Sunday 18 July 2021: Trinity 7, Sixteenth in Ordinary time, Proper 11
Context: any town or city church
Aim: to encourage churches to settle differences and focus on the cross
In these verses we see the strength of Paul’s preaching and ministry, his unshakeable faith in the salvation of Jesus Christ. His zeal and longing for others to believe and be saved shines through this letter, his missionary attitude undimmed despite being confined in a Roman prison.
He is eager for the new Christian churches at Ephesus and elsewhere to enlarge their thinking and to grasp the magnitude of God’s plans and vision for ultimate salvation. God’s goals, says Paul, will be delivered through the spiritual knitting together of all believers to become the sanctified church, a ‘holy temple in the Lord’ (2:21).
For God’s plans to come to fruition, a strong and unified church is needed. Paul reminds believers that past differences between Gentiles and Jews have been healed through the sacrifice and peace of Christ. The old barriers that separated them from each other and made them enemies – religious rules such as circumcision, social status, the Jewish inheritance as God’s favoured nation – have been swept away by the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross.
No longer were the non-Jews ‘without hope and without God in the world’ (2:12). And no longer were the Jews able to rely for their power on the old laws that excluded others and kept them in control (2:15). Jesus had destroyed enmity between Jews and Gentiles – ‘the dividing wall of hostility’ (2:14). The way had been opened for all to become reconciled in Christ to each other, and to God, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Built on the strong foundation of shared faith in Jesus as Lord, with Christ as its cornerstone, Paul challenged believers to see that this newly integrated harmonious family of God could fulfil God’s high purposes as his church on earth. You are better together, Paul says, and together you can show others the living Christ through your witness and worship.
Paul’s letter was written to encourage the church at Ephesus and others in the region, although he had a special relationship with the Ephesian church, having founded it in AD53 and spent three years preaching and teaching to great effect (Acts 19:1). Teeming with merchants and travellers of differing ethnicities and beliefs, in Paul’s time Ephesus was a busy city, known for its magnificent pagan Temple of Artemis. Bringing together converts from among the Jews and Gentiles to form a healthy church in this diverse city must have been difficult. But Paul says, any differences that hold back the church and separate people have been banished through Christ Jesus.
Perhaps the church and the world today should return to these words and take heed. For in both the church and the world, divisions of gender, race, poverty, and theological interpretation, to name just a few, still exist and lead to hurt and disappointment.
A most powerful and poignant symbol of division among people is the Wall in the Holy Land, scarring the landscape where Jesus walked in an ironic repudiation of the ideals of unity expounded by Paul. The Separation Wall cuts through Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’ birth, separating citizens from their olive groves, Arab Christians from Israeli Jews. Graffiti daubed on the Wall cries out for more love and peace, a yearning that is all the more affecting when contrasted with Paul’s firm assertion that all barriers between people have been destroyed through the cross. Historical misunderstanding of the involvement of Jewish leaders in Jesus’ death still clouds relationships between Christians and Jews.
One wonders what Jesus would say if he walked the streets of Bethlehem today.
Thankfully, there are encouraging signs of the kingdom slowly gathering momentum in the world, incomplete miracles of reconciliation, bright sparks of hope. In sharp contrast to the barrier of the Separation Wall is the Divan Orchestra, founded by an Israeli, conductor Daniel Barenboim and a Palestinian, Edward Said, as a project for friendship and dialogue. Today, its young members are both Israeli and Arab. Or the Declaration Nostra Aetate (1965), wrung step by painful step from ground-breaking dialogue between Jews and the Catholic Church, that for the first time officially acknowledged the spiritual values of other religions in that Church’s understanding.
Jesus Christ has opened the way to unity, a complete reconciliation of all differences between people shown through the love of God in the sacrifice of his Son. Paul urges the church at Ephesus to seize the opportunity, recognise that the human barriers that separate people have been destroyed through Christ’s death, and focus together on the centrality of the cross. Thus will the church realise God’s great plan and purpose – the coming of heaven here on earth.
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