The Cross: The Basis For ReconciliationErwin W. Lutzer | November 24, 1996
Selected highlights from this sermon
Are we trying to live in union with one another—with those who are different from ourselves? The world is filled with barriers which divide people. Even in today’s modern society, economic and racial differences continue to hurt the church.
We need to focus on the cross for the answer. In this one act, God’s people are being made into one body—a new unified nation. But enacting this among God’s people today takes work.
Are you ready to cast off your selfishness and prejudice?
I think that all of us would agree that we are living in a fragmented culture, a culture that seems to be breaking apart. You know, the founding fathers believed that it would be possible to have a culture that would be held together by the Constitution, one nation under God. John Quincy Adams said, “The immigrants must cast off their European skin, never to resume it. They must look forward to their posterity rather than backward to their ancestors.” The whole idea was that America was supposed to become a melting pot. Recent years seem to show that America is unmeltable. It’s very difficult to make it into a melting pot. So today we have what is known as the cult of ethnicity. We have African Americans. We have Asian Americans. We have Hispanic Americans and Anglo Americans. And I think that we can see some of the racism in our culture, even as a result of the O. J. Simpson trial and the Rodney King experience. America’s prejudices within the human heart die very hard. We’re divided racially.
We are also divided economically. We have rich and poor. We have masters and servants. We have ghettos and we have suburbs and we have the Gold Coast. We’re divided economically and we’re divided domestically. By that I mean our families are falling apart because of the high divorce rate, and because of the abuse that is taking place, and the infiltration into our culture of pornography and drugs, and all the other things that divide and scatter. And as a result of that a whole generation is being reared that struggle with connectedness because they seem so disconnected from their families and from one another.
Fueling all of this, of course, is radical individualism. I’m not entirely sure about this story, but I do think I heard it this week. A man was driving along and stopped to read one of those signs that you see as you approach an airport, giving the various terminals and the different carriers, and someone hit him from behind. And the person who hit him is now suing the person who stopped, and now he is suing the airline company for putting up those signs. The airline companies no doubt are going to be suing the airport, and the airport is going to fine the guy who did the painting, and he’s going to get it. And where in the world is all this going to end anyway?
What is the Church to be doing in the midst of this difficulty and the fragmentation of America? What’s the Church supposed to be doing? We’re supposed to be representing the fact that it is possible for people with different backgrounds ethnically, different backgrounds from the standpoint of religious experiences and cultural and economic backgrounds to develop deep and abiding friendships and loyalties on the basis of unity in Jesus Christ, despite all the fragmentation. That’s what Jesus Christ prayed for; that they may be one and that the world may see therefore and believe.
Unity! Not just union! You can have union. You can be together and then immediately fragment when things get tough. Union is one thing. You can take two cats, tie their tails around each other and throw them over a clothes line, and you have union, but you do not have unity. Christ was praying for something that was deep, that was really within the human heart. He was praying that we might be knee-deep in love.
You see, sin always scatters. Adam and Even committed, of course, the first sin, and what do you have in their family? You have family troubles. That’s where it got started. They were divided from one another and from God, and their children ended up being divided from one another, and Cain ended up killing Abel. You see, as we look into the human heart we can feel this division – all the walls that are built up within us to keep other people at arm’s length. For example, the Bible speaks of all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh. The lust of the flesh means that I’m going to run by my desires, and whether or not you do something for me, and whether you make me feel good, whether I have good will toward you—that is my basis for whether I’ll accept you as a friend. But if you begin to become a bore, if you become difficult to be with, I will withdraw because I don’t want to expend energy in a relationship. The lust of the flesh!
The lust of the eyes – greed! You see the greed of that serpent that lies coiled in the bottom of our hearts. That greed says, “I have money because I have ability and I have worked hard, and you are poor because you are lazy and you are mentally challenged and it’s all your fault.”
The pride of life – pride – says, “I am better than you are and not only am I better than you are but I have myself to thank for it.”
