Ephesians 2: 11-end
Mark 6: 30-34, 53-end
Our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians expresses a key foundation of the early church – the belief that all are one in Christ Jesus, Jews and Gentiles particularly but by extension those of all nations and races, and both rich and poor.
This understanding had a difficult birth. We see in the book of Acts, and in Paul’s earlier letters, the conflict over the church’s racial identity. Judaism had a long history of allowing those not born Jewish to join, but they were obliged to adopt all of the practices of Judaism, and even then were forever second class members. Some in the early years of the church sought to continue this approach, allowing Gentiles into what was a predominantly Jewish movement but only on their terms. Others, like Paul, sought to bring in a radically new understanding and with it new practices.
The early church may have been filled with the Holy Spirit, they may have preached with rare passion and fire, they shared their goods in common, but on this subject there was no clear picture, and they fought, until, painfully, one emerged.
Ephesians is written years after the issue has been settled. Most commentators believe it comes a generation or more later, possibly at the very end of Paul’s life, or more likely written by close followers after he died. It is a more general letter than many which came before, using the same structure but without some of the local, personal concerns. Some suggest it may have been written for more than one church, to be sent around, copies made, treasured as a distillation of earlier teaching.
Ephesians is also written to churches which were mainly Gentile. So from Paul, a Jew steeped in the rabbinical tradition, to Gentiles who have retained their non-Jewish identity, and who are now in the majority in the local church. The links to Jewish practice are melting away.
And so Paul speaks of the division in the past tense. Two groups, one has travelled from far off, one from near to hand, but this is in the past: both are now in the same place, “reconciled to God in one body”.
And along the way, the law, the letter says, with its commandments and ordinances, has been abolished. A sweeping statement! This is now a community for whom Jewish practices, summed up in the rite of circumcision, are things “made in the flesh with human hands” – man-made, emptied of sacred indwelling.
The Jewish heritage, the “commonwealth of Israel” is still present, but as foundational history, less an institution than a body of sacred stories. So with the temple: the Jerusalem temple of Herod the Great had been destroyed by the Romans some 20 years before Ephesians. For the Gentile believers hearing Paul’s letter, the temple is a metaphor, a mythical structure, with Christ as the corner stone, likely meaning the base around which are placed the foundation stones, and these in turn represent the apostles and prophets. Who are these? Apostles, of the church clearly. Prophets? No distinction is made but the term could refer to contemporary Christian teachers or the ancient prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. And then built on these mixed foundations is the church of Christ, stones of both Jewish and Gentile origin, laid side by side.
This is the creed set out in the letter to the Ephesians. And as I pause to reflect on it, I realise how truly radical it is. This is not about assimilating the stranger into an existing culture. It is a new structure on old foundations, a re-imagining, by both the old core group and the new joiners, in which both accept changes to habits and attitudes which have shaped them since childhood.
Jesus travelled less than Paul, and perhaps taught less about reaching beyond his Jewish culture. But he was open, for example with the Syro-Phonecian woman, the Roman Centurion, the Samaritan at the well, and others.
Jesus’ inclusive instincts are every bit as radical and form the inspiration for Paul. And our gospel reading today illustrates this. For Jesus, inclusivity is shown mainly through money and class rather than race.
Those who put together the lectionary have done a cut-and-paste job with today’s gospel reading. It starts immediately after the story of Herod’s banquet which Jane explored last week, but then omits the feeding of the five thousand and the calming of the storm, picking up again as they arrive on the other side of the lake.
The picture in these verses is of Jesus attracting crowds of ordinary folk, in cities and in the countryside, people I imagine who came on foot to see him – no guards or carriages - people he had compassion for, seeing them as like sheep without a shepherd.
It is no coincidence, I believe, that Mark places the story of the gathering crowds, and the feeding of the five thousand on the hillside, immediately after he tells of Herod’s banquet. The contrast is clearly drawn: Two leaders, two meals: one dines with the elite, and dispenses violence; the other sits down on the ground with the masses, sharing a miraculous abundance of life-giving bread.
And his message offers the priceless gift of the Kingdom of Heaven first to those who believe it is out of reach: to the poor, to the ritually unclean, to those on the margins of society. And to those who feel that spiritual truths are theirs to interpret and control, to the religious leaders, he strikes at the root of their made-up legitimacy.
So today’s readings confront us with a challenge: Do we welcome the stranger as one to be assimilated? Or do we open our hearts to them as equal members of Christ’s body, and seek to learn as much as to teach, to be changed as much as to change them?
The radical vision of Jesus and of Paul is that ultimately there is no us and them, no tribes or groups, all are both strangers and family, all part of a single humanity, all invited to be as one in the harmony of God’s love – all one in Christ.
Richard Young (Rector)