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.

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