Creating a new humanity
Gary Ruffell, 19 July 2015
Ephesians 2: 11–22; Mark 6: 30–34, 53–56
In our first reading, Paul referred to a ‘new humanity’. Hard to accept when we have a world full of division: between countries, religions, tribes; between rich and poor, private and public, town and country. People on one side will often feel alienated from the other through ideology, prejudice, stigma, colour or race. The Bible speaks much of this alienation, particularly from our fellow people and from God. It can be dehumanising. We become strangers in a world in which we should feel at home, aliens instead of citizens.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians talks about the divisions between Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were members of God’s chosen nation called Israel. They despised the Gentiles, who were not part of the chosen race, who had no call on the God of the Jews and were in fact alienated from all that the Jews possessed – their lifestyle, their rigorous ceremonial rituals, their political structure, their links with the Roman Empire and their temple in Jerusalem. The great temple had a high wall around it whose purpose was to keep everyone out who was not a Jew. It had a sanctuary in the middle – allegedly the home of God – and was the place of a myriad of religious ceremonials and endless sacrificing of animals. Israel had become a theocracy, linked to God through covenant.
Although the Gentiles had idolatrous gods, they were not part of the Jew’s covenanted kingdom of God. They had very little hope of ever getting in, of ever becoming part of the religious life of their country, perhaps of ever learning anything of God. They had no expectation of a coming Messiah, no hope of anything ever changing. Paul refers to them as being far off, estranged from God. The temple wall was a symbol of a great barrier. This was alienation big time.
We find it difficult in our modern age to understand the deep divide in humanity that existed in Paul’s time. We might even think God contributed by having a chosen race to be his holy or distinct people, but we should remember he actually promised that through Abraham and his descendants he would bless all the families of the earth. God intended Israel to become a light to all nations. However, human nature being what it is, Israel forgot her true vocation and, through the following millennia, allowed her great privilege to degenerate into favouritism. She erected barriers and ended up despising all who were not part of the chosen tribe.
In the modern era, we too have a history of erecting barriers. Credit is due to those who succeeded in removing some, like the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain after the Second World War. But barriers of race, colour, religion and class still exist in the world. New barriers are still being built to this day, like the vast wall along one side of Israel. Divisiveness often becomes a characteristic of a settled community that wants to protect its own.
You know, it’s a difficult subject, but we as a nation have people on our doorstep who would like to come in and share our lives. Sangatte and Calais come to mind. Europe has its own problems with thousands of boat people from Africa who wish for a better and safer life in Europe. On the one hand, the physical barriers of the English Channel and the Mediterranean offer protection, but on the other they present us with some tricky political problems. I can’t offer a solution to these enormous dilemmas, but I do trust that God actually knows what’s going on and will, in time, help us solve them.
The temple wall in Jerusalem became a symbol of all that was wrong in the society of that day, causing great hostility between Jew and Gentile. But Paul’s letter to the Ephesians goes on to tell us that Jesus Christ was instrumental in breaking down this dividing wall of hostility, and through his death on the cross he reconciled the people to God as one body. By this, Jesus created the possibility of a new society in which alienation gave way to reconciliation, hostility to peace, in one true human community.
Jesus created the possibility of a new society in which alienation gave way to reconciliation, hostility to peace, in one true human community.
Christ achieves this in three steps, Paul tells us.
Firstly he abolished the law; that is, the law that the Jews themselves had developed to publicly demonstrate their faith in the one true God. That included the ceremonial, ritualistic rules and regulations that governed their society associated with circumcision, sacrificing animals, eating and cleanliness. Jesus himself had taught that the most important commandments were to love God with all your being and love your neighbour as yourself. Living your life according to these rules was what was required.
Secondly, Christ would create a single new humanity. A new unity can develop between people who come to know God through Jesus Christ. This in essence is the difference Christ has made, for Paul tells us, ‘You who once were far off have been brought near’. Our God does not keep his distance or stand on his dignity, nor does he insist on any complicated ritual or protocol. On the contrary, through Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit we have immediate access to him as our father.
The third step was to reconcile both Jew and Gentile to God. Paul sees that humankind is now reconciled with God through the blood of Christ on the cross – the sacrifice of God’s only Son, atoning for the sins of all humanity. It does not matter whether we are Jew or Gentile, black or white, Asian or European, rich or poor; we may all approach God and become part of his kingdom.
Paul describes this new reconciled humanity as a holy temple, not of brick and mortar but of members of the household of God. And as with all buildings intended to last, a firm cornerstone is imperative. The cornerstone is Jesus Christ and the foundations are the apostles. Its specifications are the truths that God revealed to his prophets and that Jesus revealed to his apostles, all now preserved in the holy scripture of our Bible.
To this day, we, as disciples of Christ, are obliged to maintain that holy temple and make it truly the home of a single new humanity.
The reality of what we have achieved is often far from the ideal. Sometimes the church itself becomes the target of criticism, when it appears to condone social, moral, ethnic, religious or geographic barriers. When these situations become public and have wide coverage in the press, it hinders the world from believing in Jesus and does him a disservice. We should continue to strive to do our bit to help make ‘church’ what Christ intended – a single new humanity, a family who love God and each other through Christ. In doing so, ‘church’ will be seen as the evident dwelling place of God. To him be the glory. Amen.