Breaking Down Walls (A sermon from Ephesians 2:11-23)


New Testament scholars are about evenly divided on whether Paul or one of Paul’s followers, who perhaps knew Paul and worked with Paul wrote this letter. Clearly there is some development in Paul’s thought from his earlier letters. In this letter Paul, or someone writing within the Pauline tradition, is writing not to address some local church concerns or issues, but rather, the writer offers a universal vision of God’s plan for humanity and the church.  In the first couple of paragraphs of this letter the writer lays out God’s universal hope for humanity, and for all creation. This writer claims that from the beginning God’s plan that will be realized in the fullness of time is (and I am quoting from the NRSV) “to gather up (that is, unify, or reconcile, or bring together) all things (not some somethings, not just what some would regard as holy things or holy people, but all things) in Christ, things in heaven and things on the earth.” This writer envisions all reality coming together in Christ.

The great challenge and obstacle faced by Christ followers in that day and time was the hostility and divisiveness between Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). This wasn’t just one local church issue. It was the issue that all churches faced in that day and time. The description of Gentiles or non-Jews in v. 11 of our text is how, unfortunately, many Jews of that time regarded non-Jews. And this is what makes for division and hostility. When one group of people looks upon another group of people as “aliens” and “strangers,” “without God,” and “without hope,” – when one group sees another group as unworthy and unwelcome and unacceptable, and regards them of lesser value and worth, that, of course, creates division marked by hostility. This is a major issue we face today, and is one reason some people support a zero tolerance immigration policy. By labeling and deeming people and groups in exclusionary ways, they feel justified in their rejection and condemnation of that people and group.

We see this played out in many formats today and on many levels. When one person deems unworthy or unwelcome another person of a different social status, or nationality, or sexual orientation, or religious faith, or political affiliation, such disdaining and denouncing creates walls of hostility. According to Paul, or whoever wrote this letter, the solution to such division begins with the recognition that we are all one people in Christ. Christ here is the cosmic Christ, the Holy Spirit, who resides in every human being and connects every human being to every other human being.

These dividing walls of hostility can begin to come down when we accept and trust that in Christ we are all one people, that we all belong, we are all connected, that in the biblical writers words, we are “one body” and “one new humanity” and that all of us “have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

It’s important to understand that division is not the same thing as diversity. We can form one new humanity, one body, one beloved community and be extremely diverse. Unity does not mean uniformity, nor does it mean agreement in all things. To be at peace, to be in a constructive, healthy relationship with others, does not mean that we have to see through the same set of eyes or adopt the same perspectives. We do have to be committed to mercy and justice. That’s fundamental.

The biblical writer argues that the Mosaic law with its commands and regulations has been set aside. The real problem, however, is not the law itself; it’s the way the law was used, and the way religion in general is used today to manage holiness and to establish degrees or levels of worthiness. The real problem is the hostility and enmity behind the application of the law that excludes and marginalizes and condemns others, and deems others “strangers” and “aliens” who are “without God” and “without hope.” That’s the problem.

The real barrier, the real dividing wall that polarizes and condemns others is the dividing wall of hostility. It’s not our beliefs that divides us. It’s the prejudice and hostility behind them. It’s the hostility that is the problem, that is both the cause of exclusion and the consequence of exclusion The problem is not that we don’t see things the same way, that we have different views and understandings and perspectives on God, on life, on ways to solve problems in society. The problem is the hostility that demonizes the other and exalts our group as superior.

Some of the most deadly kind of prejudice and violence, and the most difficult to overcome is religious prejudice and violence. Religious violence, violence that people think is justified and condoned by the God they worship, can be the most lethal kind of violence and the most difficult kind to defuse. People convince themselves that by excluding and denouncing and destroying others they are doing God’s will. According to Paul’s own testimony, when he tracked down and persecuted Christians and consented to their murders, he felt no guilt whatsoever. He had convinced himself that he was doing God’s will. That kind of religiously motivated hostility that is rooted in one’s personal or group sense of chosenness and self-righteousness is really evil and extremely difficult to overcome. When our Attorney General and our Vice-President used scripture and used their religious faith to legitimize and justify the mistreatment and condemnation of migrants coming to our country seeking asylum and refuge, that’s really bad stuff and extremely difficult to diffuse because they convince themselves, just like Paul did before his encounter with Christ, that they are doing the will of God. They divinely sanction and justify their prejudice and hate. They think God is on their side. Jesus always took the side of the downtrodden.

How do we deal with such hostility? How do we counter it in a positive way? How do we diffuse it to give peace a chance? We begin that process  when we claim and trust that we are all one people, one body, one humanity – that we all are sisters and brothers in the household of God regardless of all our diversity. That’s difficult for people to do, because if you believe that truly, and are committed to that, then you cannot be silent when the marginalized of society are mistreated. You have to speak out. So that’s where we begin, and then we can learn from the way Jesus responded to such hostility how we, his followers, should respond to hostility.

