Ephesians part 4 – No more ‘US’ and ‘THEM’

The idea of ‘US’ and ‘THEM’ may well have originated In the Old Testament when God made a covenant with Abraham’s family and sealed it with them alone by having all the males in the household circumcised. Paul picks up on this point too in Ephesians 2:11 when talking to Christians who were “Gentiles by birth,” to remind them that because they too were “uncircumcised” they weren’t included in the promises made to Israel. They were outsiders – ‘one of them’.

It was a sore point for the Gentiles because the Jews had constantly picked on them for being uncircumcised (11). To the Jews, however, it was important to keep the distinction alive between ‘us’ (Israelites) and ‘them’ (Gentiles), believing it to be necessary as God’s chosen people, but also because it made them feel superior. The term uncircumcised, therefore, became a derogatory term that kept Jews and Gentiles in constant enmity and conflict.

It was already in use as a derogatory term way back in 1 Samuel 17:26 too, when Goliath was hurling insults at Israel and David got wind of it. David was so incensed he went round the Israelite camp asking, “What’s in it for the man who gets rid of this ugly blot on Israel’s honour? Who does he think he is, anyway, this uncircumcised Philistine taunting the armies of the living God?”

It’s interesting that David used the word “uncircumcised” as the worst word he could come up with for Goliath. He could have used all sorts of other insulting, derogatory terms to express his disgust for Goliath, but he chose the one term that most clearly identified the difference between the Israelites and the pagan Gentiles. He used the one word that told Goliath he was ‘one of them’, an uncircumcised Gentile who deserved to die for picking on Israel.

But David felt justified in treating Goliath with such disdain, because, verse 46, it would show “the whole world there’s an extraordinary God in Israel.” That’s where the great God resided – IN ISRAEL – not with uncircumcised infidels like Goliath. David’s blood was up, therefore, because in his mind the whole world needed a lesson in whose side God was really on, and therefore who was ‘us’ and who was ‘them’ – which all sounded very noble, but look what it did to David….

David was just a young lad fresh off the farm, and not even trained to be a soldier, but he arrives in the Israelite army camp with supplies for his brothers, and on hearing Goliath mock Israel David’s not only ready to take Goliath on one-on-one, he also shouts out to Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:46, “I’m going to kill you, cut off your head, and serve up your body to the crows and coyotes.”

We can think, “How wonderful that David was so fearless,” but what if this was your fifteen or seventeen year old son yelling out this kind of language, and you then watch him do what David did when Goliath hits the ground in verse 51. Here it is: David “ran and stood over Goliath. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the scabbard. After he killed him” – meaning David had just lifted Goliath’s massive sword into the air and plunged it into his body in a spot that was guaranteed to end Goliath’s life – David then “finished the job by cutting off his head.”

It was a brutal act by a young lad, but David was fired up with righteous indignation against this unbelieving infidel daring to challenge his God. But isn’t that what fires up young jihadists today as well, who also justify chopping the heads off unbelieving infidels? And it’s all in the name of their god too. The same brutal actions are still being justified for exactly the same reasons.

We haven’t finished the story yet, either. David then picks up Goliath’s head and takes it with him. And he still has Goliath’s blood-soaked head and glazed stare when Abner ushers him into King Saul’s tent in verse 57, and later on David even took Goliath’s slowly rotting head with him all the way to Jerusalem (54).

I suppose we could excuse David’s behaviour because that was their culture, but we discover later on that God wasn’t happy with David at all for his violent tendencies (1 Chronicles 22:8, 28:3). As a result, David lost out on building the Temple, and on another occasion 70,000 Israelites had to die because David allowed Satan to tempt him into numbering his fighting men to see how strong his army was (1 Chronicles 21:1-5). David wanted to know if he could beat the stuffing out of all those uncircumcised infidels to prove Israel’s superiority as God’s chosen people. It was all about who was ‘us’ and who was ‘them’, and whose side God was really on.

But that wasn’t God’s intent at all. He didn’t have Israelite men circumcised to prove their superiority. Circumcision separated Israel from Gentiles into ‘us’ and ‘them’, oh yes, but never as an excuse for Israelites to look down on Gentiles.

And yet here we are in Ephesians, a thousand years after David called Goliath an uncircumcised Philistine, and Jews are STILL calling Gentiles “uncircumcised” as a derogatory, insulting term. It hasn’t diminished one bit in letting Gentiles know they’re inferior and ‘one of them’.

We can think, “Oh, isn’t that terrible?” but it clearly demonstrates what ‘us’ and ‘them’ can do to people. It turned David into a bloodthirsty killer, and Jews into hate-filled despisers of Gentiles, both of which were in total conflict with God’s purpose. But look what it’s done to the Christian Church too: It’s turned Christians into bloodthirsty Crusaders who gloried in the death of pagans – with the Pope’s blessing too. It’s also turned Catholics and Protestants into hate-filled despisers of each other, and in two World Wars millions of Christians killed and maimed each other, but all justified because, they said, God was on their side.

So what became of Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2:14-15, that “The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders…(so that)…Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody”?

And when did that fresh start begin? When “Christ brought us together through his death on the cross,” verse 16. “The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility.” Jesus’ death, in other words, brought an end to all this nonsense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ once and for all. No more could ‘us’ and ‘them’ be used by Jews as an excuse to insult and discriminate against Gentiles; nor could it be used as an excuse for Christians to go on crusades to kill and maim Jews, Muslims and even their fellow Christians; nor could it be used as an excuse to call people infidels and unbelievers, or to claim you’re the master race, or to look down on non-Christians as inferior people, or to view other Christians with different ideas as less spiritual than you.

