Sunday, November 15, 2009
Hyveth B. Williams, Guest Lectionary Commentator
Senior Pastor Campus Hill Church – A Seventh-day Adventist Community, Loma
Linda, CA and Doctor of Ministry Advisor at Andrews University Theological
Seminary, Berrien Spring, MI
Lection – Ephesians 2:14-22 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v. 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. (v. 15)
He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might
create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, (v.
16) and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus
putting to death that hostility through it. (v. 17) So he came and proclaimed
peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; (v. 18) for
through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. (v. 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, (v. 20) built upon the foundation of
the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. (v.
21) In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple
in the Lord; (v. 22) in whom you also are built together spiritually into a
dwelling-place for God.
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
A community is generally defined as a group of people, or organisms, living in
and sharing the same environment, interests, beliefs, resources and purpose. A
number of other conditions may be present and common, such as being perceived
or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society in
which it exists. With the advent of globalization, a 21st century definition of
community must also include diversity even as it eschews homogeneity.
As I write, the first African American President of the United States has taken
office. He has also announced his cabinet in an unprecedented approach to
leadership that promises significant change during the worst global economy and
terrorist climate in history. On him are pinned the hopes of many who have
dreamed that the pernicious disease of racism will be eradicated from the soul
of our nation. This great man of courage stands calm and firm, deeply rooted in
the knowledge that it is his God-ordained moment to be all that he was created
to be for himself, his family and “we the people,” whom he has been called to
serve. His election ushers in the opportunity of an unparalleled time of
healing and bridging communities. It is also a favorable time for the African
American church to effectively model a Biblical reconciliation that is greater
than the moderate accomplishments of the larger Christian Church.
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Ephesians 2:14-22
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
In Christianity, emphasis is placed on sharing, participation and fellowship
according to a common life and rules (Acts 2:41-47) in communities. The
congregation I serve is blessed with people representing sixty-five nations.
The flags of these nations adorn our sanctuary platform in a powerful symbol of
unity in diversity. These flags represent more than national pride; they are a
testimony in microcosm that the longed-for “healing of the nations” promised in
Revelation 22:2 is taking root in various communities. They also express the
earnest commitment to bridging communities so that people of a variety of
ethnicities experience reconciliation with God and each other.
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
The Apostle Paul addressed this epistle to a very cosmopolitan audience in the
eastern Mediterranean, where Oriental and Occidental culture and religion
For Paul, preaching the gospel of Christ in the ancient world normally began
among the Jews (Acts 18:19; 19:8). It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude
that they were well represented among the converts in Ephesus but, according to
reports in Acts, the contemporary conditions of prejudice often resulted in
conflicts rather than reconciliation of Jews and gentiles. Expulsion of
believers from synagogues and even violence and imprisonment of evangelists
occurred regularly. So intense were some of these cultural and racial tensions
that Paul himself was arrested and condemned by the Jews in Jerusalem on the
basis of a trumped up charge that he took an Ephesian, Trophimus, into the
temple. He was accused of defiling their holy place by this conduct (Acts
21:27-33). Perhaps these and other mitigating conditions form the basis
of the theme in this pericope that is undeniably a call for unity in diversity.
The cause of human estrangement from God and alienation from each other is sin.
The ancient rabbis, however, taught that it was a sign of the loss of divine
favor. They spoke of gentiles who were far from the privileges of the covenant
people of God as being “made nigh” only as proselytes.1 They negated
the truth that Christ gave himself as a sacrifice for the sin of the whole
world (Jn. 3:16; 12:32; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 Jn. 2:2). But, Paul, a Jew (Phil.
2:5-6), speaks of a far greater, more fundamental and wonderful way to approach
equality - “by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). For instance,
converted gentiles and all people disenfranchised by race, class or creed, have
moved from being “without Christ” (v.12) to being “in Christ Jesus,” having
found new life in him. Consequently, those who had been far off from
God, with a great gulf dividing them from his covenant people, were made nigh
in him whose life, death and resurrection has broken down all humanly
constructed barriers to unity in communities.
In verse 14, Paul was obviously preoccupied with what, to him, was the greatest
division of all that separated Jews and gentiles - a dividing wall,
that is, the hostility between them, both literally and spiritually.
The barrier was obvious in the temple proper and the Court of the Gentiles in
Jerusalem. There, a stone wall bore an inscription in Greek and Latin “which
forbade any foreigner to go in, under pain of death.”2 This caused a
great deal of conflict and, sometimes, even violent protests leading to
imprisonment or death for Jews and gentiles alike.
Paul happily asserts that, “Race and national distinctions as the main things of
importance, vanish in Christ,”3 and are replaced by “peace.” Not
only can it or should it be said that Christ brings peace into the human
experience, He is our peace then, now and always! Whatever may have
caused divisions before – race, class, or creed – Jesus came to earth to
be the Prince of peace and reconciler (2 cor. 5:18) according to the prophets
who foretold his advent (Is. 9:6f; 53:5; Mi. 5:5; Hg. 2:9; Zc. 9:10). The
barriers of Judaism against gentiles, therefore, hold no significance as far as
the standing of any before God who made a way for the separated to become one
In verse 16, the twin themes of reconciliation of humans to God
and to one another are inextricably intertwined throughout this passage and
underscored in this verse. Through the cross, on which Jesus died, the
hostility/enmity or sin was slain as he bore our
transgressions and made possible our forgiveness. He, therefore, reconciled not
only Jew and gentile but also all people of different divisions into a new
humanity in one body.
