The Tenth Sunday After Trinity August 15, 2004
466, 463(1-5,8), 767 [TLH alt: 464], 465
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
At that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
In Christ Jesus, who is our Cornerstone, dear fellow-redeemed:
“I believe in the Holy Christian Church.” We confess these words in the Apostolic Creed. “I believe in one holy, Christian, and Apostolic church.” We confess these words in the Nicene Creed. We confess, “I believe in one Christian Church” and yet if you go to the yellow pages of any city, you will find multiple listings in just the headings of churches, not to mention the individual churches under each heading. So which one of those churches is the Holy Christian church?
When we speak of the Holy Christian Church and when God speaks of the Church in Scripture, it is not to be identified with any one earthly congregation or church—not ours, not anyone’s. When God speaks of church it is literally, an assembly. When God speaks of His assembly it is the assembly of all believers of all time and all places. This assembly includes Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the other believers we read about in both Old and New Testament Scripture. This assembly includes all of the believers who have gone before us and have died in the Lord. This assembly includes us and all believers who are currently living. This assembly will include all of the believers who will yet live between now and Judgment Day.
This Church, the assembly of all believers, determines its membership by faith and faith alone. The man who is brought to faith in the last moments of his life is a member of the Church as much as the person who was lives to be 105 and has been a Christian all of his life. Because membership in this church is by faith and because God alone can know hearts, only God knows with certainty who the true members of this assembly are. We can draw conclusions who the members of this assembly by the confession they make, but our knowledge is incomplete and hypocrites may deceive us. Thus, true membership is known only to God.
Because we are geographically limited, we gather together in specific locations. However, the Church of God is never limited to any physical location. In his letters to the Corinthians Paul began by saying, “To the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2). In other words, Paul was writing “to that segment of Christ’s church who happen to be living in Corinth and who happen to be gathering there for worship.” Wherever there are believers, there the Church of Christ is.
Today we seek to consider and learn more about this one, holy, Christian, and apostolic Church—Christ’s Church. To properly do this we need to suspend any ideas of an earthly church. Today we are not considering the confessions of individual congregations and church bodies. We are not considering what God says for us to do when we find false teachings in congregations. God has much to say about these things, but this is not the focus of today’s meditation. We are not considering earthly churches at all. We are considering the invisible assembly of all believers—Christ’s Church, the one of which He is the Cornerstone. I. It is an assembly of foreigners changed into family II. It is an assembly of hopeless ones led into peace III. It is an assembly of individuals built into one.
Paul was writing to Gentile believers in Ephesus. As Gentiles, they hadn’t known the truth of God’s Word like the faithful Israelites of the Old Testament had known it. Paul writes, “[Christ] Himself is our peace, who has made both one” [v.14] The “both” are the Jews and the Gentiles. “And has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace.” [v.14-15]
In the Old Testament, God wanted to separate His people from the rest of the world. To do this, He gave them a very detailed and strict set of laws to observe—the Old Testament Ceremonial Law. These were the laws pertaining to the sacrifices, the feasts, and the clean and unclean foods. All of these laws built up a barrier around Israel, because the heathen nations did not participate in these feasts and observations. God set apart His people of Israel so that He could preserve them as a people for Himself and a people from which the Savior would be born. The Old Testament Ceremonial Law set up a boundary between Jew and Gentile.
Paul’s message was that the Old Testament Ceremonial law was in place until Christ came. Christ fulfilled all of the “pictures” of the coming Messiah that were contained in the ceremonial observances. Christ completed the Law by keeping every requirement for us and for all people. Jesus fulfilled the Law, the barrier went down, and then there was no division between Jew and Gentile. Now, as Paul told the Ephesian Gentiles, “He has made one new man from the two, making peace.” [v.15]
This message was important for both Jews and Gentiles. The faithful Jews had been very careful about not eating unclean foods and keeping all of the festivals. Now, they didn’t need to observe the Old Testament Ceremonial Laws because they were fulfilled in Christ. Some Jews had a hard time accepting this truth, but with time and through the working of the Holy Spirit, God led them to accept this.
The Gentiles also needed to hear these words from Paul so that they would not feel as if they were somehow second-class citizens in the family of God. Some Jews continued to demand the observation of Old Testament ceremonies and tried to force the newly converted Gentiles to do the same. The Gentile Christians needed to be assured that no, they did not need to observe the Old Testament laws; and yes, they were indeed as much a part of God’s people as were the Jews. The Ephesians had been, “…aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” [v.12] Paul wanted them to be confident that now they were part of God’s kingdom and family.
Those who were far off and foreigners were brought together and changed into family. Now, both Jew and Gentile could worship their common Savior in the unity of a Law fulfilled and a redemption completed. There was no longer need for separation.
Ultimately, the believing Jews had also been foreigners to God because all sinners are foreigners. Paul wrote, “…that [Christ] might reconcile them both to God.” [v.16] People of every nation and every group upon the earth need to be reconciled with God. All people are foreigners, afar off from God, outside of His family because of sin. Sin separates us from God. Jesus came, fulfilled the Law, and reconciled us to God by dying for our sins. We are reconciled to God. The far off have been brought near and have now been changed into family—the family of Christ.
