Remember That We Are Gentiles (9th Pentecost // Proper 11B)
“Remember That We Are Gentiles”
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
9th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 11B) - July 22, 2018
11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth,[b] called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 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. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 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. 15 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, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body[c] through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.[d] 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.[e] 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually[f] into a dwelling place for God.
A few days ago, I was in the church for an event that was wrapping up. One of the children came up to me excitedly and asked me one of the most frequently-asked questions I receive: “What is the wifi password?”
They had some time to kill before their parents were ready to leave so I gave them the info. I just changed it when AT&T gave us a new modem a few weeks ago. The password is “toomerwalkerhall,” which is the name of the room (Toomer-Walker Hall) shortened for ease of use.
She gave me an inquisitive look. She didn’t know that was the title of the parish hall and didn’t know who “Toomer” or “Walker” were (let alone how to spell it). So I invited her over to the plaque on the wall to show her the name and the list of all the donors (great and small) who contributed to the construction of the parish hall extension some 25 years ago. I especially highlighted Louis B. Toomer and Cecile Walker, whose major contributions earned their names on the room. Many of the folks in the room remember this time vividly, but this child wasn’t born yet so she didn’t know.
Why is it important to remember stories like this? What do we lose when we forget our own history? When Fr. Charles Hoskins led Sunday School last week, he said something that I’ll paraphrase like this: “History isn’t what happened; it’s what we choose to remember and what we choose (or don’t choose) to forget.”
Without a proper sense of our history, our inheritance, we can lose our identity. Without a proper grounding in who we are, we’ll go astray in what we do.
This is a driving philosophy behind everything we do in church. If you pay attention to the prayers we say from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), and to a lot of what I preach about, we’re constantly pointing back to who we are in Christ. Knowing your identity is key to living rightly and justly.
We need to be reminded who we are constantly. Centuries of experience (and God’s revelation to us in the Scriptures) show that people are easily tricked, easily tempted, easily led astray. False senses of identity are easy to come by. We’re never too wise to be safe from lies about who we are. That’s why we gather together week in and week out, or even day in and day out: to hear truth in God’s holy Word and to speak truth to God and one another.
We speak truth about God’s identity and character when we say the Nicene Creed. We speak truth about ourselves when we confess and admit our sins together. We hear truth about God in the declaration of forgiveness. We speak truth when we proclaim that the Lord Jesus Christ’s peace is always with us. And in our Eucharistic Prayers, the long prayers the priest reads before we receive communion, we are always reminded of who and whose we are as the Church before that identity is confirmed through the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.
This section of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (2:11-22) is all about remembering who we are and remembering what God has done.
1. Remember Who You Are
First, Paul tells us, we are Gentiles by birth. Paul is a Jew, and he is talking to a mostly Gentile audience from Ephesus. He gets to say “you” [plural] are Gentiles, because he knows who he is. When I talk about Gentiles I say “we” because I also know who I am too.
Next, Gentiles are naturally “without Christ”. God chose to be in covenant relationship with the people of Israel (by grace, not merit) in a way that is different from any other people group on earth. So before we were adopted into God’s household through Christ, Paul says, we were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” If you’re not of Israel you’re an alien and a stranger. That’s where we came from.
2. Remember What God Has Done
Then in verse 13, there’s a big shift: “But now in Christ Jesus [we] who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:13). God has acted to reunify the human race, but did so in and through Israel. Jesus is an Israelite, a Jew, born to the tribe of Judah, a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, King David, and countless other men and women made famous in the Hebrew Bible, which we call the Old Testament.
Next, Paul reminds us, Jesus Christ is our peace. He came to break down the dividing wall that separates people of different ethnicities and nations. In his Jewish Body, he united Jews and Gentiles on the cross. There is no more reason for hostility because it died with Jesus on Calvary. (Would that Christians and Jews be more united in our own day!)
