by Rev. Sandi Anthony, preached Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019
11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 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.
Sermon: Breaking Barriers
The cross of Christ holds all things together. Unity and wholeness—not separateness or fragments—are God’s desire and intention for us. I’ll state that up front, because that is essentially the good news and take-home message for today. The cross is a message of radical inclusion. We do not worship or serve a God of walls or barriers. This truth is imbedded in the very fabric of reality, which God created. Consider this: “When God created us, [God] put inside every cell-core, a cell adhesion protein molecule that holds the cells in our bodies together, and it is shaped in the form of a cross! This cell adhesion protein molecule is called laminin, and under a microscope it looks exactly like a cross. According to Wikipedia, “Laminins are a family of proteins that are an integral part of the structural scaffolding of basement membranes in almost every animal tissue.” “Laminins are what hold us together….LITERALLY. They are cell adhesion molecules. They are what holds one cell of our bodies to the next cell. Without them, we would literally fall apart…So, if you take a cell from our bodies and put it under a microscope, you will see that God put [God’s] ‘Seal’ on every single cell in our body!!!” (taken from https://www.chess.com/clubs/forum/view/laminin-a-cell-adhesion-protein-molecule-that-holds-the-body-together4).
Is it any wonder that God showed such great love for us on a cross, a cross that has tremendous implications for our world—a world that is continually in need of unity and harmony? A world that needs to be brought together in a way that walls and barriers should be on a trajectory toward obsolescence.
Sir Winston Churchill called it the Iron Curtain. How many have ever seen the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charley? This was the rift between Western Europe and the Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. To cross over, your train would be searched, your documents would be checked. We remember Ronald Regan standing in front of it saying, “Mr. Gorbachev: tear down this wall!” And it came down. Some people have pieces of that wall, symbols of what once divided people. One man used to look across that wall each day to the west where he saw an espresso bar. He had looked through that wall every day and watched a man in West Berlin going to that espresso bar every day. The observing man on the Eastern side dreamed of the day that he could walk there and sit down with that man. When the wall came down, he walked over; they talked, and a whole new world began. Today members of the European Union cross countries without any fanfare at all. In fact, a few weeks ago when Clint and I were in northwestern German, our car GPS guided us toward our next destination, which was further south in Germany, but it took us through Belgium! Before we realized it, we had unintentionally crossed into Belgium. The problem was, we weren’t supposed to take our rental car outside of Germany—and being of German descent and fairly rule-oriented, I about panicked until we crossed back into Germany near Saarbrucken, some thirty miles later and due south of our location. That one-time division between countries wasn’t even visible anymore—except for a small sign welcoming us to Belgium.
This brings me to our scripture passage today as we continue our journey through Ephesians. Paul, or the writer of Ephesians, gives us an idea of the disunity between Gentiles and Jews. Gentiles are everyone else—the ones outside of Judaism. Gentiles are called the “uncircumcision” and Jews are called the “circumcision.” Paul or the writer of Ephesians effectively says that the Gentiles were on the hostile side of the first Century Iron Curtain. Now we know that God had a covenant with the Jews. But everyone else? Not so. Paul said previously Gentiles had no hope and were without God in the world. Jews and Gentiles simply didn’t mix. But Christ changed all of that. Back then, the Jews said that Gentiles were created by God to be the fuel for the fires of hell. It was not even lawful to render help to Gentile women in childbirth for that would bring another Gentile into the world. The barrier between Jew and Gentile was absolute. If a Jew married a Gentile, the funeral of that Jew as carried out. Even to go into a Gentile house rendered a Jew unclean. Paul or the author of Ephesians said that the Gentiles had no hope because they were without Christ. A better translation says, “Without hope for the Messiah.” The Jews, you know, all hoped for the day the Messiah would come and establish his kingdom and deliver them from oppression. The Gentiles had no such hope—and that was a huge difference. For the Jew, history was always going somewhere; no matter what the present was like, the future was glorious. The Gentiles did not have such an optimistic view of history. Ephesian’s author says, there is a new game in town. Jesus brings hope for the future of the Gentiles a well. And that means there is hope for the whole world.
In verse 13 of today’s passage, the author of Ephesians says that the Gentiles, who were “far off” are now “brought near” because of Jesus. And this is the good news of the Gospel. See, back then, when rabbis spoke about accepting a covert into Judaism, they said he had been “brought near.” Jewish rabbinic writers tell how a Gentile woman came to Rabbi Eliezer. She confessed that she was a sinner and asked to be admitted to the Jewish faith. “Rabbi,” she said, “bring me near.” The rabbi refused and the door was shut in her face. We can all come near now; that is the good news of Ephesians. The door is open. Those who had been far from God were brought near and the door remains shut to no one. Because of Jesus, barriers break; walls are no more—but are we modeling our ways after his, which is always the Christian call?
Let’s talk about walls. They are always referenced in our news cycles these days. First, let’s talk about the walls in First Century Judaism. In the temple, there were different courts. Divisions existed between women and men, priests and high priests. Jesus tore down those walls—all have equal access to the presence of God. But the very way Jesus modeled for us is continually rejected—including by the very ones who call themselves by the name of Jesus. Many keep building even bigger walls. Walls and fences are a vain attempt to keep apart what God delights in having together. Races, religions, immigrants, genders, classes, those who aren’t like us; we build walls both physical and nonphysical to keep us apart. Father Taylor of Boston used to say, “There is just enough room in the world for all the people in it, but there is no room for the fences that separate them.” Sir Philip Gibbs, the English journalist and author during the First World War wrote, “The problem of fences has grown to be one of the most acute the world must face. Today there are all sorts of zig-zag and crisscrossing fences running through the races and people of this world. Modern progress has made the world a neighborhood; God has given us the task of making it a brotherhood [and sisterhood].”
