many of you experienced first-hand. The lessons of the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham continue to play vividly in my mind and heart. And I wonder, will I get it? Will we get it? Will we, in my children’s lifetimes get it? PEACE, GRACE, JOY. They are pretty abstract, but they are what we are restless for. And they are God’s gift for us in Christ if we will receive them. Amen.