All that rubbish was supposed to come to an end – and especially in the Christian Church – when Jesus died on the cross for both Jews and Gentiles. And by dying for both Jews and Gentiles, it clearly meant Jesus died for everybody, regardless of their race, their religion, their political affiliation, or whether they became Christians, or not. By dying for everybody Jesus leveled the playing field. “He treated us as equals, and so made us equals,” Paul writes in verse 17. So if Jesus treats us all as equals, what excuse holds any water whatsoever for US not treating each other as equals as well?

“Well,” a person might say, “why did God insist on that really weird custom of circumcising men and boys, and even little babies, to make them noticeably different to everyone else? Wasn’t it God, then, who got this whole idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’ started?”

Yes, it was, but not to make one group of people stand out as superior to everyone else. For a start, circumcision wasn’t all that noticeable, because it wasn’t something you waved around in public, and who would know you were an Israelite unless your pants fell down? Right off the bat, then, circumcision was never meant as an open display to prove you were Israelite and not Gentile, nor was it meant to be a clear sign to everybody else that God was with you and not with them. It had nothing to do with either of those things.

But if it wasn’t for those things, what was circumcision for instead, then? There’s a clue in the first mention of circumcision in Genesis 17, right after God tells Abraham in verse 5, “I’m making you the father of many nations.” So the context of circumcision is a promise from God that Abraham would produce many children creating entire nations and the kings that ruled them (6). The focus, take note, is totally on the children that would issue from Abraham, because it was through those children that God would covenant forever to give them the land of Canaan and be their God (8).

Abraham’s children now became the main focus of Scripture. It’s not surprising, then, that God chose a sign in the one place on Abraham’s body where children are created. Circumcision was a highly effective way of getting each generation of children tracing its ancestry back to Abraham to remember that it was through them and their children that God was fulfilling his promise. “That way,” verse 13, “my covenant will be cut into your body, a permanent mark of my permanent covenant.” And it was cut into the body in the one place where the children God was fulfilling his covenant through would be produced.

But wasn’t this still separating out Abraham’s children as different, special and superior? And wasn’t it separating out the men as special too, since there was no corresponding circumcision for Abraham’s female children?

Fortunately, both questions are answered in this same chapter, because God immediately pronounces a blessing on Abraham’s wife, even changing her name to ‘Princess’ in verse 15, in recognition that she was just as important in the production of children for his purpose. She’s every bit Abraham’s equal.

And notice in Genesis 17:12-13 that God includes adults and children – who AREN’T directly related to Abraham and Sarah – among those who are circumcised. He includes “house born slaves and slaves bought from outsiders who are not blood kin,” and “anyone brought in from the outside.”

So God wasn’t restricting ‘membership in the club’ to only those who could trace their ancestry back to Abraham and Sarah. Anyone could be a member of the club. The only requirement was circumcision for a person to be included in all the promises God made to Abraham. So not only was God establishing equality between male and female back here in Genesis 17, he was also establishing equality between all people. He included everyone, male and female, as well as blood relatives and foreigners, in his promise to be their God, giving them ALL equal access to his personal care and love – and a part in his purpose – for nothing more than circumcision of all their men and male children.

There is no talk here in Genesis 17 of God selecting out Abraham and his descendants as special or superior. Quite the opposite: God is totally open to anyone sharing in his purpose from now on, so long as they are circumcised – which may come as a bit of a shock for Jews today because it included Ishmael and all his descendants too, which the Arabs today believe is them.

It’s possible to get the impression that God only passed down his covenant promises through Abraham’s son Isaac and his descendants. It’s true, yes, that God had something specific in mind for just the line of children that would come from Isaac (21), but never to the exclusion of everyone else, including Ishmael.

We learn something very special about God in his dealings with Ishmael. First of all, he takes note of Abraham’s plea in verse 18 to bless Ishmael too. “I heard your prayer for Ishmael,” God tells Abraham in verse 20, and “I’ll bless him; I’ll make sure he has plenty of children – a huge family. I’ll make him a great nation.” So God makes a very personal covenant with Ishmael too. It doesn’t include the promise of Jesus Christ through Abraham’s son, Isaac, but notice that God doesn’t exclude Ishmael from all the other promises given to Abraham.

We see that in verse 23 when “Abraham took his son Ishmael and all his servants, whether house-born or purchased – every male in his household – and circumcised them.” And in verse 26, “Abraham and Ishmael were circumcised the same day together.” So Ishmael is on the same level as Abraham; he too gets to share in all the promises God made in the circumcision covenant.

What I get from all this is that God isn’t trying to separate people. He’s not making one group of people superior to another. He doesn’t make circumcision a separating, exclusive act. ANY man or boy could be circumcised in Abraham’s household and share in the covenant promises. And God doesn’t favour Isaac over Ishmael, either; he blesses both of them with unbreakable covenants that both include the promise of nations and rulers. Nor does God favour men over women. Abraham’s name is changed to a ‘Father of many nations’, but God changes Sarah’s name to ‘Princess’, a lovely term of endearment that Dads still use for their daughters.

God doesn’t even favour Sarah over Hagar, her foreign Egyptian handmaid. We see that in Genesis 21:10 when Sarah, in a huff after seeing Ishmael poke fun at Isaac, tells Abraham in no uncertain terms it’s time for Hagar and Ishmael to go. I can sympathize with her anger, having to watch Ishmael, by now a smart aleck teenage, tease her helpless toddler to tears, but Sarah’s anger suddenly blazes into the same type of separating, derogatory language David used for Goliath. It suddenly becomes an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ when she yells at Abraham, “No child of this slave is going to share the inheritance with MY son Isaac.”

God has only just said that any child circumcised in Abraham and Sarah’s household can share in the inheritance, but Sarah doesn’t want Ishmael, Abraham’s very own son, sharing in the inheritance, because he’s the child of a lowly slave; he’s ‘one of them’. She uses the one term that separates her sons into two classes of people, the deserving and the undeserving, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, the ones God is really blessing and the ones who are always on the outside looking in.

