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Ephesians 2:11-21 "A pilgrimage of unity", by Susan Durber

In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul addresses the particular faith journey that the early Christians found themselves walking. Their pilgrimage is a journey of discovering the unity between Jews and the Gentiles, in which the Gentiles are welcomed into the covenant of promise. It invites us to wonder where God might be doing the work of reconciliation and building bridges today. God’s purpose is to lead all of us into unity with one another and to welcome those who were once strangers into the household. The reconciling love of God reaches beyond any borders.

20 January 2018

Bible studies on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace
"A pilgrimage of unity" (Ephesians 2:11-21)
by Susan Durber*

11 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— 12 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. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 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. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.

How might the text contribute to the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace?

This is a text about the extraordinary pilgrimage of justice and peace that the early Christians found themselves walking. They were discovering that one of the most ancient divisions between people in the world was being overcome by what God has done in Jesus Christ. People who were once “strangers and aliens” were being welcomed home into the covenant of promise. God was reconciling separated people “in one body through the cross” and welcoming them all as members of the household of God. The text is about the way that Gentiles were included within the covenant of promise and within the household of God, but it invites us all to wonder where God might be doing the work of reconciliation and building surprising bridges right now.

Reflection

In a tight spot in an airport recently, I began to think, “But I’m a British citizen!” I’m used to being someone who is treated well, who has a smooth path through. My whiteness, my money and my British passport give me privilege. Most of the time I don’t even notice this. My language is the one that’s often spoken by others. Most people in the world know something about the place I come from, and I can talk about football, fish and chips or the Queen. I expect to feel at home in my own nation and welcome in most parts of the world. My country is the one at the centre of most maps and I have Mr Bean, Harry Potter and Shakespeare on my side. I can make myself at home pretty much anywhere. I’m not far off, not a stranger or an alien, but a citizen.

But the writer of this letter to the Ephesians knows the truth. I am a Gentile, and as far as the story of salvation in the Bible goes I am a late comer to the feast. I come from a strange people and I am “other.” Though with terrible and tragic irony, in Europe, it was Jewish people who were treated as “aliens and strangers,” it is really they who were part of the commonwealth of God and Gentile people like me who were once outsiders. But because of Jesus Christ, people like me are no longer far off, and have been welcomed into the covenant of faith. I have been brought near by the blood of Christ, and peoples once so far from each other have been brought close. This text tells me that there is another way of looking at who I am in the world.

There is also an existential sense in which we all might know what it means to be a “stranger and alien,” even from ourselves. We have all felt “far off,” cut off from others, walking a lonely pilgrimage in a world of strangers, where hostility is what we sense from others, even from those we thought might love us. All of us, if we think carefully and deeply enough, know something of what it means to be the ones who walk, restlessly, in a world where everyone wants to find a home and to live in peace.

The writer of this letter knows that God’s purpose has always been to overcome division, to break down walls, to bring those who are separated near once more. God wants all of us to be “no longer strangers and aliens, but … citizens … and also members of the household of God.” God’s purpose is to lead all of us into unity with one another and to welcome those who were once strangers into the household. Some of us live with the illusion that we are the householders and the citizens and that others are the “strangers and aliens, while others live with a perpetual sense that they will be walking forever. God’s purpose is to make of us one humanity.

So I have to think of myself and others in a different way. I am used to being the one who is at the centre of things, with the power to include others (or not). But in the story of salvation, I am actually one who has been welcomed, and from the edge. That gives me a certain humility and also an urgency about building the bridges that, through God’s grace, have enabled me to be among the community of faith. If God’s longing is for unity between divided peoples, then that has to be my desire too. If God has reached out beyond the walls to find me, then I can only reach out with my hands to others too. And if God has let go of mighty power to journey with me in Jesus, then I too must be willing to let go of the power this world has given me for the sake of others.

At the moment the world seems so tragically fractured and broken. There are new rifts opening up in our communities: citizens and migrants, Christians and Muslims, those for whom globalization is good news and those for whom it is not. I know that God’s purpose is always to create one new humanity, so I ask how can I give myself to that task now? It will begin with reaching out to other Christians from whom I am divided by history and sometimes doctrine and practice, but I don’t think that it can end there. The reconciling love of God reaches beyond any borders, and I must follow that trajectory with my living too.

In the early church it must have been unimaginable that God could reconcile Jew and Gentile (not to mention slave and free, and male and female), but that is just what God was doing. What then will God do in our time? I know that I would not be within the covenant of faith were it not that Gentiles were once made welcome within the household. Where am I called to welcome others as I have been welcomed?

Questions for discussion

  1. In your context, is your church at the centre of nation, culture and power, or at the margins? What difference does that make to your life and mission?
  2. If the church is to serve God’s mission of reconciling separated people, with whom does your church need to seek reconciliation today?

Ideas for action

  1. Organize an event that brings together separated communities where you live. Could it be a walk or a pilgrimage together? Or a shared campaign to address an injustice?
  2. Is there a congregation of another church near yours to which you could reach out in a new way for reconciliation and peace? Could you worship together or share a meal?

Resources

The Church: Towards a Common Vision: Here is a study guide to the latest Faith and Order document about God’s mission and the unity of the Church: https://ctbi.org.uk/church-towards-common-vision/

Brown, Sally A. “Commentary on Ephesians 2:11-22.” Here is a preacher reflecting on this passage from the letter to the Ephesians: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1332

A prayer

O God,
who sent Christ to reconcile your people,
we thank you for seeking out
every alien stranger
and welcoming us into your household.

We give ourselves
to the work of reconciliation and unity
in every place and in every family
in our churches and in our communities,

so that one day
your will for a single humanity
may be done.

Amen

* Susan Durber of the United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom is the moderator of the World Council of Churches' Commission on Faith and Order.  She is also a member of the Theological Study Group of  the WCC’s   Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. A former principal of Westminster College in Cambridge, she served as theological coordinator of the UK-based charity Christian Aid and is now minister of Taunton United Reformed Church in the southwest of England. Her books include Surprised by Grace and Preaching like a Woman. She holds a doctorate in biblical studies.