Now, you see, it’s possible in America to give the illusion that we are united because America is such a big country. We can scatter. We can all be together. People say, “Well, aren’t we united? We just sang all of the same hymns, and right now we are all listening to the same sermon,” but when it’s all over we go back to our homes and we’re back to our individualism.
When we visited Russia a number of years ago, because of a housing shortage, sometimes two and even three families would live together in one apartment. Now I thought about that a little bit. How would you like to share a kitchen with another family, and a living room, and closets? Don’t you think that all of the selfishness and the greed and the mistrust and all of that scum would come to the surface if we in this country had to live so closely with those with whom we perhaps disagreed and people we don’t like? Oh, it all lies there, dormant in the human heart, waiting to spring up whenever the opportunity presents itself.
How are we supposed to live in the midst of that? Or to ask the question differently, how is it that we are to learn to love people whom we naturally distrust, dislike and maybe even hate? Now that story is found for us in the New Testament, a beautiful model of how Jesus did it. You can take your Bibles and turn to Ephesians 2. A perfect example of animosity and hatred are the Jews and the Gentiles. You have to understand that the Jews and the Gentiles were different in so many different ways, and they had huge walls built between them. For example, there was the difference religiously. The Jews were the chosen ones, but they made a tremendous error. They thought that God chose them because they were better than others. That was a mistake. God never chose them because they were better. In fact, He says in Deuteronomy, “You were stiff necked, and you are hard to get along with and you are just plain stubborn, but I chose you anyway to put my love upon you.” This should have humbled them, but it made them proud. They thought chosen meant better, and so they despised all the foreigners, all the Gentiles, and they didn’t like them at all.
There was the barrier of religion. There was also the barrier of race. You know, we don’t understand Jesus sitting on the well, talking to a Samaritan woman. It’s no big deal to us, but remember that she was a half-breed. She was part Assyrian, and as a result of the theory of blood that said if you were of a mixed race you have lost your purity, the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans, much less would they have a dealing with a woman. And so you see this great hatred and animosity, and the way in which the Gentiles (those half-casts) were despised by the Jews because they were racially impure. In fact, in the Temple area there was a sign that said, “No foreigner may go beyond here.” There was the court of the Gentiles, and then beyond the court of the Gentiles, that’s where the Jewish people could go, because foreigners needed to know their limits and their bounds.
They were also divided culturally. Here are the Jews with the great heritage of being God’s people, and they had artistic work that was done, and they had various cultural abilities that God gave them. And then over there, there were all of the pagans with all of their artwork, and all of their sculptures, which were pagan oftentimes and sensual, and the Jews despised those foreigners.
There was also another division even within the Jewish race, and that was, of course, the gender division. You know that women were not allowed either in the inner sanctum of the Temple, and Jewish men used to pray, “Shame on them.” And they also used to pray, “I thank Thee, God, that I am not a woman.” You talk about the oppression of women and inequality and the whole idea that the woman exists simply to serve the man. That has a long history, as long as the history of the human race, with its sin.
Here’s the way Paul described the Gentiles. I’ll pick it up in Ephesians 2:12. “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” Sad state of affairs! Do you sense the heartache? Do you sense the rejection? And yet, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” The cross that you and I take into the world is a cross that unifies. It brings together. It breaks down barriers and it makes people one.
Now with your Bibles open I want you to notice that Paul uses that word “one” four times, and if you are in the habit of underlining your Bible you could at this point underline that word. Verse 14 says, “”For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” In the middle of verse 15 it says, “that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two.” There it is again – new man, thus establishing peace.
Verse 16 says, “and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross.” Underline one body through the cross. Verse 18 says, “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
Now Jesus did not artificially create this unity. It was a unity that actually broke down the walls of mistrust and hostility. What did he do? We already read the text where he says in verse 14 that He broke down the barrier of the dividing wall by abolishing in His flesh the enmity (which is the law of commandments contained in ordinances) that in Himself He might make one new man – the both of them in one. He broke down the wall.
