“Access denied” – it’s a sign we’ve all seen, in various settings, usually in glaring red lettering. Our immediate reaction may be frustration, anger, or resentment, but the message is unmistakable: “I am not welcome here.”
In today’s second reading, from the Letter to Ephesians, we discover the degree to which Paul’s perspective changed from the time when he was a single-minded, self-righteous young zealot who willingly contributed to the death of Stephen. Paul (or Saul as he was previously known) had been a one-man Inquisition, a fire-breathing fanatic going from place to place on behalf of the religious authorities to exterminate Christianity and to cause whatever harm necessary to make that happen.
At one time Paul was a zealous Pharisee, believing himself to be an insider, part of a special category of chosen people close to God, and entitled, even obliged by that status to condemn others. He did not trust that God could work through any other avenues than Judaism. In his mind, access to God was denied to all except the “chosen” people, who conveniently happened to be his own people.
Believing his cause to be righteous, Paul had got to a point of self-righteousness where he felt he could justify even murder, as he went about exterminating the opposition. We know in our own time how easily people can get there, as a quick glance at the TV news usually provides a grisly update on the latest ISIS or Boko Haran atrocities, all supposedly in the name of God (Allah).
The theology represented in this passage from Ephesians reveals the degree to which Paul has matured. In the Corinthian correspondence he advises others to grow up too, seeing Christ as the ultimate model and goal. His whole sense of God and what it means to serve God have changed.
You can still hear something of the Pharisee in him when he suggests (in today’s reading) that the Gentiles (or non-Jews) were at one time “without Christ” and were therefore hopeless. Some theologians today would dismiss that idea as an impossibility, believing there is a much more comprehensive scope to God’s presence and purposes. So Paul is certainly not all the way there in terms of being a universalist (or a true catholic) – he still conceives of salvation in fairly narrow terms; he still sees a chronological and patriarchal progression from the old covenant to the new.
It can be unsettling to some to realize that, at that time, the Christians were the radicals pushing a new agenda and the Jews were the conservatives, desperately trying to hold on to their traditions. Had people like Paul not pushed forward, there might never have been a distinctly Christian spirituality or a Christian Church. There was a watershed moment when it became clear that many of the old ways needed to be abandoned, to allow a new way to emerge, and Paul, as conflicted as anyone, as torn as anyone between the old and the new, nevertheless pushed forward, and urged the church to see the old way as obsolete.
Starting off as a rigid legalist, for Paul the concept of Grace comes to prevail, because he himself had been the unexpected and undeserving recipient of that grace and mercy. For Paul, it means getting rid of the old divisions of Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, even the distinction between genders. Paul moves toward what might be called the unitive approach, proclaiming access to those who formerly were considered beyond the pale.
Jesus not only said, “Do not not judge,” he also said “For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt 7:2). It is maybe the closest Jesus gets to suggesting a principle like karma, or “what goes round comes round.”
As Paul discovered, being judged is not pleasant, especially when there is no basis for it. Yet Paul had brought his attack against people he didn’t even know; he purposely harmed people who had done nothing wrong except to differ from his way of seeing things.
Paul has had that mentality turned on him, from people like the super apostles (as he sarcastically called them) in Corinth and the Judaizers in the Galatian church, and quite obviously he finds their mindset offensive. In short, he hated it. Perhaps noting the irony, the karma at work, he may have repented even further of the kind of single-minded, uncompromising zealot he himself had been once upon a time.
This letter to the Ephesians is a letter to outsiders, rejects, aliens, the disowned, and people considered to be second-rate. Let’s add: foreigners; immigrants; people of other races; LGBT people; and refugees to make it relevant to our own time.
We have heard Donald Trump spouting off in recent weeks about how illegal Mexican immigrants tend to be murderers and rapists – that it’s best to keep them outside – deny access — raise the barriers higher. Trump lost a lot of credibility (and business) as a result of those comments, but think about it – at one point, St Paul probably sounded much the same way – certainly his Pharisee colleagues did. They were suspicious and hostile, not wanting the purity of their religion or race to be polluted by outsiders, newcomers, different people. Their goal was to keep the walls of division and demarcation high, and the architecture of the Temple in Jerusalem was a physical sign of the separation of Jew and Gentile.
No one in their right mind wants to be associated with such backward and inhumane attitudes, and we need to look at the progression of St Paul as a powerful case in point of how it is indeed possible to evolve from a bigoted fanatic capable of murder to a person capable of writing some of the most profound things ever written about love; mutual respect; community; grace and mercy.
Paul came to believe that in Christ God had abolished the old criteria – racist, sexist, religious, and economic – that had divided people. Paul seems to feel all of that has now become obsolete as ways of assessing people’s value and purpose. Paul is obviously trying to establish a new way that includes rather than excludes.
Rather than working to deny access to certain people, Paul has come to see that grace means offering access to all people. The dividing wall of hostility to which Paul refers was an image from the Temple in Jerusalem – a sign of the old way of insider and outsider, clean and unclean, member and non-member. It seems to me that a sign that says “No Gentiles” is no worse than the announcement in the middle of a service purportedly representing the person of Jesus Christ, that non-Roman Catholics are not permitted to receive the Eucharist. To me, that is not a genuinely catholic attitude!
For Paul, Christ is a figure of peace, who reconciles and unifies and offers access to God, creating one new humanity instead of the older fragmented and conflicted version.
Listen to some of the words Paul uses in Ephesians in relation to God: mercy; kindness; love; grace; life; blessing. For Paul circumcision is no longer a merely outward and physical act, and certainly not a means of dividing and separating; it is a spiritual reality. And for Paul the Temple is no longer merely a physical building; it is a spiritual reality, a new set of relationships based on the gracious person of Christ. In this new Temple of the Spirit people are “no longer strangers and aliens” – this is the place where God dwells, not confined to buildings or correct beliefs or old covenants but present and accessible to all, everywhere.
Christ never seemed to withhold his life from others. The Gospel provides the great image of Jesus healing all who were brought to him – feeding all who were hungry – blessing all who felt alienated from the love of God. In Christ, access is not denied; access is given.
Paul is writing all this to ensure that these new Christians never forget what it feels like to be treated as outsiders – unwanted – strangers. He calls them to embrace the unifying, generous Spirit of Christ. So he writes: “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1). And as Paul also says: “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you … live in love, as Christ loved us.”
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
Jeremiah 23:1-6 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD. The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
Psalm 89:20-37 I have found my servant David; with my holy oil I have anointed him; my hand shall always remain with him; my arm also shall strengthen him. The enemy shall not outwit him, the wicked shall not humble him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him. My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him; and in my name his horn shall be exalted. I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers. He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!’ I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him, and my covenant with him will stand firm. I will establish his line forever, and his throne as long as the heavens endure. If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my ordinances, if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with scourges; but I will not remove from him my steadfast love, or be false to my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant, or alter the word that went forth from my lips. Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David. His line shall continue forever, and his throne endure before me like the sun. It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies.” Selah
Ephesians 2:11-22 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.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.