Through Jesus, God has united Gentiles with Jews without destroying either identity. Instead, we form new identities in Christ that blend with what came before. That means we need to understand who we are and where we came from, but also who God is and how God is revealed in Jesus Christ and to the people of Israel.
Our Prayer Book is filled with regular reminders of your new identity in Christ. When we pray together we are speaking the truth about who we are, who God is, and what God has done for us. Our prayers reinforce the truth that Christ is our peace, breaking down dividing walls between Gentiles and Jews.
The BCP is not a neutral book written for all people everywhere. It was compiled and written in the 1960s and 1970s based on the riches of 2000-plus years of Church Traditions, specifically for Episcopalian Christians in the United States of America (there are actually 17 nations represented in The Episcopal Church, but the denomination is based in USA).
So the BCP is written with the knowledge that the vast majority of Episcopalians are Gentile Christians--Christians who are not Jews ethnically, culturally, or religiously. (Here it is worth noting that when I talk about “Israel” and “Jews”, I’m talking about the ethnic, cultural, and religious group, not the modern nation-state of Israel. There are Jews in the world who have never set foot in Israel and people with Israeli passports who do not identify as Jews.)
The beginning of Eucharistic Prayer B is written with a Gentile Church in mind: “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us  in creation;  in the calling of Israel to be your people;  in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all  in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son” (BCP, p. 368).
Notice that we, Gentiles, thank God for choosing Israel to be God’s people. God’s election of Israel to be the chosen people is part of the Good News to us Gentiles. Israel is a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Leviticus 19:6; cf. 1 Peter 2:9). They mediate God to the rest of the world. That means that God revealed Godself to Israel and the Scriptures tell the story of God’s interaction with this specific people group.
We can’t just skip over Israel’s role in the story. We cannot universalize God’s activity. It always begins and ends with the people of Israel. So it’s not an accident that Jesus is an Israelite. It’s not an accident that we have to get to know the language, culture, land, and practices of Israel to fully understand and embrace the Old and New Testaments.
God is teaching us something here. Jesus Christ is our peace; he breaks down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile. But he does not erase our differences. Christ does not turn Gentile into Jew or Jew into Gentile. Instead, by saving us through Israel’s Messiah, God is pushing us to love Israel to desire to know Israel; and God is pushing Israel to do the same with us!
In order to know God, we have to get to know Israel, a people not our own, from a place not our own, speaking a language not our own. In order to be saved by grace, we have to join ourselves in love to somebody different from us. We don’t always have to like them or understand them, but we have to listen. We have to try to explore and dig deeper. Getting to know Israel and getting to know ourselves as not-Israel must begin a prayerful conversation among us. How do our “cultural practices and stories both echo and contradict the divine claim on [our] lives” (Jennings, 292)? What does it look like for us to love Israel intimately with all its gifts and flaws and wrestlings with God?
Even if it just starts in a book (like the Bible), the Gospel is supposed to engage our curiosity. If Jews in biblical times thought and acted differently from 21st Century Americans in Savannah maybe other people I know are different from me too. Maybe I can be called to engage others on their own terms, just like the Bible calls me to engage it on its own terms.
God is trying to teach us to love each other fully, across visible differences. We can and should embrace those who look and act and sound different. The dividing wall of hostility has been torn down in Christ’s Body. We can’t accuse “them” of being aliens and strangers because we were once aliens and strangers. God brought us into the fold despite our sin; how can we hold that against anyone else?
So spend time this week remembering the foundational stories in your life and family history. Spend time getting to know the foundational stories in Israel’s life by reading the Bible everyday (maybe in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer). And spend some time getting to know the foundational stories in someone else’s life. Show them the love that Jesus showed you when he became our peace. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007 [originally 1979].
Jennings, Willie James. The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
Peterson, Brian. "Commentary on Ephesians 2:11-22." Working Preacher. Published 16 July 2018. Accessed 19 July 2018. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3748.