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, 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.
– Ephesians 2: 11-22, NRSV
What Paul says in this passage, about what God has done to make us a new people, should stun us. That we exist is almost beyond belief. In fact, it is beyond belief, because we do not have to believe in what we can see. Of course, there is the interesting question of whether we can see the Spirit at work, because most of what we see is our unfaithful response to what God has called us to be. But for all our unfaithfulness, for all our warts, for all of our worries about what it means to be followers of Jesus, it matters that we exist. Let me try to elaborate this observation by directing your attention to our passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Paul begins by telling the Ephesians that once they were ‘no people,’ but now through the work of the Spirit, they have been made participants in a new humanity. According to Paul, before the Ephesians became followers of Christ, they were people without a shepherd. They had no way to know where they were or who they were. They were quite literally lost in the world. The people of Israel were often unfaithful, but Israel was not lost, because God had storied her – that is, given her a locus –through the covenant. Gentiles were not included in that covenant.
Because Gentiles were a people who were no people, they were without hope, making them strangers to themselves and one another. Yet Paul claims through the flesh and blood of Christ, God broke through the walls of hostility between Jew and Gentile, making those who once were far off, who were without Christ, citizens in the household of God. This is what is called, in language of the current academy, a grand narrative.
It is a story, however, that we are not sure “fits” over our lives. The division of the world into Jew and Gentile is not the way we normally think the world can be divided, today. We know we are not Jews, but we seldom think of ourselves as Gentiles. Nor are we sure we know what it might mean for us to be aliens from the commonwealth of Israel. Will Willimon and I wrote a book entitled Resident Aliens, but the aliens most people assumed we were suggesting Christians might be compared with were from Latin America.
Of course, we think we are Christians, but we are not quite sure what to make of Paul’s extraordinary claim that by being Christian, we have been made citizens of a new commonwealth. Even more startling, he suggests we have been made citizens of a new commonwealth that is constituted by a new humanity.
We just thought being Christian meant we came to church on Sunday. Paul’s claims about our status seem exaggerated. After all, we are first and foremost good democratic citizens. That means we are very careful not to offend the egalitarian and tolerant presumptions of the democratic order in which we live by claiming to be a people with a special status.
Accordingly, we are not at all sure how this famous passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians applies to us. Paul’s extraordinary claims about what Christ has done to reconcile Jew and Gentile simply does not seem to map on to our current understanding of what it means to be a human being, nor does such an understanding of ourselves reflect our ecclesial practices. We may have been made one people, but given the character of the current church, such a claim seems to be just that: an arrogant claim that makes us more than we are. Moreover, how claims of Christian distinctiveness have resulted in persecution of Jews, Muslims and secularists by Christians is something we rightly want to avoid.
At the heart of our worries about Paul’s extraordinary claim about who we are is his remark—a remark that he seems to throw out as a side comment—that Jesus is our peace.
What could Paul possibly mean by suggesting that Jesus is our peace?
How can peace be a person?
We tend to think of peace as an ideal for which we ought to strive but seldom achieve. Yet Paul suggests that through the cross, Jesus inaugurated and enacted a new creation and by doing so constituted a new humanity that is peace. According to Paul, Jesus thus became peace for those who were far off as well as for those who were near. Indeed, it seems that such a peace is but a way to say that through Christ we have been drawn into the very life of the Trinity by the Spirit who, with the Son, makes the Father known.
What an extraordinary set of claims. Claims that I hope makes clear why I began by observing what a stunning text we have before us. These sentences from Paul are stunning, because they force us to recognize that to be a Christian means we are made citizens of a people who believe all reality was transformed by an obscure Jew who died over two thousand years ago. We believe that God has made us, his church, the exemplification of the new humanity through word and sacrament. Just as “he is our peace” so we, his church, are a people of the new age, making possible a peace otherwise unknown.
