Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:11-12).
To many loneliness and alienation is a fate worse than death. Who really wants to be entirely alone?
As Paul writes to the Ephesians (and if Ephesians is an encyclical letter, which is plausible, to other congregations of Christians as well), after describing the initial condition of all mankind and how God has acted in Christ to provide salvation (Ephesians 2:1-10), he then turns specifically to the Gentile Christians, of whom there were likely many in Ephesus and Asia Minor, and spoke of how God reconciled Gentiles with Jews, the people of God, to make one new body of God’s people in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-18). As with his description of salvation, so with his description of the in-gathering of the Gentiles: he first describes the condition of the Gentiles before they found reconciliation in Christ in Ephesians 2:11-12, and it is not a pretty picture. They were the “uncircumcision,” used in derogatory ways (e.g. 2 Samuel 1:20). They were separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, having no part of the nation of the people of God; they were strangers, or outsiders, not sharing in the covenant of promise given to Abraham and maintained through Isaac and Israel (Genesis 12:1-50:12). Therefore they found themselves with no hope of resurrection or reconciliation and without God, the source of light and life, in the world (Ephesians 2:12). People of the nations (“Gentiles” meaning “nations”) found themselves in quite a distressing and difficult place: they were out there alienated from God, His people, and therefore all that is good and holy.
Almost two thousand years later we all find ourselves, at some point, in this condition; when we live in sin we are separated from God (Isaiah 59:2), have no hope in the resurrection but a fearful expectation of judgment (Romans 2:6-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Hebrews 10:26-31), and at a fundamental level find ourselves alienated from the people of God (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 1 Peter 4:3-5). Is that any way to live or seek to maintain existence?
Modern life and culture have only exacerbated man’s condition of alienation. In the past, for better or for worse, people most frequently spent most of their lives within a few miles of where they were born; everyone knew everybody, and quite often, everybody’s business. It was not that long ago when neighbors actually knew one another and looked out for one another; neighborhood children would play with each other and grow up together. People had to interact with each other when traveling and while shopping. These days many extended families are spread across the country or even the world; many move frequently; technology develops ways to function without interaction. If anything our fellow man becomes a matter of irritation: those other cars on the road leading to traffic delays; other shoppers who are in the way or taking too long at the register. Even the Internet with its great promise of connecting people around the world easily leads to alienation when people choose electronic contact over personal contact. We may have new and better toys, yet they have come at the expense of our relationships with one another. Why are we surprised, then, when so many people are depressed, anxious, and feel quite alone and alienated from their fellow man?
Despite the popular myths of society man was not made to be fully independent and alone. Humans were made in the image of God who is Three in One, One in relational unity (Genesis 1:26-27, John 17:20-23). As humans we need connection with God and with fellow human beings in order to live and thrive! Such is why Paul does not stop with the story at Ephesians 2:12 any more than he did in Ephesians 2:3; the great news of Jesus Christ is that all who were once alienated from God and His people can now be reconciled through the blood shed by Jesus, and we can share in the hope of resurrection and life together with God and one another for eternity through Jesus’ resurrection (Ephesians 2:1-18, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Thanks to Jesus we do not have to suffer from alienation any more. Through Him we can be reconciled to God (Romans 5:6-11). Then we can become the people of God and share in that work and community together (Acts 2:42-47, 1 John 1:7)!
Sadly there are times and places when and where Christians feel alienated and alone. Perhaps they work in difficult places. Perhaps their congregation is not fostering a strong sense of community within itself. Perhaps the Christian has not proven willing to open up so as to be part of the larger group, afraid of getting hurt or burned for the first time or yet again. Perhaps the Christian or the members of the church have believed a bit too much in the American myth of complete independence and self-sufficiency. Regardless of the reason, this ought not be, for how can the people of the God who is One in relational unity survive and thrive when living in alienation, isolation, and loneliness?
The church, as Christ’s body, must reflect the will of its Head, the Author and Finisher of its faith and practice (Ephesians 5:25-32, Hebrews 12:2); as Jesus is One with the Father and the Spirit, so He wills for us to be one with one another in His body (John 17:20-23). Such is why He said that His “mother and brothers” are those who do the will of His Father, privileging the spiritual relationship over all others (Matthew 12:46-50). Such is why Paul exhorts Christians to prefer one another in honor, expecting the members of the body of Christ to have the same care for one another (Romans 12:10, 1 Corinthians 12:24-25). Therefore, building strong relationships and community within the local congregation is not an optional work, but crucial for the spiritual health of all involved. It will not always be pretty; relationships never are. It will require a lot of growth and change on the part of many, yet that is exactly what we are to experience while in this life (1 Peter 1:3-9).
A group of people professing Christ but as alienated from one another as they are from the rest of the people with whom they interact in the world does not reflect the will of God in Christ for His body, and the people of the world know that. Why bother being associated with a group of people who have as little to do with one another as the people they already know, especially when that association comes with additional levels of guilt and shame? When the church looks like the world, then the church has failed. But when people of the world see Christians love each other, care for each other, strengthening the relationships with each other, are there for one another in good times and bad, and that Christians are therefore able to draw strength from one another and are built up in their faith, just as God expects in John 13:34-35, Ephesians 4:11-16, they can see how radically different that is from the alienation present in the world, and all of a sudden being part of the people of God becomes a much more attractive proposition! The orphan can find a family; the introvert can find acceptance; the one who feels like they are always failing find support; and all who are part of the group live in the confidence that whatever may come they have the people of God to hold them up and sustain them no matter what!
Deep down we are all very scared of being alone. Christ has redeemed us from that fear; are we willing to trust in Him and make it a reality for ourselves and our fellow people of God?
Ethan R. Longhenry