So remember that once you were Gentiles by physical descent, who were called “uncircumcised” by Jews who are physically circumcised. 12 At that time you were without Christ. You were aliens rather than citizens of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of God’s promise. In this world you had no hope and no God. 13 But now, thanks to Christ Jesus, you who once were so far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. 15 He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. 16 He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God. 17 When he came, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near. 18 We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit. 19 So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household. 20 As God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 The whole building is joined together in him, and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. 22 Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit.
How many of you remember when the Berlin wall was opened for the first time in 28 years in 1989? The barrier that divided Berlin and separated West Germany from East Germany was set to come down, and people gathered at the wall to celebrate that this symbol of division and hostility would soon no longer separate families and friends. Let’s take a look at how some celebrated on that November night in 1989.
As human beings, we are really good at building walls and barriers that separate us from others, whether they are literal walls or figurative walls. In my travels, I have seen several walls that divide people or keep certain people in or out. A few summers ago, some of you may remember I traveled to the border between the United States and Mexico with a group of pastors. We spent most of our time on the Mexican side, seeing and hearing stories from their perspective. Some stories were heartbreaking- of families being separated by the border, only to see one another through a fence several times a month. Other stories made me realize the importance of keeping our border safe. Yet, most of the stories we heard spoke volumes about the oppressive nature of the border fence as an attempt to keep people divided and misunderstood. We heard a story about a priest who was at one time able to cross through a locked door in the border fence once a week to bring communion to families and join them together. Now, he is only able to give them communion and join them across small holes in the fence.
Another wall that I witnessed in my travels was the wall that separates the Palestinian people from the Israeli people in Israel Palestine.
This controversial wall, proposed in 1992, was still being constructed in some territories as of 2014. Upon completion, it is said that the wall will span 430 miles and will include about 9.4% of the West Bank and 23,000 Palestinians. In the Hebrew language, the wall is described as a separation wall and security fence. In Arabic, it is called the wall of apartheid.
This striking illustration is of the holy family trying to get to Bethlehem in modern day. They would have not been able to cross into the place where Jesus was to be born. When Corey and I traveled to the Holy Land, we had to cross a check point at the wall in order to visit Bethlehem. As I recall, our Israeli tour guide had to switch with a Palestinian tour guide. As a bus full of Americans, we had no problem crossing into Bethlehem and were greeted warmly. But to see the wall was disheartening and made me realize that while we were enjoying our Holy Land tour, there were people on the other side of this wall who felt alienated, oppressed, and shut off from the people and land that was on the Israeli side of the wall.
As I continue to look at and think about this haunting illustration of the holy family, and as I began to reflect upon this text today and what I would share with you, I found hope in the reminder that Jesus has come to break down the walls and barriers that divide us. He invites us to join him as we dance on the rubble of those destroyed walls, just as those in Berlin did on that November night and the days to come when the wall was taken down for good. The problem is that we have such a long way to go. We look around and still see walls that divide us, one from another.
And this is nothing new. When Jesus walked the earth, the Herodian temple where the Jews worshiped contained a series of courts separated by gated walls. Each court moved progressively closer to the Holy of Holies, where it was believed that God dwelled. The first gate was the gate of the Gentiles, and you could walk around there only if you were a God believing non-Jew. If you were a Jewish woman who was ceremonially clean according to Jewish law, you could enter into the next gate and go into an inner court. Beyond that gate was the innermost court, where only Jewish men who were ceremonially clean could go without fear of death. Several years ago, archaeologists found an inscription on the wall of the outermost court of the Gentiles. It read, “Whoever is captured past this point will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.” This kind of hostility existed between Jews and Gentiles for centuries (Homiletics).
It was only after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that Jews and Gentiles began to co-exist, worship together, eat together, and see value in one another. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he is celebrating with them and reminding them of the gift they have been given through the cross of Christ. That they who were once far away from God, alienated, and without hope, have been brought near to God and grafted into the community of God’s people. He implores them to remember that through his body, Christ has broken down the barrier of hatred that once divided them. Those who were once lost have now been found. Those who were strangers now are friends. Those who have been broken are now healed. That is, after all, the power of the cross. It is a gift that connects us. Just look at the very structure of it! The vertical beam represents a new connection between people and God, and the horizontal beam represents a new connection between people (Homiletics).
