A little Theolonious, just because now is always a good time for some Monk.
I’ve studied Paul, but not in the way I have studied the gospels, most especially the Gospel of Mark. However, one can’t earn a master of arts in theology and a master of divinity degree without knowing a thing or two about the Apostle, as Thomas Aquinas rendered him in the Summa Theologica. There are things I legitimately don’t like about Paul–his emphasis on the Parousia (the second coming) and his rather arrogant approach to Peter and James–but some of my disdain has been alleviated through prolonged, in-worship study of individual epistles. I’ve written before about why I think biblical literacy is essential, but I began my faith journey as a scholar. It is only since serving as pastor at First Presby that I’ve realized how talking scripture in worship helps head meet heart. Two weeks in, and I feel that what’s happening in service is special and powerful.
Our narrative lectionary passage comes from Ephesians 2:11-21. We’ve already considered the context and approach of our current study. We focus on thematics this week while looking towards consideration of the structure, as it pertains to life in Christ, further down the road in our journey through Ephesians.
Paul begins with a simple statement that has complex implications: “So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time 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.” Y’all, remember that you once were on the outside looking in; you know what it is to feel alienated and left out. You know where that desperation lives.”
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.,” he continues. I’ve written previously about blood atonement theology, and I will once again caution us to approach Paul shed of the contributions that Sts. Anselm and Aquinas later provided. For Paul, Christ going to the cross was an act meant to bestow upon Gentiles a pathway to God. But even more importantly, this act was and is meant to break down the walls that separate us. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
Paul often is criticized as anti-Jewish, but that rips him from his own context. Paul was a Pharisee, meaning that he most likely had memorized the Torah and he was a keeper of the oral law Pharisees claimed had been given to Moses, was then passed to Joshua, and so on until the time of Jesus. Pharisees are not remembered well or accurately in popular culture, largely because Christian apologists and officials have oft-depicted them as the driving force, along with Judas, behind Christ’s execution. Further, in Church imagination, Jesus and eleven disciples became Gentiles, leaving Judas the only Jew. We Christians cannot downplay the horrors that were visited upon Jews in the name of Christ, but I also encourage Christians to not blindly support Israel, especially given the terrifying existences the Palestinian people have to live under Israeli rule.
“He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances,” Paul continues, “that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” Paul recognizes that there were many stumbling blocks for Gentiles to enter the covenant community. Circumcision, an image Paul uses often, is an external sign of an internal commitment. Paul, like Jeremiah before him, says that God is more concerned with a circumcised heart than he is a circumcised penis.
Circumcision is a requirement that stretches back to Abraham. It is a way of drawing lines and boundaries between those who belong and those who don’t, similar to the clean/unclean dichotomy that fuels much of the Torah. This makes sense given the context of the Semitic peoples vis-a-vis other religions. For much of the ancient world, that which played out on earth was divinely ordained. When the Assyrians were defeated by the Babylonians who were defeated by the Persians who fell to the Greeks who so greatly changed the face of greater Mesopotamia that the next Egyptian and Syrian empires were Hellenized, it was always understood as god or gods defeating one another. The Jews offered a different theological context: their God was acting through opposing armies to punish them for violating God’s law.
So when Paul says that Jesus has eliminated the need for “commandments and ordinances,” this does not necessarily translate into an abolition of the Torah itself. When he writes that reconciliation comes through the cross, that does not necessarily mean that everyone has to approach God through the cross. I think Paul is arguing that God has provided a way for Gentiles to be in relationship with God, much as the prophet Mohammad will do centuries later for Arabs and Africans. Today, there are people of all backgrounds and ethnicities in each of the Abrahamic faiths. Each tradition establishes, in various ways, paths for people to connect with God.
The most important part of the epistle, at least for me, is that God is in the business of pulling down boundaries. The blood of Christ is connected to redemption, yes, but in Ephesians we learn that redemption must involve other people. Christ’s mission is meant to erase hostility and produce peace. Paul clearly argues for a new community. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” The problem, in my view, is that Christianity quickly became about drawing boundaries similar to those transgressed by Jesus and declared irrelevant by Paul.
