Eph. 2:11-22: Good Fences

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—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. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 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. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 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.

Good Fences

You have, perhaps, heard Robert Frost’s excellent poem “Mending Wall.” Snippets are quoted with some frequency, namely its bookended “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” In the poem the narrator surveys the fence dividing his property from his neighbors. In the off season he patches holes caused by freezes and hunters. Then, come Spring, he calls his neighbor over to fix the thing altogether, to “set the wall between us once again.” As they walk along the fence, the narrator becomes wary of its implications. There’s a natural boundary caused by their trees, his apple trees, the neighbor’s pines. Perhaps they should tear the thing down?

The neighbor responds, without hostility or anger, “‘Good fences make good neighbors.’” “Spring is the mischief in me,” recalls the narrator, “and I wonder / If I could put a notion in his head: / ‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it / Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. / Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense. / Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, / That wants it down.”

Every time I see a wall I remember that line. I sort of huff and puff, “something there is!” There’s an instinct to distrust walls, a sort of libertarian streak, a childlike urge to trespass,  to go beyond what is acceptable in the hopes that some incredible thing is being held within. But for a people who distrust walls, we’ve done an excellent job of erecting them. We’ve seen the Berlin Wall which, though no longer standing (except of course as memorial), still reminds us of the vast differences between East and West. And the Iron Curtain, that spectral wall built of mutual distrust and suspicion that remains today. And of course the Great Wall. And the proposed and extant border walls between the United States and Mexico. The tall, high gates that protect the Governor’s Mansion from the hooligans of Princeton and the perimeter around the White House. And the little white picket fences that populate our nostalgia.

When I was young I went on a vacation with one of my closest friends. It was a delight until about the third day, when there was a property dispute over a piece of clothing. It resulted in a line drawn right down the middle of the room and, confoundingly, continued in pillows down the middle of the double bed we shared. We were so concerned with the structural unity of our makeshift wall that we slept without pillows that night—it was more important that we be separated than that we sleep. She was a thief and I honorable. She belonged on the outside of the perimeter and I on the inside. It was the right thing to do.

The truth is that we are a people who love boundaries and walls and the categories they silently announce. We learn who we are by the boundaries we create and, negatively, by the categories in which we find ourselves bounded by culture. Some of them are geographic. I am a Southerner, and according to everything I learned when I was growing up, each and every one of you are Yanks. But there are identity markers far more profound, and the author of the letter to the Ephesians has spent some time noting them by this point in chapter 2. Recall: you were children of wrath, sinners or, conversely, you were adopted, chosen, inheritors. These identity markers define who we are. They help us understand who our people are and who they aren’t.

The interesting thing about the letter to the Ephesians is this designation “Gentiles”. By the time this letter was written, the energy around the Jesus movement had shifted from pockets of Jewish disciples in Palestine to non-Jewish communities in the Mediterranean. Strictly, these communities were Gentiles, goy, people of “the nations” who were neither geographically nor ethnically Jewish. Now when I moved to New Jersey I learned that “Yankee” means something different here. Ask a native New Jerseyan to identify a Yankee and they’ll either point to a baseball club or a New Englander. Ask a Brit and they’ll point to any American. Addressing this community in Ephesians as “Gentiles” makes about as much sense as my calling you all Yanks from this pulpit. For though it’s true that in my context every person above the Mason-Dixon is a Yank, it is not a marker by which you would identify yourself. Likewise, time and space and tradition removed the people who heard originally heard the letter from the primary identifier “Gentiles”. It was a meaningless term.

So Paul, or whoever, reminds the hearers (and by extension, us) of a heritage they may have forgotten. Their congregation is rooted in an irrevocable, mysterious promise to Abraham and his descendants to which they, the Ephesians, have no necessary claim. Salvation first belonged to the Jews. So when Paul reminds them that they are Gentiles, two things are happening. First, he is creating a unity out of this multiplicity. He’s calling a bunch of folks together and giving them an identity, in so doing, reminding them of a wall. You, all of you, Mets and Red Sox, damnable Braves and, yes, Yankees, you’re all this other thing—Gentiles. Italians and Irishmen and Poles? You’re still (and as far as salvation goes, primarily) Gentiles. You are all this one thing, so hear this accordingly. United in non-Jewishness you are not inheritors to the promise given to the Jews by the God of Abraham. The secondary purpose is thus theological, to draw the hearers into the orbit of strangeness where, by virtue of their ethnicity, they are outside of the promise of God.

