(A presentation prepared for the staff team of CRU [Campus Crusade] at Ohio State University, August 19, 2020. The team was asked to read Ephesians prior to our time together.)
The reviews for 2020 are in. “One star: Did not like it; would not recommend.” I’m giving the year one star myself, and it’s not merely because the pandemic messed up some really fabulous travel plans I had, nor because my congregation has met all of two times in the past five months, nor because my university is shuttering thirty or so academic programs as part of an effort to contain costs in the face of staggering shortfalls in enrollment courtesy of the pandemic, nor even because 750,000 deaths across the globe are being attributed to the “novel coronavirus.” No, what’s weighed on me more than anything else this year has been the exponential degradation of civil discourse about everything, the unprecedented levels of impatience, verbal abusiveness, divisive rhetoric and practice, and ultimately hatred that I have seen erupting across this nation. Advocating for something is transformed more and more into protesting against (and even demonizing) someone or some group – as “Black Lives Matter” morphed more and more into “defund the police,” “abolish the police,” and even “f*** the police” (appearing, in its most disturbing manifestation, on the sign held aloft by a toddler who had been taught to recite the slogan as her first creed).
The way parties on both sides are demonized is a testimony to the deadly levels of impatience, divisiveness, and, yes, hatred rampant across our nation: the protesters all become “vicious rioters,” the police all become “racist killers.” “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” have become shibboleths that can put a person in mortal danger if he or she says the wrong slogan in the wrong place, revealing himself or herself to be in the “enemy” camp. The same ethos pervades our political scene and its unprecedented tribalism. Trump supporters are shouted down as “white supremacists”; Biden supporters are shouted down because they “hate America.” Even relatively trivial issues have become storm centers of controversy, contempt, and hatred. If you wear a mask in public places, you’re just one of the stupid “sheeple”; if you don’t wear a mask in public, you’re a self-centered conspiracy theorist. Social media has never been a reliable venue for thoughtful and civil discourse, but the verbal abuse that strangers and increasingly estranged friends are willing to heap upon one another this year seems to me to have reached a new level. But the mainstream media have become every bit as partisan and divisive as Facebook since the goal of “controlling the narrative” has replaced “truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness” – the former core values of journalism.
I’ve spent this space ranting about all of this because I’ve noticed how many of my colleagues (not just at my Seminary, but across the field of biblical and theological studies and religious publishing), how many members of my congregation, how many family members, friends, and acquaintances are spending more and more of their time and energy getting wrapped up in these various debates, weighing in heavily on one side or another (heaven forbid one should try to weigh in toward the middle looking for common ground and suggesting criticisms of the extremes!). Truth be told, I’ve read more news stories, kept closer track of these virus counts or that city’s nocturnal saga, and lost more time being sucked into fruitless exchanges on Facebook in the past five months than in the past fifteen years and I know what it’s done to me personally. It’s not made me happier, certainly; it’s not made me more productive for the long-term work of equipping disciples or extending God’s kingdom; it’s not made me more the person the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures would shape me to become.
Alongside the degeneration of 2020 into the year of the plague, protest, and political polarization, it has also been the year that, in the course of my research and writing, has had me immersed in Ephesians since about mid-April. I have found the juxtaposition of 2020 and Ephesians to lean a little toward the surreal. Here’s a text that begins with a lofty celebration of the “God who blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms” (1:3) and who had made “known to us the mystery of his will” (1:9), the God who has advanced his purposes for all of humanity in the Christ who “himself is our peace, he who made both [Jews and Gentiles] one and, in his flesh, tore down the partition wall – the enmity – between the two … that he might make the two into one new person in him, making peace, and might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross, killing the enmity with it” (2:14-16). It verges on the surreal because this has not been a year for “blessing,” God’s purposes are not at all apparent in the events around us, and it has certainly not been a year for “peace” and “reconciliation.” Ephesians seems so far removed from our present reality and experience that I have wondered throughout this season if it truly addresses us at all. More often, however, I have wondered if it presents us with precisely the perspective that we need to orient ourselves and those sisters and brothers with whose formation we are entrusted more healthfully to the present reality.