Paul is writing to a group who clearly feel they have been left out. Abraham was given bloodline and land by God, according to Jewish tradition, and Gentiles do not have the bloodline. But Christ on the cross is not just about reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, it is about the hostilities we hold in our hearts as individuals. Paul uses body imagery, particularly the Body of Christ, Σώμα του Χριστού, to demonstrate that God provides to all the means of grace through faith, and this produces a community dedicated to eradicating hostilities. It is a sad irony that a vast majority of Christian history has been defined by the violent drawing of lines, the transgression of which frequently resulted in torture, death, condemnation to hell, or all three.
“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,” this week’s passage concludes. Paul has a mystical side we often miss, at least I have because, as previously noted, there are some major stumbling blocks with Pauline theology. But Paul believes that the breaking of Christ’s body replicated in the Eucharist should be juxtaposed to the unity of the Body of Christ, the community God forms.
I imagine that some reading this might accuse me of special pleading; elsewhere Paul appears to make it clear that the only way to God is Jesus, most especially in Galatians 3:23-29. In fact, 3:28–“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”–is so special to me that I have it tattooed on my left forearm. However, I reject the notion that it is about exclusivity and supremacy.
Paul had lived on both sides of the wall, as it were. The author of Luke claims that Paul was a Roman citizen, but Paul never makes that claim. He was, however, a Pharisee involved in the trial and sentencing of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. His world was bifurcated by two factions, his faith tradition and the occupying power, Rome. It is most reasonable to see Jesus Christ as the way in which God reconciled Judaism to Gentiles. Paul believed that nothing short of complete destruction of all cultural barriers would bring peace. It is so telling that Paul sees Jesus as a peace agent on both the micro and macro levels.
But Paul was wrong in some fundamental ways. He based most of his ethic on the belief that Christ was coming back within a generation (see especially 1 Thessalonians), so for him community was the primary focus. He spent his life trying to reconcile people to one another, with Christ as his guide and justification. I lament the ways in which Paul’s ministry was interpreted or used as a template, because Christ has not come back. I am doubtful about the Parousia, something I’ve touched on before, but I believe deeply that Jesus is peace and joy. In my own life, I have been able to transgress cultural boundaries and decry institutional injustices because of Christ. Internally, I have been able to destroy those labels bestowed upon me by others, or as is more often the case, by myself.
I see nothing to be gained by telling other people to abandon their religions or traditions. I see no reason to be obsessed with telling atheists and agnostics they are going to hell. First, they aren’t because hell is constructed through superstition, misreadings of texts, the desire for power, and, most especially, the influence of Dante and Milton. Second, Jesus only got worked up and started shouting at people was when they were not doing what God requires, which is extending grace, compassion, love, mercy, and justice. Y’all have likely seen the signs on the interwebz:
So what we can take away from Paul, those of us who are not that jazzed about blood atonement, is that taking care of one another is so central to following God that Jesus went willingly to the cross as an act of solidarity with those denied blood. Jesus calls to him those who are willing to get rid of labels that divide, but not in abstract ways. God calls us to come to the table as siblings, and to speak our truths. But let us not be more focused on getting other people to believe in Jesus than we are in following Jesus ourselves.
I’ll close with this: I once met a young man who asked me in line at Subway if I had heard the good news. I responded with, “the good news about what?” He said, “well, about Jesus.” I calmly told him I was a pastor, and he broke into a big smile. I found out through conversation that he had converted just a few weeks before, went to a non-denominational church, and was “just starting my walk with Christ.” My blood was almost boiling, but I focused on Jesus and extended compassion. “Brother?” I asked, “what would you have said had I said no?” He didn’t know, and I told him that was a problem. “My brother in Christ, why don’t you focus on your own journey instead of asking others about their own, unless you are willing to listen and respect them, not proselytize. Because, frankly, I don’t want you out there representing us when you ain’t got a clue about what it takes to assume responsibility for someone else’s spirituality.” I might not have said exactly these words, but it was something like that.
Love Jesus; don’t be a jerk.