And the wall that He broke down was first of all the Law, which divided Jews and Gentiles – all of those regulations. I am so glad that I did not live back there in the Old Testament era. I’d rather live today as I think about all of the things they could eat and couldn’t eat. And God was saying, “You are a special people and you are going to be separate,” and now with the coming of Jesus Christ, God says, “That wall has been broken down because the Law is taken away in that Jesus Christ on the cross met its demands.” It is no longer the barrier that it was.
And not only that, you know that wall that I told you about before that said, “No foreigner shall enter into the Temple area.” Perhaps that’s what Paul had in mind as well. That was broken down. And then if that wasn’t enough, the veil of the Temple, when Jesus Christ died, was split in two from top to bottom, and Jesus was now saying that people of every race and color and creed can come to God through the blood of Jesus Christ and be received. He made God accessible for all of us.
He made peace, the Scripture says. He established it, and as I have already mentioned, this was not simply a peace treaty. It was not simply a matter of Jesus asking us to sign on. It was actually a peace that was born from within the human heart because the hostility was taken away. And the Scripture says that in Jesus Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female. That’s the kind of cross that we take into the world.
Now in order to illustrate what Jesus actually did, you see, He not only broke down the wall. He decided also to build something brand new that no one had ever thought of before. You see, the hostility between Jew and Gentile, you have to understand, was about like the Jews and the Arabs today. Oh, it’s more volatile today in some sense because we have the news media, and we have new forms of weapons, and we have new pipe bombs and what have you, but that’s the kind of hostility. And if you have ever been in the Middle East, you know that there’s no way you can somehow bring a rational dialog to the table. And people can sign a peace treaty for the good of their countries, and still viscerally hate each other. That’s not the kind of peace that Jesus brought. He brought peace to the heart, and He took the hostility and put it away.
Now to illustrate what Jesus really did, the Apostle Paul gives us three figures of speech. Notice first of all in verse 16, “that He might reconcile them both in one body.” And you know that in 1 Corinthians Paul gives an entire chapter illustrating what it means to have one body in Jesus Christ. And he’s saying that first of all there is diversity. There are hands and ears, and there’s a nose, and there are eyes, and one head. There’s diversity and the ear cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you. I walk across this platform. It is my eyes that guide my feet, but when I arrive I put out my hand and I shake your hand, and it’s all done in a very coordinated way. And Jesus said, “That’s the way we should be when the world looks at us – coordinated and one.”
So there is diversity but there is also interdependence. I can’t get along without the different parts of my body. Even the parts of the body that you never see, the Scripture says, are very, very necessary – sometimes most necessary. And as we’ve already emphasized today, when we have ministry here at the church, it is oftentimes the people whom you don’t see that make it happen. It is the greeters, it is the parking attendees, and it is the people who are working behind the scenes to bake the cookies. It is all of these people doing things oftentimes unrecognized, even in secret, and it is that that makes it happen.
Paul says that if you belong to Christ, you are a member of that Body. You are a cell within the Body and you share the very same life. How did he do it? It says he made one new man, and you’ll notice it says “through the Holy Spirit of God.” Verse 16 says “that He might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross.” And verse 17 says, “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
There is not one Holy Spirit for African Americans, and another Holy Spirit for Asian Americans, and then another one for Anglo Americans. None of that! The same Spirit, the same life, the same cells and same head in heaven, and Jesus said, “If you love Me and serve Me, you will be coordinated that the world may marvel at your unity.”
The second figure of speech: You are a new nation. He goes on to say in verse 19, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens.” You actually have a passport. You know, there’s none of this business of just trying to hang on to a green card. “You are no longer strangers and aliens but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,” and what he’s saying is that in the Old Testament if you asked the identity of a person he would always go back to his roots. There were three sons of Noah. There was Shem, and there was Ham, and there was Japheth. And from those three sons the entire human race has come. And those divisions were important and that was your identity. But we get to the book of Acts and what do we discover? First of all, there is a man who is a Shemite, and he is converted. His name is the Apostle Paul. Paul is Jewish, and Paul is converted.
