Formations 01.15.2017: A Year of Reconciliation

Ephesians 2:11-22

Mayor Lisa Helps, center, Songhees Chief Ron Sam and Tsawout artist Tom LaFortune, with Victoria city council members, at the unveiling of two carvings by LaFortune. Photograph By Sarah Petrescu.

The city of Victoria, British Columbia, has declared 2017 a “year of reconciliation” with its First Nations residents.

At the city’s traditional New Years Day levée, a reception hosted by political figures in Canada, Mayor Lisa Helps read a proclamation acknowledging the thousands-of-years history of native peoples in the region and called upon all Victorians to contemplate the meaning of reconciliation and to take meaningful action. As a symbol of her commitment, Helps wore a beaver shawl created by a First Nations artist, which she promised to wear to every public event this year.

Songhees Chief Ron Sam also addressed the crowd, expressing support for the city’s initiative. The event also featured indigenous dancers, singers, and artists.

Several community members attended this year’s levée who might not have attended otherwise. Yvette Ringham-Cowan, who works in indigenous cultural safety and health programs, brought her daughter to the event. “I don’t think I’ve ever been to one of these but I wanted to come today because of the reconciliation declaration,” she said. “For me, it is a meaningful action. There is so much that needs to be understood.”

Initiatives such as Victoria’s year of reconciliation should remind Christians of our calling to be ministers of reconciliation (see 2 Cor 5:18) in a world that so often desperately needs it. In today’s text, Paul insists that the salvation Christ brings has corporate as well as individual implications. Not only has God saved us by grace through faith (Eph 2:10), God has brought believers together—both Jew and Gentile—into one body in Christ. Where before there were divisions and feelings of religious or ethnic superiority, now Christ has broken down those barriers and made peace.

What “meaningful action” can Christians take today in light of the reconciliation Christ has won?

Sarah Petrescu, “City of Victoria Opens Year of Reconciliation,” Times Colonist, 1 Jan 2017 http://www.timescolonist.com/news/local/city-of-victoria-opens-year-of-reconciliation-1.5986058.

Discussion

• What good can come from initiatives like Victoria’s proclamation?
• What fears or anxieties might be brought to the surface by such an event? Are the blessings of reconciliation worth the risks? Explain.
• How might Paul’s words about reconciliation in the church apply in a twenty-first-century context?
• If Jewish-Gentile relations are not our pressing issue, what is?
• How can Christians recognize one another as fellow members of God’s household despite those things that threaten to divide us?

Reference Shelf

The Message of Ephesians

The Letter seems to have been written because of the desire of the author to set before the readers a larger vision of their relationship to what God is doing in the universe. As perceived by the author of Ephesians, the redemptive purpose of God, predestined from eternity and executed in and through Jesus Christ, is to overcome the hostility and divisions in the universe by bringing all things together under the headship of Jesus Christ (1:9-10). The church is the concrete evidence that this is his purpose and that it is being executed. It is the “new humanity” created by bringing together Jew and gentile, abolishing the wall of hostility that had divided them (2:14-18).

Ephesians is divided into two distinct parts, each consisting of three chapters. In the first three chapters, the author sets forth his vision of the church in God’s purpose. In the last three chapters, he gives advice to his readers to enable them to live in a way that is worthy of being the church.

Malcolm O. Tolbert, “Ephesians, Letter to the,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 255.

The Dividing Wall

Melbourne argues that “He is our peace” in v. 14 has a twofold meaning. First, Christ’s sacrificial death reconciles us to God. “Christ has given us a vertical reconciliation that allows for a horizontal reconciliation” between humans, the second form of reconciliation. While I agree with the second reconciliation, I do not find the first in v. 14. It is in v. 16. It is, at most, implied in v. 13. Ephesians 2:14 celebrates the union of Jew and Gentile into a new ethnic community, Christians. The “New Israel” for the writer of Ephesians has been redefined and reconstituted through Christ. Although still seen from a Jewish perspective, the new covenant community contains two groups that previously segregated themselves. Melbourne correctly understands that in Ephesians Christ Jesus makes it possible through his death to end “national distinctions, preferential treatment, and racial bigotry—especially in the Christian Church.” Similarly, Smith writes that racial inequities are overcome in the Christian community. “Jesus becomes the great equalizer and the common denominator.”

The writer drives home his point by referring to “the dividing wall” and the Law. There is much disagreement
as to what the dividing wall refers. Melbourne is among
those who argue that it referred to the wall that divided
the court of the Gentiles from the larger, remaining
portion of the Jerusalem Temple. He argues that Jesus destroys this wall, thus giving the Gentiles total access to God. He finds support for his position in Epistle of Aristeas 139, 1 Enoch 14:9, Testament of Levi 2:7, and the Apocalypse of Baruch. It should be noted that Ep. Arist. 139 and 1 Enoch 14:9 indeed refer to the dividing wall; however, Testament of Levi 2:7 does not (see below), and Melbourne provides too general a reference for the Apocalypse of Baruch to be helpful. Is this a reference to the book commonly referred to as 2 Baruch or 3 Baruch? Is there a specific passage in whichever Baruch?

Others read the passage differently. They interpret the dividing wall as the barrier between a righteous God in the highest heaven and sinful humanity on Earth. Schlier, for example, argued that a Gnostic Redeemer destroyed the wall that separated the heavenly realm from the earthly. In so doing, this redeemer created peace between the two realms. Those who follow this line of interpretation see the soteriological dimensions in the passage that Melbourne sees but go further by adding cosmic dimensions as well. This interpretation reads too much into the text. Even if we grant that this might have been the original myth, Ephesians 2:14-18 is far removed from it. Indeed, it is so far that it is not easily recognizable, if it indeed lies in the background. More important, while the antecedents to Gnosticism existed in the first Christian century, the general consensus is that Gnosticism proper is a second-century phenomenon, and it is extremely difficult to say with precision where the antecedents for Gnosticism were strongest.

A third option is that the dividing wall served as a metaphor for the Jewish Law, a tradition that segregated Jews from non-Jews. Religious purity was sought by most Jewish groups, and they saw obedience to the Law as the means to purity. The Jewish Torah separated entire communities, leading to mutual suspicion and hatred. Indeed, Jubilees 22:16, 1 Maccabees 1:60-63, and Epistle of Aristeas 139-142 reinforced Genesis 17:9-14, Leviticus 20:24-26, and Exodus 31:16-17.

A fourth option is that “the dividing wall” refers to both the wall in the Jerusalem Temple and also to the Law. While the writer of Ephesians engages in theological discourse, she or he is not afraid of mixing metaphors. The writer does not work with the assumption that a single point must be made for the sake of clarity. This person writes to persuade by any means necessary.

The last option is preferable. Determinative is the reference to “the dividing wall of hostility.” It is pure metaphor. The Jewish law led to countless tensions, large and small, between Jews and non-Jews in antiquity. It caused Jews to segregate themselves and non-Jews to resent their perceived arrogance and unsocial behavior. The Jews saw themselves as a chosen, pure race and the only civilized people because Yahweh gave them alone the Torah. In contrast, they saw their neighbors as impure pagans. However, those “impure” neighbors were often more prominent and more powerful in society. Such social realities wrought unrequited Jewish aspirations on the one hand and Gentile resentment and bigotry toward Jews on the other. It was a wall of hostility.

Thomas B. Slater, Ephesians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2012), 68–71.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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