Jesus and the End of Tribalism: A Reflection on Ephesians 2.11-22

Last week, I happened to be walking along the Corso Italia here in Toronto in the lead up to the final of Euro 2021. Seemingly every store window was draped in either green white and red bunting or the royal blue of Italy’s national football team. It was a fun atmosphere and brought back the energy of being in a multicultural metropolis like Toronto during these big international competitions, as everyone pulls out all the stops to wave their flags in support of the places they call, or used to call, home. But of course, national rivalries are not all fun and games, even when they are. Just the next day, three members of the English national team were subjected to racist abuse after missing crucial penalty kicks. At the snap of a finger, these home-town heroes were treated like despised outsiders. It was a good, if sad, example of just how prone we humans are to building up barriers. We seem to like nothing better than to know who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, who is ‘safe’ and who is not, and who we can direct our anger against without losing our own sense of belonging. By our attitudes and actions, we show time and time again that we prefer tribalism to unity. It seems like the Psalmist’s vision of “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity” is as elusive as ever.

In today’s Epistle reading, Paul (or, depending on how you date the letter, perhaps his successor) is running up against the same problem in the church in Ephesus. Once again, the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians are struggling to get along, to find unity amidst their cultural differences. And once again, the Apostle is left trying to remind them that no matter what may divide them, as part of the new community of faith, they have far more that unites them.

He starts by recognizing that the differences are real. The Jewish Christians have inherited centuries of history with God; they are part of God’s people, with all the rights and ethical and ritual responsibilities that that entailed. By comparison, the Gentile Christians have been strangers to all of this history, but are now “brought near” through the life and death of Jesus: “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.” Jesus himself is the ground and means through which the old divisions can be overcome. He reveals a new way of being in relationship with God, and therefore with one another as well. The Apostle continues:

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. (Ephesians 2.14-16)

This movement — so controversial and so formative in the early Church — rests on an important insight: The ritual law (specifically circumcision) was intended as a symbol of relationship and unity with God; but, it has now become instead a symbol of division within humanity. And so these symbols of separation are now set aside in light of the universal belonging offered to humanity in and through Jesus, which had been confirmed by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the Gentile believers in Caesarea (see Acts 10). And, for the Apostle, this means no longer division between insider and outsider, but the presence of God’s peace for all who have been adopted into God’s family:

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. (16-22)

It’s interesting how many different images are used here for the new community: they have gone from being “strangers” and “aliens” to being fellow citizens and members of God’s household. He then switches to an architectural metaphor, comparing the new community to a building whose parts are “joined together” to form a “holy temple,” built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets and with Jesus himself being the cornerstone.

And so, we have here a vision of salvation that is not just personal, but also corporate, and which doesn’t just eliminate the barriers between humanity and God, but also those between humans. As N.T. Wright put it:

…[T]he cross of Jesus Christ not only rescued sinful human beings from their eternal fate but also rescued fractured humanity from its eternal antagonism. And the author of Ephesians clearly thought that those two were part of the same act of redemption, intimately linked aspects of the single purpose of the one God, aimed at the healing of creation. (Justification)

What this does is frame our human divisions — petty and small from God’s perspective, though we must acknowledge the important ways they continue to negatively impact people’s lives — as sin. Being part of a group is good, but the moment we identify so strongly with that group that we exclude other people, reject their value, and do violence against them (in thought, word, and deed), we have crossed the line and are opposing God, God’s Kingdom, and God’s purposes.

And so, if we are truly followers of Jesus, we must reject tribalisms of all kinds, and work to overcome the differences that divide us. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once commented that one of the distinctives of his (and my) Anglican tradition is that it has recognized that schism is a worse sin than heresy. At first glance, it’s a shocking statement. And yet, when we read the New Testament, we see just how seriously the Apostles took unity. The more I reflect on it, the more I think Williams’s idea hits on something true about the Gospel: the very act of struggling to be faithful, to continue day by day showing up for God but also for one another in love and shared commitment to seeking truth together even and especially when ‘together’ is hard, is beautiful in God’s eyes. We would do well to make it our mission.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5.9).

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