And then you have a descendant of Ham, the Ethiopian treasurer, who is on his way to Ethiopia, and he, you recall, is converted. And then, of course, there are those who come to us from Japheth. That represents in the New Testament Cornelius, and those of us who are of European descent, and now our identity no longer is racial. Our identity, he says, is that we are of the household of God. That means that we have the very same Father. We have the same Brother, namely Christ, and the same companion, namely the Holy Spirit, and that’s what the New Nation is all about.
We can admire ethnicity. It has its advantages to help us to understand the contributions of the various cultures. But the minute you walk into the doors of a church where Christ is preached and where believers have come to saving faith in Christ, you have lost your ethnicity as being your identifying mark, and you are now a member of the household of God. Jesus said, “Who is my mother and my brother and my sister? It’s those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
And now the hard part! Fragmented culture! Families breaking apart! Single mothers! The responsibility of the Church, you see, is to create a new family, and to be the family for our fragmented disengaged, disconnected, alienated, suspicious culture. And that’s our responsibility. Our responsibility is to create an environment in which those that are poor are going to be helped. Those who are weak are going to be defended. And those who have gaping holes in their family structures discover that there are members of the Body of Jesus Christ who move in, perhaps not being able to do everything that their families should have done, but to grant the help and the strength and the support so that together we can be what we should be as a church.
“Father, I pray that they shall be one, even as Thou, Father, are in Me, and I in Thee that they may be made one in Us.” That’s the New Testament pattern. And you see, as long as we say to ourselves, “America is a big place and I can go to my home, and you can go to yours, and we come together only to sing the same songs, and to hear the same message,” we have missed the underlying commitment that Jesus is asking us to do to be a family in the midst of any culture, but particularly one in which family structures have been shattered by the ravages of sin. That’s our privilege.
On the way to church this morning Rebecca was telling me about some members of our extended family. They have great needs and we do all that we possibly can at a distance to help. And I am sure that you do the very same thing. And that’s not only our obligation. That’s not only our duty because, you know, as Christians we’re supposed to do those things. That, my friend, is our privilege to represent Christ well in a broken culture.
There’s a third illustration. The new body reminds us that we share the same life. The new nation reminds us that we have the same family. You’ll notice also that there is a new temple. That means that we now have the same purpose.
Verse 20 (He is building a new temple): “You are fellow citizens built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
This is one passage of Scripture like many others where you can’t really do it justice in two or three minutes. Notice that all of the verbs here, by the way, are passive. God is the one who is doing it. We are being built. Christ is the foundation stone.
And then the imagery is this. Now we know that stones can’t grow in real life, but Paul is saying that they can because it’s only an image. It’s a figure of speech. Remember when they built Solomon’s Temple, I should say, they went into the quarries and they hewed stones, and they brought them and they did the hewing in such a way that when they fitted them together, it says that there was no noise of an ax or a hammer. They just fit because all of the fitting and the chiseling was done in the quarry.
You know what God does, don’t you? He goes into the quarry of sin, and He picks up people whose lives have been checkered, lives that have been tossed asunder and torn apart because of sin, and He finds them and He chooses them, and He brings them, and He puts them into the Temple, and He puts them next to each other, and they begin to rub on one another, and they begin to smooth one another. It’s a temple that’s being built.
And why is the temple being built? That’s a good question. Is it so that we can all be happy, happy? No! Before I answer the question, what should people say when they come to Moody Church? What is it that they should really say? They should say, “Well, the singing was wonderful. The choir performed well. The soloist blessed us.” They always say that every Sunday. They can say other things. They can comment on the message. I’m sure they comment every Sunday. But I’ll tell you what they should really say.
