Tuesday of week 29 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Eph 2:12-22

A lovely passage today in which Paul shows how Christ brought together the two groups – Jews and Gentiles – and made them one people, reconciling them with God and with each other. After speaking of the salvation that has come as a total gift to both Jews and Gentiles, Paul now moves on to the mutual relationship that now exists between the two groups. Former enemies have become brothers and sisters in Christ and now form one seamless community. He is speaking here especially to the Gentile Christians.

Today’s passage is summarised by the New American Bible:

The Gentiles lacked Israel’s messianic expectations, lacked the various covenants God made with Israel, lacked hope of salvation and knowledge of the true God (11-12);

but through Christ all these religious barriers between Jews and Gentiles have been transcended (13-14) by the abolition of the Mosaic covenant-law (15) for the sake of uniting Jew and Gentile into a single religious community (15-16), imbued with the same holy Spirit and worshipping the same Father (18).  The Gentiles are now included in God’s household (19) as it arises upon the foundation of apostles assisted by those endowed with the prophetic gift (3:5), the preachers of Christ (20; cf. 1 Cor 12:28).  With Christ as the capstone (20; Is 28:16; Matt 21:42), they are being built into the holy temple of God’s people where the divine presence dwells (21-22).

In the verse preceding the beginning of our reading today, Paul reminds the Gentile Christians that they were rejected by the Jews as unholy outsiders. He implies that in some respects it was a false division. Gentiles “in the flesh” were called the “uncircumcised” (a term of rejection) by those who called themselves the “circumcised”, which ironically represents something “done in the flesh by human hands”. In other words, one group of people was rejected by another on the basis of a physical operation on the body.

More seriously, however, the Gentiles before their incorporation in the Christian community were without Christ and “alienated from the community of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise”. These covenants include those made by God with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and others. In a dramatic phrase, Paul says the Gentiles were “immersed in this world, without hope and without God”. That is, without the hope of a Messiah, up to this a hope confined to the people of Israel. And without the true God; instead they relied on false gods and man-made idols. Unfortunately, that can still be said about many people in our world today and perhaps most of these can be found in so-called “developed” societies.

But with the coming of Christ, all that has been changed. Those Gentiles who were once far apart “from us” (Jews), have now been brought close by the sacrificial blood that Jesus poured out on the cross. This was the new covenant which embraced not only Jews but all those, of whatever origin, who would approach the cross in loving surrender. In Christ, there is now just one people.

Jesus has become the peace that binds the two formerly hostile groups together. The barrier that formerly divided them has been removed. This is a reference to the wall in the Jerusalem Temple which separated the court of the Jews (to which only they had access) from the court of the Gentiles (open to all). In fact, there were several dividing walls in the Temple – separating Jews from Gentiles, Jewish men from women, priests from people, and the Holy of Holies, only accessible to the high priest once a year. All of these divisions are demolished in Christ. These walls (like all such walls) were a striking symbol of much deeper divisions.

Christ also destroyed “in his own person the hostility caused by the rules and decrees of the Law”. Much of the Mosaic Law, of course, sets moral standards which were not changed by the coming of Christ and are recognised by people everywhere. However, under the name of their Law the Jews had arrogated to themselves a privileged status which set them above and apart from the “pagans”. In particular, they looked down on those who did not observe the rituals of the Law as “unclean”. Many of these rituals have little to do with moral behaviour as such.

Religion should never be a source of division although, if it is to be true to its convictions, it will stand out as different and challenging – but never exclusive or divisive. Too often in our own days, we Christians have been guilty of the very things with which Paul accuses his fellow-Jews.

God’s plan, on the other hand says Paul, was to create in Christ “one single New Person” out of the two formerly opposed groups. “Person” here translates the Greek word anthropos (‘anqrwpos), which means a human being and has no gender connotations. The word for a male is aner (‘anhr) and the Latin equivalents are homo and vir. (Significantly, our Creed says that in the Incarnation Jesus became a homo*, not a vir – Jesus is primarily a Person sharing his humanity with both men and women.)

This ‘New Person’ is the prototype of the new humanity that God recreated in the person of Christ, the second Adam, after killing the sinfully corrupt race of the first Adam in the crucifixion. This New Adam has been created in “the goodness and holiness of the truth” (4:24), and he is unique because in him the boundaries between any one group and the rest of the human race all disappear. (Jerusalem Bible, edited)

This new “Man” or person is not an individual but is the whole community, the whole Body, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, together with Jesus as its Head.

This reconciliation or peace was brought about by Jesus dying on the cross as the eloquent witness of God’s immeasurable love for peoples everywhere, irrespective of race, social status or gender. “In his own person, Jesus killed the hostility.” This hostility was replaced by the “good news (gospel) of peace” embracing both Gentiles (who had been far from God) and Jews (who had always been nearer to him). Through the cross Jesus united all in one body, which refers both to the physical body of Jesus that was executed by crucifixion and the Church or ‘mystical’ body of Christ in which all are reconciled.

In a beautiful Trinitarian phrase, Paul concludes the paragraph with: “Through Jesus Christ, both of us (Jews and Gentiles) have, in the one Spirit, our way to come to the Father.” Jesus is the Way for peoples everywhere, the Way to Truth and Life.

In the final paragraph today, Paul speaks of the effects of the hostility, the walls between Jews and Gentiles being broken down and being replaced by peace. “You” (i.e. Gentiles) are no longer foreigners but truly citizens together with all Jews baptised in Christ (the “saints”) and part of God’s household (familia in Latin). ‘Family’ in ancient times included the whole household – the extended family of parents, children, close relatives but also servants and slaves.

Changing the image Paul speaks of the Church as a building of which the Gentiles are now fully a part. This building has the apostles and prophets (i.e. prophets of the early Christian community) as its foundation and Christ as its corner stone. The New Testament prophets, together with the apostles, are the witnesses to whom the divine plan was first revealed and who were the first to preach the Good News. The Church then is founded not only on Christ but also on the apostles and prophets.

Together all grow in Christ into “one holy temple” and the Gentiles, with the Christian Jews, are progressively being built into a house where God himself lives.

Paul emphatically makes two points here:

First, he shows how, in the Christian community, Jews and Gentiles have come together in unity and peace as God’s people in Christ. All former barriers are removed. (In his Letter to the Galatians, he also included free people and slaves and men and women as all fully equal in the Christian ‘family’).

Secondly, the Church is the new Temple of God. The temple is no longer a physical building of bricks and mortar but a community of people united in faith and love with Christ as Lord and to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst.”

Rome and St Peter’s could be bombed out of existence and every Christian church building in the world could be wiped off the face of the earth but as long as even a handful of people can sincerely gather together in the name of Christ and the Gospel, God’s temple, the place where he lives, continues to be. In the Church that Paul knew there were no church buildings. The communities gathered in each other’s homes. There are places in the world today where Christians have no other option except to meet in this way, often in secrecy and in fear of persecution.

Let us try to be more aware of Church as primarily the community of believers rather than as the buildings which we use for our gatherings.

Furthermore, the “house were God lives” is not a given. As Paul indicates today, it is constantly being built up. It is a living entity which can be growing or dying. That depends on each one of us. Let each one of us work together at building up the part of it entrusted to our care.


*Note: Incidentally the ‘homo’ in ‘homosexuality’ is a different word altogether. It is from the Greek homos (‘omos), meaning ‘the same’. Hence, it refers to sexuality between people of the same gender, be they masculine or feminine.

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