Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

On this Sunday, the text from Ephesians expresses some major affirmations concerning the church.

July 19, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 2:11-22

On this Sunday, the text from Ephesians expresses some major affirmations concerning the church.

Many of the major studies on the church in the New Testament have given attention to what Ephesians has to say and what this passage says in particular.

In the opening portion (2:11-13), the author addresses his readers as “Gentiles by birth.” It appears throughout this letter that it was intended for readers who were Gentile Christians (3:1), perhaps located in Asia Minor. There is no indication that any were of Jewish heritage. This fact may have made it all the more important for the author to stress to his readers that the Christian church continues the heritage from Israel. The alternative: they would be considered “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel” and of pagan heritage.

Written late in the first century, the letter reflects at this point a reality and a concern. As that century moved on toward its close, the church was becoming increasingly Gentile in composition, overwhelmingly so, and by all appearances it was among Gentiles that it would continue to grow. Proportionately, those of Jewish heritage were increasingly becoming a minority.

As a consequence, the Christian movement and certainly the Christian church could be perceived by uninformed persons in general as a religious movement and religious institution of pagan origins. Even some Christians might have thought in these terms, especially those who lived in predominantly Gentile areas where the church was advancing numerically.

Therefore, the author of Ephesians stresses that the Christian church has its origins within the history of the one people of God, the people of Israel. All that happened in the Old Testament story was a part of their own story and heritage. God did not make a fresh start with the birth of Christianity. Indeed, Christianity fulfills the story of the Old Testament.

In the next portion of our reading (2:14-18), the author speaks eloquently of the “peace” which God has brought into the world through Christ. In a famous verse, the author asserts that Christ “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (2:14), referring to Gentiles and Jews who are believers in Christ.

The next verse (2:15) is striking in its sweep. In his coming to earth and through his death and resurrection, Christ “has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances.”

On first reading, that sounds astonishingly antinomian. But if one considers the word “law” to mean the Torah and its hundreds of commandments that characterize the Jewish way of life, the statement makes better sense. These commandments had often set up social boundaries between Jews and Gentiles. But Christ has torn down the wall, or boundary, that stands between Jews and Gentiles, creating one new humanity.

We are not told exactly how all are reconciled “through the cross” (2:16), but here the author relies on the common Christian tradition that claims the death of Christ was redemptive. In his death, he assumed the consequences of human sinfulness, and the results are forgiveness of sins (1:7; 4:32) and reconciliation to God (2:16). The result is peace for all believers and access to the Father.

In the last section (2:19-22), the author affirms that Gentile Christians are therefore “no longer strangers and aliens,” but are members of “the household of God.” This “household” is built upon “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (2:19-20).

The imagery of “the foundation” used here is important. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). But in Ephesians the apostolic foundation is broadened. The church’s foundation is the whole collection of apostles and prophets, giving that foundation breadth and depth, both catholicity and apostolicity.

Having its foundation upon the apostles and prophets, the church’s message is to be apostolic and prophetic. Still, we remember that Christ is the cornerstone.

A cornerstone was the first stone to be placed at a construction site when a building got under way. Its function was to set the pattern for the building as a whole. Christ is thus given priority and is the one who sets the standard for all who follow. Ephesians 2:21 affirms this by saying the entire structure is built upon him and joined together as one.

This text offers abundant opportunities for preaching. It provides the preacher with an occasion to speak of the church in reference to a good number of possible themes. One possibility is to develop a teaching sermon related to what we say in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” To unpack that line with reference to the Council of Nicea and the text from Ephesians could be beneficial.

The text speaks of the oneness of the church (2:15-16) and its apostolic foundation (2:20). Many, perhaps most, parishioners these days practice a “practical ecumenism” that goes well beyond the official dialogues. It can be good pastoral care for the preacher to assure them that their inclinations are rooted in the New Testament itself.

At the same time, it is good to remind all that the church is not just what we make of it. If it is true to itself, it knows it has apostolic foundations which guide its life.

Another possible theme for preaching on this text is to speak of Christ as the one who breaks down barriers (2:14), reconciling persons of all kinds, so that none are “strangers and aliens” (2:19).

It is a sad fact that, even though the world is shrinking and we have possibilities of communication like never before, the world is fragmented into so many different groups and camps. The church can model the barrier-free life that Christ has brought.

That is so on a global scale. It is also the case in the congregation. We are all family, and no one is to be treated as a stranger or alien. Differences in race, class, gender, economic condition, politics, and opinion exist, but they are not barriers to living in unity in Christ. The congregation is a laboratory for the kingdom of God.

The congregation as laboratory for the kingdom can also be a witness to the wider, secular society. Differences among persons exist, but community is possible when dividing walls, based on hostility, are broken down. The bonds of a common humanity tie us together for the good of all.