Breaking Down the Walls of Division – July 22, 2018
Bible Text: Ephesians 2:11-22 | Preacher: The Rev. Dr. James R. Wheeler
Paul writing to the mostly Gentile Church in Ephesus, proclaimed: “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:13-14) There was a 4-foot high wall in the Temple in Jerusalem separating the outer-most courtyard, the courtyard of the Gentiles, from the different levels of sanctity leading to the holy of holies. Anyone could enter the courtyard of the Gentiles. Jewish women and men could go into the second level. Jewish men could enter the third level. Priests the fourth level and then finally the holy of holies, the inner sanctum behind the veil that only the high priest could enter on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. There was a sign on that 4-foot high wall dividing Jews from Gentiles warning Gentiles not to go inside lest they be put to death.
That wall was personal for Paul. In his younger days as a super patriot, a super Jew, he had worked to build a higher wall, a deeper separation. There was no way he would permit the watering down of Judaism by letting any outsiders in. That was the threat he saw so clearly in Christianity. By emphasizing faith in Jesus and de-emphasizing adherence to the Law Christians were undermining Jewish traditions. So Saul was on the road to Damascus, actively trying to root out this heretical Jewish sect, when a blinding light literally knocked him off his horse. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” he heard a voice speak to him. “Who are you Lord?” he asked. The voice spoke again. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Saul waited then for the other shoe to drop. This Jesus would certainly destroy him. But no, Jesus wanted Saul on his side. Jesus welcomed him, healed him and chose him as his own spokesperson.
As an Apostle of Christ Paul understood Christ to welcome all people, Gentiles as well as Jews. It wasn’t being Jewish that brought someone into God’s grace, but rather faith in Christ. Some years later, Paul was arrested for supposedly ignoring that wall. In Acts 21 Paul was arrested, accused (falsely) of defiling the holy Temple by bringing Gentiles beyond the court of the Gentiles. That was the charge for which he would eventually be put to death in Rome. It is quite likely that Paul wrote these words to the Ephesians while under arrest for this very crime. This is the dividing wall that Paul wrote in Ephesians 2 that Jesus broke down through the cross, creating one new humanity in place of the two.
Paul said that Jesus broke down the wall of division in two ways. Paul tells us here in Ephesians, and emphasizes in every one of his letters, that Jesus welcomes all people to come through faith in him to God the Father. In Christ there was no longer a barrier. Anyone could enter into a living relationship with God through faith in Christ. One didn’t have to earn their way in through following a strict law. One wasn’t born into that relationship. In fact, one couldn’t. Even a devout and observant Jew couldn’t break through the separation between himself and God. Only Jesus, God’s own Son, could do that by taking our place. Jesus atoned for us by taking the burden of our sin, our brokenness, our eternal separation from God’s love and letting that wall of separation die with him on the cross. Thus he made a new humanity and welcomed all people into God’s love.
The second way that Jesus broke down the wall of division was between Jews and Gentiles. Jesus made a new humanity where previously there had been two peoples: God’s chosen people the Jews and everyone else. Through Jesus the Gentiles (you and me) who previously had been strangers and aliens, were now citizens and members of God’s household. They were building blocks of God’s new Temple built on the foundation of the Apostles with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In another letter to the Galatians Paul would write: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
Well, dividing walls are nothing new to us! Donald Trump campaigned for president on the promise to build a wall dividing the United States from Mexico. A huge wall runs all through the West Bank of Israel dividing Israeli territory from Palestinian. But walls are not all that divide us. So-called “identity politics” build constituencies based on fear and dislike of outsiders, fear of immigrants, fear of people who differ from “us” (whoever “we” may be). The politics of hate is growing throughout the world as well as in our own nation. We have become hopelessly divided in other ways as well. The divisions between Republicans and Democrats are so entrenched that the two parties no longer work together to effectively govern.
Paul speaks here in Ephesians 2 of reconciliation.
(Christ Jesus) has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.
In Colossians Paul described Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15, 19-20) In describing Christ Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation Paul makes clear that reconciliation is the very mission of God. Reconciliation is what God in Christ is doing. Paul makes that most clear in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! And this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that, is in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
If God in Christ was (and still is) reconciling the world to God and if we are to be ministers of that reconciliation, what does that mean for us? First of all it means that we, ourselves, need to be reconciled to God. What is broken in you, in me, which needs to be made whole? We need to let God fix that. Are we laden down with guilt from past failures and sins? Then let Jesus forgive you and wash you clean. Are you afraid? Are you estranged from loved ones, estranged even from your own true self? Christ’s love can make you whole. Be reconciled to God. Being reconciled with God is an ongoing life-long process, for God isn’t finished with any of us yet!
The other part of that equation is to be an ambassador for Christ, a representative of Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. I think our role as ambassadors for Christ is to break down walls. If God showed us his love by becoming human in Jesus and thus creating in himself a new humanity, we are invited to represent that new humanity. It’s not an American humanity or a European humanity, or a Gentile humanity or a Jewish humanity or a white humanity or a black humanity but one humanity, with every member of it equally loved by God. We, as Christians, need to stand up against the divisions and divisiveness that are so prevalent in our society. We need to welcome all people as equal before God. We need to invest ourselves in the worth and value of all people. We need to break down the walls that divide us and claim Christ Jesus as our Peace.
Like the Apostle Paul, that may get us into trouble. But, if Christ Jesus has broken down the walls that divide us from God, shouldn’t we in Christ’s love, work to break down the walls that divide us from one another?