Abraham was devastated (11), because he loved Ishmael as much as Isaac. Abraham didn’t differentiate between his sons at all. And God clearly felt the same way, because he reassures Abraham in verse 13 that Ishmael will be fine because “he’s your son too.” In God’s eyes, Ishmael was every bit Isaac’s equal, and he repeats his promise to make a great nation from Ishmael’s descendants.

So next morning Hagar and Ishmael trudge off into the desert with a packed lunch and a canteen of water hurriedly prepared by Abraham himself – with no help from his wife (take note). Sarah had totally rejected Ishmael, even to the point of not caring one bit if she never saw him again, or even if he died from lack of food and water in the desert. But God wasn’t Sarah. When Ishmael was close to death, God heard the boy’s cries and saved his life (19).

The story ends with this poignant statement in Genesis 21:20 (from The Message): “God was on the boy’s side as he grew up.” God never took his eyes off Ishmael, and never forgot his promise to Ishmael’s descendants either.

It’s a great pity, then, that Jews and Arabs today, who both trace their ancestry back to Abraham and his two sons, don’t take that verse into account, that God was as much on the side of Ishmael as he was on the side of Isaac. He was on the side of both boys. He treated them as equals.

It’s also a great pity that Jews and Arabs today have forgotten (or refuse to remember) what happened when Abraham died, because in Genesis 25:9 it says, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him.” The two brothers were there together to bury their Dad, with no hostility whatsoever between them. And Isaac had no trouble sharing the duties of burial equally with his brother.

Would that have happened if Sarah had been there? Not on your life (or hers), but she’d been dead for a while, so she wasn’t there to kick up a stink about the “slave’s boy” being present, or to accuse Ishmael of sucking up to the family to get some of the inheritance. It was Sarah who’d got all this nonsense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ started, and Sarah who’d thrown Ishmael to the vultures, creating this mess in the first place, but once she was dead and gone and out of the way, the two boys came together as one.

And that’s exactly what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 2:15, that Jesus’ purpose “was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace.” With all that mess in the past done away by Jesus’ death, Jew and Gentile could also come together in peace as one.

And it took JESUS’ funeral to make that happen too. That was the point too when ALL divisions, separations, exclusivity and alienation melted away. The days of who was and wasn’t circumcised were over. Jew or Gentile, Jew or Arab; it made no difference: If a person had been “excluded from citizenship in Israel” and “the covenants of the promise” because he wasn’t a direct descendant of Abraham’s son, Isaac, that exclusion had ended. All that ‘us’ and ‘them’ nonsense, that had made people like Sarah treat people as inferior beings, was now extinct. Whatever had caused hostility between people in the past was over, because in Christ’s death every single person on the planet, bar none, was reconciled to God (16) AND given equal access to him (18). Anyone now could “approach God with freedom and confidence,” Ephesians 3:12.

And that takes us right back to the circumcision covenant in Genesis 17 when God made it clear through the act of circumcision that anyone had access to his care and love, AND to all his promises and blessings to Abraham. It gave everyone the chance, foreigners included, to be part of God’s plan to set up his Kingdom on earth and bless all nations, but it all got messed up by human jealousy, misguided zeal for God, favouring one child over another, treating some people as inferior beings, and wanting to prove that God was only on your side and only blessing you.

So Paul reminds us all (and especially Christians) in Ephesians 2 that when Jesus died we humans got the chance to start all over again with a clean sheet. He talks about a “new man” emerging (15), a new type of human being who wouldn’t make an issue out of who was circumcised and who wasn’t as a way of making himself feel superior and others feel inferior.

This was the great “mystery” that Paul had come to understand from Christ’s death, that “Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus,” Ephesians 3:6. But that’s exactly what God made possible when he made the circumcision covenant with Abraham. Direct descendants of Abraham AND foreigners could be members together, sharing as one body in the promises God made to Abraham.

What a tragedy, then, that humanity had to wait more than two thousand years to understand that we’re all, in fact, “fellow citizens” in “God’s household,” Ephesians 2:19, and we’re all “joined together” (21), and we’re all “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (22). This was God’s plan for all of us all along. If only, then, we’d got the point of the circumcision covenant four thousand years ago, because we could all have been experiencing the fruits of that – instead of the mess we’re in right now.

But at least we know what the problem is that caused the mess in the first place. It was all this nonsense of ‘us’ and ’them’ that justified looking down on other people as inferior, that also excused hatred, mass killings and cold-blooded murder. The question has to be asked, therefore, “Have WE in the Church today grasped what Paul was getting at?”

Well, there’s an easy way of finding out: It’s in our view of other people. Do we believe that Christ’s death has made us all equals? Do we view ourselves and everyone else out there as “members together of one body?”

Do we agree with Paul in Ephesians 3:6 that “we all stand on the same ground before God,” and that every one of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, “get the same offer, same help, same promises in Jesus Christ,” and that what we preach as Christians “is accessible and welcoming to everyone across the board”? Could we, if a homosexual walked into this room to attend church with us, welcome him as family?

Or would we view him as ‘one of them’? Would there still be a little wall of hostility toward him? Where on the spectrum of peace made possible by Jesus’ death would we stand? Would we welcome the chance to show him we’re all “heirs together” in the promises God made to Abraham, or is there a little bit of Sarah in us still that doesn’t want people we don’t approve of sharing in God’s blessings? Could there even be a little bit of David still tucked away inside us, that would like to lop off the homosexual’s head and carry it round with us as a trophy of our spiritual superiority?

But these were the practical points Paul was asking Christians in Ephesians to remember, because it’s in the Church where this new man would emerge for all to see. It’s in the Church that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, and no one is viewed as an outsider. When people bump into Christians there is no hint of rejection, hostility, one-upmanship, condemnation, or even disdain. There is no talk of people deserving to go to hell. Christians don’t even like to separate people into believers and unbelievers, because that too may be misunderstood as exclusivity, superiority and putting up walls between people.

