So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 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. 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, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.
During our children's sermon we talked about how the red commas show us that the sentence isn't over and that we need to keep reading to hear the rest of God's story. This scripture is one important one in the book of Matthew. The red commas show us that we can love God with our heart, soul, and mind.
No Longer Strangers: Ephesians 2:11-22
Something unexpected happened while I was working on the sermon for this week. Each week, as a prepare for worship, I spend time reading through the suggested scriptures in the yearly church calendar. As I read, I came to the rich set of verses in the Ephesians text, and I knew that this was the text that I preach about this week. Honestly, we've known each other for about a year now. I bet that you'd guess I'd be interested in a scripture that talks about breaking down cultural walls and creating a community in Christ. That's not the unexpected part. The unexpected part is that I'd be preaching out of Ephesians at all.
Why would I hesitate to preach a sermon from Ephesians? Well, the primary reason has nothing to do with today's scripture but everything to do with a set of scriptures that I can't stand that come towards the end of this book, Ephesians 5:22-6:9. This set of scriptures is one part of what is known as the Household Codes that are found in some of the books of the New Testament. These codes are in found in Ephesians, Colossians, Titus, 1 Timothy, and 1 Peter. They address the proper relationship, in a Christian home, between spouses, between children and parents, and between enslaved people and the people who enslaved them. While I think you can reasonably argue that the version of the code as outlined in Ephesians is probably the most generous version of this set of ideas about how to be a Christian family, when taken as a whole, there are few parts of the Bible that I think have been used to more often to do more harm than the household codes.
When people are go looking for scripture to justify societal norms that define women as second class people, they often go straight for the household codes. They hold up scripture like Ephesians 5:22-23 as a primary example of how the Bible says only men can be in leadership positions, be it in the home or in the public sphere. These verses say, "Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the Husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the Church, the body of which he is the Savior." Ephesians goes on to say that wives should be subject in to their husbands just like the church is subject to Christ. And, while the author of Ephesians does tell husbands that they need to be as gracious to their wives as Christ is to the church, in the end, when you compare one person in the relationship to Jesus and the other to the church, the relationship described can never relationship between equals. In the best of possible scenarios, the relationship is between a submissive, less powerful wife and a hopefully gracious, considerably more powerful, husband. When people in Christian systems want to argue that gender inequality is ordained by God and that the Bible forbids women from being in leadership positions, the household codes are nearly always cited in the biblical rationale for such patriarchal behavior. When anyone has the temerity to tell a woman that she should stay in an abusive relationship because she is called by God to submit to her husband, the household codes are nearly always cited in the biblical rationale for such patriarchal behavior. As a woman called to Christian ministry who believes strongly that a healthy marriage is built on equality, not subservience, I have very little use for these parts of scripture.
As if the patriarchy weren't enough, the household codes are also often implicated in Christian justifications of white supremacy. When American preachers looked for biblical justification for the horrors of slavery, the household codes were consistently used to demonstrate that Christians could ethically own other human beings. For example, in 1861, when the Bishop of Florida wanted to outline what he saw as the strong biblical case for slavery, the household codes are some of the scriptures he used to make his case. The Bishop, named Verot, wrote, "St. Paul, in several of his epistles, speaks of the mutual duties of slaves and masters, he never dreams of the new duty invented by the Abolitionists- the pretended duty for the master to liberate and manumit his slave, and the duty of the slave to runaway from his master, even by using violence and causing bloodshed." He goes on to cite the household codes from Colossians, Titus, and 1 Timothy. These does mirror this admonition, found in the book of Ephesians: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ." The author of Ephesians goes on to tell slaves to render service with enthusiasm, as though, when serving the people who enslaved them, they are serving Christ himself.
Racist biblical interpretations like Verot and like countless other preachers before him set the groundwork not only for the atrocious practice of chattel slavery, but also for the centuries of systemic racism that followed and continues to infect our country to this day. You can draw a direct line from sermons like Verot's to southern White Citizens Councils that claimed their dedication to segregation was rooted in their Christian faith to northern banks who refused to give black families home loans because it would not be appropriate for black folks and white folks to live as equals in the same neighborhood as to the modern day drug laws that are color-blind on paper, but that are applied more consistently and more harshly to people of color. When study after study shows that black folks and white folks use drugs at roughly same rate, but black folks are arrested far more often and given much harsher sentences, there has to be something in the system that is that is teaching people to be suspicious of black people... there has to be something in the system that teaches us to treat people who are the descendants of the enslaved as though they are still not equal citizens. When we dig through our history, down to the foundation of this inequality, we find this scripture, "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ."
