“Unity” is a powerful concept. That a group of people can be ‘unified’ is so difficult to imagine in these more recent days. Yet unity is what the church enjoys in actual fact. But it was not easy to understand, much less live out, back in the day.
“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands-- remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated 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 himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility
by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph. 2:11-22 ESV)
This is a much longer text than I usually process here. It is very rich, has many helpful ideas – both in doctrine and in practice. But one theme seems dominant: separation.
The text is clear: “separated in Christ,” “alienated,” “strangers,” “far off,” “dividing wall,” “hostility,” and “strangers and aliens.” There was something profoundly broken about our relationship with God and his people.
Now, just a word about “God’s people.” The apostle Paul, who wrote this text, knows his history and knows his current situation – as well as good theology! “God’s people” were the Jews. He is writing to mostly non-Jewish people. Anyone who is not a Jew is a “Gentile,” in Bible terms. Paul is affirming that Gentiles had no skin in the game in terms of a relationship with God. God had formed a relationship with this smallish people. The history of that relationship is found in what we call the Old Testament. All during that time, people like me – “Gentiles” – had no obvious way of being in a positive relationship with God unless we became Jewish. So, in the Old Testament situation, there were two kinds of people: God’s people (Jews), and everyone else. There was a clear dividing line between the two which was not merely symbolic but physical, concrete, and obvious.
In reading this section, it is harder to sense God’s presence. The text begins its attention on the separation that the readers – people like me – experienced with God.
Jesus broke down the separation, took people from the formerly two groups, and made a new people. No longer, after Jesus, is there Jew and Gentile. There is now Christian and not-Christian. This was hard for both (formerly) Jewish and Gentile Christians to fully understand, embrace, and act out. In several letters that Paul wrote, he focuses on the horizontal unity within the church. That formerly Jewish and formerly Gentile people were now, truly and in fact, one new people of God.
So, in reading a scripture text with the intent of meeting God, this text is harder to sense God because of the issue of division between Jew and Gentile. Until Paul gets to the point that the two are now one new thing.