It takes us back to what God created the Church for. It wasn’t to create an inner club or an Old Boys’ network, it was to preach and demonstrate the new man being created in the Church since Christ’s death. The Church is the one place on the planet, therefore, that makes real why Christ died AND what he now lives for, which is inviting anyone and everyone “to belong to his church,” Ephesians 3:6 (The Living Bible), because from the moment Jesus died “all of God’s promises of mighty blessings through Christ apply to them” too.

The promises God made to Abraham and sealed in the covenant of circumcision now apply to ‘us’ and ‘them’ equally, because the line of Abraham’s descendants through Isaac that led to Jesus Christ and his death has made those promises available to everyone. The whole point of the covenant with Abraham’s son, Isaac, therefore, was to free up those blessings for everyone, thereby removing even the remotest hint of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ forever.

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“Come out from among them and be separate” – meaning?

Paul, in no uncertain terms in 2 Corinthians 6:17, tells the Christians in Corinth to separate themselves from all contact with the pagan gods and idols in the city. They were to “come out” of all that nonsense they’d been involved in before, and have nothing to do with it anymore.

It was probably a tough order for the Corinthian Christians to obey, however, because they’d been soaked in paganism all their lives. It was like being told by your Doctor to quit smoking when you’ve been smoking two packets a day since teenage. The Doctor usually adds a useful incentive, though – like recovery from all lung damage in just two months if you quit right now. Paul too offered positive incentive to those Corinthian Christians to quit paganism, because if they really got serious about quitting they’d discover what it was like being loved as sons and daughters of the real God instead (verse 18).

Separation, then, wasn’t a negative thing. It wasn’t about being wary of your neighbours because of what they might do to you and your children. It wasn’t about being fearful of bad influences, like keeping your children away from non-Christian kids, or refusing a cup of tea with your Muslim neighbours, or not celebrating Christmas with relatives who don’t believe in God. It didn’t mean hiding away from society and cutting off all contact with people. It was about opening the doors of your mind to a whole new experience and the promise our Father God made in verse 16 to “live with us, walk with us, be our God and make us his very own.”

God wants to be “a Father to us” (verse 18), with all the benefits that only he can offer, but that’s difficult when we’re still attached to the gods we looked to in the past. It’s like being a step dad and watching your step son still hankering for his real father, even though the real father is a total dud, and you, the step dad, have given the kid everything he needs, and you always will. As a step dad in that situation you’d like to take the child to another country far away, to sever the tie with his useless father and make the separation complete, so the child can experience what it’s like being loved in a happy, stable, peaceful family at last.

Well, Corinth was like that useless Dad. It had nothing to offer in the way of love, stability and peace in life. It was all superstition and fear. So, Paul says, drop all that stuff, because it’s nothing like what the real God has to offer.

“Don’t be yoked together with unbelievers” – but how?

Tons of people are “unbelievers,” who don’t believe what Christians believe, including one’s own husband or wife perhaps, or one’s own children and other family members. And the neighbours next door yelling at each other at midnight probably aren’t Christians either, nor are the people at work who tell unsavoury jokes, nor is the Bank clerk sniggering at the state of your savings account, and nor, perhaps, is the girl you’ve been dating who doesn’t want to go to church with you. So should all these people be avoided and relationships with them broken off because Paul says in 2 Corinthian 6:14 we shouldn’t be yoked with unbelievers?

But Paul does say “yoked,” like two horses yoked together pulling a plough, meaning they can’t avoid each other and they can’t break off their relationship. They are stuck with each other, which creates a real problem if they’re very different. If one horse pulls much harder the plough veers off course. If one horse is much taller the yoke doesn’t sit right and it rubs and hurts them both. A farmer with any sense, therefore, would not hitch two very different animals together, because it simply doesn’t work.

But why would Paul use that analogy for Christians living in Corinth? Because Corinth exerted a powerful pull in a totally different direction to Christianity. It was a different horse all together. It built temples to other gods and worshipped man-made idols. Their year revolved around festivals and “sacrifices offered to demons, not to God” (1 Corinthians 10:20). To hitch oneself to a typical Corinthian in an unbreakable relationship, therefore, was taking a huge risk, because you could end up being “participants with demons” (verse 20).

To wake Christians up to that danger, Paul quotes Isaiah 52:11, which The Message translates as, “Don’t link up with those who will pollute you.” In other words, don’t get stuck in a relationship with someone that you know will pull you in a direction you don’t want to go in as a Christian. You know because the signs are obvious – the other person isn’t the least bit interested in Christian principles, and he’s constantly yanking at the yoke to get you to live like him. But you can’t live like him, so you yank in the opposite direction, and now the yoke is rubbing and hurting both of you.

The simplest way to avoid that situation in the first place is to remember that we’re God’s children now and we’re linked, or yoked, to him (2 Corinthians 6:18). So concentrate on being in step with him, rather than getting stuck in relationships that will constantly be yanking us away from him.

Ephesians part 3 – No longer outsiders

Ephesians Part 2 described the Middle Wall of Partition in Herod’s Temple that prevented all Gentiles from entering the Temple’s inner courts. Paul called it a “dividing wall of hostility” in Ephesians 2:14, because it kept Jews and Gentiles apart, but with Christ’s death that separation was torn down and removed.

Paul could now tell all Gentiles in verse 19 (The Message): “You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders.”

Paul is talking to anyone and everyone who isn’t a Jew by birth. Well, I’m not a Jew by birth, nor are my children, nor, I imagine, are most of the people living in this area where we meet. Nor are my neighbours back home. Nor as far as I know are the people I talk to at the Bank, at my favourite watering holes, at the cash out in the stores I buy stuff from, or where I take my wounded car to be repaired. I assume there are Jews born to Jewish families living in my city but I haven’t met any of them in the last twenty years I’ve lived here.