Walls don’t work well; and is it any wonder? They are contrary to the unity God desires for us. The Bible has great stories about walls coming down; remember Jericho? Consider the wall between the US and Mexico. By some estimates, the constant repairing of the wall through time may cost tax payers more than the wall itself. Welding crews have been sent to fix the openings easily made by smuggling gangs in Mexico who have breached new sections of the wall. This has been easily done with saws that cut through steel and concrete, and openings wide enough for people and drugs still come through. Walls can also be scaled with ladders. We wonder why would-be immigrants keep risking their lives to come here. The short answer is that they have nothing. They have come in desperation; families, children desperate for safety. In their minds they have everything to gain and nothing left to lose. Janice Joplin once sang in her song Me and Bobbie McGee, “Freedom is another name for nothing left to lose.” Even the Great Wall of China never kept anyone ambitious enough out. Bribery could easily get enemies through. The Christian must always work to prevent and mitigate the root of the problems—not advocate for walls to block out the mayhem we may have very well helped to create in other countries by our greed and lack of care.
Our job in this world divided by race, class, and religion is to proclaim again the message of the all-inclusive Christ in whom there is neither Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. This is what Jesus gave himself for; this is what the cross, like laminin holds together. The Jesus message is that barriers must come down. Think about what happened immediately after Jesus died on the cross. The veil on the Temple was rent in two. Mathew 27:50 tells us that at the moment Jesus yielded up his spirit, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. This means that the veil that separated the Holy of Holies—that earthly dwelling place of God’s presence—from the rest of the temple where people gathered—was gone. This wall, this barrier, was torn down. Previously, only the high priest was permitted to pass beyond this veil, and only once each year to enter into God’s presence for all of Israel and make atonement for their sins. But Jesus came to show us that we have unity with God and unity with one another. And that gives us peace; Jesus is our peace. There are no barriers to God.
Verse 15 tells us that Jesus’ work on the cross abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances…thus making peace. We’ve talked about the law in here before, the Jewish code, which was over 600 commandments that included everything from what you ate to how many times to had to wash your hands. It was impossible to live up to, but your only hope for salvation was directly related to how well you followed all the rules. Ephesians tells us that Jesus changed the whole ballgame. The new one has no scorecard, and it’ called grace. It is what you have heard Pastor Dick say: It’s about the end of bookkeeping religion.
What are the walls in our lives? Addictions and unhealed relationships are types of barriers, walls. They interfere with the wholeness and integrity God wants in our own selves; they interfere with the good relationships and unity God made humanity for, and made the universe for. Addictions numb us out and keep us from doing the hard, inner work of reconciling—within ourselves, among our family and friends, and with God. Are there new bridges we could extend instead? Extending bridges, we might say, could make us vulnerable. But I tell you this: vulnerability is the Way of Christ, the way of God, the way of the cross. What are our emotional walls? Friends, we are never more like God than when we do the deep work of moving fences or tearing them down to effect wider circles of inclusion.
Forgiveness requires vulnerability to restore and bring back unity in relationships. Consider this story: in 1963 Vivian Malone, a young black woman, tried to enroll at the University of Alabama, but her way was blocked by Gov. George Wallace and the Alabama National Guard. Late in his life Governor Wallace came to regret the actions he had taken, and he was taken in his wheelchair to Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, and there he asked the African American people to forgive him for his hardness. The governor also regretted how he had treated Vivian that day and sought out her forgiveness. He wanted to make amends before he died, and he wanted to meet her. Vivian did meet him and told him that she had already forgiven him years earlier. In an interview years later, she was asked why she did that. “Well, this may sound weird, but I’m a Christian, and I was taught that we are all equal in the eyes of God, and I was taught to forgive other people, no matter what. And that’s why I had to do it. I didn’t feel I had a choice.” Like God, Vivian was not keeping score. She was open-hearted and vulnerable all along. Gov. Wallace was on an albeit slower spiritual trajectory eventually evolving to where God would have him—where God desired for him to be all along.
I believe that God is at work in this world moving all of us along a trajectory toward greater inclusion. Even some fundamentalist and evangelical seminaries that a few years ago required certain confessions and beliefs to attend now advertise a “generous orthodoxy.” Similarly, many conservative denominations have begun ordaining women—at least here and there. Even the Roman Catholic Church’s bishops recently backed the ordination of married men to the priesthood in the Amazon region. It’s not to say any of these groups are where the UCC or many of our mainline denominational friends are, not yet anyway, but perhaps they are moving closer as God brings history towards its hopeful conclusion.
Friends, the Christian faith has nothing to do with walls or barriers. Our God wants wholeness in our own persons, unity between us and God, and unity between us and others. The trajectory of scripture and our on-going experience of God moves toward inclusion and wholeness. I’ll end with this poem entitled “Outwitted” by the American Poet Edwin Markham, because it says a lot about the unity God has always desired for us:
He drew a circle that shut
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!
May it always be so, Amen!