Reconciliation: Something that Doesn't Love a Wall, Ephesians 2:12-22
First United Methodist Church, July 22, 2018
Toni L. Carmer
The Berlin Wall, dividing the East from the West, was erected on August 13, 1961. On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan addressed the leader of the Soviet Union, referring to the Berlin Wall, saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." On November 9, 1989, it finally came down.
The wall stood for 28 years dividing a city, dividing families, dividing politics, hopes and dreams. For 28 years, on one side of the wall, life went on as best it could, with folks living and relating to the outside world, while on the other side of the wall, things pretty much stood still. For 28 years, the wall divided.
And then finally, it came down.
Two years later, in January of 1991, during my final year of seminary, I had the opportunity to travel to Eastern Europe to meet with church leaders and learn about how and what the church was doing in the midst of the economic, political and social changes…what the church was doing related to issues of peace and justice. We traveled to Poland, to the Czech and Slovak Republics and to Germany, and I was amazed at the things I saw there, in the city that was once divided by this wall. The western part of the city was an active, European city. There were scars from World War 2, memorials constructed out of the destruction, reminders of the price of battle. I remember Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church as being particularly poignant as the bombed out cathedral and spires are incorporated into the new structure, signifying new life, new hope.
But life in the former East Berlin was much different. There had been a flourish of activity in the two years since the wall had come down—we saw significant construction as apartments were being renovated and modernized. But until then, until that wall came down, not a lot had happened. Piles of debris from buildings that had come down during the war remained as piles of debris. There were blocks were there was nothing but grass and rubble…in the middle of town…where nothing stood…where there was no life. In the eastern side of the city that had once been divided by a wall, there were still deep wounds…much healing still needed.
The healing didn't begin until the wall came down. And though it looked in many ways that life had gone on in the western side of town, there was still brokenness there, as well. In order for healing to happen, in order for the city to be whole, the wall needed to come down.
When the Christians in Ephesus heard Paul's words about the "dividing wall" of hostility, they may very well have pictured another wall: a wall that separated as completely as the wall in Berlin. This wall is the one that had been erected between Jews and Gentiles.
There was a physical wall: in the temple at Jerusalem there was a 5 foot high wall between the Court of the Gentiles and the Court of Women. On this wall was an inscription to Gentiles warning them away upon threat of death. They were to enter the courts no further.
But then another kind of wall had been erected: the prejudice moved outward from there…there was no love lost between these Jews and Gentiles. There were laws to uphold the division. For example: a Jewish person could not offer aid to a Gentile woman even if she was in childbirth and in desperate need of help. To enter a Gentile house rendered a Jew ceremonially unclean. Marriage of a Jew to a Gentile was looked upon as the equivalent of death. They actually had a funeral service for a Jewish person who married a Gentile.
Now, there are Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ…and they are called to be one body, to care for one another, to reach out to one another, to shake hands with one another, to be a part of the same community. (Really?) As this text begins, Paul points to the physical difference that has come into question between them, an example of their deeply held differences. Since the time of Abraham, the men of Israel were circumcised as an act and sign of faith while Gentile converts—who were never Jewish—hadn't done that. That creates questions/controversies; strengthening the dividing wall. Shouldn’t the Gentiles also be circumcised? Shouldn't they be required to follow the practices of the Jewish faith, shouldn't they be more like us, even as we all now profess our faith in Christ? More bricks would be added to that wall: what about those dietary laws? Shouldn't they have to follow those? How do we reconcile these differences? How do we become one body?
Today we still make assumptions that add bricks to the walls that stand between us. We most likely mean no harm, it's unintentional. Scott served a church working to develop a contemporary worship service. As they brainstormed about the things they might do to attract people who hadn't been to church before, a good and faithful gentleman asked: "I don't understand why we should have to change in order to bring people into the church. Shouldn't they come and learn how to be like us?"
What kinds of walls have we helped create? What walls divide us that we don't even see any more, because we've become so accustomed to their being there?
There are different reasons for building walls, and they're not necessarily "bad" reasons. Our purpose often isn't to be negative or unfriendly or mean. Sometimes we build the walls to protect ourselves. We've been hurt in the past and our wounds are fresh or deep. The thought of someone getting close to us, knowing what's inside us, is too much to risk. Sometimes there are language or cultural differences. Our words or actions are misinterpreted. Or maybe, we've found ourselves in different situations with questions we've never needed to answer before, and so we construct walls because we don't know what else to do. Wall building may seem to be the easiest option, but it divides us from others.
We even do it in our own families. Some families are better at receiving children's spouses into the family circle than others. I think that Scott and I both have felt more like "outlaws" then "in-laws" over the years… Because of that, we've been intentional in communicating to our son's wives that we love them and they're stuck with us as family, no matter what.