And at one time that would have been a real problem, because as Paul writes in verse 12, “It was only yesterday that you outsiders (non-Jews) were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” Anyone who wasn’t a Jew or an Israelite by birth had no part in God’s plan for humanity, no part in what God had been doing in and through Israel for nineteen hundred years, and no idea what God was doing in the world at large. The greatest game in the universe was on but most people through the centuries had no idea it was being played, nor were they playing any part of it.

They were outsiders, a very negative word, because who likes being an outsider? In school it’s awful if you’re left out of the action, you’re not invited to other kids’ homes or parties, you aren’t anyone’s choice for their baseball team, or you’re marginalized and bullied for being fat, odd or nerdy. For a child, feeling like an outsider is the worst experience possible.

It continues into adulthood too. It’s a horrible feeling entering a room and everyone’s in groups happily chatting away together and you’re left standing there alone and no one wants to talk to you. Or you’re in a group of people who love talking and arguing about the latest baseball game, but you can’t join in because it’s like a foreign language to you. And what you want to talk about they can’t relate to either. You feel like an outsider looking in, like a street urchin at Christmas-time looking through the window at a family happily feasting away, and wishing he could join in, but he can’t.

I imagine many refugees and immigrants coming to Canada experience that same feeling too, of entering a completely different culture and never quite relating to it. I’m a case in point, because I’ve lived and worked in Canada for 39 years in eight provinces but in all that time I’ve only been to one hockey game, I don’t know the names of any of today’s hockey players on any Canadian hockey team, and I know only one chap by name on any Canadian baseball team, and only because he happened to be on the TV news one day chucking his bat away in a show of triumph, which was newsworthy for some odd reason.

To a born and bred Canadian it seals my identity as an outsider, because how can anyone call himself a Canadian and not identify with what Canadians live for? And I admit at times it bothers me when I get those little reminders that it’s true, that for all my 39 years living all over this country I’m really still an outsider and a stranger living in a foreign land.

But that’s who we all were according to Paul. When it came to THE most important game being played on this planet we were ALL outsiders if we weren’t Israelites or Jews. We weren’t part of the action, we weren’t invited to the party, we weren’t God’s choice for the team, and we were marginalized and left on the sidelines as those “without hope and without God in the world.”

And a lot of people, unfortunately, are acting as though that’s still true. Think of all the people today, for instance, including our own relatives perhaps, who drive or walk by Christian churches every day and those churches mean nothing. To them churches are in an odd and separate world of rituals, pews, pipe organs and musty smells that offer little hope or practical help in the crushing stress of raising children, working at a dead-end job, and fighting traffic, health problems and bullies in the workplace. To step inside a church feels like stepping through the wardrobe into the land of Narnia. It feels strange and it smells strange. How unfortunate, that in the places where God is making his plan known people feel like outsiders and strangers in a foreign land.

And what makes that even worse is that Christ died to stop us feeling like strangers and outsiders. We WERE outsiders, yes, but “Now because of Christ, dying that death, shedding that blood,” Ephesians 2:13, “you who were once out of it altogether are (now) in on everything.”

But what did Paul mean by being “in on everything”? What’s the “everything” bit all about? Paul answers that back in verse 12: He means every bit of what the JEWS had. Whatever the Jews were “in on” we Gentiles are now in on those things too, because we’re no longer “excluded from citizenship in Israel” – thanks to Christ’s death – and we’re no longer “foreigners to the covenants of the promise” either.

But why was it so important to have “citizenship in Israel”? Or put in our terms today, why was it so important to have a passport identifying us as Israelite?

The simple answer is: Because Israel was the nation over which God ruled. As a citizen of Israel, therefore, you were a citizen of God’s Kingdom, the Kingdom where God made the rules, where God was your Protector and Defense Department, where God dealt with terrorists and tyrants, where God maintained the food supply, where God kept everything financially sound, and God provided all the health and wealth the nation needed. And as citizens of Israel you were also the people God had chosen to fulfill his plan through. You had a God-given calling and all the equipment and help needed to fulfill it, which filled each and every day with meaning, optimism, hope and purpose.

To have citizenship in Israel, therefore, gave you a real feeling of belonging, of being hand-in-hand with God in the most important plan in history. It also gave you a feeling of camaraderie, that all of you as God’s treasured people were “in on” this plan together, all of you were needed, and all of you had something to contribute, because that’s why God had chosen you in the first place.

By contrast, if you weren’t a citizen of Israel your passport was merely stamped with the word ‘pagan’, which didn’t carry any meaning or significance whatsoever. You could proudly call yourself Greek, Roman or Persian, but in reality you were no different from each other, because you were all equally addicted to a weird assortment of gods and idols that did nothing to alleviate your anxiety about the future, nothing to make you feel loved or wanted, nothing to give you a sense of belonging and camaraderie, and nothing to give you hope and purpose every day.

The pagan gods were utterly useless. They could never be depended on for anything, nor did they respond to human need, and nor did they offer any certainty about the future. Worse still, the gods were an irritable lot. They blew hot and cold, and you never knew if you’d pleased them enough, or what would happen if you’d trodden on the gods’ sensitivities and you hadn’t made up for it with sufficient groveling and sacrifices.

And as pagans your Head of State was no Benefactor God with your best interests in mind. Instead, you were in the iron grip of “the ruler of the kingdom of the air,” Ephesians 2:2, a distant, unidentifiable spirit whose power and influence secretly and cunningly focused all your attention on yourself, consuming and wasting your precious life on “gratifying the cravings of your sinful nature, and following its desires and thoughts” (verse 3).