From this devastating twofer things only escalate.

You’re uncircumcised, the uncircumcision (imagine the worst thing you can call someone outside of your ethnic group, that’s what Paul means to convey). Separated bodily from the promise of God. That not enough? You’re aliens from the commonwealth, strangers from the covenant. Separated geographically from the scope of salvation. Still not enough? You are without hope. You are atheos, literally, without God. God-forsaken. Separated existentially, fundamentally, ontologically from the reality of the God event. Remember that. Paul expands the language from the specific cultural identity of the Jews outward, first employing language of religious distinction (uncircumcision), then of citizenship (aliens and strangers) and, in one final blow, language of primordial lack (atheos).

The Ephesians may not have understood what it meant to be “Gentiles” but they knew well what it meant to be “aliens”, non-citizens of the empire. Writing concurrently with the little letter, Dio Chrysostom, a Greek philosopher and historian, suggested that “to the disenfranchised, life seems with good reason not worth living, and many choose death rather than life after losing their citizenship.” To be an alien within the Roman empire, was a death-wish, a disgrace. The Ephesians know that, they’ve seen it the same way we Gentiles have seen the vitriol surrounding illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States. It’s the way things were, and are, in the kingdom. And their relationship to God’s promise stands in comparison, Jews::Gentiles, Citizens::Alien-Sojourners, Real Americans::Itenirant Mexican farmers. God’s promise was as far from Gentile Ephesus as the hope of a fruitful life was to a non-Roman living in the bounds of the Empire. And without that promise, they were without God entirely. And without God, they were without hope.

Remember that this is who you are: you are not, by virtue of birth, or goodness, or anything else, one chosen by God. From Ephesus to New Jersey, the promise is rightly elsewhere.

Paul (or whoever) builds up a mighty wall. He weatherproofs it and puts an electric fence around it. He brings in armed guards to stand watch on the towers.

But then, strange for a mason, he brings in a bulldozer. And, just like last week, he begins his work at this one mighty conjunction: but.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Jews and Gentiles. With and without God. Alien and citizen. With and without hope. Paul builds up this wall, a historic wall, a meaningful, material, real wall. And for what purpose? To tear it down. You are a Gentile! Remember it! But. It doesn’t make a lick of difference.

“But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 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.”

Paul widened the scope of our alienation from God only to pull us back in in this one, sweeping, impossibly beautiful affirmation: you have been brought near. Because we are indeed what God has made us, and God, from before the foundation of time, destined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, therefore we have, over the course of history, according to the promises made first and always for the Jewish people, been brought near.

All divisions, divisions then and divisions now have been erased. Because Christ is already our peace, our unity, our bond. Jews and Gentiles. Republicans and Democrats. Americans and Mexicans. Rich and poor and poorest. The LGBT community and the defenders of “traditional” marriage. “Welfare queens” and urban farmers. Christians and Jews and Muslims. Christ is our peace. A peace that has been achieved already, a peace born of gruesome violence. A peace that tears down walls, leaving their pieces in an otherwise empty tomb. It is an astounding, empire-shaking, paradigm-shifting reality. Christ is our peace.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” We define ourselves by our walls. I’m Southern, you’re Yankees. I’m English, you’re Irish. But here’s the thing: God has transcended all that with this one divine category: adopted. Thereby chosen. Thereby destined. Before all time and eternity. One and for all Jesus Christ has done this. For we Gentiles, for they Jews. For all of us.

And that thing in us, that thing that wants only to cross every dividing line, to take a hammer to every wall, it is perhaps the Spirit, seeking only to manifest the work already accomplished. In the Kingdom of God there are no walls, no moats, no dragons. No fences, no guard posts, no railings. It is not a boundary by which we define ourselves, but a membership accomplished on the cross for all. 

Good fences may make good neighbors, but we aren’t just talking about being good, we’re talking about love. And love, when it’s modeled after God, never excludes, never builds up division, never closes off but is always open to becoming and being that thing for which we have been created—the dwelling place of God.

Love itself has called us together. Not for our own sake, but that we might become a dwelling place. And not any dwelling place, but a house for God. Chapter two ends with an admonition to become a house, to fit ourselves together that God might dwell among us. It’s not just ending hostility. It’s standing side by side with those we once hated, those “them” to our “us”. It’s not tolerance, it’s collective action, spiritual upbuilding. Friends, Yankees, countrymen: God has brought us near. And God will not tolerate a wall. Amen, hallelujah. 

 

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