Ephesians reminds its readers that God has a plan for God’s creation – for things in heaven and things on earth. Indeed, words related to God’s willing, planning, advancing his purposes, and the like pervade the first half of this communication. It is a plan formulated and set in motion from “before the foundation of the world” (1:4) and looking all the way ahead to its consummation beyond the end of the epoch of human history. That already puts the present moment in perspective, no? 2020 has thrown God no curve balls; neither the pandemic nor the outcome of the presidential election is going to require God to make any mid-course corrections to his plans. It’s really all just so much more background noise beneath the hymn praising God’s glorious display of grace that has been swelling for millennia as more and more people have been caught up in the trans-temporal and trans-local community that he has been forming, that “new humanity” being re-created together in Christ. And that hymn is not sung in order to drown out the legitimate cries and groans of people suffering injustice, oppression, and grief – but it does create a very different context in which not only to address injustice, oppression, and grief but to embrace and lift up the very real people who have experienced injustice, oppression, and grief.
I should point out here that Paul is addressing people who live within the often-oppressive economic, religious, and domination systems of Roman imperialism. This is a system with its own 1%, its yawning chasm between those few who have the majority of the wealth of the empire and those multitudes who count themselves fortunate to have enough day-by-day for their families to get by day-by-day. It was a world in which one in four people were still slaves themselves, in which populations regularly knew the ravages of famines and epidemics, in which difference often met with open contempt without any of the hesitation of political correctness, in which privilege was flouted without apology, and in which the Roman “police” force had on one notable occasion amused themselves by coming up with creative, new positions in which to nail thousands of people up on poles and crosses. In other words, it was a far tougher world than anyone alive in 2020 America has ever, ever known.
Ephesians begins with an extended sentence blessing God. It is written in the idiom of worship, celebrating God’s favor and interventions on our behalf, because that is ever the starting point for being a community of love.
Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms, even as he chose us for himself in Christ – before the founding of the cosmos – to be holy and blameless in his sight in love, destining us for adoption unto himself through Christ in accordance with what he decided would be pleasing, for the purpose of the glowing praise of his favor with which he favored us in the Beloved, in whom we have redemption through his blood – release from our trespasses – according to the abundance of his favor which he made to abound toward us, in all wisdom and thoughtfulness making known to us the mystery of his will in accordance with his good pleasure which he set forward in Christ as a plan for the fullness of the times: to sum up all things in the Christ, the things in the heavenly places and the things upon the earth in him, in whom it was also apportioned to us (who have had a destiny set for us in accordance with the purpose of the one who acts in regard to all things in accordance with the counsel of his will) that we should be for the purpose of his glowing praise – even we who had hoped beforehand in the Christ, in whom you also, having heard the word of truth, the good news of your deliverance, in which you also trusted, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit (which is the first installment of our inheritance) with a view to our redemption as a special possession, unto the praise of his glory! (1:3-14)
Ephesians opens with a narrative. It is not one of the narratives that many other Jews are promoting around this time. One of those other narratives was the old narrative about how God chose the biological descendants of Jacob to be God’s special possession out of all of humanity, along with, perhaps, those few other people who would accept circumcision and adopt all of those distinctive practices of the biological descendants of Jacob laid out in the Law of Moses. Another, complementary narrative promoted in Judea concerned Roman domination and oppression, regarding them not as God’s agent to chasten a disobedient Israel, but as the oppressive and godless foreigners to be opposed by violent force and driven out of a newly liberated Israel. A contrary and competing narrative – believed and promoted even by some in Judea – was that the Roman empire was the God-given (or gods-given) vehicle for establishing the rule of law and the stability that had allowed prosperity to return throughout the eastern Mediterranean. “Controlling the narrative” is not a modern innovation.
