Research Associate Kristin Caynor shares her journey with Ephesians 2.
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us, abolishing 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 to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.Eph. 2:14-16, NRSV
Over the past couple of years, Ephesians 2 has changed the trajectory of my life and set me on a journey which I’m sure is just beginning. It has been a journey set off by this question—a question reaching the point of crisis for me, at times: where and how do we live this reality of the New Humanity? How do the words we read take on flesh and blood?
This was the primary concern of so many of the East Africans I was able to speak to about this passage–men and women who had survived genocide, been child soldiers, and labored in reconciliation after some of history’s greatest atrocities, many of which were committed in majority Christian nations. Over and over again they told us that we must stop compartmentalizing our faith, and that continuing to do so will be to our peril. Over and over again we heard things like “Do not think that what happened in Rwanda in 1994 could not happen in your country.”
As I write about this journey for preachers and leaders, I realize that when it comes to Ephesians 2, I’ve had a privilege afforded to very few. So many preachers are given only a week—maybe two—to sit with a passage, to bring the various concerns of themselves and their intended audiences to it, and to hear what God might be saying.
But for the last two years, I’ve been able to sit with the text of Ephesians 2:11–22 and give it as much loving attention as I can. I’ve been allowed to slowly chew it and savor its flavors. I’ve been able to do in-depth research in the social sciences to understand how it might apply to the various challenges facing American society and the world. I’ve been able to look at early Christian reception of the passage, and have long conversations with Christian leaders from all over the world who are struggling to make peace and live reconciliation in their own communities.
After all of the time I’ve spent with thinkers and theologians from the majority world, I think our trouble begins, in part, with how we view scripture itself.
So often in western societies, we look at a “text” as a static thing—a reification that we can study like a fossil. The first order of business is to attempt to discern what it might have looked like a long time ago when it had flesh and skin, and then to try and tell the story of how the animal it represents once lived and died, and become preserved. Once we have our color pencil sketch of the brontosaurus, the triceratops, or the firstcentury Christian (with or without feathers) we might then attempt—through bits of evidence and a heap of conjecture—to fit our story of this reified thing into the story we tell about ourselves and the living things that we know today.
A paleontologist would not uncover a new dinosaur and then simply rebury it.
But, what if what we found were not bones, but a box of seeds?
If we found a box of good seed, and wanted to understand what we had found, we would be insane not to rebury them, tend the ground with care, and see what kind of life emerges. It would make no sense to treat seeds like fossils, measuring their dimensions and attempting to create illustrations of the plants they came from. Rather, it would make the most sense to allow the seeds to take root and grow into their “flesh and skin,” to see what they do as living organisms.
My friend Bishop Zac Niringiye of Uganda refuses to call the scriptures “texts” precisely for this reason. They are not meant to be artifacts that we study, but rather seeds from which we hope to see life and fruit. We are to “receive with meekness the implanted word.” And if we do not become doers of the word but are hearers only, then we deceive ourselves (James 1:21-22).
What my nearly two-year study of Ephesians 2 has convinced me of is that many of us have thousands of incredible seeds sitting in glass cases, while outside there are hungry hearts and fallow patches of land. It usually isn’t the case that we haven’t planted any seed; but we have been selective in the seed that we’ve nurtured in the modern Christian traditions, over time leading to gospel ecosystems which lack the diversity necessary to be healthy and sustainable. We are happy to receive and live into verses telling us to be good citizens and hard workers, to be honest, fair, and dependable, and not to cheat on our spouses. And we have our favorite “gospel” passages that talk about sin and guilt, and how the work of Jesus addresses these things.
But in many places, passages like Eph. 2:11-22 are neglected seed. It is not taken seriously as a “gospel” passage on the level of John 3:16 or even the preceding verses in Eph. 2:1-10. I never memorized it in AWANA Clubs, nor have I ever heard an altar call given to come up and accept the gospel of peace and membership in God’s new multiethnic humanity where the standards we live by “in flesh” and “in the world” have been abolished. I have heard many times about how the Cross made a way for me to go to heaven, but (until recently) I never heard about how the Cross made a way for me to become kin with lovers of God from the other side of the tracks, the other side of the political aisle, or the other side of a war (Eph. 2:18-19).