We do that same kind of thing in a community. I've talked to people who have lived in a community for decades, but because they weren't born there, because they didn't go to school there, they sometimes still feel like outsiders. Even if they've been living in that place for 40 years.
Being an "outlaw" doesn't feel so good.
Being an "outsider" doesn't feel so good.
Sometimes I wonder what we might do within the life of the church that might cause someone to feel like an outsider. Like they're a bit of an outlaw. Like they're not really welcome. What barriers do we create, what walls have we built that we don't even realize that we've done it? What insider language do we use, what routines do we fall into, what do we simply expect guests in worship to do without receiving the help and guidance they need to feel comfortable?
What do we do?
What adds one more brick to the wall that we stopped seeing a long time ago?
Part of the sermon title this a.m. comes from a poem written by Robert Frost in 1915 called the "Mending Wall." You can Google it and read the whole thing, but it begins like this:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
Robert Frost gives various reasons about why the wall doesn't need to be there, but his neighbor persists, the neighbor says, "Good fences make good neighbors," and yet…Frost writes:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.
You and I can come up with all kinds of reasons to build up walls, to keep the barriers in place, to build more, even. But ultimately those barriers don’t bring us comfort or happiness or stability or peace. They might seem to protect us for awhile, but they keep us from living our lives to the fullest.
A therapist described one of her clients who was going through a divorce, and who was sparing no energy in creating daily retaliations against her bully of a husband, taking delight in making him wait for pokey children, enforcing restrictions on his calls to them, refusing to be flexible. The therapist was trying to reign her in, as the things she was doing ultimately were hurting her children more than anyone else. She finally asked the woman, "What would be a proper punishment?"
"Oh," the woman said, "every day I wish he'd die. I really do."
"Would you like to kill him yourself?" the therapist asked.
Without blinking an eye, she said, "I would if I could get away with it."
The therapist took it further. She said, "Maybe we should take some time to imagine you causing great pain to your husband. A sort of guided fantasy."
The woman was stunned. "Like I could hit him with a baseball bat? Shoot him with a gun?"
She thought for a few minutes, then finally spoke. "No, I can't really imagine any of that. It doesn't move me." Her voice became more firm. That's not what I want." And at that she made a shift out of her desire to persecute him. Her hatred began to fall away. Hurting him wasn't what she needed.
There are all kinds of reasons to built barriers, to have these walls between us…but there is one really good reason to bring the barriers down. There is something that doesn't love a wall…and it's the loving, redeeming, saving power of God.
Hear again these words from Ephesians (v. 13-16)
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… 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…
The gospel tells us that God's way of breaking down the walls that divide us from each other and separate us from God isn't force or violence or intimidation or war. Violence might allow you to kill your enemy, but it won't transform your enemy into a friend. War may bring an end to conflict, but it will never build community. Hate and anger and harsh words might make you feel better for a minute, but it won't heal your heart or bring peace to your soul.
God's way of reconstructing and rebuilding and reordering our lives isn't easy. Living a cross-shaped life isn't without effort. God's way of breaking down the walls of hostility comes to us from the cross of Christ: in the self-giving, dying love of God on the cross. That's the way God comes to those of us who are alienated, divided, separated and lonely. That's the way God recreates us into a new body, shaped by his love, shaped by the cross.
While on that trip to Eastern Europe in 1991, Operation Desert Storm broke loose. The Gulf War had begun in late 1990, but on January 17 everything escalated. I remember waking up that morning and listening to news reports about what was happening, and those reports came from a different perspective than what I would have been hearing at home, in Morocco, IN, which is where we were living at the time. It was frightening.
The leaders of our group were concerned for our safety, because there was anti-American sentiment. We were told to "try not to act like Americans," which if you've ever been to a foreign country, you know how impossible that is. It was no less so in Dresden, Germany on that particular day.
But we were treated kindly and with respect. We were treated as individuals who were far away from home, and though we were obviously Americans our politics were not questioned or challenged. That evening we participated in two worship services that had been called together to pray for peace. One was in a huge cathedral, packed full of people. We sang and prayed together in this place whose damage from the bombings of years before was still well-evident. Afterwards, we walked down the road and formed a circle around the remains of yet another church that had been laid to ruins so many years before, holding hands in the candlelight, each in our different tongues, praying for peace.
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…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.
What wall might God help you to bring down in your life? In your family? What could you do to bring down a barrier inside the church, or to bring one down that stands between the church and those who are outside of the church? What wall might you work to bring down in our community…in our nation…in our world?