Ephesians doesn’t take up any of these narratives. Rather, Paul writes a narrative about God’s plan to extend his favor to all people – Jew and Gentile – in Christ and to make a new people for himself out of all peoples, both the Jews who were sure God had loved them and the Gentiles whom many Jews were sure that God had long since rejected. It is a narrative of God’s unbridled and unbounded generosity towards all people in Christ, particularly seen in God’s willingness to grant “redemption through Christ’s blood, release from our trespasses” (1:7), to grant “adoption” into God’s own, eternal family (1:5), and to “seal” as many as trust God’s favor “with the promised Holy Spirit,” the deposit ensuring our full inheritance (1:13-14). The ability to be generous – in attitude and in action – starts with understanding how richly we have been favored, how much we have been given. If our starting point is how much we are owed, we will not be a community of love that shows itself in kindness and generosity. If our starting point is how much we are owed, we will contribute to the division and hatred born of envy in our society. If we have learned to pray “forgive us what we owe, as we forgive those who owe us” – if we can “forgive each other just as God forgave [us] in Christ” (4:32) – then we can more readily “be good-hearted and compassionate toward one another” (4:31).
It is also a narrative about election. I’ve heard some people talking about the election coming up in November as “the most important election of our lifetimes.” Both Trump/Pence and Biden/Harris supporters are claiming this which, of course, makes supporters of the other ticket an even greater “threat” now than in 2016 (the last “most important election of our lifetime”). Many people are heaping scorn and vitriol on the opposing ticket and its supporters, as if either ticket is going to mean the salvation or the loss of the soul of this nation. But nations don’t have souls. They’re not eternal. They come and go along with all their agendas, their partisanship, their hate and division-inducing strategies. Whichever ticket wins, there will be some good outcomes, some bad outcomes, a great deal of division and hate still, and a great deal for the people of God still to do to advance God’s agenda and serve God’s outcomes in the midst of all the mess no matter whoever – and even in spite of whoever – prevails in the election.
We need distance from the myth that this election is simply that important, so that we can attend with appropriate attention and energy to the election that is supremely important – for us and for all. Paul writes: “God chose us” – God elected us – “for himself in Christ – before the founding of the cosmos – to be holy and blameless before him in love, destining us for adoption unto himself through Christ in accordance with what he decided would be pleasing, for the purpose of the glowing praise of his favor with which he favored us in the Beloved.” Becoming “holy and blameless before him in love” surely includes thinking about and extracting ourselves from our own participation in racist attitudes and practices, for example, but from a distinctly different starting point and within a distinctly different framework from what we see going on in the streets and in social media. The present moment can help us to stretch our thinking about how we love more fully and more truly, how we move toward holiness and blamelessness in love, but that is not the conversation that the society is having at the present moment. The Christian community needs to find its own ways – the Spirit-driven ways – to have those conversations in love.
The narrative Paul writes continues throughout the second chapter of this letter. There are two parallel narratives, in fact, at work in this chapter. The first concerns the reconciliation of people, formerly alienated from God, to the Creator:
And you, being dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you formerly walked in line with the span of time allotted to this world, in line with the ruler of the aery dominion, the spirit that is now operating in the children of disobedience; in which we all formerly conducted ourselves in the desires issuing from our flesh, as we continued to do as our flesh and dispositions willed, and we were by nature children of wrath like everyone else. But God, being rich in mercy, on account of his great love with which he loved us, made even us, who were dead in our transgressions, come alive together with Christ – by favor you have been saved – and raised us up and seated us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, in order that he might show in the coming ages the surpassing abundance of his favor expressed in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (2:1-7)
The second parallel narrative concerns God’s reconciliation of people to one another particularly across lines of ethnic differentiation and, indeed, enmity:
Be mindful, therefore, that you – formerly “Gentiles” in regard to the flesh, the ones called “uncircumcision” by what is called “circumcision” (performed in the flesh by human hands) – that you were, at that time, without Christ, excluded from the body politic of Israel and aliens to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. Now in Christ Jesus, however, you who were formerly far off have come near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, he who made both one and tore down in his flesh the partition wall between the two – the enmity – nullifying the law made up of its commandments in formal decrees in order that he might make the two into one new person in him, making peace, and might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross, killing the enmity in it. And coming, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near: that, through him, we both have right of access in one Spirit to the Father. So, then, you are no longer aliens and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens of the holy ones and members of God’s household, you having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the capstone, in whom the whole building, as it is being fitted together, is growing into a holy sanctuary in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together spiritually into a dwelling for God. (2:11-22)
The “mystery of God’s purpose” that Paul lays out in the open here speaks of all of us coming out together from a life practice of “transgressions and sins” and “works of darkness,” lived under the influence of hostile spiritual powers. Such a narrative calls us (as Paul will explicitly in the second half of his letter) to continue to examine ourselves, to repent, to keep adopting new practices, but with all of us doing this together as those whom God has forgiven, specifically with a view to reconciling us to himself and to one another in a “new humanity,” “one new person.” What difference does it make when this becomes the master narrative and framework for our own lives, for our life together as a community, and for our engagement with the society around us?
