First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 8

William Loader

Pentecost 8: 19 July  Ephesians 2:11-22

Last week we noted that Ephesians blessed God because God's generosity had reached out beyond the Jews to include the Gentiles. The same theme remains the focus in this passage. The author reminds those who will hear this letter, that they once had no hope. It is interesting that he describes this hopelessness in very Jewish terms: they were foreigners and outsiders as far as the citizenship of Israel, the people of God, was concerned. Without Israel's God they were without God. Without Israel they were without the covenants and the promises. Such benefits are not to be denied.

This might sound patronising, but we should also note that the author has just levelled both Jew and Gentile in the previous verses. Both you, Gentiles, and we, Jews, were, for all intents and purposes, spiritually dead (2:1-5). The language of 'far away' and 'near' (2:13 and 2:17) does not mean that those who are near have arrived. This is not about incorporating Gentiles into Israel. It is about bringing both, together, to God. The reason why Gentiles now belong is not because they have been given something which the Jews already had; it is because God has done something for both which both needed.

The author's concern is to affirm the unity which now exists and to underline its basis. Both Jews and Gentiles are now members of something new. There is a new household of God, a new building, a new temple. So with imagery drawn from Jewish tradition the author nevertheless celebrates a third reality which is beyond Israel and beyond Gentiles. The author celebrates the church as a community of people who have new access to God. Christ is the cornerstone; the Christian apostles and prophets are the foundation stones. We are the building which is ever growing.

Notice that the dominant motif is reconciliation: peace with God and peace between two diverse groups. The horizontal peace is portrayed as the smashing down of a dividing wall. That wall consists of the commandments, by which the author, schooled in Paul's thought, means not simply Jewish scruples but the written law of Torah on the basis of which Israel and the peoples are separated by such practices as circumcision and food laws and a host of other provisions. For anyone, including any Christian, brought up on the assumption that the Torah is holy writ, such assertions would sound outrageous. How could the laws given by God at Sinai become an object for destruction! Ephesians seems to be written at some distance from such controversies, which dogged Paul's life. At this safe distance such outrageous claims can be made, because in the author's circle the matter is largely settled. Matthew would have a fit and Luke would have to dig deep to accommodate such thoughts - his Paul remained Torah observant all his life.

What we see here is the result of a daring process which usually meets with great controversy whenever it is attempted. It is the process of recognising that sometimes what we have revered as infallible and irreversible may by something destructive or discriminatory, including biblical commandments. The overriding (fence-bending, wall-toppling) value derives from the conviction that God must love all peoples, so that whatever discriminates negatively has to be faced up to and put aside. In our passage peace and enmity apply both in relation to God and among people. A vision of peace, wholeness, puts people first. Standing in Paul's tradition the author sees God's initiative above all in the cross. Christ's offering both brought us to God, as cultic sacrifices do, and abolished any basis of discrimination: we no longer need those laws as the basis of relating to God or relating (or not relating!) to each other.

It is possible to slide into smug self satisfaction in this new superior people of God. Mission becomes a kind of imperialism as we grow the body or build the building, seeking to swallow up all into a single whole. Sadly, Ephesians has sometimes inspired such behaviour, both from individuals and from institutions. Then wholeness has been hijacked by power and the will to dominate. For while the language of power is strongly present in Ephesians (just look at 1:20-23), it all serves a more fundamental stance: that of compassion and valuing all people. The creation of the new people is also a new creation, as 2:15 indicates. It is still the work of the God whose intention is to fill the world with divine goodness. The intertextual echoes here of the first creation (2:15) and, through the language of far and near, with the prophecies of divine good news reaching out to all peoples (2:17; Isa 57:19; 52:7) indicate that divine good will is at the heart of all this growth and wholeness. It is not the mission to recruit strength and build power. It all depends so much on whether you see the goal as withdrawal to another source of power beyond all things or coming home to the source of love within all things which is seeking to bring and hold them together.

Gospel: Pentecost 8: 19 July Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

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