In addition, in verses 17-18, Paul alludes to the words of the Prophet Isaiah
(3:7; 57:19) regarding the preaching of peace. Although these Old Testament
verses did not originally speak of the way of peace for gentiles, the Apostle
found apt application in them to this wonderful new reality in Christ. Paul
teaches us that just as peace was made real to all through the cross, now also,
through his Church and community of committed disciples, the message of peace
and reconciliation must be lived in the world.
Paul adds that through Him, Christ, we have access . . . to the Father.
The Greek prosagoge – “access,” could also be translated as
“introduction.” Through a prosagoge in oriental courts, a person was
brought into the presence of the king. Christ is our prosagoge through
whom there is a way, a door (Jn. 10:7, 9; 14:6), to God. By him, sinners of all
races who have been saved by grace through faith are reconciled and given the
privilege of coming boldly before the throne of God (Heb. 4:16) and say, “Abba
Father” (Rom. 8:15).
At verses 19-20, the Apostle specifically addresses the gentiles, speaking
emphatically of the change in their status and position. Before, in relation to
the covenant people of God, they were strangers- xenoi and aliens- paroikoi,
i.e. people who might live in the same country without even superficial rights
or privileges of citizenship. That is “no longer” the case, for “you
are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”
Jesus referred to himself as the chief cornerstone (Mt. 21:42), the one
set in the foundation to bind the building together. Paul applied this building
metaphor to the community of believers, i.e., the Church, indicating that it
rests on the unique event of salvation of which Jesus Christ is the foundation.
Within verses 21-22, the meaning of the word “cornerstone” is made clear in that
it is in Christ that the whole structure is joined together and grows
into a holy temple, or an edifice fully framed together. It is a work
in progress. The Church cannot be described as a complete building until Jesus
comes again. Neither will reconciliation or the healing and bridging of
communities be accomplished in a day. We are, however, growing toward what is
the intended purpose of God. We see this truth more evidently as we note that
the actual word used for temple is not the general term –hieron describing
the entire temple precincts, but naos, the inner shrine or special
meeting-place between God and the people of God. Naas was the most
holy place where the presence and glory of God were visibly manifested in the
Shekinah. When Christ came, he became the Word made flesh and dwelt among
humans (John 1:14; 2:19-21) making the temple obsolete as the divine dwelling
among us. Today, he makes his habitation in the hearts and lives of those who
allow him entrance by his Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19).
This passage is cause for the people of God to rejoice that God is reconciling,
healing and bridging communities in both the spiritual and natural world. God
is doing what some believed would never be possible in America. No, everything
is not perfect, but thanks be to God for the changes that have come. The
house of America’s political leader, a house built by slaves, is now home to a
black man. Churches that were once segregated by toxic history, and age-old
suspicions, are worshipping together and bridging divides and the more we come
together in church, the more we can come together outside of church.
The descriptive details in this passage include:
Sounds: The echoes of bulldozers breaking down ancient walls
and partitions/fences/hedges of prejudice. The noise of spears being hammered
into instruments of peace, in the organism in which Christ is the foundation.
This sound is accompanied by shouts of joy as all people receive the good news
Sights: Standing outside the text in our generation, one cannot
help but observe old prejudiced, jaded and jaundiced eyes that are forced to
watch the new relationships between Jews and gentiles in a world where people
are allowed to marry, worship and work together in unity. We are eyewitnesses
of a new equality where Christ is Peacemaker between races, classes and
Smells: The fragrant aroma (Eph. 5:2) of salvation which, when
inhaled, transforms the heart, soul mind and body. Reconciliation when applied
like a salve (Rev. 3:18) gives sight to eyes blinded by prejudice and, as a
second hand odor, is a perfume permeating society, bringing peace and healing
III. Other Sermonic Comments
Two points emerge at the end of this passage. First, verse 21 ends with “in the
Lord” and verse 22 ends with “in the Spirit.” They emphasize what we know by
faith and experience, that it is only by a person being in Christ and the
Spirit that we become habitations where God can dwell. Second, we are reminded
how far removed the Apostle’s inspired thought is from our individualistic
concepts. His thoughts dwell on the community of Christians as the “holy
temple,” one organism indwelt by the living Christ, and not a series of
fragmented, conflicted denominations.
Unity, from Paul’s perspective, is not a matter of organization, but of the
sharing of the life, duties and ideals of the Church. In this passage he calls
believers from the old way of thinking and behaving, and away from that which
hindered full expression of cooperation. He puts away personal rivalries to
bring about real reconciliation and true healing in the family/communities of
1. Quotation from the Rabbinical writings in Ephesians and Colossians.The
International Critical Commentaries. T.K. Abbott, 1899. p. 60.
2. Josephus Antiquities VIII. 3:2 and The Wars of the Jews v.
5, vi. 2.4. Such an inscription was also reported to have been discovered by
the French archaeologist M. Cleremont Ganneau in 1871.
3. Robertson, Thomas. Archibald. Word Pictures in The New Testament: Vol.
IV, The Epistles of Paul. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1931. p.