These opening chapters of Ephesians, even as they talk about God’s purposes, speak a great deal also about the identity of the people being formed as a result of God’s purpose working itself out. The categories of “Jew” and “Gentile” divided all of humanity – as far as the “Jew” was concerned – into two groups: “us” and “them.” While Gentiles carved up the population differently (for example, Greeks divided humanity into “Greeks” and “barbarians”), they also identified “Jews” as a specific and distinctive ethnic group. And there was no love lost in either direction. Gentiles typically considered Jews to be an intellectually and morally inferior social body infected with a superstition that rendered them “atheists” as far as every god but their own was concerned as well as “misanthropic” or “xenophobic” as far as every other people group was concerned. Jews typically considered Gentiles to be benighted idolaters who didn’t know the first thing about God and were, as a whole, shamelessly depraved and interested only in self-gratification. What a scandalous witness, then, the early church lived out before their own society of hate, as Jew and Gentile in Christ learned to welcome one another as sisters and brothers in God’s new family and, on that basis, to encounter one another afresh and to adopt new relational practices together that were no longer informed or formed by the mutual enmity, prejudice, and hatred into which both groups had been socialized from birth! Their experience might also suggest to us that our primary role in God’s purposes is not to “fix” society but to bear witness to our society and, above all, to the “powers and authorities” – the “spiritual forces of wickedness” (3:10) that infect, dominate, and drive our society – concerning the reconciliation that God has brought about in Christ, wherever people are “in Christ,” and that God is making real in the world specifically by making it real in the Christian community.
There were personal costs for that early community to realize this vision. Jews in Christ, for example, did have to “check their privilege” in their approach to and their view of Gentiles in Christ, if they were to be part of this “community of love” together. Gentiles in Christ did have to exorcise from their own hearts and minds the prejudice and contempt nurtured by generations. But look closely at who bore the fundamental costs, and how: God did, by giving himself up in the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, to death on a cross – a death that released Jews and Gentiles from their sins and “works of darkness” even as it implicated both Jews and Gentiles together in the historical crime of the crucifixion itself.
We’re hearing a great deal about “identity politics.” What would it look like for us to put our Christian identity in the center of our thinking about our own identities and to think about the politics in which this identity necessarily involves us? We find people of all different ethnic backgrounds (which society’s discourse tends to divide simply into “White” and “People of Color”) being brought together into one people – across all manner of lines that our society identifies as “dividing lines.” Wherever these socially-manufactured fault lines appear, we find Christ “making both one,” “tearing down the partition wall – the enmity – between the two,” “making the two into one new person in him, making peace.”
But to speak of “one people” does not yet sufficiently capture the intimacy of the connection the Holy Spirit of God is seeking to forge between people in Christ, so Paul also uses the image of adoption into the one family of God in Christ. But even that image is not sufficiently intimate, and so Paul speaks of Christ “reconciling both groups” – those groups separated by a socially-constructed wall of enmity – “to God together in one body,” one new entity, “through the cross, destroying the enmity in it.” What kind of framework is this – being joined together in the one Body of Christ – for our interactions in Christian community? What distinctive orientation does this give us toward the “other” who is also part of the same Body in Christ as “I” am, such that the “other” is now more “my kind” than anyone in any group defined in some way other than as “Body of Christ”? What kind of starting point does Paul claim our common bond to Christ gives us by creating a common bond with one another across all temporal lines of difference, such that Paul can talk about our connection to one another not just using the image of stones being fitted to one another (but remaining, essentially, separable units), but using the language of joints and connective tissue, of inseparable biological components? What if this identity – which is not just my identity, but our identity together, across all of those other lines – was always in the foreground in our interactions with one another as we addressed, and sought God’s leading concerning, every issue to which our context might draw our attention?
