“Breaking Down Walls”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Foolish Faith”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
July 22, 2018
13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14For 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.
15He 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,
16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.
17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near;
18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.
19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,
20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;
22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Some folks quote Robert Frost when it comes to walls and fences, saying, “Good fences make good neighbors,” to argue for boundaries for nations, and for individuals. But it is really an incomplete quote for the real point of the poem. The real spirit of the poem is not for walls but against them. The point of the poem, which is named, “Mending Wall,” is that this doesn’t really make sense to the poet. He writes:
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”
Late in the last century then President Ronald Reagan went to the Berlin Wall. The wall was built by Communist Russia after World War II to keep East Berliners from immigrating over to free, democratic West Berlin. He famously stood up and challenged the then President of Russia, saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Our Scripture this morning speaks of a “dividing wall,” of hostility between those who are near to God and those who were once far off. Paul, writing to Christians in Ephesus is speaking both geographically and spiritually. He is speaking to a group of Christians far from the holy place of Jerusalem and its Temple and about those who were “near” to God spiritually, in Paul’s eyes, as Jews geographically near the Temple in Jerusalem. He is saying that Jesus Christ came to “tear down” that wall. He came to “put to death the hostility” between separate groups – in this case Gentiles and Jews who had turned to following the way of Jesus. But the truth of his statement goes far beyond just those two groups at that time. His purpose was to say through Christ we all have peace with God and should have peace with one another because we have been reconciled with the One God of us all. He goes even further than saying we are reconciled. He talks about us being “no longer strangers and aliens, but … citizens … and also members of the household of God.” No second class here, everyone is part of the family!
This may not sound all that revolutionary today, or it might, given that we are so concerned about illegal immigrants these days, but Sally Brown gives us a feeling for what this might have felt like for those first believers in Jesus Christ [“Commentary on Ephesians 2:11-22,” workingpreacher.org, 7/22/12]. She says, “Imagine that we are a community of Christians in Asia Minor. We are tightly packed into a home for the first reading of a new treatise that has arrived — the one that will later come to be known as the Letter to the Ephesians. We’re gathered to hear it read out loud, of course, because most of us cannot read. As the reader gets to the part that says, ‘You who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . He is our peace,’ there is a quick intake of breath and glances toward the door.
“Who may have heard? ‘He [Christ] is our peace’ (v. 14) would …border on treason. What is being claimed, after all, is that despite all the swaggering claims of Rome’s emperors, true peace has been inaugurated by a man the empire crucified. The dissonance between the chilling rhetoric of the state and the thrilling rhetoric of the Gospel would set any listener’s blood racing.”
She goes on to make the point that when Paul uses the terms like “alien” and “citizen” he knows the power of those terms. Being a Roman citizen, despite being a Jew, had gotten him out of at least one predicament when the leaders of his own former religion had him arrested for inciting the crowds. She writes, “Citizenship was highly valued across the Empire, so much so that among the foreign peoples conquered by Rome, some would pay great sums for citizenship — in Acts 22:25-28 Paul is bound and about to be flogged when he confronts his captors with the fact that he was born a Roman citizen, making flogging him a crime. The tribune is amazed, admitting that he paid a high price for his citizenship.”
Today when we are wrestling with misunderstandings of what makes one a legal or illegal immigrant, between policies and laws, I challenge each of us to hear Paul say we are “citizens of the household of God.” And hear even more clearly that Paul declares that God has abolished what separates citizens from one another because God sent Christ to create “one new humanity.” God’s love is not measured by race or nationality or gender or even religion, Paul says. Elsewhere he reminds us that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” The walls separating those who are different from one another along these lines have never been what God wants.
Now, many would say this is foolish. They argue that we must have borders and boundaries. They fear that illegal immigrants are all violent criminals at worst and welfare freeloaders at best. I don’t have time to argue these points. I am simply here to reveal what the Scriptures say about us and challenge us all to put God’s rule above nationalism. Even more, the walls we are building between people of the same nation have become frightening and dangerous. People confronting one another with hateful speech and violent acts is not what God intends in Christ. Paul says “he came and proclaimed peace to you… [so that ] both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
I am going to be completely transparent about this. I struggle with this because I am so angry about so much of what is taking place in the name of my nation and my religion. I think I have been pretty plain about where I stand; I understand others feel differently even if I don’t understand or believe the reasons why are valid and I understand they feel the same about me. I have listened to the “talking points” of both sides of the issue. I struggle mostly because I can hardly contain my anger and disgust at the things I see and hear being done in the name of my religion. There are loud voices who use Christianity to justify what I believe passionately are not Christian actions. So let me confess my anger and even hatred and seek to repent. These attitudes are what is foolish, not our faith. Our faith proclaims that Christ came to create one new humanity, to reconcile, to put to death hostility, to proclaim peace and to do what is just for all people, not just those who are the same political party, race, nationality, or even religion. What is happening instead is that we are being manipulated into a crisis of misinformation to create chaos that divides us as a nation and as Christians. We cannot give in to the manipulators of public opinion.
Instead let us work to create a counter –current to the anger and division that is so pronounced today. There are many ways we have done this in the past and opportunities to do so again coming up. We will have the opportunity to have a meal with people of other faiths in September. The Arlington Ministerial Fellowship is arranging another potluck like the one we had here last year. It will be at the Mormon’s worship center and there will be Catholics and Protestants and I expect many of our Muslim brothers and sisters who, despite being vilified by so many, seek peace and fellowship with us.
Let us continue to work in the name of God for “one new humanity” through our justice network ministries. We have made great strides stopping children and teens from being arrested for silly, nonviolent crimes and instead being directed to Neighborhood Accountability Boards where they take responsibility for what they did, and create and complete a plan to change the direction of their lives and to make amends for any expense any victim of their actions may have suffered. We have gotten the Sheriff to add almost half a million dollars to help make sure those who have paid their debt to society can get the resources they need to reenter society and become productive and contributing members. But we need to double that half million dollars to truly meet the need. In the next few weeks you will be hearing about how you can help us convince City Council to take tax dollars that otherwise will be wasted towards the Reentry Center’s work. This program has been recognized nationally as a model for this kind of work which restores human life and dignity.
Paul tells us that God came to us in Jesus Christ to break down walls. Christ broke down the wall that would keep us from receiving God’s love to create one new humanity. I believe that means my citizenship in God comes before my citizenship of any nation, political party, or even religion. The time has come to stop using God’s name to divide and build walls and separate humanity by human laws and rules. That may seem foolish to those who believe otherwise. All I can tell you is faith seems foolish to those who don’t know the true power of God’s love to transform the world. I believe in a God who breaks down walls, where “Christ Jesus Himself is the cornerstone” of our “dwelling place in God.” That is where I want to live.