13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 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 access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
“A Lion used to prowl about a field in which Four Oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them.” And so, the saying is true, “united we stand.” This story is called “The Four Oxen and the Lion,” and is one of Aesop’s Fables, written around 2,600 years ago. Our lesson today from Ephesians 2, was written around 650 years after Aesop’s Fables and serves as a reminder to all Christians that we Unite Under Christ.
Last week, we focused on chapter one of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and the praise we own God for every spiritual blessing in Christ. This week, we see that one of the results of the spiritual blessings we have in Christ is unity. Unity was a difficult concept for the Ephesians because they were a congregation made up of both Jews and Gentiles. On the one hand, the Jewish Ephesian Christians had been brought up following all of the laws God gave his people Israel in the Old Testament regarding clean and unclean animals, religious festivals, temple sacrifices, circumcision, Sabbath days and many other laws. On the other hand, the Gentile Ephesian Christians grew up in households that did not know the one true God or follow all the laws that kept God’s people separate from the unbelieving world. These two groups were very different from one another, which is why Paul needed to remind them how they were united under Christ.
Paul had to remind the Ephesians of their unity in Christ, otherwise the law would keep the two groups divided. The law would have divided the Jews and Gentiles because it was meant to divide. God’s laws to his people Israel in part functioned to keep Israel separated from the lifestyles of the nations surrounding them. God’s purpose in keeping Israel separate was to ensure the bloodline of Jesus would remain in the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The separation was also meant to keep Israel from falling away from faith in God and into more destructive and stubborn sins, but even with such strict and protective laws, Israel still turned from God’s law to follow their sinful desires. These same sinful desires filled the surrounding Gentile nations who did not have God’s law. The Gentiles lived without faith and often went to war against Israel, even though they were God’s people. This was the history of the mixed group Paul was writing to and a group not so different from us.
We are a mix of different backgrounds, struggling against all different kinds of sins and suffering. The temptations we face today are the same as the Ephesians because they all threaten our unity under Christ. As each of us struggle against our particular temptations, we can easily become blind to the severity of our sins and even begin to defend against them. If we are young and in love, we can quickly justify experimenting, testing or sampling a variety of different relationships in order to find the one we like best. On the other hand, in our old age, we can quickly become so upset by sins that don’t interest us that we quickly pass judgment on whole groups of people without recognizing that they need someone to be patient, listen and teach them, rather than write them off as a lost cause.
The group Jesus spoke to in our Gospel lesson from Mark 6, may have seemed like a lost cause, like sheep without a shepherd, but that didn’t stop Jesus from loving them. After Jesus’ disciples returned to him from being sent out with power to do miracles and with the message of repentance, the crowds would not leave Jesus and his disciples alone. The message Jesus shared gave people the hope they had been missing in their lives and the power of his message was so great that Jesus and the disciples weren’t able to get away from the crowds to rest. Tired though they were, when Jesus saw all the people gathered to listen to him,
he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
The crowds that followed Jesus, the Ephesians, you and I all need our Shepherd Jesus.
It is dangerous for sheep without a shepherd, just like it is dangerous for any of us to live without Jesus. Sheep without a shepherd can get lost or separated from their flock leaving them without protection from predators. Without Jesus, we are left without protection from God’s law. Even though God intended his law to protect Israel and even though it asks us to do good things, because of sin, God’s law can devour both Jew and Gentile. For the Jews, God’s law can devour them if they see it as a way to earn God’s favor, and for Gentiles, God’s law is a crystal-clear mirror showing all their sins and the impending punishment for sin. Since, both Jew and Gentile cannot defend themselves against God’s law, we all need Jesus’ protection.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.
In Jesus, the law was destroyed when Jesus took the punishment for our sins through his death.
Sheep need a shepherd to keep them together, just like we need Jesus to keep us united. Sheep with a shepherd stay together because they all follow their one shepherd. The shepherd leads his sheep to green pastures, cool water and a safe place to sleep. In the same way, Jesus keeps us united in the peace he won for us through his sacrifice on the cross as Paul wrote,
His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Through his body, Jesus showed that both Jew and Gentile are the same in that each are condemned by God’s law, they are both on the side opposite God. When Jesus allowed himself to be put to death, he put to death any hostility caused by God’s law because he showed that all people are equally sinful, that their sins were equally paid for through his death and that there is the same peace for all through Jesus.
As believers, we all live in the peace Jesus won for us, but that peace can be taken from us. God’s people Israel lived in a pattern of God’s forgiveness and peace, and God’s punishment for abandoning God for other shepherds. In our Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah 23, God promised punishment on the shepherds who were not faithful to his Word and led Israel away into sin and after false gods. God promised that he would send faithful shepherds to once again tend his flock and ultimately, he promised to send the one Shepherd Jesus, from the line of
“David, a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.”
Our calling as believers is to hold onto Jesus alone and living under him, and then we will be built up as his Church.
When we all share out hope in our Savior Jesus, as he tells us about himself in his Word, we do find unity. Unity comes as the Holy Spirit works on our hearts to grow our faith and strengthen our new hearts to fight the old sinful nature inside of us. That unity breaks down the barriers we form against each other because of sin and judgment. Paul reminds all of us that in Christ,
you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
Paul unites all believers from all time with these words.
With these words, he reminds us that the prophets who served Israel, to the apostles who spread the gospel out to the world, were both given the Spirit-inspired Words to write down promising the Savior’s coming are the foundation we put our faith in because they were all pointing us to Jesus. Jesus is the cornerstone of the Church, he is the first and unifying stone that makes us all fit together as Paul continued to say,
21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Aesop’s Fable “The Four Oxen and the Lion,” did not end with the oxen surviving the lion…it continued, “At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.” So, the fable makes the point that “united we stand, divided we fall.” We would be divided without Jesus our Savior, the Righteous One, the Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. As we grow in our faith and as the dwelling of the Holy Spirit, may God give us hearts eager to bring the message of Jesus to the lost sheep, to love one another, to turn away from sin, to encourage one another and to Unite Under Christ. Amen.