This does not mean avoiding the issues that are tearing our society apart. On the contrary, at the core of God’s agenda is “the reconciliation of all things.” But God’s people are summoned to get on board with God’s vision for what that looks like and with God’s means for bringing it about and extending it outward to “all things in heaven and things on earth.” It seems to me that “identity politics” leads people to articulate their own identity in terms of categories that have been and continue to be divisive, polarizing, and enmity-inducing. Our identity in Christ, however, means that “he is our peace,” directing us to (and, through our common connection in the Holy Spirit, empowering us to) affirm and embrace that divine act of peacemaking and discover how to allow God’s work of having made peace to seep out into the reality of all of our interactions with one another in Christ across all those lines of division.
We have watched all summer as supporters of “Black Lives Matter” protest in the streets against the most egregious violations of public trust on the part of police, denounce law enforcement as irretrievably racist and corrupt as a whole, one component of the racist system of criminal justice in our country, and call for the defunding or even abolishing of police departments in several major cities. Can we imagine an approach to making peace between law enforcement officers in Christ and persons of color in Christ in the one body that is not informed by the society’s ways and means, but by God’s ways and means, built upon the work that God has already accomplished in Christ – the peace that Christ has already made? Is that something that Christ’s “community of love” can facilitate in a way that the society of hate could never – and with long-lasting beneficial effects in how a body of law enforcement officers in Christ think about and encounter persons of color in Christ that no protests or policies will ever achieve? Can we gather ourselves together in such a way that we become a place to encounter, experience, and learn about one another from the starting point of being family in Christ? A people who share together in the one Spirit and the one hope that will make us family forever – so that we might as well learn how to live as family now?
Christians ought not to adopt the world’s modes of discourse about important issues as our own “default mode” for talking about or addressing those issues. This seems to me to be a pervasive way in which a divisive society invades and divides Christian community. We need to discover our own mode – the mode that addresses these issues from the distinctive framework of God’s narrative and with the larger goals of God’s agenda for the world and for the new community of Christ’s Body at its foundation. Paul gives us important pointers towards this distinctive mode throughout the second half of his letter:
Let all bitterness and fury and anger and clamor and slander be removed from you, along with all ill-will. [Instead] be good-hearted toward one another, compassionate, forgiving each other just as God forgave you in Christ. Become imitators of God, therefore, like children who are loved and keep walking in love, just as the Christ loved us and handed himself over on our behalf as an offering and sacrifice to God, for a pleasing fragrance. (4:31-5:2)
Perhaps the most vital element is the overarching framework for our interactions with one another, particularly where those interactions become strained. In our society, people react to the evils – real or perceived – perpetrated by others, denounce them (both the actions and the others!), and call for redress or reparations. In the Christian community – or, perhaps I should begin to say, the Christian “counter-society” – people react to the generosity and graciousness of God and respond to injuries perpetrated by others not in reaction against those injuries but out of the momentum of their own experience of being forgiven by God. Positively, we can offer love to one another across lines that are typically divisive for our society, even while giving attention to those issues that would quickly polarize people in our society, out of the momentum of experiencing Christ’s love for us. This is perhaps why Paul’s earnest prayer for his readers – the agenda to which Paul hopes we will open ourselves and in which he hopes we will invest ourselves – is that we would “be sufficiently able to grasp, along with all the holy ones, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of, and to know, the love of Christ that surpasses knowing – in order that you might be filled up with the full measure of all God’s fullness” (3:18-19). The ongoing experience of that love gives us the fullness that we need in order to be generous and gracious ourselves to one another, the fullness that remedies the emptiness of insisting that the other owes me something and moves everyone beyond the resulting stalemate.
