About the Contributor
Our epistle passage for this week is built upon contrasts. Some contrasts—those that distinguish between human communities—are named and rejected in light of a different, more fundamental and decisive, contrast: that between the human efforts at division and God’s work of unification.
Most directly, this passage addresses the separation between Jews and Gentiles. The navigation of this ethnic and religious divide marked the early decades and centuries of the Church as followers of Christ—both Jew and Gentile—found themselves called into community together. Paul calls on the Gentile believers in Ephesus to “remember” the division that had held “at one time” (v11). The objects of this remembrance are found in verse 12: that they were “without Christ,” “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel,” “strangers to the covenants of promise,” without hope or “God in the world.” These claims are contrasted with the Gentile’s new life “now in Christ,” summarized by the spatial metaphor: “you who once were far off have been brought near” (v13). The distance of the Gentiles, “without Christ,” is marked by both social and theological consequences. Exclusion from the people of Israel is accompanied by isolation from covenantal promise, as well as hopelessness and God-forsakenness. The division between Jews and Gentiles was not just interpersonal. It was existential and spiritual, claiming to dictate the possibility of hope and even, however hyperbolic, the presence of God.
But the list of verse 12 is rooted in the distinction named in verse 11: “you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands.” The line between Jew and Gentile was drawn in and by their (exclusively male, here) bodies. It is a division “made in the flesh by human hands” (v11). While the consequences of the Gentiles’ distance named in verse 12 are serious, their root from verse 11 is cast as insignificant. Not because it is a line drawn in and by “the flesh,” but because it is drawn “by human hands.” For the response of God to this division is also accomplished in and by “flesh:” It is “in his flesh” (v14) that Jesus unites that which humans had separated. Overcoming our division, Jesus creates “one new humanity” “in himself” (v15). And he reconciles both Jews and Gentiles “in one body through the cross” (v16). Here is the decisive distinction: not between flesh and spirit, but between human distinction and division of bodies and Christ’s bodily unification of what humans had sundered.
The consequences of this fleshy union are unpacked in the second half of the passage. Peace is proclaimed to those both far and near (v17), both Jews and Gentiles have “access in one Spirit to the Father” (v18). They who were once “strangers and aliens” are made “citizens with the saints” and “members of the household of God” (v19). All are “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (v22). The center of Christ’s unifying work in this passage is located at Jesus’s death (“by the blood of Christ” in v13 and “through the cross” in v16). However, these references to the crucifixion rely upon the repeated reference to Christ’s body for their meaning. The union achieved through “putting to death” the hostility between Jews and Gentiles, achieved “by the blood of Christ,” is a union first made possible by the assumption of humanity in the Incarnation.
It should not escape our notice that relatively few pastors today confront an ongoing division between Gentile and Jewish believers. But this does not mean that this text’s stark ethnic and political imagery should be ignored or re-interpreted in favor of a weakly spiritualized vision of sinners (“those who were far off”) and the saved (“those who have been brought near”). The pastor preaching from this text, today, has no shortage of all-too-painfully-appropriate analogs for the racial and ethnic division which Paul here addresses. Further, that it is Christ who claims the right to unite (not divide) bodies—and not “us” nor our “law with its commandments and ordinances” (v15)—ought to at least give the Church pause in this day of deliberations and legislations over people’s bodies and their accompanying identifications.
Finally, central to Paul’s argument, as well as to any faithful reading, is the assertion at the beginning of verse 14: “For he is our peace.” This points us to a last contrast that is worth noting: In answer to the numerous and deep divisions inflicted by humans upon humans—divisions of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual identity, social status, or political allegiance—we find a God who embraces the whole of the human family—indeed, the whole of the created order—in the Incarnation of Jesus. In answer to strife, we find Christ, who is our peace.
Pastor, West Chester Church of the Nazarene