Thirty years ago, President Ronald Reagan made a speech at the Brandenburg Gate of the Berlin Wall which divided east and west Germany and symbolized the divisions of the cold war. During that speech he said to the Soviet premier: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” People did indeed begin tearing that wall down, bringing down an important barrier and symbolizing the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a dramatic and unbelievable time to watch world events unfold.
In today’s passage the author of the letter to the Ephesians asserts that Jesus brought down an important wall as well. It was an invisible wall, but might as well have been an iron curtain separating Jews and Gentiles. Neither side wanted to have anything to do with the other, and they avoided each other like the plague. It was kind of like Congress, where Republicans meet together to caucus and Democrats meet together to caucus and the idea of working together strikes both as ludicrous.
The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus set something loose in the world, something called the Holy Spirit which moves where it wills and leads people to do amazing things. Before you knew it the Jewish followers of Jesus found themselves being rejected by their fellow Jews and embraced by Gentile enemies. Peter visiting the home of Cornelius and experiencing the Holy Spirit being poured out on this Gentile household. Paul being called as the apostle to Gentiles and leading the way in blending Jews and Gentiles into one Christian church. It was anything but easy. There were many obstacles to overcome. There was lots of “We’ve never done it this way.”
But his point was not that the Jews and Gentiles needed to bring the wall down. His point was that the wall was already gone. Jesus had brought it tumbling down. They just needed to live as though there was no longer a wall there. Sometimes they did well at it, but there was often regression to old ways in time.
Think about that Soviet Union that was collapsing in the late 80’s. An iron fist had held all those countries and peoples together in one group for a generation. But as soon as the fist let go, all sorts of fighting between ancient enemies resumed which had taken a 40 year hiatus, and there has been a radical redrawing of the map.
One of the strongest of human instincts is to build a wall, build a fence, put up a hedge to create separation from “outsiders,” from people who are different and are perceived as threats. We could talk about all sorts of situations out in the world, but the one being addressed in Ephesians is in church. It says that the key to living into the new reality is to focus on what Christ has done for us rather than focusing on ourselves and how we feel about things. We are all equally unworthy, equally indebted to Jesus for doing what needed to be done to bring us together as children of God, fellow citizens with the saints, members of the household of God. That means we are not to look at each other as Democrats and Republicans, as black or white or Asian or native American, as old Anderson or newcomer, as young or old, as contemporary music fan or traditional music fan. These categories are not relevant. When we look at each other we should see a child of God, a recipient of amazing grace that we do not deserve.
But you know what? Even when there are no clear walls dividing us from the person next to us in the pew, we frequently put up our own walls. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to make ourselves vulnerable. Maybe we make assumptions about that person next to us and don’t realize they are just as scared to make the first move as we are. We don’t want to seem needy, or nosy, or holier than thou, or overeager.
Mandy and Noelle are going to show us how that plays out in a skit written by Ann Weems entitled “You – Sitting in the Pew Next to Me.” The dialogue you will hear is in their thoughts only until the very end when the service they are attended concludes.
No, not all walls can be seen. Some of the ones we cannot see are the most powerful ones. Jesus came to bring down the fences and our defenses. He took lots of risks. Who do people say I am? Do you also want to go away? Could you not stay awake with me for one hour? Which one do you think was a neighbor to the other? He invites us to become a community of risk takers who trust each other and are trustworthy with each other’s vulnerabilities and fears and weaknesses, and who bring out each other’s strengths and gifts and courage.
I’m not sure anyone has invited us to greet our neighbors in church since Randy Calvo’s death. The community aspect of church was so important to him and his warmth brought lots of walls down. Today, though it is a very small step to tearing those walls down, I want to invite you to spend a couple of minutes greeting your neighbor. At the least, bless them by saying, “The peace of Christ be with you.” Learn a name, share a smile, make someone glad they came to church today. On my count: 3, 2, 1, tear those walls down!
“Christ is our peace; he has broken down the dividing wall between us. So then we are no longer strangers and aliens, but we are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
Thanks be to God for this gift and for all blessings. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
July 23, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church