Praying for the Enemy (Ephesians 2:11-22)

How should we pray for our enemies? Well we often know what we would like to pray for our enemies on a gut reaction level, but really, should we be praying for them in a loving way, or praying for them that they will receive their “just” desserts, perhaps even with a second helping of dessert? We might think of the enemies “out there” such as those who who bomb innocent people who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, or rather the right place at the right time but unfortunately while there is some fool doing the wrong thing. Or we might think of personal enemies, people that have hurt us personally, be it former friends, people we wish were former coworkers, or people we wish were former relatives. Are our prayers for the enemy gushing with love and well wishes? Should our hearts go out to them?

In reading Ephesians 2:11-22 we do well to remember that Paul is speaking about two groups of people that were, for the most part, enemies. Paul even reminds the reader of the tension as verse 11 contains the derogatory term “uncircumcision,” a term which goes unnoticed by us today but would have been recognized as a put-down by the original readers.

Indeed there is a long history of hostility between Jew and Gentile. From the Egyptians to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians, to the Persians, to Alexander the Great, to the Romans – there we a constant string of Gentile neighbours happy to attack, occupy, and/or destroy God’s people. Israel was, back in those days, very suspicious of her neighbours. Still is. Then there is the religious hostility. Study the history of the kings of Israel and Judah in the books of Kings and Chronicles and really you are studying the history of apostasy, of God’s people being enticed to worship the things and in the ways of her Gentile neighbours. Therefore in New Testament times many in Israel were keen to keep a distance, and keep the Gentile at a distance for fear that history might repeat itself. The two groups would not normally be seem eating together. The temple itself, was designed to keep foreigners out with signs posted that they would meet their end if they got too close. The big question in the air was not just how we might keep the Gentiles from getting too close, but how can we get them them out of the nation altogether, and indeed, who would be the messiah to make that happen?

With the hostility, and yearning for distance in the air, verse 13 comes as rather a shock: “But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13 NET). This is startling news for the Jew who thought the Messiah’s main role in that time should be to end the Roman domination and occupation, a hope the Gentile perhaps knew. But this is perhaps even more startling to the Gentile, those who are the main recipients of this letter; their standing with God, and therefore with Israel is completely changed. Formerly they were “without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12 NET) Now they are “brought near by the blood of Christ.” This is a far cry from having one’s blood shed by the Christ, which is the Greek term for Messiah.

This has great implications regarding the relationship between these two enemies which Paul goes on to explain:

– the two groups in Christ are now one, their hostility being replaced by peace. (Verse 14)
– two religious systems are now gone, and instead are replaced not so much with a new religious system, as with a new humanity (verse 15).
– the two groups are reconciled through the cross. It is interesting to note here that while both Jews and Gentiles share responsibility for the killing of Jesus, that through his death, Jesus was “killing” their hostility (verse 16).
– to both groups is declared the message of peace (verse 17). Normally one would expect one group to be declared winner, the other loser.
– both groups can experience the presence of God through the Holy Spirit (verse 18). Formerly, this experience was reserved for one group through the temple, into which the other group could not go.
– the two groups are no longer two distinct groups, but indeed family (verse 19)
– together the two groups can now point to a shared history (verse 20).
– together the two groups are in fact the very dwelling place of God (verses 21,22)

When we ask, “how should we pray for our enemies?”, the question we should really ask is, “what is God’s will for our enemies?” We might note that while in the Garden of Gethsemane, the final prayer of Jesus was not that the Father would rain down vengeance on those who deserve it, upon those responsible for his death (which would turn out to be both Jew and Gentile). Rather his prayer was that God’s will would be done. His will is to grant all people the opportunity to draw close to Him, and when they draw close to Him, they draw close to us, if indeed we have drawn close too. Let us pray for a closing of the gap, though it may at times call for some time spent in our own Garden of Gethsemane.

Utter Mess, Utter Grace Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved– 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– Ephesians 2:1-8 NRSV

According to the apostle Paul we were all once in an utter mess, and in fact some people still are. While events around the world may confirm for us that yes, some people are in an utter mess, methinks there are many would say “others yes, but not me.”

Imagine, for example reading Ephesians 2:1-3 and then saying to a non-Christian friend that you just learned that they are ’dead in their sins’ (verse 1), or a follower of Satan (verse 2), or ’children of wrath’ (verse 3). Many fine folk would, I think, say something like “well that does not sound like me, I feel quite alive thank you, I have never been involved in Satan worship, and if there is a God I should not be judged by such a God for I am basically a good person.” How do we reconcile what we learn from scripture about our fallen nature with what a lot of what people think and feel?

First, you don’t need to feel dead to be dead. This mention of being dead takes us back to the story of the fall in Genesis. God said to Adam “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16b,17 ESV). Now we know that on the day Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit they did not die, but on that day we can say that death entered into the world, death becoming their inescapable future and a sure bet. In this sense when we are without God today we are “dead in our sins,” it only being a matter of time before death catches up to us.

Nor do you need to worship Satan to be listening to his voice. Again we go back to the story of the fall where we find the serpent tempts Eve, not to worship him, but to stop trusting God. Most people would never admit to worshipping Satan, but when pressed, might admit to not trusting God.

