Ephesians 1-3: Race and the Contemporary Church

My last two posts were about the meaning of Ephesians 1-3. You can read them here and here if you would like.

But seeing that this is the word of God for the people of God in all ages, contexts, tribes, and places, how do we apply such a specific meaning to our lives and churches?

First, a summary of Ephesians 1-3 may help catch us up:

Summary:

  • In the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul is writing to a mostly, if not exclusively, Gentile audience.
  • He is not writing about individual salvation, but about how Christ brings the Gentiles into God's covenant/people. This conclusion is come to from 3 major sections:
    • Ephesians 1 - Paul talks about the work of Christ as revealing the mystery of God.
    • Ephesians 2 - Paul talks about the cross of Christ uniting both Jew and Gentile into one body.
    • Ephesians 3 - Paul reveals what the revelation was he received from God, tells us what the mystery is that Christ reveals, and a major implication of what the gospel is: the inclusion of the Gentiles as "fellow-heirs" as the people of God.
So, what do the people of God today have to do with the Gentile inclusion into the covenant of God? Here are a few ways to go about teaching this text/ lessons we can take away from this text:

Race and Ethnicity issues matter to God and should matter to the people of God
The Evangelical community and Church as a whole has not dealt well with race and Christianity, especially in America. Some will protest that racism is dead and many who experience and study such things will contest that it is alive and well. Ephesians 1-3 with emphasis on 2:11-22, really express the cause of Christ in connection with the idea of race and the church.

The whole idea behind these texts, as we have concluded, is the inclusion of the Gentiles into the community of God as "fellow-heirs" and one body. If you are unsure what a Gentile is just know that in Jewish thought there were Jews and then there was everyone else. It is this "everyone else" that was considered to be the Gentiles. This isn't uncommon as the Greeks had a similar line of thinking. Anyways, this passage is Paul's impassioned plea for the Gentiles to see themselves as being fully apart of the Church. This is not only true through the cross of Christ but is has always been God's plan "from the foundations of the earth; this isn't plan B. Part of this not being plan B means that the Gentiles should not become arrogant about the blessing of God, as if God chose the Gentiles over the Jews, or that the Gentiles have worked their way into the covenant of God (2:8-10), but that Christ has made them one body through the cross, by grace.

This message translates well to contemporary race relations. Though we aren't struggling between Jew and Gentile, we are struggling with White, African-American, Asian-American, Native-American churches, etc. There is debate about minority language churches, and that is not the point here. The point to be pondered from this passage is why Martin Luther King Jr's oft-quoted words are still true that "We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing 'In Christ there is no East or West,' we stand in the most segregated hour of America."

The most interesting thing about this passage in regards to race relations is the way Paul frames the work 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" (14-16). Paul frames the cross of Christ, not as Jesus being a substitute taking on our sins, but as the vehicle by which Jesus makes two people one. Even more interesting is the way Paul uses the term "flesh" in 11-12 & 14. Paul locates the problem between Jews and Gentiles as a problem of flesh. The Gentiles are Gentiles by flesh. The Jews are circumcised by the flesh of hands. This is Paul's way of dismissing circumcision as something divisive and earthly. Either way, it is these two perceptions of flesh that have separated Jews and Gentiles, and yet Christ "in his flesh he has made both groups into one..." Jesus' flesh dissolves the division between the flesh of the Gentiles and the flesh of circumcision. Jesus' death in the flesh marks the death of the division of hostility between Jew and Gentile.

This is both good news and imperative to us. We are no longer separated by tradition and race and culture, for "in that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!" (Colossians 3:11). What good news! But this also means we have no excuse for the racism in our people, in our churches, and in our communities. We need to teach our people, our brothers and sisters, about the unity found in Christ. We need to be educated and read about the work of reconciliation in racial settings, seeking out experts in this area (i.e. Brenda Salter-McNeil or John Perkins). We cannot be blind to the problems of the contemporary church. We need to mourn them. But we are always hopeful and need to be willing to get our hands dirty for the cause of Christ.

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