Look at the text now. It says, “being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Do you know what they should say? They should say, “God dwells with those people. God is here.” And sometimes the singing might not bless you. It always does me, but maybe your style is a little different, and sometimes the sermon may not bless you, but usually does me. (laughter) Do you know that that isn’t even that important if you come here to say, “This is where God dwells – God among His people?” And that’s what God is doing in the world.
And you see, the fact that we are members of the same temple reminds us now that we have the very same purpose, and what Jesus is saying is that all this fragmentation and all the diversity that we’ve talked about with different expectations and different backgrounds (and everything), all of it now becomes one in a body in a new nation as stones in a brand new temple.
Let me make a few important observations. First of all, the very high cost of unity! How much does it take to bring people together? Well, it cost Jesus the cross, and we want to get by on the cheap, don’t we? We want to say, “Well, you know, we are singing the same hymns, and we do rub shoulders with these folks.”
You know that it takes forgiveness, sometimes racially, for our insensitivities. And some of you African Americans, you know sometimes our insensitivities. It takes forgiveness on the part of all of the different races, accepting the other, because now, in Jesus Christ, ethnicity takes a back seat. We are now one in Christ, and we are absolutely convinced that that which binds us together, namely this great work of God on the cross, and the blessed Holy Spirit of God, is much stronger than anything that could ever tear us apart. That’s our responsibility.
It costs forgiveness. It costs inner strength, that we might be able to reach beyond our comfort zones and include within our friendships and our involvement people who are not like us. Now you know your heart. I know mine. I’d rather talk to people who are like me, and who think like me and we can have a discussion about different topics because we always know that we will agree and we are able to make sure that we reinforce our prejudices. Those are the kind of people I like to be around. And those are the people that you like to be around too.
I’ll tell you what the cross says. The cross says what you must do is to enlarge your circle. The cross of Jesus Christ says, “You must be willing to move out of that comfort zone, and you must be willing to set aside your individual preferences for the good of the other members of the body of Jesus Christ who are quite unlike you.
A number of years ago in one of our suburbs there was a man who ran for mayor. And I will not mention the suburb, but he ran on a very racist message. His slogan was, “Let’s keep this suburb for people like us.” And I say, “Shame on him.” And I hope that the day never comes when we say to ourselves, “Let’s keep this church for people just like us.” No, let’s keep this church for the people of God! It involves risk. It involves death to selfishness because if there’s anything that unity demands, it is selflessness, and a fundamental desire that we shall do all that we possibly can to repent of that which is in our hearts, that we might love across some very uncomfortable lines. So, first of all, a word about the cost!
Secondly, a word about the goal! Where is all this leading? What’s God’s intention? We know from Ephesians 2 that He has the intention of creating a new man, a new nation, and a new temple, but where is it all going to end? Use your imaginations for just a moment and imagine off in the horizon you see all of these dots. These dots are all over the place, but you notice that they are coming together in streams from the east and from the west and from the north and the south, and they are converging upon a mountain. And as we look carefully, we notice that the dots are actually people, people from every tribe and tongue and nation. And they are all gathering together there. And yes, from every tribe! They have maintained their ethnicity, but that’s not their distinctive mark, because what God has done is He has taken all these barriers that we have erected, and through the blood of Christ, has demolished them so that the ethnicity and the distinctiveness remains in a mighty crescendo of unity and praise from every country of the world – not just the great United States of America. But from every country of the world God brings His people together, and they say, “Thou art worthy, oh Lord, to take the book, and to break the seals, for Thou was slain and has redeemed us.” And then they sing the Hallelujah Chorus.
That’s God’s design – the transnational community, and He invites us to have a church to reflect that before we get there.
Now if you are the kind of person who says, “Well you know, at all costs, one thing I’ll never do in life is live in an interracial neighborhood. Not me!” Well, if you are saying that I need to warn you about heaven. Some of you might want to reroute your travel plans. As I look at this text all that I see is diversity and interracial praise to Jesus Christ.
