Jesus is our peace: Reading Ephesians 2 with Stanley Hauerwas

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April 29, 2013 by jmar198013

At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. You used to act like most people in our world do. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. This is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience. At one time you were like those persons. All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else.

However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.

So remember that once you were Gentiles by physical descent, who were called “uncircumcised” by Jews who are physically circumcised. At that time you were without Christ. You were aliens rather than citizens of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of God’s promise. In this world you had no hope and no God. But now, thanks to Christ Jesus, you who once were so far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.

When he came, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near. We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit. So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household. As God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. The whole building is joined together in him, and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit. (Ephesians 2 CEB)

Historically, what has most interested Protestants about the second chapter of Paul’s Ephesian letter is what is contained in vv 8-9: You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. The reason for emphasizing those verses has of course been the notion that salvation is about saving the individual from his or her sin–or at least, from the consequences of it. And of course, the conceit undergirding that emphasis finds its roots in Martin Luther’s anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish bent. So with vv 8-9, you have to emphasize v 15a: [Jesus] canceled the detailed rules of the Law. But looking at Ephesians 2 on its own merit, we observe that the key to its interpretation in the life of the church lies not in the salvation of individuals. Rather, Ephesians 2 tells a story about social groups–Jew and Gentile–who have been at war with one another: ideologically, ethically, culturally, and religiously at war. These groups are saved from violence and enmity with each other insofar as they live their lives together upon the basis of the cross and resurrection of Christ. Stanley Hauerwas’ observations from a quarter-century ago are quite pertinent:

Certainly … I [do not] believe that Jesus simply exemplifies a way of life for us to follow. On the contrary, without the ontological change occasioned through Christ’s resurrection, there would be no possibility of living as he did … There is forever a decisive difference between us and Jesus, insofar as Jesus and Jesus alone is the singular faithful Son that makes God’s kingdom present. Our obedience to his life is possible only because of the Father’s vindication of Jesus’ obedience through the resurrection. However, crucial to my … views on these matters is a refusal to separate the person and the work of Christ. Attempts to develop theories of the incarnation separate from doctrines of atonement invariably result in individualistic accounts of salvation that distort Jesus’ eschatological mission.

Jesus is not about saving the individual from sin. Rather, the salvation wrought in Christ makes present God’s eschatological kingdom as a possibility for Jew and Gentile alike. All are called to salvation as individuals, but the salvation itself is the socially embodied life of a community that knows it lives by forgiveness … [I]t cannot be known separate from embodiment in concrete lives. If such a community does not exist, then I think Christians have few grounds to counter the challenge of unbelief or the violence it breeds.

. . .

Jesus saves us from sin and death. Yet sin and death are embodied in a history that requires an alternative narration of history … if our salvation is to be anything more than a vague hope. The name we give the social manifestation that makes that history present is church. We believe the church’s history is the only true history of the world, but there is no way to establish that till God’s kingdom comes in its fulfillment. In between the times we must live by faith. But such faithful living means we can live confident that God’s victory has been accomplished forever through Jesus of Nazareth. (“On Being a Church Capable of Addressing a World at War,” in The Stanley Hauerwas Reader, 440-41, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright [Durham: Duke University Press, 2001], emphasis mine)

In other words, Ephesians 2 is not a theological treatise by Paul about a) why the law was deficient and thus b) God now saves us not by works but by grace. Rather, it is Paul teaching the church about its history. Jews and Gentiles are being saved together from the world’s deceit and violence through the person of Christ. Their enmity was nailed to the cross, and they can now live together in peace by the power of his resurrection. His new life before God is the basis of their new life together. No longer is the Gentile an outsider; no longer is the law an excuse for the Jew to exclude the Gentile. There is no need for hostility between them. Any judgment that needs to be made has already been made at the cross. What matters now is that Jews and Gentiles share a life together in peace based on participation in the life of the risen Christ. Salvation names the peace which obtains in the life of the church, that “alternative narration of history” that the church is tasked with making present. Ephesians 2 is a word about reconciliation, and the vocation of the church. Faith is the means by which we “live confident that God’s victory has been accomplished forever through Jesus of Nazareth.” Grace is God’s gifting of salvation to the people who live faithful on the basis of “the Father’s vindication of Jesus’ obedience through the resurrection.” This alternative history of salvation is narrated in the life of the church, according to Paul, in these terms: At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. You used to act like most people in our world do … All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else. However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong …  God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

Peoples who in the violence of their unbelief had made war are now reconciled as one people on the basis of their confession that, “Jesus is our peace.” That is what salvation looks like, according to Ephesians 2, and the church is that reconciled people, saved from the the barrier of hatred that divided them. From that I pose this question: in the church, if barriers of hatred and hostility still divide us; if we will not welcome each other in the person of Jesus who is our peace; if we do not live as though God is victorious forever through Jesus of Nazareth; then tell me this: Who is saved from anything?

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