Paul sets before us as a matter of first importance – a priority never to be sacrificed in any interaction – that we should continue “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all humility and consideration, with patience continuing to bear with one another in love, eagerly seeking to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the common bond of peace” (4:1-3). Disciplining ourselves to remain mindful of these values will allow us to perform a perpetual “self-check” on ourselves in our interactions with one another and to remember that we hold as our core value that which has become the most counter-cultural value of all: unity. In the midst of this society of hate, marked by ever-widening polarization and division, what could be more counter-cultural than to remain committed to one another in the one Body across all of our differences as we continue to allow God to draw us further and further along towards being “holy and blameless before him in love”?
Living out so counter-cultural a value, however, requires keeping before us regularly – so regularly that it is subconsciously present with us in the midst of dealing with the difficult issues together – the basis for such unity: “one body and one spirit, even as you were also called in the one hope that comes from your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:4-6). Is there not enough in all these “ones” to motivate us to hold onto one another in love? Are any of these “ones” of less value than the issues over which our society seeks to divide and polarize its population?
Paul continues to unfold the means by which God’s purpose is working itself out in the world:
And Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the proclaimers of good news, the shepherds and teachers, with a view to the equipping of the holy ones for the work of service, for the building of Christ’s body, until we all arrive at the oneness produced by faith and by knowing the Son of God – at the mature person, at the measure of the stature of Christ’s fullness – in order that we might no longer be children, tossed about on the waves and carried along by every wind of teaching through the trickery and cleverness of human beings when it comes to scheming to lead others astray. But speaking truthfully in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head – Christ, from whom the whole body, as it is being fitted and joined together through every supporting joint in line with the measured working of each and every part, produces in itself the growth of the body for its own edification in love. (4:11-16)
There have indeed been a lot of winds and waves blowing and driving people this way and that! Masks versus no masks, common good versus my rights and freedoms, every stance taken by Democrats versus every stance taken by Republicans, Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter versus All Lives Matter, peaceful protests versus opportunistic looting and destruction. How much are we blown one way or another and led to engage these issues divisively? How much have we witnessed our fellow Christians doing so? Do we see fellow Christians more energized by promoting (or debunking) this or that conspiracy theory than they are by promoting the “Divine Conspiracy” by which God is infiltrating every society of hate with the new community of love?
How, then, does Paul position us for greater stability, deepening our rudder against the effects of such winds and waves on our course through a day, through a week, through 2020? He focuses us on God’s purposes that span the entirety of human history, that transcend the momentary blip that is 2020. He focuses us on becoming each of us ourselves and all of us together “the new person,” who is the “mature” or “complete” person that measures up to Christ, while extricating ourselves – against each of us and all of us together – from “the old person” that our society has shaped and still pushes each of us, in our distinctive configurations of that “old person,” to be. We do this by being intentional to keep God’s narrative foremost in our minds and in our conversations; by being intention to continue to experience together the love of Christ that becomes, in turn, the primary driver in our encounters with one another across any and all differences; by being intentional – in the face of what seems an unprecedented amount of deceit being spread about in our society to draw in the support of the unwary for this or that agenda – to continue “speaking the truth in love,” something that has never seemed so important and counter-cultural as now; and by being intentional about holding up the warning signs and the “green-light” indicators to which we may pay constant attention in ourselves and in Christian community – and committing together to pay attention together to these things and to let them indicate when we need to hit “pause” on our interactions and examine the dynamics at work among us.
God is certainly a God of justice who stands alongside and raises up the oppressed and those who suffer injustice, and God certainly calls his people to do the same. But God’s plan for doing so, and God’s means of bringing this about, at least as far as Paul is aware, center not on reforming society, per se, but on our living together as an alternative society that bears witness to what justice and mutual love look like in community relations. Our principal task in the economy of God is to build up and to nurture this community of love and to invite more and more people into it, to shape and “resocialize” them into its ethos, and in this way extend God’s reach and rule throughout this world.