Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Church and Reconciliation to God in Christ Jesus

[Note: This Sunday the passage below from Ephesians was on the lectionary - I am reposting this article, written last year on the subject, in slightly edited and expanded form]

"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, and has made both [Jew and Gentile] one and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh, the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace; and that he might reconcile them both to God in one Body, through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And he came and preached peace to those who were near and those who were far off, for through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father."

Ephesians 2:13-18

In this little paragraph of St. Paul, we see the Gospel contained in a compact statement of powerful words and images.

St. Paul, speaking to Gentile (that is, non-Jew) Christians, explains the mystery of the new covenant in relation to Judaism (the old covenant), the fulfillment of the moral law, and the unity of the Church in Jesus, the Messiah or Anointed One (Christus in Greek) of God foretold of old.

“But now in Christ Jesus” the Gentiles (that is, everyone else not a part of the Jewish covenant community) have been brought near. Near to what?

Near to the presence of God.

St. Paul says elsewhere: “[I]n the dispensation of the fullness of the times He [the Father] might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth – in Him.” Ephesians 1:10. “In Him also we have obtained an inheritance . . . “ Ephesians 1:11. “And He [the Father] put all things under His [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Ephesians 1:22-23.

Thus Jesus brings all near to the Presence of God by gathering all of creation, and mankind specifically, in Himself, by uniting us to his Body which is the mystery of the Church, of which Christ is the Head.

How is this accomplished?

The first sentence tells us how we are drawn near: by the blood of Christ. Jew and non-Jew are now both sanctified and dare to approach the inapproachable Glory of God by the blood of the Word of God made flesh.

In the old covenant, the temple was divided into several sections, including a Court of the Gentiles, and inner areas including the Holy of Holies, wherein the “mercy seat” or “judgment seat” of God rested and which only the Jewish High Priest would enter after proper purification and with blood of a sacrificial victim in order to atone or reconcile the covenant people to God. Thus, this lone Jewish representative alone would dare to draw near to the Presence, but the non-Jews were left “far off” in their outer court.

But what does this mean to us? The law is clear: the two great commandments are these: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind,” and second “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Old Covenant prophet Malachi prophesied these words: “He hath shown thee, O Man, what is good and what the Lord requires of thee. But to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” Malachi 6:8.

King David, first King of the Jewish nation, prophesied: “For hadst thou desired sacrifice, I would have given it thee [O God]: thou delightest not in burnt offerings. The sacrifices to God are a contrite spirit: a contrite and humble heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Psalm 50 (as numbered according to the Septuagint).

Jesus is the acceptable sacrifice, the truly contrite spirit, the truly humble man. "He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross." Philippians 2:8.

Jesus Christ, our peace, fulfills the second commandment by bringing the non-Jew and the Jew together as one in reconciliation of all mankind in Him, uniting them as do believe and obey Him to his Body, the Church, through his blood. In his ultimate act of love He lay down his life and lavished and lavishes the grace of God even upon his bitterest enemies.

We are joined to and in Him through sharing in his death and resurrection in the waters of baptism, in the anointing of chrismation, and are sustained in Him through his flesh and blood in the sacrament of the Eucharist, the heavenly supper. Unlike ordinary food and drink, which is assumed into my body and becomes my body, this is true meat and drink, and I am assumed in Him, in the Life itself. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him.” John 6:56. Thus, in the Eucharist we are joined as one Body, that is, joined to Christ, by his blood.

How does Christ abolish in His flesh the enmity between mankind [which St. Paul explains are these very commandments which are summed up in the two Great Commandments]? He ‘abolishes’ them by fulfilling them fully in his atoning act of the incarnation, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection, thereby giving us his flesh and his blood, uniting us in Him into one new man, Himself, so that we may worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth – which as Jesus taught, is Himself: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one can come to the Father except by me.”

As we partake of the precious body and blood we are drawn near. The very life of Him is taken into us and we are caught up into him, for as St. Paul says: “in Him we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28. He is existence.

Here is the only world peace, the only place where mankind can and must cease his wars, his hatreds, his envies, his murders. Since our bretheren are members of the Body, if we hate our bretheren, we are hating the Body of Christ Himself.

Now having reconciled us to one another by joining us to His Body, the Church, the fullness of Him who fills all in all, he reconciles us “to God in one Body, through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” with God.

And how did our Lord accomplish this thing which no Jewish High Priest ever could do? He took our humanity to himself (in the words of the Creed: He came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and became man”) and fulfilled the first commandment as well. God became man that men might become 'gods.'

While St. John can say rightly: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only-begotten Son; that whosoever might believe on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” can we not also rightly say: “For Jesus Christ so loved the Father” that he was obedient unto death, even death on the cross; that all his heart, all his soul, all his mind, and all his strength were devoted to the love of the Father until his last breath?

Thus, in Christ Jesus, and only in Christ Jesus can I really fulfill the greatest commandment and be reconciled to God. By trampling down death with his own death, in complete fulfillment of the law, Christ allows me to fulfill the law in Him inasmuch as I am willing to die to self and it is Christ who lives in me. Thus he liberates me and destroys both the separation and enmity between God and me, and between me and my fellow, by uniting us into His Body.

"Therefore, bretheren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." Hebrews 10:19-22.

It is for us to open our hearts and lay hold of this gift by being united to the Body, His Body, the Church. Jesus says: “Behold, I stand and the door and knock; if any man hear my voice and open the door and I will come into him and sup with him, and he with Me.” Revelation 3:20. Let us say: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”

1 Comments:

Blogger Hilarius said...

I recently reflecting on this passage due to a request on related passages over at energeticprocession.wordpress.com in a post entitled 'connect the dots' I thought I should clarify for any reader that while I speak in terms of a two step process (reconciling Jews and Gentiles - the 'nations' - together in one new man and then reconciling them both to God, I do not see this as being some sort of linear process. It is parallel, or simultaneous, or rather both are the natural result of Christ's act.

My use of the term atonement - 'Christ's atoning act' - is to draw the parallel to the Jewish liturgy of the atonement, the image that St. Paul uses here and in Hebrews to describe Christ's reconciliatory action. Please dispel the notion, if you have it, that I ascribe to some simplified substitutionary atonement theory. If I were to express what I think about such matters, I can hardly do more than point to St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation and to St. John Chrysostom's homilies on 2 Cor. 5 and Ephesians Chapter 2, and to St. John Dammascene's Exposition of the Orthodox faith to indicate what opinions I hold. If I depart from the Orthodox faith, it is unintentional herein.

On that note, in relation to this article (though I read them after having written it), please do read St. John Chrysostom's homilies on Ephesians Chs. 1 & 2 and those covering 2 Cor. 5. I am relieved/grateful that I am not so off the mark from that great Saint's reading as to be flogged.

11:28 AM  

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