But that was the life of an outsider, a non-Jew. It was pointless, self-centred, and frustrating, which often led to conflict, war, and terrible cruelty. Just like our world today the pagan world of old was obsessed with violence. And because there was no sense of belonging to a God who loved you, the world seemed like a cold, heartless place, and life was an endless grind. You were on your own, struggling through life as best you could – and still without knowing for certain what happened after you died either.

It’s not surprising, then, that most pagan Greeks and Romans didn’t worship any gods at all. They built magnificent temples and dedicated them to the gods, which gave the impression that “in every way you are very religious,” as Paul described the Athenian Greeks in Acts 17:22, but in reality they had no interest in their idols, gods or their temples, because none of their objects of worship offered any certainty about anything. As a pagan you could only hope the gods would be kind and merciful to you, but even that depended on what you did to please them. The real God, meanwhile, was a total “unknown” to them (23), which explains why the Greek pagans “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (21). And all for no purpose whatsoever.

It’s not surprising, then, that archaeologists discovered that many 1st century Greek and Roman tombstones had the words NO HOPE written on them. So here were thousands of people in what we describe today as ‘The great cultures of the past’ who actually thought life was meaningless. And the writings of their own great thinkers and philosophers reflected that despair too, that we humans are on our own down here with no hope, no purpose, and no help.

It sounds terribly like our culture today, in people who believe life came from a cosmic accident, and therefore human existence has no purpose beyond making the most of life for oneself. And the result is exactly the same as in the pagan cultures of the past. Our culture, just like theirs, is full of hopelessness and despair. Watch an hour of news on TV and it’s full of people complaining about their lot in life, of angry mobs marching the streets demanding their rights be met, and grief-stricken families sobbing about their relatives being senselessly gunned down and murdered.

So, to lighten the mood a bit, the news program throws in an entertainment section, which often includes a review of a movie, or a TV series, or the latest video game. But most of what is considered entertainment nowadays is simply an extension of what we just watched on the news. It’s still about weird people doing horrible things to each other. And gory, cruel and brutal though much of it is, we can’t seem to get enough of it.

But that’s what happens to a culture when it has no hope and no God to turn to. It resorts to the same old pagan custom of solving problems by revenge killings, intimidation, murder and cruelty. We too, then, are experiencing the despair and hopelessness of paganism spilling out – as it always has in pagan cultures – in an obsession with violence.

And it’s happening just as much in people who say they believe in God and claim their religions are religions of peace. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus all readily take up weapons to kill and maim, as if their God or gods don’t exist to intervene and help them. It was only the threat of annihilation at Dunkirk in May 1940, for instance, that stirred the King of England to call a National Day of Prayer. Before Dunkirk the call was to kill and maim for King and country. How tragic, that a Christian nation forgot they were citizens of the Kingdom of God, and their King was Jesus, and he would do all the fighting needed. They were still acting like outsiders, in other words, as if they had no access to a real God who would fight their battles for them.

That’s not to condemn anyone for the choices made, but Paul did make it clear that “through the cross,” Ephesians 2:16, every human being, Jew and Gentile, verse 18, has “access to the Father by one Spirit.” Faced with overwhelming odds, therefore, or the awful feeling of hopelessness we get as the world careens from one crisis to another, we Gentiles now have God as close to us as he was to Israel. And every time the Israelites cried out to him, God answered.

And it was Paul’s job to get us Gentiles to grasp that. That’s why Jesus knocked Paul to the ground in Acts 26 and told him in verse 18 he was sending Paul to both Jews and Gentiles to open our eyes to the realization that God doesn’t want us thinking like pagans anymore. We can be free of all that pagan hopelessness and despair, and “turn from (that pagan) darkness to light” (18). We can break away from the devil’s madness infecting our brains and “turn from the power of Satan to God” (18). And we can be forgiven for every angry, hurtful, revengeful, violent reaction we’ve had to people “SO THAT” (still in verse 18) we can take our “place among God’s chosen people” (Today’s English Version).

Instead of thinking like pagan outsiders, therefore, who have no grasp of a real God working with us humans to rescue us from our hopelessness and despair, we can legitimately think of ourselves as citizens of Israel, as “God’s chosen people” and as insiders who are “in on everything” God is doing.

In other words, if we firmly believe what Paul said in Ephesians 2, that Christ’s death has flung open the doors to citizenship in Israel being possible for Gentiles too, so that we too can take all our frustration and feelings of powerlessness directly to the Lord of the universe – exactly like any citizen of Israel could – then hopefully it dawns on us, at last, that we are no longer outsiders.

As citizens of the Kingdom of God, with God as our Father, Jesus as our King, and the Spirit as our personal and ever present Guide, God is intimately involved in fulfilling his purpose in and through us, just as he did in and through Israel. We’re not stuck like those Gentile Greeks in Athens hoping a God exists who answers prayers, or hoping there’s a purpose behind everything that’s happening, or hoping the gods will be good to them.

We aren’t like the poor native Indian in South America either, who admitted to a missionary that in the jungle he (the Indian) “never knew a day without fear. When we woke up in the morning, we were afraid. When we went out of our houses, we were afraid. When we walked along the river, we were afraid. We saw an evil spirit in every stone and tree and waterfall. And when night fell, fear came into our huts and slept with us all night long.”

And how many people today live in similar fear of what tomorrow holds? Will there be another terrorist attack or some random gunman suddenly shooting people in their neighbourhood? Will their kids be safe in school today? Will the global economy take another dive? Will our politicians drag us into another war? Will I go to work tomorrow morning and find we’ve been locked out?

So think what entering a Christian church would do for people, where the power of evil isn’t feared, and there’s not an ounce of hopelessness and despair. But that’s exactly what God had in mind as a result of Paul’s preaching, as Paul himself told King Agrippa in Acts 26:19-20.

“So then,” Paul tells the king in verse 19, I’ve been doing what Jesus told me to do. I’ve been opening Jewish and Gentile eyes to the opportunity they both have to “repent,” verse 20, which in context means dump all that devil-inspired pagan nonsense that ruled their lives, “and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” meaning show what happens when you trust God instead.

