Today will be fun, because we get to talk about circumcision! Really though, what will be revealing is that as we understand what circumcision represented for Israel, realize who Paul is talking to and what he is saying is that how much Paul is defining the gospel as a cosmic event that affects all of creation. Like we’ve talked about before, we’ve been tempted into seeing the gospel as a self help formula that gets certain individuals when they die. Paul though is belabouring the point that the good news is way better than that. It affects all of creation and everyone who comes in contact with it and believes it.
To properly understand the gospel it is absolutely crucial that we remember who we are and where we come from, which is what I was talking about a few weeks ago. I said that salvation is the faith that we put in the reality of who we are as God’s creation and where we are going towards the new creation, that is our hope, and our hope is our salvation.
So Joe talked a bit last week about what it looks like to live a life in Christ. By choosing the path of God we are choosing a life of selfless love for one another. By choosing a life of destruction we are choosing a life of being selfish and simply satisfying whatever desires come to mind. There is two options. The wide path and the narrow path.
One thing that Joe didn’t mention is that this way of seeing the world, these two paths, was very common for the Israelite mind. They saw themselves as following the way of life, following the Torah and being God’s chosen people. They saw Gentiles, anyone is not from Israel, as being Godless and having no hope for salvation. The promises were tied to a nation and if you weren’t part of that nation, you were pretty much out of luck. So sure, this whole drawing of Joes properly plots out the path for us now, but it’s also important to realize that this path was assumed by people from Israel for all the world. All Gentiles were on this bad path and all of Israel was on this good path.
So Paul, after writing to these folks reminding them of who they are in Christ and what this means for them in terms of living then goes from there and begins to describe where they come from.
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
So there is a few basic things that we can note from this part in the letter. First that Paul is talking to Gentiles. For a quick history lesson you will remember that one of the traditions that Israel had was to perform circumcision. This was an external sign that they belonged to God’s community of Israel. It meant that they believed in one God, followed his commands (Torah) and were part of the community of people that claimed the same things. We won’t get into the act now and all the things that came with it, but just know that it was important and in many ways the pinnacle of an outward sign that you were who you said you were. Part of circumcision came with it all the promises that God made to his people. If you weren’t circumcised it was basically too bad for you. Sure there was ways to get grafted in if you were really persistent, but for the most part, Israel was God’s chosen people and everyone else was out of luck.
This wasn’t a big deal because to outside communities Israelites were not really the kind of people that you would want to get grafted into. They had their own gods, their own rituals and their own lives and weren’t really interested in getting in on what there was. So this is why Paul states that they were separate from God and excluded from this kind of citizenship. They were foreigners to the promise, without this hope and without God in the world. Basically they were atheists to the Israel God and the Israel hope.
But the people that Paul is talking to here are clearly interested and have identified themselves with this God and these promises anyway. Paul says but now in Christ Jesus, you who were once estranged from these promises and community are now brought near. So the point of the first few verses there wasn’t to scare them off and to tell them they weren’t welcome but rather it was was to remind them of how things used to be and how Christ changed it all. Because of Christ those who never had a chance, those who by birth were never really part of the promise and hope were now included and now brought near. For Paul, it is important to remember their history. So Paul continues…
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
This is a remarkable piece of literature when we take into account who is writing it. Paul, who is as deeply embedded into the Israeli culture of law and promise as it comes is now basically throwing out everything that he once held onto. Deeply embedded into Israeli culture was this idea of purity by following the law to the letter. We see examples of this by watching the Pharisees throughout the New Testament constantly fighting for purity to the law and being offended when this was broken. Paul was one of these people. For him, Israel was a very special group of people identified by the laws they followed and the God they served. So when he says something like “through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” he is successfully flipping everything he once believed on its head. Jesus changes everything for him. He changes his identity. He changes the terms on which he identifies himself. Somehow Jesus has destroyed the barrier and brought all people under the same promise and identity. By doing that he had to set aside some of the identity markers, such as the law and circumcision. Now this new humanity can move forward of people that identify themselves with Jesus not those who have been circumcised or follow certain laws.
For us, two thousand years is quite a long time for us to make any sense of what Paul is talking about without having a clear view on the history of the dynamics that precede us. But as important as it was for the Gentiles who Paul was talking to, to remember their history, it is equally as important for us to understand what it has meant for people throughout history to see Christ as the enabler for all people to now be considered one people as opposed to seeing distinguishing lines between certain people groups.
One of the ways that would help us a bit better to understand would to be to understand Israel’s rituals and traditions and how they promoted these lines. Separation and lines by labels and categories were deeply embedded into their culture. So for instance, in the temple itself:
There was a wall that surrounded the inner courtyards of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. This separated them from the outermost courtyard, called the Court of the Gentiles.
The innermost court was called the Court of the Priests, where only those males from the priestly tribe of Israel could enter. Next was the Court of Israel, which could be entered by any male Jew. Then there was the Court of Women, which any Jew could enter but it was far as a women were allowed to go.
Exiting the Court of Women you could go down five steps, where you would find a level space where there was a five-foot high stone barricade. Then, after another level space there were fourteen more steps down to the Court of the Gentiles. Add to that the fact that there were notices posted that if a Gentile entered any Jewish area they could be shot on site. (Something to the effect of “If you pass this line and get killed, don’t blame anyone but yourself”)
There is an obvious explicit statement of hierarchy – of who is of more value than whom? Innermost and uppermost (Jewish priests) vs. outermost and lowest (all Gentiles). Can you understand how you might feel inferior as a gentile? – Michael Krahn
Q: What kind of lines do we have now that puts people into different categories? Does your belief in Jesus help emphasize those categories or diminish them? Do you believe that categories themselves are harmful or are they helpful?
