New Jersey. Drought-resistant wheat seeds. The Trojan Horse. The World Wide Web. Human freedom. Penicillin. Jesus Christ.
What do the items in this list, as diverse as they are, have in common?
All are gifts—but not just any gift—game-changing gifts.
New Jersey was given as a present in 1665 by the Duke of York to two royalists, Sir George Carteret and Lord Berkeley. Fortunately, the territory did not remain in their hands; it reverted to the English crown in 1702, and later became part of the United States.
Another great gift was much smaller, but was equally significant and we talked about him a few weeks ago. Remember Norman Borlaug, the man who developed wheat seeds that were resistant to drought and disease. His seeds were planted across India, and other parts of the world, and he ended up saving one billion people.
Another significant gift was The Trojan Horse.
Well, maybe it was not such a terrific present for the Trojans, since Greek soldiers hid inside the horse and then conquered the city of Troy. But the destruction of Troy led to the foundation of Rome and the Roman Empire, which had a profound effect on Western civilization.
How about the present given to the world by Tim Berners-Lee?
Tim Berners-who, you ask?
Well according to economist Paul Collier, Berners-Lee gave us the World Wide Web, choosing to make it a public good instead of a personal cash cow. The benefits to people around the world have been tremendous.
Then there’s the idea of human freedom.
This has been America’s gift to the world, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Freedom for all people has always been the guiding light of our foreign policy. When we are true to ourselves, freedom is what America is all about.
And then there is of course Jesus Christ—the greatest gift of all.
He is our Lord and Savior. The long awaited Messiah.
But even beyond that, he is our God-and-neighbor connector, our peacemaker and our wall-breaker.
He becomes for us the cornerstone of a spiritual house, one that serves as a home for us all.
It can be reasoned that each gift on our list has led to lives being lived, or saved, or developed, but the gift of Jesus is the only one that offers life eternal.
And life eternal is truly a game changing gift.
In our text for today the Apostle Paul is explaining to the Gentiles in Ephesus just how Jesus is a game-changing gift to them.
And Paul does so by fist telling the Ephesians that they are aliens.
Now that might not sound like a very nice thing, but there is a reason Paul was telling the Gentiles in Ephesus that they were aliens. Because they were.
This was new territory in which they were going, and life in this transition must have been tough.
Archeology tells us only so much about what life was like for residents of this Roman city on the sunbaked coast of Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey, but as we read the letter to the Ephesians, we can begin to imagine what they were going through, feeling hopeless and cut off from God— like aliens.
Maybe some of us have an idea of what it might have been like to be alienated— removed, withdrawn and estranged from a community and from God. Maybe some of us have been judged by the church and made to leave. Maybe some of us have been excluded because of our socioeconomic status. Maybe some of us have been left out because it was determined that we just didn’t fit in.
Alienation is a real issue that is harmful.
And believe it or not but there are some of us who are under the weight of alienation and we don’t even know it because now there are some who believe alienation can be caused by too much of a reliance on technology.
Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, believes that social media can isolate us and cause a lot of harm.
She has written a book, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other”, and in it she talks about how we have so many opportunities to communicate today, using emails, texts, instant messages, Facebook, Twitter, phone calls and Skype.
Now I am not saying or suggestion that such light-speed communication is all bad. In fact it is great for making links—which is good. I am, however, agreeing with the unfortunate concern that as we get bombarded by messages and make hurried responses, the content of our conversations gets dumbed down—Lord knows that many of my own text threads would give evidence to such.
Conversation with depth and meaning— the kind of thing that connects us as humans— nowadays often gets lost. We find ourselves linked by technology, but, sometimes, we also (as a consequence) feel alienated, estranged from community and from God. We can so easily become alone, cut off, isolated—even in the middle of a bustling city.
This was how the Ephesians were feeling, some 2,000 years before the invention of the Internet. But fortunately their lives were transformed by the gift of Jesus, who became their God-and-neighbor-connector.
Paul tells them that their alienation is over, for “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
Through the death of Jesus we are forgiven and restored to right relationships with God and our neighbors.
Paul tells us that Jesus is the cornerstone of a spiritual house, one that serves as a home for us all.
“In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
What a gift this is!
In this house, we have access “in one Spirit” to God the Creator.
In this house, we “are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”
In this house, we know that we are resting on something solid, “upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”
The apostle Paul knows Christ’s worth, which he describes in lavish detail in his letter to the Ephesians.
Writing to a group of Christians who had grown up as Gentiles—people outside the Jewish community of faith— he reminds them that they were once “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
Because of Jesus—the gift of Jesus—everything changes.
He is the ultimate game changer.
We live in an uncertain world, in which generous gifts can be taken away, such as when the gift of New Jersey suddenly reverted to the royal family.
We live in a dangerous world, in which gifts such as The Trojan Horse turn out to be curses in disguise.
We live in an ambiguous world, in which innovations such as the World Wide Web can be used to disseminate both digital treasures and digital trash.
None of this is true with the greatest gift of all time, Jesus Christ.
He connects us to God and neighbor, makes peace, breaks walls and offers us an eternal home with God. Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving, as we grow in love for God and neighbor as members of his spiritual household.
But the game changing gift that Jesus is and brings is being lost. It’s being forgotten.
Instead of letting Jesus break down wall and barriers, we use him as a foundation to build them up so we can protect who we are and keep out those who are not—those who we have deemed “un-Christ-like”
But the truth is, when we use Christ to reject others, it is us who are being “un-Christ-like.”
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for going on two decades now, has required all pastors, ordained and commissioned, to go through a seminar on Anti-Racism and Reconciliation, in an effort to become more racially and ethnically aware and inclusive.
Members of the Anti-Racism and Reconciliation team stress that racial reconciliation, acceptance and not just tolerance, is essential when it comes to being the Church today.
The focus is not on political correctness, but on the words and ways of Jesus himself.
Leaders point to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that his followers would all be one, and to Paul’s words here in Ephesians about Christ breaking down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile.
This racial reconciliation is now part of the training for pastors because it is the goal that it will become part of the broader church.
The objective is “to create witnessing communities in churches that are growing in love for every ethnicity.”
Growing in love.
Not just for our own ethnic group, but for every ethnicity, every background, every way of life.
But growing in love only comes from seeing Christ as our peacemaker and wall-breaker.
It only comes when we see all others as children of God.
It only comes when we truly permit Jesus to be the game-changer he truly is.
If Jesus is the connector of all our disconnect, then the symbol of our connectedness is the cross.
The sacrifice of Jesus brings separated parties together, and the cross itself serves as a symbol of this victory.
Just look at the structure of the cross:
The vertical beam is a symbol of the new connection between people and God.
The horizontal beam points to the connection between people, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, one to another.
Through Christ, those who were “far off” and separated by sin have been “brought near” and united through forgiveness.
Christ is our peace-maker and our wall-breaker, says Paul, “In his flesh he has made both groups into one.”
Christ makes peace between Jews and Gentiles, between black Americans and white Americans, between Baby Boomers, Gen-Xer’s, and Millennials, between immigrants and the native-born.
Christ makes peace by breaking down “the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
Separation between different groups leads to hostility, but walls break down when we identify ourselves primarily as Christians, as Disciples of Christ, and children of God.
And it is the gift of Jesus who makes that happen.
And that gift is truly the ultimate game-changer.
May we not only embrace this gift. May we truly accept it, and may we truly share it. Amen.