I became aware of the extraordinary character of Paul’s claim that “Jesus is our peace” in, of all places, Japan. I had been asked to preach by my host in Japan. I was honored to be asked and accepted without much thought. The text for the day was this passage from Ephesians. It occurred to me to ask my Japanese hosts if they had ever met a Jew or if they had any idea what it meant to be a Jew. No one in the congregation had ever met a Jew nor did they have any idea what it meant to be a Jew. Yet they were being told that through the blood of Christ, they have been made one with the people of Israel. What could it possibly mean for Japanese Christians to understand that they have been grafted into the people of Israel and thus become for the world God’s peace? Israel’s story of God’s faithfulness to her is now the story that makes Japanese Christians, and American Christians, Christian.
I call attention to my experience of reflecting on this passage in a Japanese context in order to suggest to you that Paul’s claim should strike American Christians just as strange and radical as it would Japanese Christians. We should never take for granted Paul’s radical suggestion that the hostility between those who were near and those who were far off has been overwhelmed, put to death, through the cross of Christ. We have been made through Christ a people of peace. This means that we cannot help but be a missionary people scattered throughout the world, so that the world might know whose they are, and hopefully not be lost.
At Babel, God confused the language of the earth and scattered the peoples. What God meant as a gift to counter the prideful attempt to be God was transformed into a violent alternative in which some tried to secure their survival, even if that meant others must be killed so that they could live. Unable to understand one another, they lived and continue to live in fear one another. War was the inevitable result of Babel, for in such a world there seems no alternative to: kill or be killed.
God, however, had a response to our violence. God called Abraham out of his country to be the father of a people who had to learn to exist by trusting in the One alone who can be trusted. We – that is, God’s church – now stand in that project. We do so because, as Paul says, in Christ we have been made one with God, Israel, and with ourselves and our neighbor. Thus, the extraordinary claim that we – those that have been called into God’s church – are the alternative to violence. Accordingly, we Christians are not called to live nonviolently because we believe nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war. Rather, we are called to live nonviolently in a world of war as faithful followers of the one who is our peace. We cannot imagine living in any other way.
In Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, Michael Gorman argued that Paul’s understanding of this gift of peace enacted in Christ is not an addendum to salvation.
It is salvation.
It is, therefore, not an idle gesture that Paul writes to his various churches, greeting them in the name of Christ and wishing them to live in peace. He does so because the peace that is Christ is cosmic, making possible a way to live that was once unimaginable. To confess that Jesus is our peace means we, God’s church, are God’s peace for the world. What an extraordinary story. You almost think it more fantasy than real, but it is real because Christ was crucified and resurrected with the result that his church—we—exist.
“He is our peace,” and because he is our peace, we are that peace for the world.
Come see Stanley Hauerwas at The Gospel of Peace Conference this November 2-4 in Santa Fe!
Originally preached at St. Mary’s on-the-Highlands, Birmingham, Alabama July 19, 2015.
Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at the Divinity School at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He has written a voluminous number of articles, authored and edited many books, and has been the subject of other theologians’ writing and interest.
Dr. Hauerwas has sought to recover the significance of the virtues for understanding t
he nature of the Christian life. This search has led him to emphasize the importance of the church, as well as narrative, for understanding faithful existence. His work cuts across disciplinary lines as he is in conversation with systematic theology, philosophical theology and ethics, political theory, as well as the philosophy of social science and medical ethics. He was named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time magazine in 2001. Dr. Hauerwas, who holds a joint appointment in Duke Law School, delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectureship at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland in 2001.
His book, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, was selected as one of the 100 most important books on religion of the 20th century. Dr. Hauerwas recently authored The Work of Theology (Eerdmans, 2015), Hannah’s Child: A Theological Memoir, 2nd Ed. (Eerdmans, 2012), and War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity (Baker Academic Press, 2011).
He has been a board member of the Society of Christian Ethics, Associate Editor of a number of Christian journals and periodicals, and a frequent lecturer at campuses across the country.