And to be honest, if I ever did hear anything like this preached at all, it often lacked credibility for me. It usually came from liberal-leaning pulpits in large, expensive buildings, where I sat surrounded by people even more socially white, wealthy, and well-educated than me. I would look around and realize that while I loved many things about the worship, I would never be able to convince my unhoused friends to darken the door of those sacred assemblies (even those who camped just across the street). A handful of people from the church might serve in the soup kitchen—but the soup kitchen people never came into the church, and there certainly wasn’t the sense that we were one, that the church could belong to them as much as it belonged to the doctors and professors in nice ties and collared shirts.
Is there any community where these things aren’t just being preached, but lived with recognizable fruit—fruit that looks like the new humanity? Where are the seeds that were “rooted and grounded in love” spreading root and branch, with height and depth and length and breadth (Eph. 3:17-19).
In asking this question, many of my friends have left the church, or left the faith entirely. It is not that the church’s message fails to align with secular science, or even that it’s incompatible with concerns for justice; it is, tragically, that the church fails to align with its own message, with the promise that its own seeds bear in the holy scriptures.
Now, this is not to say that preachers in homogenous, well-to-do churches should not preach scriptures like Ephesians 2. It’s just to say that when it is not preached at all, or when the communities where it is preached do not look like the new humanity, there is a disconnection, and people are right to identify that.
So where does that leave us as lovers of God, as people who want to be faithful to the scriptures we’ve received, and especially as church leaders? I certainly don’t want to have spent so much time on study, and so little time on living. What is the beleaguered pastor to do who may only have one week to consider Ephesians 2 before moving on to the next text, while also dealing with the daily needs of their congregation and the challenges of parish ministry? How are we to reintroduce this text into our gospel ecosystem as life and fruit for our greater flourishing, especially when it feels like we’re just trying to survive and keep alive the work that we already have?
If we continue to look at the scripture as seed that we want to become “living and active” (Heb. 4:12) wherever we plant it, then, like with any seed, we need to look at the garden first.
This morning, I planted some snap peas. But, I didn’t plant them where I already sowed arugula. I also didn’t throw them into the rocks beside my aloe plants. In fact, I didn’t take them straight from the seed bag at all.
Instead, I took them out last night and let them soak in water. I prepared the soil, adding compost and mulch. I looked at all of the available places and chose an area along my chain link fence, where the peas can trellis themselves and add nitrogen to the soil for the nearby root vegetables to enjoy.
In previous years, I made some mistakes. Now I know better how to work with the Sonoran Desert climate, and with what’s already there in my small yard. I’ve learned to companion plant so that everything mutually benefits each other, and to see the garden not as discrete species of plants which happen to be neighbors, but as one living body, together with the birds, the soil microbes, the endlessly shedding bougainvillea I inherited, and even the feral cats who are always looking for a mulchy litter box. What happens from today will be the outworking of the foundations I’ve laid, of what is happening beneath the ground as well as above it.
A congregation is a lot like a garden. It has its borders, but it is never really separate from the surrounding community and from the climate of culture. While there are good principles for all gardens, the variations in climate and ecology mean that there is no one set program for how to apply them. Often as leaders, we have our own “bougainvilleas” of programs, traditions, and odd choices of carpet color inherited from previous generations. While we don’t always treat it this way, the church itself is a single living organism, which will not function well if we think of its members and ministries as discrete entities. The church itself is the outworking of its truest beliefs and values–both intentionally planted, and blown in from outside.
And, just like a garden, a congregation requires steadfastness as well as patience to begin to truly thrive. It requires trial and error. It takes time, and a leader who is too hasty for change might end up destroying delicate souls who are just beginning to grow. It asks that we simultaneously learn how to wait, and resolve not to grow weary in doing good (2. Thes. 3:13). In the words of the old song, it requires that the Spirit teach us how to “watch, fight, and pray” all at the same time.
Ephesians 2 provides us with some incredible seed. But we have to plant, and if we are wise gardeners we will look for the right places for those seeds to flourish. We will not keep them in a box to measure, examine, and preserve. We will plant them, and we will nurture them, and we will do it with all of the fruits of the Spirit. We will prepare the ground. We will let them soak where they need to soak. And when they sprout up and grow, we will be fed by them as those who have done the will of Him Who sent us (John 4:34).
