your love flows from the heart of God,
and touches us in our points of pain;
hearing your voice,
may we find healing in your word
now and for ever. Amen.
Eliminating boundaries does not in itself create peace. Peace comes only by eliminating the hostility behind the dividing walls. God does not merely tear down walls, but unites people in the One who is our peace, creating one new humanity. — Karen Chakoian, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, Kindle ed’n, loc. 9130
There’s a saying: Good fences make good neighbours. And I can believe it.
But I’m not so sure about walls.
History is filled with stories of walls, and littered by the remains of walls. Perhaps the earliest walls we know about were around the city of Jericho. We know what happened to them.
Or if they don’t fall, they are remnants of an earlier time. Perhaps you’ve walked along the top of the walls of York or Jerusalem, as I have. Or along the Great Wall of China, or Hadrian’s Wall across the North of England, as I’d like to.
Once, these walls served to keep undesirable people out. They were walls of separation. They have a very different purpose now. They’re tourist traps, bringing the outsiders in rather than keeping them out.
Walls fall, whether literally or not.
I don’t remember the Berlin Wall being built, but as a child I expected it to last forever. I recall watching tv news reports of people escaping over or under it to the West, or dying in the attempt.
But in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down.
Walls may fall because their day is done, because they crumble to dust; but walls fall too because people cry out against them. We saw that very clearly in Berlin in 1989. The Wall could not withstand the weight of protest.
Walls may have their time, but that time ends.
About 500 years before the birth of Christ, the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon. When they returned to Jerusalem, one of the first things they did was build a wall and throw all the foreigners out.
In an age of technological sophistication, walls are less useful.
But we still build them.
When I visited the Holy Land a few years ago, I was saddened to see the wall that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem.
I took this photo from the Bethlehem side. As you can see, it looks like a prison.
I suspect that’s not unintentional.
Here is a Christmas card picture, an image of what Mary and Joseph may have encountered if they were to go to Bethlehem today:
I am saddened by the wall, but I am heartened that hope is there. You may have heard of the graffiti artist called Banksy. No one knows who Banksy is, but he (or she) paints wonderful pieces of art on—did you guess it?—walls. Here are some wonderfully hope-filled Banksy pieces on this wall of separation in Israel:
I’m talking about walls today because God broke a wall down 2000 years ago, a wall between people. Though not a literal wall, it was a genuine wall of real separation. Ephesians 2.14 (GNB) tells us:
Christ himself has brought us peace by making Jews and Gentiles one people. With his own body he broke down the wall that separated them and kept them enemies.
‘Christ himself has brought us peace’; or as the NRSV has it, ‘Christ is our peace’. Christ became our peace in his body on the cross. Ephesians goes on (v.15),
He abolished the Jewish Law with its commandments and rules, in order to create out of the two races one new people in union with himself, in this way making peace.
The way to God is through faith. The Jewish Law was a kind of wall, which kept Jew and Gentile, the circumcised and the uncircumcised, separated.
The unexpected thing was, all along God’s plan has been to unite these two groups of people. God’s covenant with the Jewish people was to make them a light to the nations, for the Gentiles to see and desire; as it happened, both Jew and Gentile combined forces to crucify the Messiah God sent.
But God’s response to crucifixion was love. God’s response was to declare peace. God’s response was to reconcile us in Christ. He is our peace.
God broke down the wall, and brought peace. When humans break walls down, peace may still be delayed. But God brings peace.
The fall of this wall was monumental. It changed history. Now, we have no difficulty thinking of Gentile people being Christians—but it was earth-shattering for the first believers. They couldn’t have imagined any such thing!
One of the pivotal moments is found in Acts 10. There, God tells Peter to go to the house of a Gentile, the Centurion Cornelius. This is a new one for Peter; he’d most likely never been in a Gentile house. While he tells them the Good News about Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes upon them.
Well, there was a reaction. Jewish believers didn’t like these Gentiles coming into their churches, so they set up a Council meeting. (Sounds like the Uniting Church!)
They decided that Gentiles could come in, on three conditions:
- that they do not eat food that had been offered to idols;
- they only eat kosher meat, that is, meat with all the blood drained out of it;
- and that they refrain from sexual immorality.
Was this something for all time, or was it a compromise for that situation back then?
It was a compromise, not a rule for ever. It shows that the Christian church can move ahead by compromise and negotiation. Sadly, in later times, we preferred the Inquisition and burning heretics.
So, Jews and Gentiles are together in one church. We don’t ask if someone has Jewish blood, or can claim Jewish identity, as a friend of mine can. It’s not an issue for us.
Walls have fallen ever since. The wall of separation between master and slave has fallen, even though the Bible does not condemn slavery as such. Yes, there is still slavery in the world; and we are utterly shocked by it, and want to get rid of it.
Yet you know, once slavery was a live issue in the church. The American Civil War of the 1860s was one outcome. But did you know: in that debate about slavery, the pro-slavery people seemed to have the best biblical arguments? That is, they had the best arguments when they forgot that Jesus is the centre of the Bible’s story. And that Jesus is our peace.
Jesus is peace for Jew and Gentile; Jesus is peace for people of different races.
There are other walls. The wall of separation between men and women in ministry has fallen—in the Uniting Church, and churches like ours. But it still stands in some churches.
Other walls of separation are falling.
The Assembly has declared that the wall of separation in marriage has fallen. Same-sex marriage will be possible in the Uniting Church. Some people are happy about this, others are absolutely horrified.
What does it mean for this wall to fall? It means this: people in our church can hold their own view of marriage with integrity. We may have a different opinion to other people—and still remain in communion with them in the same church.
Jesus and Jesus alone is our peace.
Walls fall. It’s a fact of history.
The Book of Revelation pictures the new Jerusalem as a walled city. The city is a cube of 2400 kilometres; the walls are huge, measuring 60 metres.
So do walls win in the end? Not quite. Through history, walls have separated one group of people from another; these walls don’t serve to separate anyone. The gates to the new Jerusalem are eternally open. Anyone who wants to enter can do so.
God declares that the wall of separation between people has fallen. Everyone is on the same footing through faith in Jesus Christ. Are any walls justified? Should more walls fall? It is for us to determine how we respond to that question in our day.
Preached at Trinity Wellington Point Uniting Church, 22 July 2018