Such dividedness. Insiders and outsiders. Ethnic and Religious splits. Positions strongly held, to the point of erecting walls of hostility between one another. Differences, even, in what is considered authoritative and true.
No, I’m not talking about Alberta or Canada or the US in the year 2021, though I clearly could be. This paragraph describes the situation addressed by the second chapter of Ephesians. Traditionally considered a letter of the apostle Paul, but just as likely written by a follower of Paul a couple of generations later, much of what is described sounds very, very contemporary.
I’ll be going through this passage in some detail, and if your minds wander into present-day situations that have a similar shaping, I strongly encourage you to let your minds go there. In these days where nastiness and ridiculous behaviour are so widespread, we need all the help we can get, and if Ephesians has a word or thought or phrase or question that brings you to a better place, well, hallelujah!
The first thing to notice here, is the power relationship between Jews and Gentiles, and the author’s desire for one-ness. Given that Jesus and his inner circles of disciples were Galilean Jews, the relations between Jewish believers in Jesus, and non-Jewish believers in Jesus, were frequently testy in the first few generations after the resurrection. It is rather telling that the word “Gentile” is a word that the non-Jews did not use for themselves; it’s a word that started out as the Hebrew word “Goyim” and then passed through a couple of languages before emerging as the English word “Gentiles”. “Gentile” is very much an us-and-them word: there are those within the covenant of Abraham and Sarah, and then there are the Goys, those Gentiles.
So when the author of Ephesians says that Jesus “15[sets] aside…the law with its commands and regulations” this is not an anti-Semitic statement from a position of power. In religious terms the upper hand in the earliest days of the Church was held by the Jewish Christians, the people with some 1800 years experience of living by the covenant law. That’s the context for the letter to the Ephesians, but the letter itself is addressed mostly to the Gentile Christians, and in so doing wants to lift the self-image of the Gentiles/Goyim who had always been regarded, perhaps even by themselves, as outsiders. It’s put this way, starting at verse 17: “17 [Jesus] 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 strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his 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.”
What powerful language: you who were far away, foreigners, strangers, now brought into the household of faith. The Gentile language of citizenship melded into the beloved Jewish image of the Temple. Those who had previously been excluded – practically and officially – are now assured that they belong.
In the midst of this powerful language about coming together, belonging, unity, we ask ourselves: how many times over the centuries has the Church promoted exclusion rather than inclusion, specifying with great clarity what kinds of people were not welcome? How and why are we still doing so? And how easily have cultures around the world flipped the narrative about bringing non-Jews into the ancient and glorious faith history of Judaism, choosing instead to do everything in their power to denigrate the Jewish people through anti-Semitism. What happened to Christ’s own spirit of unity and welcome?
The second thing I’d like to land on for a few moments, is how embodied the theology is here.
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ…. Setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility”.
Admittedly, as soon as I hear the “blood of Jesus” phrasing it feels as though I am in someone else’s theological world, which indicates that there is work for me to do in my own thoughts. For the moment, though, I invite us to hear these words about the blood and flesh and one unified body, as an indication of how completely invested Jesus was in creating unity. Blood, body, taking into his own self – these are very embodied words. In his powerful words and actions, in staying firm in his beliefs even to the point of being put to death by the state, Jesus clearly declared that he – and God – were “all in” when it came to widening the circle. God’s desire, in Christ, to unify is stronger than the human desire to have winners and losers, privileged and disadvantaged. God’s active desire to reconcile, is stronger than the human desire to create enemies that you consider inferior to you. God’s desire, in Christ, to re-integrate, is stronger than the powers and principalities who love division and chaos.
In all this bodily language, we are given a glimpse into God’s desire in Jesus to embody a harmony that is founded in honesty. Or to put it another way, a process that has both truth and reconciliation. The work that God puts before us is not ethereal or pious or removed-from-the-down-and-dirty-realities-of-human-living. Ever since the gravesite revelation at Kamloops, I sense a growing willingness in Canada to start to really hear the voices of Indigenous peoples. There is a push within our denomination, and in other societal institutions, to actually believe people of colour as they describe the pressures they live with. Bridging the gap between populations is hard work, sometimes against a ridiculous amount of opposition. But that bridge-building, that patient, relational, human work, is what God calls us to, supported by nothing less than the gracious, forgiving love that is in Christ Jesus.
The third thing I’d like to note is In the words of Rachel Butler, “This text is often titled ‘One in Christ’ or ‘Unity in Christ’, but I’d like to go a step further and say ‘One in Peace’”. Indeed, this text has a strong peace focus, starting at verse 14: “14 For [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in 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.”
Whatever your starting point, the goal is peace, the “peace that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:6) that is so foundational to our understanding of Christ Jesus. The writer of Ephesians, writing two millennia ago, indicates that things like hostility and dividing walls – so prevalent now between Israeli and Palestinian territories, or along the south border of the US – have always been in style, and incompatible with the intention of the Divine. This scripture challenged its audience and challenges us today, to build a peace that dismantles walls and defuses hostility, and that process has to start somewhere. I know that “tolerance” is a pretty weak word implying shaky power dynamics, but tolerance is a heck of a lot further advanced than our current-day name-calling… so why not start there? And while we’re at it, lets toss in some respect, and civility, and commit ourselves to learn about and work towards the equity and justice that Jesus has placed before us.
There really isn’t much to choose between this letter to the Ephesians, and the stuff we encounter in our daily newsfeed. Such dividedness. Insiders and outsiders. Ethnic and Religious splits. Positions strongly held, to the point of erecting walls of hostility between one another. Differences in what is considered authoritative and true. And to both the people back then and the people here and now, we hear in Ephesians a call to respectful, dynamic unity; we are reminded of the all-in, engaged embodiment of Christ in the struggles faced by the peoples of the world; we are challenged, to re-focus our energies on peacemaking, knowing that in this task we are encouraged and fuelled by no less that the gracious love of God.
Back then and over there; right now and right here; the living God continues to call. People of God, even in these days of fatigue and sameness and deflation, may we find faithful, bridge-building direction. Amen, and Amen.
Coffey, Michael. http://www.ocotillopub.org/2015/07/one-new-humanity.html
© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church