Remember that story I like to tell you? You say, “Well, as yet, we don’t exactly remember it.” Well, I’ll help you a little bit. Remember the guys in World War II whose buddy died? And these two soldiers wanted to have a place to bury him. And they came to a cemetery and they asked if they could bury him there. And the priest in the cemetery said, “Is your buddy a Roman Catholic?” And they said, “No.” And he said, “I’m sorry but this is a Catholic cemetery. You can’t bury him here.”
So they felt very badly and they buried him just outside the fence of the cemetery. They dug a grave there and went on their way and came back in the morning so that they could at least straighten it up a little bit and bring some flowers. And they couldn’t find the grave. They were shocked. And the priest came to them and said, “You know, I couldn’t sleep all night because of what I told you, so I got up early this morning and I moved the fence to include your buddy within the cemetery.”
Now you know me well enough to know that my purpose in telling that is not to make an ecumenical point so much as to make a different point. If we are to be the people of God (fulfilling Jesus Christ’s prayer), and if the cross that we take into the world is a cross that is to reconcile people so that the fragmented culture (And by the way, Jesus never prayed that the world would become one. He only prayed that His people would.) that is so distrustful and cynical of us Christians (who are also filled with the individualism and the claws of modernity that are also consuming our flesh), and if we want to be able to say, “Yes, Christ’s prayer is fulfilled,” and we have become one at high cost, what we need to do is to move the fence. We need to move the fence. For some it is a racial fence. Some of you aren’t over it yet. If you are not over it just because you’ve come to a church where there may be some integration, you’re not over it. And that fence has to be removed.
It may be an economic fence that has to be removed. Maybe it is the fence of personality that has to be pushed over, or an educational fence, because if our love does not extend beyond those who make us comfortable, we have not found yet what Christ prayed for, and for what His heart longs.
Edwin Markham wrote:
He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout,
But love and I had the will to win,
And drew a circle that took him in.
And this entire message would have been a failure if right now in your mind you are not thinking of ways by which the fence (the circle, the walls) can be demolished, the fence extended and the circle enlarged so that now you begin to see like God sees beyond all the differences that mean so much to those of us who still sometimes walk in the flesh, and we begin to see God’s desire for a transnational community that is to be modeled in this world.
There are some of you who are listening who are not yet a part of that community, by the way, because you don’t become a member automatically. What does the text say repeatedly (Ephesians 2)? It says that through His cross He made them one. And then as you come to God through the cross and you get close to God, the closer you get to Him, the closer you get to other people and the unity begins to happen.
Here’s what happens. First of all, He demolishes the walls of the human heart so that He can come in, cleanse us, and forgive us, and reconcile us to Himself. Then He came along historically and He demolished the walls of the Temple. He said, “Those walls have to go.” And then in Acts 2, through a series of events that we do not have time to tell you about, He opened the walls of the Church, and said that the Church has to be without walls. The unifying factor is peace through the blood of His cross.
Today I speak to some people and you are our friends, but you are not yet our brothers and sisters. You may be our neighbors. There may be many of you here who fit into that category, but you are not yet our prayer partners, for it is in Christ that we are reconciled. I urge you with all that is within me, “Be ye reconciled to God. Become a part of the new body, a part of the new nation, a part of the temple that God is building, and eventually a part of that great company which no man can number from every tribe, kindred and people and tongue and nation. I urge you today to believe in Christ, that you may be saved.
Would you join me as we pray?
Our Father, today we pray that the love of this body, of this congregation, may be sacrificial. I pray that everyone of us today may think of barriers that have to come down, and fences that need to be moved, and circles that need to be enlarged so that we begin to see with your eyes those whom you have redeemed in all of their preciousness, people who disagree with us probably on every point on many different things, but that which unites us is far deeper and lasting and eternal than anything that could ever divide us. Father, make us a loving community that models oneness we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.