There are times in each of our lives when we feel that we have been cut off, alienated, withdrawn, or estranged from community, family or friends. And in this day of technology and social media, we are more connected than ever, yet we lack the face to face relationships and deep conversations that connect us on a more intimate level. Not to mention the fact that some people feel that they can say whatever they want when they are behind a keyboard, and can do a lot of harm to those who they do not even know! We might be more connected than ever, but so many of us feel more alone than ever before. Just as the Ephesians were feeling cut off and alienated, many of us long for more connection and more unity rather than the divisions and feelings of hatred that so often permeate our world. The good news that we receive once again today is that Jesus is our peace maker and our wall breaker. He comes to make all groups into one. He makes peace between the first Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. He calls for peace. He calls for walls to be broken down between blacks and whites, between Baby Boomers and millennials, between immigrants and native born, between Democrats and Republicans, between liberals and conservatives, between those who stand firmly on one side of an issue and those who stand firmly on the other side. Better yet, Jesus calls us to do away with the labels we place on each other altogether.
If any walls still exist between us, and we know without a doubt that they do, they still stand because of our own stubbornness, pride, ignorance, and lack of seeing the value of another human being. Paul’s words to the Ephesians ring just as true for us today as they did in the first century among the first Jewish and Gentile Christians. Christ has come to break down the walls of division and hostility between us through the gift of the cross. That is something to celebrate and lift up, but it is also something that we have to work at to get accomplished. If we want to dance and sing and celebrate upon the rubble of the crumbling walls of division, we have to get past the walls that we put up around ourselves and our hearts that keep us separate and distant.
One radical element of this message is that God’s unification of two groups does not mean “uniformity.” One group does not fall under the power of the more dominant group. The groups are not even expected to agree on everything. Paul says that God in Christ has made one humanity of the two. Gentiles do not become Jews; Jews do not become Gentiles. Instead, they become united in Christ as Jew and Gentile. This is key for us to remember in the faith community today as we have our own divisions and our own journey to peace and reconciliation. The transformation of humanity expresses itself in a unity marked by welcoming and hospitality. We in the church should not presume that those outsiders need to come and be like one of us (workingpreacher.org). Instead, we should be extending a wide welcome to all, meeting them where they are and accepting them for who they are- not trying to change them to conform to what our expectations might be. We also should shift our focus from the things that divide us to the things that unite us.
This is a hard lesson for all of us, and one that I am just as guilty of struggling with. I am in several different United Methodist clergy groups on Facebook. People in these groups share resources, ask questions, and engage in conversation. Over the last few months, I began to notice that one of the groups started posting some rather controversial articles and people were beginning to attack each other over differing opinions on these topics. There was name calling, bullying, and hurtful things were being said. I was appalled to see colleagues in ministry treating each other this way and I was heartbroken over the divisions that I saw being played out in not only these persons, but in the denomination itself. After a few weeks of discernment, I left that particular Facebook group. I chose not to be a part of the deepening divisions I saw among the clergy. Too much focus on hostility and division does not allow for God to permeate into our lives and our churches. We keep getting in the way of God doing God’s work. If I’m honest, I struggle often with the idea that Christ really can break down the walls that divide us because oftentimes they seem so strong and have no chance of budging. But I hold onto the hope that with the help of Christ, the softening of our hearts, the opening of our minds, and a lot of prayer, those walls will eventually come crumbling down.
I continue to hold onto this hope as I am serving with the General and Jurisdictional Conference delegation that will be going to Portland in May of 2016 and then on to help elect bishops for our area in July of next year. The delegation has a mixture of people of all ages, races, genders, lay persons, clergy persons, and we serve in all kinds of ministry settings. The biggest challenge we will face is dealing with the things on which we do not agree. We come from different perspectives on homosexuality, how the church should be run, and on what kind of person should be our next bishop in Indiana, amongst other issues. We have our work cut out for us as we work together as a united team, while acknowledging our differences. We have focused a lot on our common mission of loving one another, loving our people, and serving the church. Most importantly, so far we have kept our focus on Christ and the gift of the cross that brings us together in peace, and who breaks down the dividing walls between us, no matter how firm or stubborn they are. I would ask you to continue to keep us in prayer as we move forward together with these challenges and hopes.
And finally, I was reminded in Vacation Bible School this week that we can learn so much from our children. On the first night, we heard the story of the Roman solider who approached Jesus to ask him to heal his servant who was very sick. At one point in the story, I asked Debbie to interrupt me by saying, “But the soldier wasn’t supposed to be talking to Jesus because he wasn’t a Jew! Roman soldiers were not supposed to talk to Jewish people!” But the kids knew better. Each group automatically said, “That’s not true! Anyone could talk to Jesus!” And how true and beautiful that is. Jesus showed the world that the walls that we build to divide ourselves from others are irrelevant and unimportant, and that he comes to show us a better way. He comes to help us break down those walls and to dance in circles, hand in hand, around the rubble that they leave behind. And we still have much work to do as we are instructed to turn that rubble into the kingdom and as a temple to the Lord, Christ being our cornerstone. Lord, in your mercy, give us the tools to knock down those dividing walls, and show us the way to rebuild together as one. Amen.