And isn’t that exactly what Christians all through the centuries have been doing? Instead of resorting to violence or cowering in fear like pagans do when evil threatens, Christians trust God. And the reason we trust God is that we accept what Paul said about the doors being flung open to God’s kingdom by Christ’s death, and we’re now on the inside, as close to God as you can get.

But wasn’t that the hope the pagan Greeks had back in Acts 17, that there really was a God who was close to them? Paul even quotes one of their own pagan poets who said, “We are his offspring.” It reveals the longing that even the most pagan people had for a God who really exists and has our best interests in mind because he loves us.

What Paul was saying, therefore, was the best news possible for those Athenian Greeks, because they were fed up with all that religious stuff cluttering up their city that didn’t give them any feeling of belonging to a God who had a purpose for their lives. They wanted to feel like they were on the inside, close to a real God like children in a loving home. That’s what they missed with their own gods, who seemed to have no interest in anything but themselves.

And now, suddenly, here’s Paul waving his arms around saying the kind of God they longed for actually exists. That yes, there really is a God beyond all that empty man-made temple and ritual stuff, who “gives all men life and breath and everything else” (25), who has a purpose for human life and where he’s placed people (26), and his purpose is absolutely clear: “God did this,” verse 27, “SO THAT we could seek after him, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near.” So, yes, Paul says, your poet was right; we are truly God’s children. We really are as close to God as that. We’re not outsiders at all.

But Paul hasn’t finished yet, because in his mind what he’s just said demands a response. And here it is: “Therefore,” Acts 17:29, “since we are God’s offspring” – or since God really is as close to us as that – God “now commands all people everywhere to repent,” verse 30, or as The Message phrases it, God’s “calling for a radical life-change” – which is exactly what Paul told King Agrippa nine chapters later in Acts 26:20, that obvious changes happen in people’s lives when it dawns on them that Christ’s death has flung open the doors to God’s Kingdom, and the resurrected Jesus stands there with open arms offering free and guaranteed access to all the help, forgiveness, love and power we need to live in and resist this ridiculous world and its empty, meaningless pagan ways.

We have quite a message, then, for people longing for some sort of meaning and purpose in life and not finding it in anything the world has to offer. The message is this: That as far as God is concerned no one is an outsider, and certainly not since Christ died. So start acting and living as though you’re not outsiders, because, Acts 17:31, God “has set a day when the entire human race will be judged and everything set right.”

Judgment, unfortunately, sounds terribly negative, especially in a world already tuned to hopelessness and despair, but what Paul meant by judgment in context here was amazingly positive, because it’s saying there IS a plan, and it’s all about putting this world to rights and a radical life-change for the better coming up for every human being one day – for Jews AND Gentiles – because God has already appointed Jesus to make it happen, verse 31, and “He’s given proof of this to all men by raising Jesus from the dead.”

Well, Jesus was raised from the dead two thousand years ago, so that means he’s been working away at God’s plan for that long already, the clear proof of which, according to Paul, is the radical life-change (or repentance) already happening in people who hear the good news that they’re no longer outsiders and they too can be in on everything that God is doing through Jesus right now, with total access to God for all the help needed to do it – and they believe it, and want to be part of it. And the amazing thing is, that people you’d think would have no interest in that kind of message – like those bored, restless, totally non-religious pagan Greeks in Athens – do take note and respond. “Let’s do this again,” some of them told Paul in verse 32, “we want to hear more.”

So Jesus is putting out the call in the gospel message, “Come join me in what I’m doing. Stop thinking like outsiders, and muck in with me.”

And on a personal note, as a person who has always felt like an outsider, I take my cue from Jesus’ call to Matthew.

Matthew had always been an outsider. He was a tax collector, meaning he paid the taxes the Romans demanded out of his own pocket and then by Roman law he was allowed to reimburse himself by setting up a customs office on the main highway passing through Capernaum and collecting duties on imported goods brought in by farmers, merchants, and travelers. But he used his position and the protection of the Romans to demand far more than he was owed, and his fellow Jews hated him for it. He was a Jew by birth, but among his own people he was an outsider. As a tax collector he wasn’t even allowed in the synagogue.

And being loathed by his fellow Jews, he was always on the fringe of the crowd whenever Jesus came through town. Matthew wasn’t even allowed to talk to a Rabbi, so he was never able to get close to Jesus. But when Jesus saw Matthew on duty one day he veered off the road, strode up to Matthew’s desk, looked him squarely in the eye and said, “Matthew, come with me.”

And what followed expresses the longing of all outsiders. There was no “What me, right now?” from Matthew. Given the chance to follow Jesus he did not hesitate. He rose from his seat and took off after Jesus, totally leaving behind a life of wealth and security that most people can only dream of. It was probably the most sudden and radical life-change ever made in a person in Scripture in response to an invitation from Jesus to muck in and join him.

And it came from an outsider, a person who knew from a lifetime’s experience what it feels like to be on the outside looking in. Well, there are tons of people like Matthew today who’ve also had a lifetime’s worth of hopelessness and despair and never felt like they’re part of any plan or purpose, that given the chance to hear what Jesus is doing and his open invitation to be part of it with him would respond like Matthew. And like Matthew maybe they’ll even go tell their friends as well so they can share in it too.

It happens. It happened to the pagan Greeks in Athens, and it happened to Matthew. And it happens just as much today as Jesus reaches out through his Church to the Matthews and Greeks of our day with the same clear message: That as far as God is concerned there are no more outsiders. Anyone and everyone can join Jesus in his quest to put this world to rights. And for some people it’s exactly what they’ve been longing to hear, that there really is a plan and purpose and they too can be in on everything to do with it.

Does God ever punish us because we deserve it?

