Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Today’s reading lies at the heart of the theology of Ephesians, and it is not tame.

July 22, 2012

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 2:11-22

Today’s reading lies at the heart of the theology of Ephesians, and it is not tame.

No doubt some relatively tame sermons have been preached from this text from time to time — maybe taking to task a congregation fussily divided over the color of the carpet or over the price of adding ten parking spaces to the parking lot. But the text is meant to do more than coax cranky congregants toward compromise. This is a text meant to shake empires.

Close attention to the very deliberate rhetoric of these verses, and the way it would have functioned for Christians of Asia Minor living under the iron rule of Rome, can reveal just how deeply political the “spiritual” vision of Ephesians is. In short, the tightly-crafted rhetoric of Ephesians 2:11-22 directly challenges the swaggering claims of Rome’s emperors, who saw themselves as the semi-divine forgers of a new world peace.1 Likewise, it undermines all systems that secure insider distinction and top-down privilege by setting up barriers that identify some as outsider or inferior.

It is crucial to recognize that any talk of peace within the context of Asia Minor in the late first century under Roman rule would be politically charged talk. Roman emperors, Augustus in particular, were hailed as the semi-divine inaugurators of an unprecedented peace that would settle the turbulent rivalries of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. This Roman brand of “peace,” of course, was an enforced peace wrought through military dominance. When necessary, terror would be used — specifically, the terror of crucifixion for anyone foolhardy enough to challenge peace on the Empire’s terms. On state occasions and festival days such as the birthday of the emperor, when the emperor’s “lordship’ would be celebrated, the emperor as “peace-bringer” would be lauded in public speeches.

Imagine that we, a community of Christians in Asia Minor, are tightly packed into the largest home available for the first reading of a new treatise that has arrived — the one that will later come to be known as the Letter to the Ephesians. We’re gathered to hear it read out, of course, because most of us cannot read. As the reader gets to the part that says, “You who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . He is our peace,” there is a quick intake of breath and glances toward the door.

Who may have heard? “He [Christ] is our peace” (verse 14) would be a pronouncement bordering on treason. What is being claimed, after all, is that despite all the swaggering claims of Rome’s emperors, true peace has been inaugurated by a man the empire crucified. The dissonance between the chilling rhetoric of the state and the thrilling rhetoric of the Gospel would set any listener’s blood racing. 

Another clue for preaching this text is the way its writer uses the familiar to illuminate the less familiar. Key terms of distinction familiar to residents in Rome’s conquered lands — “strangers,”  “aliens,” “citizens” — are  drawn alongside the religious division of Jew and non-Jew, a religious reality likely less familiar in Asia Minor’s mostly non-Jewish, late-first-century churches.  Citizenship was highly valued across the Empire, so much so that among the foreign peoples conquered by Rome, some would pay great sums for citizenship — a fact alluded to in Acts 22:25-28. Paul is bound and about to be flogged when he confronts his captors with the fact that he was born a Roman citizen, making flogging him a crime. The tribune is amazed, confessing that he paid a high price for his citizenship.

The citizen/alien distinction brought clarity and emotional content to the distinction between insiders and outsiders to God’s “covenant of promise” (verse 12), between those justified through “the law with its commandments and ordinances” (verse 15) and those without such access. Preachers can adopt a similar strategy.

Instead of laboring to explain what Roman citizenship meant, why not evoke some of those  insider/outsider systems that actually structure the daily lives of the folks who fill the pews? Several come to mind: club membership, perhaps? Team jerseys or alma mater bumper stickers? The places where people shop? 

This requires tact. The goal is to help listeners identify the divides that structure their lives, granting them either a sense of distinction or painful exclusion. This can be done without pointing an accusing finger from the pulpit at those who live on the “right” streets or have gone to the “right” schools. But the gritty reality of the divisions that Christ died to undermine will likely not hit home unless the preacher can suggest real distinctions that stratify the community and reach into the congregation. Positively, the preacher can envision concrete practices that create a counter-current to the forces that stratify and separate. Meals shared with communities of other faiths are a start; common work for justice is another step, and praying together may be the most challenging of all.

Ephesians declares peace on new terms, the peace forged not by the “lords” of Empire in its manifold forms, but in the blood and bone of the Crucified. The cross undermined the wall dividing Jew and non-Jew, but that is only the beginning. 

The new household of God is not a purely spiritual reality that we visit briefly on Sundays — a weekly “time out” in which we pretend peace is possible by sitting next to people we scrupulously avoid the rest of the time. The church is the daring practice of a new politics — a different kind of power, the self-outpoured, boundary-crossing power of Christ’s cross. We trust this power, letting it undermine every wall, until we are “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (verse 22).

1I am indebted to the work of Gosnell Yorke for key insights that follow. See Gosnell Yorke, “Hearing the Politics of Peace in Ephesians:  A Proposal from an African Postcolonial Perspective,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30:1 (2007), 113-127.