The people made by grace
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you 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. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Not far from where I live in Sydney, in a park called Centennial Park, is a sandstone domed structure of no particular splendour. In fact, it resembles nothing so much as a public urinal.
Yet this building marks the spot upon which the constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia was signed on 1st January, 1901 and the various colonies of the Australian continent became a nation. It is typical of Australia that one of its most significant historical sites is virtually unknown to its citizens!
The constitution is a document that gives an identity to a group of people. It expresses their agreed values and their vision for life together. It is a document that they can go back to in a crisis. In Australian history this has been tested in particular by the question of who should be included in the Australian ideal. It took six and half decades before indigenous peoples were recognized as citizens, for example; and it wasn’t until 1973 that an immigration policy that favoured ‘white’ people was dismantled.
If there is one common theme of the New Testament it is the matter of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ of the people of God. The Old Testament was the story of God’s chosen people, the people of Israel – a nation of slaves called out of Egypt and made the objects of God’s special favour. They were a racial group (with some exceptions), related by blood. They were the children of Abraham. This nation was the recipient of God’s promises for his blessing and his protection; and they were given the land of Canaan in which to live. This was their ‘constitution’, if you like. Inclusion in this people was (it seemed) by being a descendent of Abraham and was expressed in keeping the laws of the Old Testament.
Now, there were a couple of hints already in the pages of the Old Testament that this wasn’t the full story. There were non-Israelites who were allowed to become Israelites, like Rahab the prostitute and Ruth the Moabite woman and the ancestor of David. The prophets likewise continually reminded the people of God that taking for granted your membership in the people of God meant risking that very membership.
Now: fast-forward to the New Testament. The extraordinary thing about the Christian message is that it includes non-Israelites – which is plainly shocking to almost everybody. How could this be possible?
It makes sense because the constitution of the people of God is not blood and race, but the grace of God, received by faith.
This is what drives the marvelous words of the letter Paul wrote to the Ephesians, that group of Gentile believers living in what is now Turkey. How could the good news about a Jewish messiah be good news for them? What claim did they have for membership in the people of God?
You have to remember for a moment what it feels like not to be included. We all pretty much know that feeling at some level: whether it was that moment in the school playground, or the invitation to the wedding that never came, or the time when our opinions were simply ignored because we were the wrong gender or skin colour. Of course, some people reading this will no doubt know this feeling more keenly than I ever have a white male.
That is the feeling that Paul is seeking to overcome: the feeling of illegitimacy. And how does reassure his Gentile readers? He reminds them that God chose them from before the foundation of the world, choosing them ‘to be adopt as his sons through Jesus Christ…to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves’ (Eph 1:4-5).
It’s grace. They are members of the people of God because this people are brought together by the grace God gives freely in Jesus Christ. All have sinned, Israelite and Gentile alike. All need the grace of God – and so, in the death of Jesus, the two are made one new people. He is our peace.
And we can’t ignore the profound implications of this truth. Here are some:
1) If the people of God are brought together by grace and not by race or ethnicity or culture, then there is absolutely no grounds for any racial or ethnic division in the Christian church. It is simply a denial of our constitution! This should make us think very carefully about how we express our national identity in the Christian meeting. It also should make us concerned when only one kind of people are coming to our church, especially when the local community is very different. Are only beautiful/educated/European people at your church? Is your church mono-generational? Then: is there a condition for membership in your community that is other than grace? Could be.
2) If in fact belonging to the people of God is by grace, and not by works or by ethnicity or privilege, then we should treat others with the same grace that has been shown to us. That’s very often the message of Jesus’ parables – not simply that God saves us by grace, but that, as those saved by grace, we ought to treat others with the kind of patience and forgiveness that we have been shown. Grace is in our DNA as the church of God. We don’t belong on any other basis than the grace of God in the death of Jesus. How could we exclude others on the basis of skin colour, body odour, lack of education or wearing the wrong shoes?
3) One of Paul’s great themes is humility. ‘Where is boasting?’ he asks in Romans 3:27, in the middle of explaining how the gospel includes both Israelite and Gentile. The answer is: ‘boasting has no place!’ There is no achievement involved in belonging to the people of God. Quite the reverse. You cannot be proud of it, for all it says of you is that you are a sinner who has accepted a free gift. So you cannot act with anything but humility towards others.
This then is the constitution of the people of God: it is grace. It is by the grace of God that a people are gathered together, and no other thing.