If it’s true that God punishes us because we deserve it, then the same principle must apply to parents punishing their children.

That being the case, what should a parent do if his (or her) child breaks a window after being told in no uncertain terms not to bounce a ball off the wall of the house? The child has disobeyed resulting in a cost to repair the window, time spent finding someone to repair it, the mess of broken glass having to be cleaned up, possible injury to someone inside the house from flying glass that has to be attended to immediately, and the fright it gave everyone when the window suddenly smashed. If the parents were also stressed out at the time, and had other pressing needs to attend to, it probably resulted in anger on the parents’ part, expressed in loud yelling, name-calling, reminders of past acts of brainless stupidity, tears of frustration on Mother’s part that her child never listens to her, and growlings from Dad about the need for punishment to wake the kid up to what he’s done.

It’s not a pleasant scene but is it a necessary one for children to learn to obey? The child surely deserves some sort of telling off for his flagrant disobedience, and for not respecting his parents’ wishes or their wisdom. But there’s a huge risk attached, because the child could get the impression he’s not loved whenever he does something wrong. His father’s flushed face and his mother’s wailing, followed by isolation of the offending boy in his room with no supper that night, could easily be interpreted by the child as intense dislike for him personally, and that he deserves to be intensely disliked. And what havoc is that causing in the child’s head, that he’ll never quite deal with for the rest of his life?

It’s risky, then, giving a child the impression that he’s being punished because he deserves it. But what if the parent punishes the child for the same reason God punishes us? God punishes to protect us. He either creates consequences, or lets natural penalties take their course, to put us to rights, not to penalize us for our wrongs. In Acts 17:31 it says there’s a day coming “when the entire human race will be judged,” which some interpret as including deserved punishment in hell forever, but the verse finishes with, “and everything set right” (The Message).

That’s God’s goal, to put everything to rights. So that’s his purpose for punishment. It’s corrective for our good, never because we deserve it.

Diatribe versus dialogue (or, “Let’s talk”)

The world is full of different religions that were started by different men at different times in history. All these religions have different beliefs, different rituals, and different views of the afterlife. They also derive their way of life, their teachings, and their view of God (or gods) from different holy books. They also preach a different message about the purpose of creation and humanity. It certainly makes getting along together a challenge.

And then there’s the problem of people within each of these religions not agreeing too. Splits and divisions, and even outright warfare and brutal persecutions, have broken out between different factions in the same religion, most of which have seethed for centuries without resolution. And even down at the local level, people get terribly upset if a traditional belief or ritual is updated, or the piano is moved to the other side of the stage.

But try to get to the root cause of all these differences and divisions and it usually results in a diatribe from those who believe that only their tradition, or their version of doctrinal purity and their interpretation of the faith once delivered, is correct. It’s good that they’re firm in their beliefs, but what became of dialogue to discuss differences and refine beliefs together?

Dialogue, not diatribe, was how the early church resolved issues. When faced with a challenge that unsettled the church in Acts 15:1-2, “The church decided to resolve the matter by sending Paul, Barnabas, and a few others to put it before the apostles and leaders in Jerusalem.” And in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas “were graciously received” (verse 4). A “special meeting was called to consider the matter,” and yes, there was a heated exchange as different views were expressed (verses 6-7), but both sides were heard, Scripture was consulted, and a decision was made – to which “Everyone agreed” (verse 22).

Dialogue, in other words, won the day, not diatribe.

And when Paul arrived in Athens in Acts 17, preaching a message that was totally foreign to the Athenians, including some of their best and brightest intellectuals, they were willing to dialogue. They asked Paul to explain himself “so we can understand” (verse 20), and they gave him a chance to put his view forward without interruption. Paul, in return, did not scoff at their beliefs or show any disrespect toward those people at all. Everyone kept their guns in their holsters. It was a fine example of people from different religious traditions hearing each other out.

It didn’t result in agreement on all points, but it did result in some of those Athenians wanting to meet with Paul again (verse 33).

Dialogue caused that to happen, not diatribe.

Does everything really work out in the end?

If the answer to the question above is “No” then Christians don’t have a message to preach. Christians preach the Good News (and only good news), so where’s the good news in even the hint of things not working out in everyone’s life in the end? We have to say everything’s going to work out in the end.

But is it fair to say that to a person who’s dying of cancer that everything will be OK, when it’s obvious he’s not going to get any better than he is right now? His life can only get worse. But in movies, over and over again, people try to comfort the victim of a crime or illness with, “You’ll be fine, I promise.”

It’s a well-meaning attempt to comfort, but it’s also trying to be God, because no human can promise anything and guarantee the result. All sorts of things can happen that prevent a promise being kept. A simple statement of reassurance to someone like, “I’ll be there at 6:00 pm, I promise,” is highly risky, because an accident could happen on the way, another more pressing need may take priority, a stomach bug may suddenly strike, a babysitter doesn’t turn up on time, the taxi you’re in gets a flat tire, or life is so busy you forget the time. It happens. But we still think we can make promises and keep them.

But only God can make promises because he lives outside our realm of time, chance and accidents. He doesn’t get stomach bugs. Nothing, therefore, can stop him promising that everything will work out in the end, because it’s within his power to do it.

But how does that help someone whose life is only getting worse? How can you comfort him when it’s obvious he’s not going to get any better, and he won’t be OK? And what do you say in reply when he says, “It’s all well and good you telling me God works out everything in the end, but look at me, things aren’t working out in the end for me, are they?”

There’s only one answer to that, because if it truly is God’s promise to work out everything in the end for everybody, which being God he can do, and especially since Christ died for everyone, then if a person isn’t getting any better it can’t be the end yet for him, can it? Not getting better is just part of the journey that hasn’t ended yet. Even if the person dies, it must mean there is more to come for God to be true to his promise to make everything work out eventually.