[This article is part of the series The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. We also welcome sermons. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
The author of Ephesians is addressing the conflict between Jew and Gentile Christians (“the cut/circumcised” and “the uncut/uncircumcised”). The politics of this text could be boiled down to the first century conflict between these two groups. It’s a definition so basic and so simple that it belongs in a Politics 101 course. Where it gets interesting, however, is not how one defines the conflict, but how the author of Ephesians deals with it.
Peace. Justice. Citizenship. These are the catch phrases that the author employs. Laudable goals, to be sure, but the way in which the text moves from this ethnic (and potentially racial) conflict to the resolution are not only unorthodox but, for the gentile audience addressed, is jarring and potentially wounding.
“You are no longer strangers and aliens,” he tells them, “but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).
Much ink has been spilt on the concept of household in the Greco-Roman familial and political systems. Citizenship was not something that was awarded lightly in that context, nor was membership in the household merely a nominal good. Both implied precious status and protections for which the Gentile Christians must surely have been grateful. One must be careful not to dismiss too lightly the good news of this transformation brought on by Christ. Nonetheless, beneath this blanket protection lies a second and more cutting political message from the author of Ephesians – the gentiles, “the uncut” used to be aliens. Before Christ, they were strangers
“having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).
This is a far cry from the gentiles whom Paul addresses in Romans 1, who although they had fallen into sin, knew God who had revealed God’s self to them (Romans 1:18-21). Indeed, such a diversion, in combination with the author of Ephesians previous disregard for the law, is one of the contributing factors for reading this letter as pseudo-Pauline.
Paul and the author of Ephesians speak profound messages of abounding and undeserved grace. Even though they were aliens, strangers, outside the promise, God accepts the gentiles. Again, this point is not to be dismissed too lightly. It bears a profound and encouraging testament to God’s limitless love. However, the politics of how this is actualized for the church in Ephesus leaves open the possibility (indeed, probability) of creating second class citizens – the Israelites (the circumcised) who always lived within the promise and the Gentiles (the uncircumcised strangers) who now, by the grace of God, are admitted in. Are these citizens with the saints naturalized or were they native-born? And what difference does this make in the Christian community? In God’s eyes, of course, the point is to say that no difference is to be made. But in our human world it continues to make a difference and I cannot imagine that the original audience would have been immune to this. Indeed, the conflict wages on today in its own forms (between those who identify themselves as the “insiders” in God’s limitless church and those they/we regard as coming in from without).
Stripping away another layer, yet, one can also ask, if this were not so – if the author of Ephesians had avoided all distinction from the very start and the dividing wall were not only destroyed but forgotten, where would that leave us? Without ethnicity, race, or identity? Is the Christian Church intended to be a melting pot? Or does the same God who created us each unique in so many ways intend for us something more?
How do we exercise our “citizenship” in God’s kingdom? How do we proclaim God’s message in a way that both respects identity and brings peace?
By way of addendum,
This week 35,000+ youth from my church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), will convene in New Orleans for a triennial national youth gathering. The theme for this gathering comes from today’s epistle text – Ephesians 2:14-20. The website states, “We gather as citizens along with the saints to learn to love like Jesus by practicing discipleship through peacemaking that works for justice” (http://www.elca.org/elca/youth-gathering.aspx accessed 12 July 2012).
These are lofty goals to be sure, but when well executed, I believe they begin to enact the mandate of Ephesians at its best. Those who wish to be naturalized as American citizens are required to go through a process of “learning” what it means to be a citizen of the United States. However flawed this process may or may not be, when applied to citizenship in God’s Kingdom (a gift that comes from God’s abounding grace), the mandate that all citizens should learn what it means to love like Jesus is a powerful reminder that none of us are born into the Kingdom with special privilege. Indeed, we must all constantly be remaking ourselves for the good of the Kingdom, one another, and ourselves.
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and a Theology and Practice fellow in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. She and her family reside in Franklin, TN where they attend the Lutheran Church of Saint Andrew.