Ephesians 2:1-10: The section beginning here and continuing through chapter three is theological reflection, expanding upon the themes introduced the opening blessing and prayer. Worship in Israel and Judaism often included recitation of God’s mighty acts of salvation (e.g. Psalm 105, 106). This function is fulfilled in Ephesians by affirmations of what God has done in Christ that brought salvation to lost individuals and unity to divided humanity and the fragmented cosmos (People’s New Testament Commentary). In Greek, verses 1-7 are one long sentence with the core of the sentence being the statement that God has made us alive.
This theological meditation begins with words many find difficult – “you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.” “Sin” for many of us has become a dead word, too fraught with baggage to be of much help to us as we look at our lives. I would argue that the idea behind the word is vitally important. Referring back to ideas I developed in the Romans commentary, I would argue that sin is anything we do that mars the image of God within our lives and that gets in the way of God’s dream for the world. When we react to a situation out of something less than our best self, rather than respond to it with all the appropriate inner resource required, we mar the image of God. When we buy into warped models of the good life, such as “the one who dies with the most toys wins,” we mar the image of God. When we hate instead of love, when we resort too quickly to force instead of pursuing gentler course of action, we mar the image of God and get in the way of God’s purposes in the world. Biblical faith indicates that this has happened to all of us, and if we are honest with ourselves, I think we would agree. There are similar theological dynamics in most other religious traditions – the spiritual life is both a movement away from something and toward something. In Buddhism, for instance, human beings are caught in needless suffering because they relate to life out of an illusory view of the nature of the self and the world. Buddhists move toward enlightenment along the eightfold path, which begins with “right understanding” or “right view.” For Christianity, we have lost our way, we have marred the image of God within, we have distorted our relationships with God, others, self, and the world. We need forgiveness (which gives us a fresh start) and freedom to know life as it was meant to be. These verses celebrate that God has provided for forgiveness, freedom and new life.
Notice the very next part of the equation – “following the course of this world.” Recall the discussion of the Powers when we were reading Galatians. The author of Ephesians believes that we get swept up in forces that lead toward death rather than life, that move us to mar the image of God, that carry us along a part that contradicts God’s dream for the world. Think of how difficult it would be for a white person to stand up for racial reconciliation in apartheid South Africa, or the American South in the first half of the twentieth century. “The flesh” is another way to designate how these forces get intertwined in our own lives.
We were dead, caught in forces that were overwhelming us, even as we contributed to their power in our lives. Into that situation, God intervened. God’s love did not abandon humankind, but reached out to offer life. God did this in rich mercy, great love, and grace. In Christ, God has made us alive. Like Christ, we have been raised to life. The author does not describe how this happens, just that it happens. And God’s grace continues in showing kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith.” This phrase is a good summary of Pauline theology, even if Paul did not write this letter. In Christianity, it is God who reaches out toward humanity in love. While we can realistically speak of person searching for God, in Christian faith we find that the God we have been looking for is already looking for us, reaching out to us in love. We have often been simply too busy or blind to notice. This saving, healing, making well and whole, this work is primarily God’s doing. We open ourselves to God’s Spirit in faith and trust. The writer is not saying that we are not involved at all in God’s work in our lives and the world. That would leave us nothing to do. The author is saying that God is the primary actor in the healing of our lives. The Message reads, “We don’t play the major role.” It goes on to say, “If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing!” The problem these words seek to address is the problem of spiritual pride, spiritual one-upsmanship. If we are the sole masters of our spiritual progress, then it becomes a temptation to rank and order people according to how well they are doing, and that can be detrimental to the faith community. That is not to say we don’t notice when some people seem further along the way than others, but we all begin with a fundamental acknowledgement that God initiates salvation, healing, well-being, wholeness. Our first job is to respond to the love that reaches out to us. As we do this we understand that God’s hope for our lives in Christ is that we will be about God’s purposes. We are created in Christ for good works. This is to be our way of life. The phrase “we are what he has made us” could be translated, “we are God’s poem.” The Christian life is about working with God’s Spirit to write the most beautiful poem possible in our lives, and to touch the world with that beauty.
Ephesians 2:11-22: The author now takes another look at the former life of members of the community, here focusing on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles who are now together Christian. The communities addressed in this letter would be primarily Gentile, the situation here is different from the situation of the Galatian Jesus communities.
The author views the Gentiles, before becoming a part of the Christian faith community, as persons alienated from God and God purposes and promises – “having no hope and without God in the world.” This is not intended to be a general commentary on the ability of God to work outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, rather it is addressed to persons who found their previous way of life a living death in one way or another. They had experienced themselves as without hope and without God. They had been far off, but now God, through the “blood of Christ,” has brought them near. Again, just how the death of Jesus facilitated overcoming this separation is not spelled out. For many, that particular language does not speak as it may have to the Ephesians, though the message that in Jesus as the Christ, including his death, God was at work to show God’s love is something Christians affirm.
It is interesting to compare the first section of this chapter with this one. There the problem was a life that was really death. God acted in Christ, in the resurrection, to bring life. Here the problem is distance, separation. God acted in Christ, in his death, to draw people near. The basic affirmation is that God did something powerful in Jesus as the Christ which made possible new life for persons. Different images bring this point home in different ways. As Christians we deprive ourselves of the richness of our tradition and faith-language when we make any one image the “only” way to speak about God’s love in Jesus as the Christ – whether that be the language of being “born again” or the language of Jesus “paying the penalty” for human sin.
In the first part of the chapter, we are brought to new life – “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (v. 10). Here, alienation is overcome, distance is bridged, people have new hope in God. Human relationships are also healed. Alienation between persons is overcome. In Christ we have peace. Dividing walls are broken down. Hostility is overcome. The work of God for new life is a work that intends peace between persons who had previously been separated and alienated. It is a work of creating “one new humanity.” Many scholars think that verses 14-15 are a reworking of an ancient Christian hymn celebrating Christ the maker of peace and destroyer of walls that divide. Peace is proclaimed to those near to God because of the covenant promises of the Hebrew Scriptures, and peace is proclaimed to those who were never a part of those promises until now. It is in Christ that both Jew and Gentile can come together in the Spirit to know God.
The chapter ends by referring back to the Gentiles. They are no longer aliens and strangers, but part of the household of God. Making an association from the concept of a house, the author imagines the Christian community as a structure, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone. This is a shift from Paul’s image in I Corinthians 3:9-11, where Jesus is the foundation. The writer of Ephesians sees Christ as the cornerstone, with the apostles and early Christian prophets making up the rest of the foundation. This may indicate, again, that Paul did not write this letter, and it may indicate a later stage in the development of the Christian tradition. The author then combines the organic image of the one body and the image of the structure to picture the church as a growing holy temple. People are built together spiritually, and God is in their midst.
Just as the first part of this chapter ends with an encouragement to a way of life characterized by good works, so this section ends with an encouragement to live together in community as Christians, as the people of God. So often we hear descriptions of the Christian faith that focus only on a personal relationship with God. Less often, we hear people discuss the Christian faith as if it is only about doing good in the wider community. Christian faith has to do with one’s inner spirituality and relationship with God. Christian faith has to do with changing the world, including breaking down dividing walls in society. Christian faith also has to do with building a community of people with whom we live out our faith. Part of the way God works in the world is to bring people together in community, all kinds of people. When we are able to be a community together, our message about a God who reconciles is more real and convincing. When we demonstrate peace together, our words about peace make more sense.