What does it mean to be the New Humanity in our neighborhood and our city? Where are there pains or divisions, and how can we proclaim good news of peace within them? Where can we cultivate unity within our own congregation? What are the needs of our broader community, and are there other congregations we can partner with to address them? Is there anything we can do to be more hospitable to our immediate neighbors, to make our space and our worship more inviting to others of difference? Who is it hardest for us to reach, and what is standing in the way? How might the Holy Spirit be empowering us to overcome those barriers? What passages of scripture or saints of old might be especially good resources for inspiring the necessary action?
In a historically violent part of East Africa, pastors from warring tribes begin making a concerted effort to preach Ephesians 2:11-22, and to hold their people accountable to its message of unity. In the space of a few years, this grassroots peacemaking effort effectively ends historical conflict between tribes. Today, their children attend church together and intermarry as one community.
In a small town in Washington, the four local churches (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Catholic) join together to form one deacon board, with one benevolence ministry to address the needs of the entire community. During the summer, they meet for joint worship in the park at designated times, and their pastors take turns preaching.
In Delhi, a university campus ministry intentionally reaches both students from the upper echelons of Indian society, and people from the nearby slum. Through intentionally leveraging their own social status, and giving years of steadfast commitment to the unity described in the New Testament, a church is established where caste lines are broken.
A few Christian friends want to serve their neighborhood in Arizona. They start organizing to bring together residents, local businesses, and the unhoused to pick up trash. Local businesses learn about the unhoused folks in their neighborhood, and their attitudes begin to change from hostility to understanding. They decide to contribute their resources, and start finding creative ways to meaningfully engage with their community’s needs. Local organizations also join in, bringing resources for the unhoused, and building new relationships with business owners. As the community organizes further, awareness is raised about one of its greatest crises: opioid abuse. Local businesses, the unhoused, and residents learn to identify the signs of an overdose, and to administer life-saving Narcan. In just one two-week period, three lives are saved from overdose by Narcan distributed at these events.
The ministry in Arizona
In these ways, and more, the seeds of Ephesians 2 have born fruit and multiplied all over the world. And so, as I continue to feel the crisis of the questions before me, I take heart, and I hope you can take heart too. Seed work is not fast work, and it looks different everywhere; but, seed was made to bear fruit. It was created with the power of divine desire inside of it, and it will not return to him empty, but will accomplish that for which it was sent (Is. 55:10-11). It may be that the time is right for you to boldly preach Ephesians 2 from your pulpit or place of influence. But it may also be that the seeds need to soak, with prayer, fasting, conversation, and deep listening. It may also be that this passage does not need to be preached at all, but simply obeyed through taking the next action step the Lord is prompting you to take.
My garden is nowhere close to where I want it to be, and I’m still very much an amateur. But every year it grows, and every year I learn a little more about how to make it thrive, how to cultivate its diversity and work with what at first seemed adverse (like the feral cats and their bathroom habits). The soil gets healthier every year, and every year I manage to make it more diverse. I work on both being patient, and refusing to give up, believing that the Lord of the harvest is with me, and that He desires my garden to flourish more than I do.
He is with you too, dear pastor, preacher, or lay person. You may be a shepherd, but He is the Shepherd, and none of his sheep will be snatched from his hands (John 10:28). Some of the seeds you plant today you may never see sprout in your lifetime. But the Lord of the harvest will honor your labor, your patience, and your love; and in due season, you will reap, if only you do not give up! (Gal. 6:10)
Kristin is a PhD student at Trinity College Bristol/University of Aberdeen, and a global theological educator working with national and indigenous organizations and seminaries around the world through Live Global. Her dissertation explores how hermeneutical practices themselves can foster relationships with others of difference, awareness of cultural diversity, reconciliation, and the inclusion of diverse cultural resources which may not yet have been considered in mainstream discourse. She is also a researcher for The Ephesians 2 Gospel Project with Mission One, a global conversation around Eph. 2:11–22 exploring issues of collective identity conflict and shame-fueled violence from social scientific, theological, historical, cultural, and biblical perspectives.