“Peace to you who are far off”
Sunday 22 July 2018
One of the things that we have to be very careful about when we read the New Testament is the tendency to let our vision be distorted by our knowledge of subsequent events in the history of the Church. The books of the Bible are always initially concerned with the current day in which they were written. Our view can often lead us to flatten out difficulties, and in some cases, ignore them altogether.
One of the subsequent historical developments to the time of the writing of the books of the New Testament is the outstanding success of the spread of the gospel throughout the world. A consequence of that is that the Jewish roots of the Church are often downplayed and, in some instances ignored completely.
In the text from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that we heard today, we get some idea of how significant an event the proclamation of the gospel to the gentiles really was in the time of the composition of the letter.
Although the Letter traditionally carries the title “to the Ephesians”, there is no mention of the addressee in most of the earliest manuscripts that exist. As a result, some scholars are inclined to regard the audience of the original correspondence as not the Church in the city of Ephesus, but rather a whole range of Churches in different locations in that part of south west Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). In other words, it is seen as something of a circular which it was expected would be read, copied, and then passed on to another community.
Regardless of this speculation, it is very clear that the principal audience or audiences of the letter was gentile Christians. As I said at the beginning, we can tend to flatten out history and ignore the fact that there was very possibly a great deal of tension within early Christian communities between those who came to faith in Jesus from a Jewish background and those whose background was gentile.
And so, these words of Paul were a great comfort and support to those gentile Christians who received this correspondence.
He begins by reminding them of the parlous nature of their previous situation. “…remember that you were 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”. These are strong words: aliens, strangers, no hope, without God in the world.
However, that has now all changed for them “by the blood of Christ”. Christ has created in himself a new humanity, reconciling both groups, Jews and gentiles to God in one body through the cross. What Christ has made possible is not to be taken for granted. Paul explains: “…for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father”.
This brings about a huge reversal for the gentile Christians. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.
The passage ends with a resounding climax. “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”. Paul is making it very clear that the gentiles, through Christ, are made a part of the very dwelling-place of God, always held by the Jews to be the Temple in Jerusalem, the place where heaven and earth met.
As I indicated, it is easy for us to overlook what a controversial and challenging position it was in those days for Paul to be proposing. The distance between Jews and gentiles could not have been greater. Remember that Jews would not even associate with gentiles. And on the other hand, the gentiles had governed the Jews with an iron fist and filled the skylines with crosses carrying the bodies of any Jews who dared to resist.
And yet, for Paul, this division could not be allowed to be seen as still existing between fellow believers and followers of Christ. They were now united in the very body of Christ. Division and disunity were impossible. The gentiles to whom Paul was writing are encouraged to look beyond traditional antipathies and to see themselves as being brought in to the Church as fully-fledged members.
This was a very deep-rooted insight of Paul in regards to the Church. As the body of Christ, it was impossible for there to be division within its ranks. We see this tackled in his correspondence with the Corinthian Church where divisions had arisen between members of the community based on which apostles they honoured. In this Letter to the Ephesians, he is ruling out disunity brought about by a divide between gentile and Jew.
Paul would no doubt be amazed and saddened to look around the world today and the see the divisions that have emerged in the Christian Church through history. Christians have been all too willing to divide and separate over a myriad of issues, rather than to reverence the unity that Paul makes clear should be at the heart of the Church. Here is the great line of division in the present day Church – not one between Jews and gentiles, but one between the different denominations of Christianity.
There is no easy solution to the historical divisions that have taken place. However, it is possible to work in our own quiet way to restoring unity in two ways. Firstly, we can work hard to ensure that we build up the unity within our own Church community by the respect for difference that we display within our own ranks. And secondly, we can take advantage of opportunities to develop closer ties with Christians of other denominations as we encounter them in our local community.
The inspiration that should be at the heart of any such efforts is the truth so eloquently and strongly espoused by Paul in this text that: “…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”.
Let us pray
Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles:
I leave you peace, my peace I give you.
Look not on our sins, our divisions and our confusions
but grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom
where you live for ever and ever. Amen.
The Reverend Allan Paulsen