God's new community
Often people will say when they come into this building, ‘What an amazing church’.
I usually reply, slightly provocatively, ‘Yes, it is an amazing church, and the building is quite impressive as well’.
The New Testament understands that the Church is the people, and it was only later that the word ‘Church’ also came to mean the place where the people met.
Every month before attending my Bible study at church, I would tell my 3-year-old son, Chad, we were going to God's house. Each time we walked through the quiet sanctuary on our way to the nursery, Chad looked around in awe. One particular day, he stopped abruptly and asked, "Mummy, if this is God's house, how come He's never home?"
But what I’d like to do this evening is to use this building as my visual aid for helping us understand what Paul is saying here about the church, the people of God.
In the previous verse, Paul has been speaking of how we have been saved. It is by faith through grace. We are saved as we put our trust in the Lord Jesus. And that of course is very individualistic, because faith is personal.
But God’s plan is not simply to save individuals.
God’s plan is to save individuals from individualism and to create a new community of people.
The human tendency is to build up walls. I guess it goes back millennia, when families had to build walls around their little hamlet – both to keep animals and children in, and to keep wild beasts or, more seriously, outsiders out. In many villages the church building would be the only one to have brick walls. It was the place of safety to which villagers could retreat in time of danger.
But we also build up walls in our self-centredness and fear. I’m taking a funeral of someone who had an incredibly painful childhood, and who went through some pretty devastating experiences. And as a result they had built up around themselves a really strong shell. It was hard; it was extremely judgemental. It was extremely hard to penetrate, although when you did, you saw glimpses of vulnerability.
God’s plan is to break down those walls: the walls that we build against other communities, and the walls that we build to protect us from being hurt by others. And he plans to create a new open community, in which there is no place for fear and much place for love.
It is a community that is centred on a person, that knows peace and that has a purpose.
1. It is community centred on a person: Jesus Christ
This Jesus is one who has brought people who were far off near
V13: ‘But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Jesus’
Let me illustrate this by looking at a simple sketch of our building
The world turned its back on God, and as a consequence they were cut off from Him.
But God had created people to love him and to be this new community, and he wasn’t going to give up on us quite that quickly.
So God chose a people to be his special people. He called them to be his people. He gave them his promises. And because they were his people, he gave them his law.
The law was a gift of love. Yes, many of the Old Testament laws were specific to the people at a particular time, and were not for all time and all places. It is why we don’t worry so much about mildew, or many of the food laws. One of the tasks of Christian ethics is to read the New Testament and discover which of the Old Testament laws are true for all times and all places, and which can be put to one side.
But the Jewish people were called to receive the law as a gift of love, and to live lives of love, based on the law. They were meant to be a witness to all the other peoples. Right from the very start when God called Abraham, he says to him, ‘And all nations will be blessed through you’.
So people would look at the Jews, see their community, and be drawn to God.
They said: it is the law that makes us special; if we keep the law then we will be OK and God will love us.
So they studied the law, they developed the law, they kept an awful lot of the details of the law – but they missed out on the origin and the purpose of the law. They forgot God.
Now, says Paul, in Jesus God has ‘abolished’ or ‘put aside’ the law of commandments expressed in ordinances and created one new man in place of the two’ (v15)
One new man: to replace the Gentile and the Jew. To bring those who were far off, and those who were near – together (v13)
He did it by being born as a Jew, by taking the full weight of the law onto himself and dying. The passage talks of his blood (v13) and the cross (v16)
So here we are, Gentiles, blind. In our sinfulness we wander in any and every direction. And here are the Jews, who were meant to be a signpost to us to God. But they in their sinfulness turned the law into a barrier.
So for instance, God in his love gave the people the mark of circumcision. It was meant to be a mark to them that they were different, set apart by the love of God, to draw other people into his love. But they turned it into a mark of exclusion. So what became important was not that God loves me, but that I have been circumcised.
Jesus, the Jew, who understood the law as it was meant to be understood, and who lived the law as it was meant to be lived, took onto himself the full weight of the law, and in his death abolished/set aside the law.
It is as if the rood screen has gone. The distinction between Jew and Gentile has been shattered. All we have instead is this one man, standing here, in the presence of God: obedient to, trusting, loving God.
And Jesus is faithful to the task he was given. He invites us to come to him so that we too, whether far away, or near, can turn again and stand in the presence of God.
So at the heart of this new community there is a person
2. In this community there is peace
V14: He is our peace
V15: He makes peace
V17: He preaches peace
Peace between God and humanity: for through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit
But also peace between people.
When we come for communion we come as individuals.
We come to the communion rail, recognising our need for Jesus, for his forgiveness and mercy and strength.
We bring nothing to this party – only our brokenness.
We come simply to receive.
And when I am kneeling down here, I am in no position to judge you.
Tony Campolo writes, “Sitting with my parents at a Communion service when I was very young, perhaps six or seven years old, I became aware of a young woman in the pew in front of us who was sobbing and shaking. The minister had just finished reading the passage of Scripture written by Paul that says, "Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:27). As the Communion plate with its small pieces of bread was passed to the crying woman before me, she waved it away and then lowered her head in despair. It was then that my Sicilian father leaned over her shoulder and, in his broken English, said sternly, "Take it, girl! It was meant for you. Do you hear me?"
She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it. I knew that at that moment some kind of heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind. Since then, I have always known that a church that could offer Communion to hurting people was a special gift from God.
We come as individuals to Jesus, but we go away as a people.
When we realise that we are saved by grace – it gives peace.
We discover that we have nothing to prove to God or each other, because we can prove nothing.
And as we begin to see others, not through the glasses of our laws or customs or habits, but as people who are made in the image of God, who are uniquely precious and special because of Jesus, so we are set free to begin to love them.
We come together with very little in common, but we go away with a common past – it’s been forgiven – a common identity – and a shared destiny.
One of the most powerful communions I attended was in India. People from all castes ate and drank from one cup.
And as we begin to realise just how much we are loved, we can begin to take down some of those walls that we have built up, brick by brick.
That is why Paul can speak of Christians being fellow citizens (Jews with Gentiles), of being members of one household (v19)
3. This community has a purpose
We are being joined together to become a building. Built on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ and on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
You are a brick – and your neighbour is a brick – and God is putting us together.
Personalities, gifts, interests, likes and dislikes: if we allow him he will build us up together.
But this building has a purpose. It is a temple. And a temple is designed for God. It was built as a place for God to dwell.
And in that sense there is a very big difference between our church buildings and the OT temple.
This is a very special building. It is God’s house, but only to the extent that many people over many centuries have worshipped here. But it is no more or no less God’s home than any other place on this planet.
God now does not dwell in buildings; God dwells among people. And in answer to the little girl’s question, God is at home when his people are gathered together, in the name of Jesus, to worship him.