I admit that I put people into categories every day. Crazy and normal is the most common category that I throw people into. Kids and adults, natives and white people, poor people and middle class, those without jobs and those with, Christians and non-Christians and those who are annoying and those who are bearable. We all do it. We live our lives by these categories that help us navigate through life so that we can properly assess the situation that we find ourselves in and make the right decisions. What Jesus did then, and what Paul is saying now, is that those previously held categories are no more. Jesus smashed them to bits and these categories no longer help us understand what is going on. So while Paul might be talking to the people that would normally be on the bad side of these distinctions, the folks on the other side can’t be liking what he has to say too much.
Now, you can imagine how offensive this kind of language is to anyone who is in a position of power or advantage within the society that Paul is talking to. Categories and labels almost always are advantageous to the person on top. People who are at the bottom don’t serve anything to gain by labels. In the same way that Jesus’ message was offensive to anyone who was in power when he talked, Paul’s message is no different. Because of Jesus, all labels have been erased. You might remember one of Paul’s other letters where he says
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
There is something about categories and labels that is closely tied to the idea of judgment and oppression is closely tied.
Oppression tends to exist in compartmentalized, clearly labeled categories of race, social class, gender, or sexual preference.
- Steven A. Carbone II
So there is something that both Jesus and Paul continue to focus on in terms of labeling people and making assumptions about them that forces us to rethink our default approach to how we view people. There is also something to consider that whatever Jesus seemed to have done put an end to whatever labels we might have conjured up. It’s as if they are saying the labels aren’t good anymore because the labels in and of themselves are harmful.
So Paul thinks, if this is true, and there is no labels except we are all under Christ, then this means something, we can conclude something from this idea. So he continues.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Paul here is using language of household. Which is quite a powerful word. It translates into how we understand household quite well actually. In an individualized society like we live in now, the idea of household, makes quite a bit of sense to us. The way we understand our own homes, spouses and family is a language we can all grasp. We live, lift up and live towards the success of our own households quite a bit. Think about how you view someone here at theStory, and then compare that to how you view your own children. Think about all the differences there are. Think about how much more you love and care about your own household.
So what Paul is suggesting here is actually something that many of us would find quite offensive. What he is saying is that we are no longer part of the households that we have labelled ourselves in the past. This is no longer the category that we fit into. We, by identifying ourselves with Christ, fit into a whole new category. We are considered part of God’s household, not our own. Our household isn’t built on the foundation of success, money or good grades. Rather, our foundation is built on the apostles and prophets and Jesus as our cornerstone.
Q: How are we able to include people into God’s household who we would normally exclude from our own?
The hard reality that Paul is suggesting here is that all these barriers/labels that they once had, even ones that were so embedded deep into their families and communities has been done away with through Christ. In Christ, all are included, including you. Do you want in?
Jesus’ parables make this reality shockingly real as well. Remember the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Your categories of those that work hard and earn their keep and those that just sit around all day and show up at the last minute. Boom. Gone. Jesus doesn’t have those categories. We are all part of the same household. How about those that put a lot into the offering bucket compared to those that put in just a few cents? Well that was dealt with too. Jesus doesn’t see money and certainly doesn’t see categories of rich and poor. How about the parable of the father and his two sons, one son takes his money, squanders it and then crawls back and the father doesn’t care, he just let’s him in anyway and has a party to boot! There goes our categories of entitlement and who deserves what.
Paul starts with the absolute deepest of all labels and then works his way up from there. All of these labels come under Jesus Christ. The group of people that refuses to move forward through labels but only under the lordship of Jesus Christ is called the church. This is how the church lives and breathes different. He uses language that says that the church is members of God’s household. The thing we have in common is that we are all there because of Christ Jesus and nothing else, nothing that we brought to the table.
The church understood itself as the eschatological gathering of Israel. In this gathering those who are by definition excluded from being citizens of the city and consigned to the household—women, children, slaves—are given full membership through baptism.”
So this is what it means to be the church. Paul starts again using this same formula as he did earlier. He starts by telling us who we are and where we came from. The promises we hold onto now are the same promises that Israel held onto then. These promises are fulfilled in Jesus which then sets into motion a whole new set of rules. These new rules say that the labels to separate and oppress and keep people out are no longer valid because everyone is invited in. No matter how little they deserve it or what categories previously kept them out. . All are included because of the hospitality of God in his household.
By calling ourselves the church, we are choosing to identify ourselves with a messiah that absolutely refuses labels and yet welcomes all into full membership and inclusion through his death and resurrection.
Ephesians consistently insists that God’s plan from the beginning has been a ‘new creation’ that requires abandoning the barriers that distinguished Jew from Gentile.
- Ben Witherington III
Our labels keep us safe
They help us identify those who are out to get us
They give us confidence that we know people
They give us peace knowing we aren’t like them
They give us common ground to fight the same enemy
Your only label is grace
Can’t earn it, can’t sell it, can’t hide it
You want to keep us safe, and have offered to
You died so that we could have life together, not apart
You invite us into your house on one condition
We drop our labels
We walk in the same door as those we’ve labeled
We lose all confidence in ourselves
We lose all peace in oppression
We love our enemies
We accept the invitation, but we need help
We still feel like strangers at times, and not fellow citizens
We certainly don’t feel at home
But you are doing the forming and building, not us
Help us remember whose house we are in
Help us remember that you are the host
Help us remember that grace is the only label you go by
And that we are all labeled with it