Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the main word for covenant is ברית (berith), which is often paired with the verb כרת (karath)--to cut. The imagery of making a covenant through an act of cutting has deep Biblical roots, extending out into the ancient Middle Eastern cultures that surrounded the Israelite community and helped inform its development. Perhaps the clearest example is the word pairing’s first appearance in Genesis 15 and God’s covenant with Abram; however, covenanting through karath can be found in sources ranging from Joshua 9:6 to 2 Kings 23:3 and even Jeremiah 32:40. (Isaiah 55:3 and 61:8 are also excellent examples, striking an eschatological chord similar to Jeremiah.) In more modern usage, the idea of cutting a covenant has narrowed to implications of circumcision, so I would be mindful about using berith karath language around your Jewish and/or Israeli friends. Nevertheless, I think some familiarity with the Biblical tradition of forming a covenant with another party--particularly God--by means of some kind of cut is essential for beginning to understand what Paul is up to in this week’s second lesson from his letter to the church in Ephesus (Ephesians 2:11-22).
You see, Paul is making his theological point about the peace that Jesus Christ “proclaimed” “to [those] who were far off” and “to those who were near” through an extended circumcision pun (2:17). Yes, the Bible does, in fact, contain jokes--and sometimes it’s even Paul making them. Here, he juxtaposes that literal act of ritual cutting with all of the ways that we have been historically and continue to be metaphorically cut off from the Divine. Without at least some reference to the scriptural wellspring he’s drawing upon, it’s easy to read these passages as supersessionist, as devaluing the legitimacy of more traditional Jewish religious understandings and experience. Which is not to say that context exonerates Paul of such charges, but it does help to remind us that he was a Rabbinically trained Jew from Judaea, like Jesus and the rest of the apostles. It clarifies why he would talk about genitalia in the same pericope that he talks about the passion and death of our Lord and Savior. It’s because Christ offers us--in Paul’s terms, is (2:14)--a peace that transcends any of our attempts to maintain worldly divisions. The gentiles who were once literally “far off” in terms of both distance and worship practice are brought into a community that does not maintain the strictures of the temple in Jerusalem (2:13). He preaches instead a radical “access in one Spirit to the Father” (2:18), one that knows no distinction of citizenship, of ethnicity, or even of geography. It's an access that resists any division that we might try to place upon grace, rippling out towards a kind of universality in broader and broader circles. All are invited to join together to form a new kind of covenant and grow “into a holy temple in the Lord” through the community of believers (2:21). And thus the rupture of karath is reoriented towards a new creation.
As many of you know, I have a complicated relationship with St. Paul. If I’m being entirely frank, I don’t think there’s a way to read Ephesians 2:11-22 that isn’t at least a little bit supersessionist. Even as Paul talks about building together "upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets" (2:20) in a way that is suppose to transcend all of the ways we seperate ourselves, he dismisses the "commandments and ordinances" of the Torah and his people (2:15). But, if anything, that falling short is something of a relief to me. Because if there is any part of Paul's legacy that redeems the rough edges, it's these moments when he points beyond himself, when he points to all of the ways that the Lord enters into our lives that surpass our wildest preconceptions. Even when God's chosen apostle is messy and more than a little problematic, the Gospel is proclaimed and the Lord enters in. Which is not to let any of us off the hook--even Paul--but it does remind us that we are more than the sum of our parts. The Christian community is more than any of our messy, more than a little problematic bits. There is always a chance to lay aside our divisions; to lay aside all of the ways that we have been cut off and cut down (or, worse, done so to others); and try to live into a new kind of covenant. The temple of our joint efforts may not be any where near perfect yet or any time soon, but it is here, it is holy, and it is in the Lord. Perhaps that's enough for now.