Sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Sunday, July 22, 2012.
In June of 1987, President Ronald Reagan uttered perhaps the most famous words of his presidency. Standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the president issued a stirring challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Union. Reagan’s charge came in the midst of unprecedented reforms in the USSR. During his tenure, Gorbachev had endeavored to change the Soviet Union’s image, highlighting the importance of “openness” and “restructuring.” He dismantled many of secretive political organizations and encouraged the growth of democratic reforms. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was collapsing under the weight of an economy whose sole focus was the military. It was relatively clear that the Soviet Union would not exist for much longer. Whatever the reason for the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse, however, millions of Americans will forever associate it with the Gipper’s famous ultimatum: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The Berlin Wall was a potent symbol of the intractable conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Indeed, when the Berlin Wall finally tumbled down in November of 1989, it was a moment of international jubilation. The Iron Curtain had finally been lifted, and citizens of East and West Berlin joined together to celebrate their newfound unity. Since 1961, the Berlin Wall had been an icon of the hostility that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union, between the countries of NATO and those of the Warsaw Pact, between East and West. For almost fifty years, the world had been torn and divided along these lines; on both sides, the sense was “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” The collapse of the Berlin Wall, in other words, did not simply represent a new era for Germany’s capital, it represented the dawn of a new age for the entire world. The way that the world had been organized for half a century no longer applied because this dividing line between East and West had been removed.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall, however, illustrated the fact that breaking down barriers is a complicated enterprise. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall raised some very difficult questions. The simplest of all was this: now that this impassable boundary had been erased, what exactly were we supposed to do? The symbol of our hostility had been removed, but what had happened to the actual hostility? Moreover, the wall instructed us about who we could and could not trust; the collapse of the wall meant that the world was far more uncertain. November of 1989 was a seminal moment in international politics, because it was not only the inauguration of a new world order, but it also left us wondering what that new world order would look like. In other words, we were all left wondering how the world had changed in the face of this wall collapsing.
The writer of Ephesians understood the complexity of breaking down barriers and tearing down walls. Just as the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain divided the 20th century world, the ancient world was split by a similarly impassable boundary. For those people who were children of Israel (who became known as “Jews” in the Roman Empire, since most of them lived in the province of Judea), there was a distinct and virtually impenetrable dividing line between Jew and Gentile, between Israel and “the nations,” between the people of the covenant and everybody else. It’s important to remember that no one fell outside of this distinction. It wasn’t as though there were Jews, and then there were Gentiles, and then there was a group of people yet to be defined. If you were a Jew, you were not a Gentile; if you were a Gentile, you were certainly not a Jew. This dividing line was occasionally traversed, but these instances were rare and the Gentile converts were, for the most part, not regarded as true members of Israel. For the people of Israel, in other words, there was a clear, bright line that divided the world: a wall between those whose ancestors had made covenants with God and those who had not.
For the earliest Christians, this was a perfectly reasonable way to view the world. It was clear to them that a division had existed between Israel and the nations, between Jew and Gentile. It was also clear to many of them, however, that through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ had torn down the wall that separated Jew and Gentile, that he had erased the boundary that divided the world for so long. For these early Christians, the promises of God were no longer limited to the children of Israel, but were now accessible to everyone. Jesus Christ had broken down the dividing wall that separated humanity, erasing the ancient hostility between Jew and Gentile and making both groups into one. It’s this incredibly beautiful image of harmonious unity; it might seem like the biblical equivalent of that Coca-Cola commercial from the 1970s, where the nations of the world are gathered together on a mountaintop in Italy, singing about how they’d like to “buy the world a Coke.” This image, however, is too simplistic. It’s one thing to say that Christ has erased the boundaries between Jew and Gentile; it’s quite another to explain why. How did the world change in such a way that the wall could come down? What did the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ do to unite Israel and the nations?
The writer of Ephesians has a somewhat surprising answer, suggesting that Christ came to abolish the Law with its commandments and ordinances. The reason that this is so surprising is that the Law represented Israel’s relationship to God. Jews could point to the Law and say: “this is a symbol of our covenant with God; this is how we order our lives to show God’s claim on us.” So to say that Jesus Christ abolished the Law is an affront to Israel’s very identity. Moreover, the Law was the way that Israel was reconciled to God; it was the way that Jews were assured that God would forgive their sins. But the author of our passage argues that Christ reconciled both Jews and Gentiles to God in one body through the cross. In other words, the writer puts Jews and Gentiles on the same plane, suggesting that they were equally sinful, in equal need of reconciliation, even though Israel had the Law, which is what they thought was their means of reconciliation! Our passage makes the extraordinary and radical implication that Jews and Gentiles are not different, that they are in equal need of God’s mercy, and that they are equally deserving of God’s grace. This is an astonishing claim, but it explains why Christ could demolish the wall that separated Jew and Gentile: ultimately, their differences are insignificant. The wall was a human construction and it needed to be taken down. Jew and Gentile are one in Christ Jesus: no longer are they strangers to one another, but they are citizens and saints, equal members of the household of God.
This leaves us with a significant question, one that has implications for us today. If Christ has torn down the wall that separates us because our differences are insignificant, does that mean that we are all supposed to be the same? The early Church wrestled with this question. There were some who argued that Gentiles who became Christians first had to become Jewish: they had to be circumcised and they had to keep kosher, observing the Jewish food laws and holy days. There were others who said that Christians were not allowed to keep kosher; that they had to give up these food laws and stop observing the traditional Jewish feasts. Ultimately, instead of picking sides, the Church decided to accept a range of diverse theologies and practices. Gentile converts weren’t required to become Jewish, and Jewish Christians weren’t required to give up their Jewish heritage. The early Church decided that Christian unity was not about what one looked like, or what foods one ate, or how one prayed, or anything like that. For the early Church, unity was about what God had done through Jesus Christ. Erasing boundaries and tearing down walls did not negate the differences between church members; it made it so that these differences could no longer be a cause of division.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ did not just tear down the walls that existed between Jew and Gentile. This was simply the ultimate division in the ancient world; it was the most dramatic distinction that divided human beings. Since Christ has nullified that division, therefore, he has also nullified every other division that exists in this world. We need to understand that the walls that we imagine still divide us have been torn down through God’s action in Jesus Christ. And I’m talking about divisions that we accept as utterly normative in our society. Divisions between conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican, rich and poor, North and South, urban and rural, blue and white collar, educated and experienced, Longhorn and Aggie; we imagine that there is a crowbar separation between these groups, but that is a denial of the reality that Christ has ended the hostility that exists between us. This is not to say that our differences in ideology or background are unimportant, but they cannot be a cause for division or separation. Too often our disagreements become destructive simply because we allow them to, because we forget that our unity is in Christ. And when we talk about Christian unity, we are not saying that we all agree about everything; we talk about Christian unity because through Christ we have all been reconciled to God. We must affirm that the walls that separate us have been demolished and we must acknowledge that we are all in equal need of God’s mercy and we are all equally deserving of God’s grace. And ultimately, the fact that the walls have been taken down is not as important as the fact that we all have been made one in Christ. The wall has come down; the world has changed forever: how will we allow that fact to change your relationships with the people in your community, in this nation, and in the world? In other words, will you allow the walls in your life to be torn down and change you forever?