Near and Far
A sermon based on Ephesians 2:13-22
Sunday, July 26. 2015 – Pentecost 9B
He was a monster. Literally. He grabbed the camera and shouted into the lens, "Near!" Then he sprinted away and from a distance shouted back to the camera, "Far!" That's how the monster, Grover, has been teaching kids the difference between near and far on Sesame Street for a couple of decades. In fact, I think there's even a book featuring adorable, lovable, Grover that's called "Near and Far."
In a slightly different way, the Apostle Paul was teaching the Ephesians the difference between near and far. Though they were once far away from God, God brought them near to him through Christ. And though the Jewish Ephesians and Gentile Ephesians were once far away from each other, they were brought near to each other in Christ.
This morning we rejoice that we too, though once far from God, have been brought near to him through Christ and that the relationship that we have with him, helps us to repair hurt relationships with others as we draw near to them in Christ.
Our text for consideration for this morning is taken from Ephesians 2:13-22…
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
I. Brought Near to God
Distance is a relative thing isn't it? Is it far from here to Soldotna? Well, not really. Not if you're in a car. But if you're going there on foot and its during a downpour, it can be pretty far. Is Seattle far away? Not if you're flying. But if you're driving (which I've never done), I imagine it can be pretty far. And I'm sure you know how you can be sitting right next to someone and it seems like you're worlds apart and that you can be most distant to the person you're with.
Well, in a similar way, we know that God is everywhere. He's right here in this room with us, while he's in China at the exact same time. And though he is in one sense very near to every person since he is omnipresent, at the same time he's very far away from so many people.
And at one point, he was very far away from you.
It doesn't matter if you knew what God expected of you or if you didn't. The Gentiles grew up knowing nothing of God's laws. They didn't know what he expected, and so, of course, they didn't do what he wanted. They were far away from God. But the Jews were no better. Even though they thought they were near to God because they were his chosen people, because they knew what he wanted, still, they didn't do what God demanded and were just as far away from God.
You may have grown up in a home that was anything but Christian. I know that some of you did. And you were far from God. You may have grown up in a home that was nominally Christian – that is you knew who Christ was and you learned the ten commandments. But you didn't keep those commandments perfectly. You were far from God. You may have grown up in a home like mine where we went to church every Sunday, where we read the Bible stories every night, where you learned exactly what God demanded and knew how much you had failed. And you, by your sin, were at one point far away from God.
But God loved us too much to let us be that distant spec way off in the corner hardly visible by the camera. He wanted us to be near. So he came near to us. Jesus left his home in heaven (Talk about far away!) to come to earth, to condescend to meet us at our level. And lowering himself to become a human just like us, he lived a perfect life in our place. And then he lowered himself even more: He humbled himself to die, even a death on the cross. He lowered himself to endure the agony of hell, so that you and I might be brought close to God.
"Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ… through him we both have access to the Father… you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household."
Ever been in a foreign country where you didn't quite fit in? You were near, but felt like you didn't really belong there. You belonged far away. But God has made us members of his household. With him it feels like home because the barrier of our sin is completely destroyed. We are close with God, near to him not just in his omnipresence, but close to him spiritually and emotionally, like a little boy sitting in the lap of his daddy who loves him so much. That's who you are through the blood of Christ.
So don't pretend that you're close to God because of how well you behave. But confess that because of your sins you deserve to be far away from him—so far away that you never see him again! And throw yourself on his grace and mercy again and again. Then rejoice that in Christ, and by his blood, he has brought you near to him. You are one with God. That's literally what atonement means. You can spell it "at-one-ment." How near to God you are!
But that closeness to God, of necessity, also affects how close you are to others…
II. Brought Near to Each Other
During World War II on Christmas Eve of 1914 something odd happened on the Western Front. The allied troops and the axis troops both laid down their weapons. Both sides ventured into "no man's land" to exchange the body's of the fallen, season's greetings, and even small gifts. But it didn't stop there, the two enemy sides, who the day before were trying to kill each other, joined together to sing Christmas Carols and even to play a few games of football. 
Captain Sir Edward Hulse reported, "It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!"
For a while, the celebration of our Savior's birth brought two enemy forces together—two forces that were far away, separated by trenches and razor wire and heavy artillery, were now brought near!
How much more doesn't the celebration of our Savior's death in payment for our sins, his resurrection from the dead that guarantees our own, the sure and certain fact that heaven itself is ours… How much more won't that bring us closer to others who are less hostile to us than Nazi German troops were to the allies?!
God, through Paul, pointed out that they were not just brought near to God, but were also brought near to each other: "For [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing… the law with its commandments and regulations. … He put to death their hostility… For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit… in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit."
There were huge hostilities between the Jews and the Gentiles. After all, it was God who once told the Jews not to be like the Gentiles. They shouldn't dress like they dressed or eat like they ate. They shouldn't even cut their hair like the Gentiles did, but should have a unique hairstyle. And no wonder the Gentiles thought the Jews were a bit stuck up with all of that "Chosen People" talk.
But none of that mattered anymore. The hostility was destroyed by Jesus who brought both groups near to him. They could put down their differences and join together in their common faith. The hostility was done. Those who once had been far away from each other were now brought near to one another.
And God has done the same for us…
Does it sometimes seem to you that other churches on the Peninsula are our competition? They're not. Other denominations are not the enemy. We rejoice that other Christians are near to God even if they don't have every doctrine straight, even if they have some serious misunderstandings that are harmful to the faith. Now don't get me wrong: Those false teachings are serious. They're not okay. And we certainly do still try to engage in conversations where we can speak the truth in love and correct those misunderstandings. But if they believe that Jesus is the God-man who paid for their sins on the cross, we rejoice! We can spend time with them and pray for them, even while we lovingly point out how serious our differences are. We who are far away theologically, are still one with them in Christ even if we must separate now to take a stand for the truth.
But maybe closer to home, we don't need to be divided from our own families, whether church families or biological families. Are you at odds with someone here at church? Have you had a falling out with a parent or a sibling? Or maybe you just had an argument with a child or with your spouse. Having been reconciled to God, you can be reconciled to one another. Since God has forgiven all your sin against him, you have the power to forgive the sins of those who have hurt you. You can, "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." (Ephesians 4:32) When you're feeling far away, you can take the first steps to go near, remembering how God came near to you to bring you near to him when you were so far away.
Yes, he may have been a monster, but lovable, adorably, fuzzy, Grover taught kids all about "far" and "near." But how much more important to learn from God through the apostle Paul about how far you once were from God, about how near Christ has brought you to him through his blood, by coming near to you, about the power you have to draw near to others, and laying down your weapons, to join with them in singing the praises of our Savior. In the name of Jesus, our peace, who has destroyed the barrier of hostility—the one between us and God, and the one between us and others—amen.
 Oops! I got confused! This event actually took place in the World War I (not II) which the 1914 date clearly indicates. As such, it wasn't Nazis or Axis troops, but the Central Powers. Please forgive my historical mistake and look past it to the illustration of two hostile forces laying down their arms in a spirit of peace. For more on this historical event, cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_truce.