But what about the unbeliever who seems to be perfectly moral, in fact more moral perhaps than most believers; can we really say they are “children of wrath” deserving of what is commonly known as hell? According to the Bible you are either a child of wrath (Ephesians 1:3), or a child of God (see John 1:12). Many would like to say that by their moral actions they show themselves to be closer to being a child of God than a child of wrath. But this is like saying that a pregnant woman is a little bit pregnant, or very pregnant. I have heard and used such expressions but of course one is either pregnant or not. You are either a child of wrath or you are a child of God, you cannot be somewhere in between. Further, the symptoms may not be a good indication of truth. There was once a show on tv chronicling the stories of women who gave birth despite not noticing any indications or “symptoms” of pregnancy until the last minute. You could say that with my middle-aged-spread (which began in my 20’s!) I have more symptoms of being pregnant than what some of those women experienced! What matters is not the symptoms, but the truth. And it does not matter how righteous or moral a person appears to be “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NIV). Consider the righteousness of Adam and Eve. When they were convicted of sin and banished from Eden they had no prior history of sin, and in sinning had not harmed anyone directly, nor done anything that most people might consider “immoral.” What they did was fall short of the glory of God, trusting the words of Satan over God, and so became children of wrath.

However, verses 1-3 are not the main point of our passage. They are verses that some will not get past in their denial of their need for a Saviour, but they are not the main point. Here is the main point: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4, 5 NIV). This passage is not really about sin or death or hell, but is about God’s grace, mercy, and love. No one need fear hell for anyone can trade in their status as a child of wrath for a new family tree, becoming a child of God and recipient of his grace though faith. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8 NIV).

We can imagine God’s grace and our faith like this: we are stuck in quicksand and there is no way out. However, God reaches down and lifts us out in the palm of his hand. God’s love, initiative, and reach to rescue is the grace by which we are saved – we would be sunk without that. Our trust which keeps us in his hand is the faith through which we are saved – we’d jump back into the quicksand without that. What most people do not realize is that while we are alive we all, everyone included, experience a measure of God’s grace. That we can live at all, breathing, relating, enjoying life is a sign that we are experiencing God’s grace. God is under no obligation to grant us life but he does so as a sign of grace. This should help us to understand what we know of as hell. We tend to think of hell as punishment reserved for those who have done evil things to other people, making salvation and hell a matter of morality. Many naturally consider murderers as deserving of hell, but regular law abiding folk as not for example. But in the Bible, separation from God (hell) does not come just because one deserves it. It also comes because one desires it. Having experienced God’s grace by breathing some will curse the God who gave them breath and say “I don’t need you.” Having experienced the grace of God through loving and being loved, some will curse the One who has loved them the most and say “I don’t want you.” And so some choose to jump out of the hand that has been holding them, the hand that is ready to save them if only they will turn to in repentance, and not away from, the Giver of Life.

We have all at some point been in an utter mess, dead in sins, under Satan’s influence, and children of wrath, but utter grace is there for anyone who will take and trust that nail-scarred hand reaching for us in grace.

In Praise of Disunity

In our community we have had a wonderful experience of church unity of late with five of our churches coming together for a combined pulpit rotation and sermon series called “Better Together.” This led to combined Easter services that saw people from at least twelve churches giving over $58,000 towards the Habitat for Humanity “FaithBuild.” Add to that the physical work yet to come which will see church members rubbing shoulders with members from other churches and we get a picture of tremendous unity among Christians in Cobourg.

My family and I celebrate a year here this week and for me this has been a wonderful experience. Yet despite the celebration of unity, I still find that I am drawn to celebrate our disunity as well. For many the disunity of the Christian Church is a reason to run from it, but for me the disunity of the Church is actually a positive thing. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The disunity of the Church provides a wonderful variety. I thank the Lord that I do not have to lead the kinds of church services some of my colleagues lead. And they are grateful that they do not have to lead the kinds of church services I lead! Variety in style and expression is a good thing.
  2. The disunity of the Church is proof that we are not a cult. Cults need powerful leaders and when you take a look at the Church across the ages and across the world, we fail and always have failed to galvanize around any one leader. Except Jesus.
  3. The disunity of the Church is an indication that we enjoy the freedom of thought. Sceptics will often accuse Christian believers of “checking their brains at the door of the church.” However, study Christian history and you will find you are studying the history of much thinking. Rather than following blindly along, Christians have had a strong history of thought.
  4. The disunity of the Church is an indication of how lousy we are at organized religion. Along with many other Canadians I don’t like organized religion. This is one reason I am a Baptist, because among the denominations you can choose from we are one of the most disorganized! People are suspicious of organizations these days. The disunity of the Church is an indication that the Church is really not about the organization, but about people.
  5. The disunity of the Church makes it easy to find the important bits. Want to know what Christianity is really about? The easy way to do that is to look at what has been held in common. Too often people ask “what are the differences between the denominations and churches?” The important question is rather “what do Christians hold in common?” Ask that and the answer you come up with is not a set of doctrines, but a person: our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

When all is said and done, we will not be celebrating unity, we will be celebrating Jesus Christ. Pick any church that celebrates Jesus, then come celebrate!