To this day, sinners remain foreigners and outside the family of God as long as the guilt of their sins remains upon them. Through Christ who reconciles all people to God through His work on the cross, they are brought near. Through faith in Christ which the Holy Spirit creates, they receive the forgiveness of sins. Those afar off—the foreigners—are brought near into Christ’s Church and God’s family.
While on the outside of God’s family looking in, we are hopeless ones. But we are led into peace. Paul again reminding the Ephesians from where they had come said, “you were having no hope and without God in the world.” [v.12] Unless we were brought to faith later in life, we do not know what it is like to be without God. Many of us have been with God from our baptism as infants. Many of us received instruction in God’s Word through all of our younger years, not really knowing completely what it is like to be searching and never finding. Perhaps you have felt the weight of guilt due to a particular sin and for a time felt unforgiven. If you have had this experience then you’ve had a small taste of what it is like to be without God.
In Isaiah, God compares the people who were without God to a turbulent sea—dirt and muck being broiled up in the water. “The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.’” (Isaiah 57:20-21). Once we were hopeless ones with life all in a turmoil, but now we have been brought into an assembly, settled, and led into peace.
All of the members of Christ’s church enjoy the blessings of peace—the peace of knowing our sins are forgiven and the peace of knowing that we are in God’s family. Paul goes on to describe this, “[Christ] came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.” [vv.17-18]
When Jesus preached the Gospel He went to the people of Israel, but He also preached to the Gentiles— the Samaritan woman, the Roman centurion, and others. Every sinner who hears Jesus and believes is led into peace and has access to the Father. Sin keeps us from having access to the Father. With our sins removed by Jesus we have access directly to God and can approach God through our prayers. This access is part of the peace of knowing that we are in the family of God.
Paul continues, “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” [v.19] We are no longer on the outside, we are in the safety of our Father’s home. Jesus tells us that we are His sheep kept safely by the Father and “no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:29). In Romans, Paul speaks of nothing being able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (cf. Romans 8:35ff). We have the peace of knowing that we are safe in the family of God, loved deeply by our Father, given all we need by our Father, and preserved in faith to our end.
We have the peace of forgiveness and the confident hope of eternal life in God’s family. This assembly remains a family of individuals, but is built into one church.
Whenever there is a collection of different personalities, there are going to be variances of opinion and variances of approaches. In the Holy Christian Church there are many individuals with many differences, but they are built on common ground in the truth of God’s Word and the Cornerstone of Christ. “Having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” [vv.20-22]
The foundation of the apostles and the prophets is the truth of God’s Word. They built on the rock of truth that “[Jesus is] the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). That was the foundation which the apostles proclaimed as they went out into the world. That was the foundation of the Old Testament prophets. That is the foundation of the generations of God’s people down to this very day. On that foundation Christ builds His church. Anything else, is falsehood. There is no salvation apart from Christ. To build something on anything other than Christ and that foundation of the Gospel, is building on quicksand which will surely bring destruction.
Christ builds His church on the foundation of His word. Where that truth goes out, Christ calls individuals to be brought into the unity. The building of the Holy Christian Church is a testimony to our Savior. It is a testimony to what He has done for us. It is a Church which while on the earth works to spread the Gospel and bring sinners to salvation.
In Corinthians, Paul speaks of this diversity and also unity in Christ. “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills. For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:4-13).
We are unified together in Christ which is why this Church can span miles and not be defined or limited by geography. Unity in Christ is why this Church can span and years and not be limited by time. Unity in a living Savior is why it can span even death itself. Faith in Christ brings eternal life through the forgiveness of sins. There is nothing that can take that away, nothing that can separate us from that love of God in Christ. So, this assembly of God’s children is not bound by any earthly boundary.
While we can speak of this Holy Christian Church built upon the foundation of God’s Word as the apostles preached, what does it mean for our day to day life? It, first of all, gives us comfort concerning those who have died in the Lord and gone before us. We are separated now, by virtue of time and place, and yet not separated because we are one in Christ. It is significant for us because it means that our goal is to bring people into this Holy Christian Church through faith in Christ. If I speak to a stranger about the love of my Savior and I never see him within the walls of my earthly church, but unknown to me the Gospel has worked in his heart and ultimately brings him into the Holy Christian Church, then by God’s grace I have served my purpose. It is important to keep in mind this Holy Christian Church and what God says about it so that we know that all who put their faith in Christ are in that assembly.
Meanwhile, we do still live on this earth with many different Christian churches and many differences in teaching. As we seek to deal with doctrinal differences and all the variety of churches on this earth, the one thing that becomes our guide is the Rock on which the true Church is built. Do I want to learn how to handle myself in an earthly Christian congregation? Do I want to know how to conduct myself as it pertains to other churches in the world that don’t teach the same as I do? For answers I need to go to the foundation of the one true Holy Christian Apostolic Church. That foundation is God’s Word. Just as surely as the true Church is built upon that Word of God, so surely that Word will be the light to guide us in the earthly affairs of a Christian congregation.
May God work in us an appreciation for being members in this assembly of Christ. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.