Twice in our biblical text the writer references Christ’s death as somehow being instrumental in this process of tearing down walls of hostility and bringing people together. The writer, however, doesn’t tell us how this works. What did Jesus do on the cross to remove these walls of hostility and to bring about peace? For one thing, Jesus became a scapegoat to put an end to all scapegoating. He became a sacrifice to put an end to the sacrificial system, that whole system of offering up the innocent victim. Spiritually, socially, and psychologically humans have always needed to find some way to deal with their guilt. Historically, sacrificial systems were employed to that end. In ancient systems of religion, human sacrifices were offered to turn away the wrath of the deity (so the virgin, or the first born, or the only child was sacrificed, but never the adult man, because these were patriarchal cultures). Then, in the progression and evolution of religious consciousness, animals eventually took the place of humans. We see this in the beginnings of the Hebrew faith. I believe a great turning point in the history of Christianity that greatly diminished the Christian message of peace occurred when Christianity incorporated this scapegoat mechanism within its tradition. Think about it. When Christians adopted a theory of the atonement that made Jesus the victim necessary (required and demanded) to satisfy God (in the sense of paying off a penalty, or satisfying diving justice, or upholding God’s honor, etc.) then Christianity began to look and feel very similar to those ancient religions that required a sacrificial victim. And as a consequence it made the Christian God look awfully petty and punitive.  

Jesus, in his death, is not a scapegoat because God required a scapegoat. Rather, the killers of Jesus are the ones who required a scapegoat. God doesn’t require a scapegoat. We are the ones who want a scapegoat. What Jesus does on the cross is that he exposes the whole fallacy of scapegoat religion, and the evil of scapegoating in general. In bearing the evil, in bearing the sin, in bearing the hate of his killers Jesus exposed the evil and the hate of his killers, and in a larger sense the evil and hate present in humanity, because the evil and hate of Jesus’s killers represent the evil and hate in all of us. In his death Jesus unmasks the hostility behind the evil, much the same way the civil rights marchers who crossed the bridge in Selma, Alabama, unmasked and exposed the illusion of white supremacy and the sin of racism. The unmasked the hostility behind the laws of segregation. . Jesus’ death, for those who have eyes to see, exposes the sin and evil of scapegoating others. It’s evil to scapegoat anyone. It’s the very same evil that scapegoats migrants today.

A second way Jesus’ death functions to break down walls of hostility, and make peace between persons and people groups possible, is in the way he forgives his killers. Luke’s Gospel makes this explicit by having Jesus on the cross say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” He bears the enmity and animosity that is being poured out on him, without lashing out and without returning it. He absorbs the hate and evil without projecting the hate and evil back on his killers.

Only forgiveness can break cycles of hate and vengeance, making peace possible. In 1492, two prominent Irish families, the Ormands and Kildares were in the midst of a bitter feud. Besieged by Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, Sir James Butler, Earl of Ormand, and his followers took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick’s cathedral, bolting themselves in. As the siege wore on, the Earl of Kildare came to the conclusion that the feuding was foolish. Here were two families, worshiping the same God, in the same church, living in the same country, trying to kill each other. So he called out to Sir James and pledged on his honor to end the conflict.  

Afraid of “some further treachery,” Ormond did not respond. So Kildare seized his weapon, punched a hole in the door, and in a daring act of peacemaking thrust his hand through the opening. It was a bold, daring, risky gesture. He could have easily lost his hand or his arm. But instead it was grasped by another hand inside. The door was opened and the two men embraced, thus ending the family feud. From Kildare’s noble gesture of peacemaking came the expression, “chancing one’s arm.” Forgiveness can be as daring as “chancing one’s arm.” It is a bold, difficult, risky process. But it is the only way many of the walls of hostility we have built between ourselves and others, as individuals and groups, will ever come down. Who do you need to forgive today in order for the walls to come down? And from whom might you need to seek forgiveness in order for the walls to come down. I suspect that all of have built some walls that need to come down.

Forgiveness is the only path to any lasting personal healing and peace as well.  Jean Vanier tells about a friend who wrote to him about her grandfather, an Australian who had served in the First World War. He had been gassed by the German army and was left permanently impaired. He remained terribly bitter toward all Germans for the rest of his life. As is often the case, his bitterness poisoned his whole family and was passed down to the third generation, to Vanier’s friend who wrote to him about the ways she had absorbed her grandfather’s attitudes and been influenced by his hate. “All my life,” she wrote, “I’ve tried to get rid of the prejudice against German people that has been programmed into me.” It took this woman a long time to break free from all the hate and prejudice that she absorbed over the years in her family. She would have continued to poison her own soul, as well as the souls of her loved ones and friends, had she not chosen a course of forgiveness. It was a difficult process, and there were setbacks and failures. It didn’t always go smoothly. But eventually her struggle with forgiveness led to her own personal liberation, healing, and peace.  

Forgiveness is the way forward. Of course, forgiveness does not always lead to reconciliation. It does not always work in breaking down walls of hostility. We cannot change the heart of another person or group. But we can allow God to change our own heart. We can do what we can do. We can let go of our hostility. We can pray and work toward healing and peace. We don’t have to carry around a burden of resentment and bitterness. And if you have ever carried that around you know it is a burden isn’t it?

In all our differences and diversity we are one people. We are all connected. We all belong. All of us in this church and outside this church, all of us in this country and outside this country constitute one body, one humanity, one family, one dwelling place for God. We all need to let that reality impact us and let God show us the walls that need to come down.

Gracious God, help us to see that regardless how different we may be from others, we are one people. Help us see that the hurting people who travel here at great risk to find safety for their family and some hope for a better life are members of your family, and hence, our sisters and brothers. May we not be blinded by our biases and prejudices, or our own personal longings for safety and security. Help us to forgive those who have hurt us, as difficult as that may be. And give us the courage to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt. Give us a desire for peace and healing that is greater than our desire for revenge or condemnation. Help us to be a light in dark places that points the way to your grace and love. Amen.

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