I hope that it is clear now why I hesitate to spend any time with Ephesians. There is a burden of history and context here that I cannot ignore. This letter, credited to Paul, though not likely actually written by him, seems to be at the center of so many painful, broken parts of our culture. How can I even think of this book as Holy when it describes relationship that seem inherently unequal and asks oppressed people to act super happy about the service they are being forced to do? These are the questions that I wrestled with as I worked on my sermon this week. And, then I read this line: "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." And, then I read this line: "So, then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens in the saints and also members of the household of God... In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God." How could the beauty of these verses the describe a God who breaks down walls between religious and ethnic groups, and then rebuilds the people into one dwelling place for God exist right next to those frustrating verses describing unequal relationships in marriage and supporting slavery?
A scholar named Elan Mouton has offered one way of reading Ephesians that is helping me reconcile the division-destroying Christ of chapter 2 with the division affirming household code of chapters 5 and 6. Mouton argues that Ephesians can be read not as a witness to one who has finished being changed through Christ but as a testimony of an author who is right in the midst of being transformed through his relationship with Christ. We can see that this author understands that belief in Christ is life-changing and earth-shattering. This authors is convinced that the blessings that God bestows through Christ are so profound that they can literally reorient your life. In chapter 2, the radical reorientation that is most needed at that time is a dismantling of the cultural prejudices that were preventing Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus from truly living as siblings in Christ. This author is writing, in part, to provide theological grounding to address that particular issue.
What is frustrating for me as a modern reader is that I wish the author hadn't stopped knocking down theological walls with the Jews and the Gentiles. I think that the peace of Christ that brought together Jews and Gentile can also foster gender equality and offer a relational system that is does not rely on coerced labor and long-held beliefs about ethnic supremacy. I wish this author would have just kept working. I wish he would have ended up at what would appear to be me to be the natural conclusion of this kind of theology: a body of Christ where old divisions based on racism, sexism, and ethnic prejudice have been dissolved. What I got was a system where ethnic prejudices are questions but where presumptions about gender and class aren't. Husbands and masters are asked to be better than they currently were, but not actually be vulnerable and give up power as fully as Christ did on the cross. I get frustrated when I read Ephesians because I want an author fully transformed. What I got is an author who is still on the way. He's still in the midst of Christ working on him.
Perhaps the reason that I need to keep reading Ephesians is to be reminded that this process of being transformed through Christ is not quick. I need to keep reading Ephesians to remember that just because someone has worked through some areas of their life to break down walls of prejudice, that doesn't mean that that person is done doing all the work that is asked of us as we work with God to bring about God's reign of love and justice. Maybe I need to keep reading Ephesians to be reminded that I'm still on the way, too, and that I can't stop continuing to examine all of my own beliefs and behaviors just because I've been trying to tear down walls in one part of my life. There still may be inequality lurking in other parts that I haven't even started to work through yet. If I can still manage to read the first part of Ephesians, maybe it will help me work through the parts of my life that still look like the end of Ephesians. Maybe it will make me work harder to find the ways that Christ is growing all of us every closer, making sure that we're no longer strangers. Maybe it will inspire me to always keep working to create a more just household with God so that the story of my own transformation looks more like chapter 2 than chapter 5. May we all continue to be people on the way, not so we'll stop working, but so that we can keep working together.
Resources Pastor Chrissy found helpful when writing this sermon
This article by Carol Kuruvilla about the Bible and white supremacy:
Elna Mouton, "(Re) Describing Reality? The Transformative Potential of Ephesians across Times and Cultures," in A Feminist Companion to the Deutero-Pauline Epistles, ed. Amy-Jill Levine with Marianne Blickenstaff (Pilgrim Press, 2003)
This story that theologian Howard Thurman told about his grandmother's conflicted relationship with the parts of the Bible that are credited to Paul and discuss slavery:
The full sermon by Bishop Verot: https://archive.org/details/tractfortimessla01vero
If you'd like to know more about the unequal affect that current drug laws have had on people of color, I highly recommend the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (New York: The New Press, 2012).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.