My wife and I spent about a year living in Phoenix, AZ over my vicar year. If you’re familiar with Phoenix you know there are a few things that set it apart: the obvious ones - the heat, the cacti, the miles and miles of desert wilderness, the huge monsoon storms that bring in those enormous dust clouds. But the one thing that Laura and I really weren’t used to seeing was all of the walls. If you’ve been to Phoenix, AZ you know what I mean. Walk out the back door of your house, and there is a cinderblock wall. Take a walk around the neighborhoods, and each back yard is surrounded by a cinderblock wall. Drive around town, and each road is lined by, you guessed it, cinderblock walls. The reason for walls is obvious: Safety, security, privacy, but maybe even a step further, to keep the peace. And it’s not a recent phenomenon.
Throughout history, humans have built walls and fences as a solution to hostility. You can probably think of some famous ones: the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, and just in the last week, the wall we’re building along the Mexican border. Humans have often looked at barriers as ways of keeping peace. But history also tells us that those walls often fall short of their purpose. O they offer peace, but it is usually short lived, and at best, artificial.
Part I – Between Us and God
The Apostle Paul was writing to an audience who had some experience with wall-building. There were two groups of people here who didn’t see eye to eye. They were the neighbors who didn’t get along so they built a wall: They were the Jews and the non-Jews, the Gentiles.
It was a hostility that was well rooted, in fact, it went all the way back to the Old Testament Israelites. See, back then, God established his Mosaic Law to purposely build a spiritual wall of protection around his people, separating them from the unbelieving nations surrounding them. It was preventative action. God knew what would happen to his people if he didn’t give them this wall. He knew that homosexuality and incest would become the norm unless he wrote down his moral code for people to see. He knew his saving Gospel message would be lost unless he chose one group to keep the original bible with them at all times in a secure box. And he vividly illustrated the content of that message so it wouldn’t be watered down. Any time an Israelite sinned God had them shed the blood of an animal to vividly remind them that when you turn your life away from God, that’s exactly what God promises to take from you, your life. He created the position of high priest to show that only someone appointed by God himself can stand before God and make peace between God and the people who have failed him. That was the purpose of the Old Testament ceremonial law. It pointed ahead to the ultimate giver of peace, the ultimate high priest: Jesus.
Now, Fast forward about 1300 years to Paul’s time. That wall of hostility was still in place, but no longer in the way God intended it. Instead, it was a man made wall of superiority constructed in the minds of the Jews, and written all over that wall in big bold letters were the statements, “We are God’s chosen people, you are not! We are the sons and daughters of Abraham! You are not!
And that’s what the Gentiles were told, that they were second rate, that they had no right to stand before their God, because of the wall of genetics in their way.
Some of you may remember when the Berlin Wall stood in Germany, separating East Germans from West Germans. For 28 years it stood as a wall of hostility to those people. The twelve-foot concrete wall extended for a hundred miles and included electrified fences and guard posts. It stood as a stark symbol of the decades-old Cold War between the United States and Soviet Russia. But at the end of those hostile years, the sledgehammer of freedom finally broke through that wall, allowing both sides to finally have access to each other. Families were reunited, happiness irrupted, and unity and peace were once more.
I would imagine that that’s similar to how Paul’s readers, the gentiles felt, when they first heard these words that Paul writes in today’s letter. Listen again what he says, “ In Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ…. He has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside that Law with its commands and regulations.”
Paul, in essence, was pointing these Gentiles to the Cross saying, “When your Lord cried out, “It is finished, and that temple curtain was torn in two, it was as if the sledgehammer of the Gospel was pounded through that wall of hostility which once stood between you and your God. Giving you free access to your father.”
And the same words echo today. As you might have noticed, we don’t practice OT ceremonial laws anymore. There won’t be any lambs offered up on this altar today. Those laws were merely there to show that God’s great High Priest would use his wooden cross to build a bridge between a perfect God and undeserving sinners. And that’s what he did! And because of that, the barrier wall separating us from God is gone, Christ tore it down! You and I can pray “Our Father in heaven….” With complete and total confidence, because that’s a relationship of peace once more.
Part II – Between Each Other
And there’s a second blessing to what Paul’s talking about this morning, but it’s a blessing that I would say is a little more difficult to remember sometimes. It sure was for Paul’s readers. You see, there was a second wall of hostility in place when Paul wrote to the Ephesians; a physical wall.
So that you fully understand this, I want to show you a picture of the temple in Jerusalem (CLICK). At the temple there were 5 different divisions where only certain people were able to go. There was a place for the high priest, a place for the priests, then a court for the Jewish men, a separate court for the Jewish women, and lastly, the outside court-for the Gentiles. (CLICK) Here’s just a diagram that makes it a bit clearer.
As you can imagine, being treated as last place for so long, bred hostility among those Gentiles of faith.
And to make matters worse, there was a plaque on the outside of that temple wall. Here it is: (CLICK) it reads in three languages so all could understand, “No foreigner, Gentile may enter within the barricade wall…Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.” Nothing says, “One in Christ,” like, “Stay out, or die!”
Can you imagine if we put a plaque like that outside our church? “No visitors allowed inside, if they are caught inside without a membership, they will die.” Think of the impression that would give. We’d essentially be saying, “We’re better, more deserving of God’s Grace than you!” It’d be an obvious wall, and none of us would want that. But do we subtly build other walls between each other without even realizing what we’re doing?
Maybe we listen to these words today, but secretly think to ourselves, “Paul can talk about peace and unity all he wants, but Paul doesn’t have to deal with my spouse” -Lay down the first brick. “All this talk of unity among believers is great, but Paul doesn’t know how badly people who call themselves Christians have hurt ME” –Put some mortar on that brick and lay another on top. “As long as they don’t hear it, and my friends agree with me, it’s not going to hurt anyone to talk about my fellow Christians behind their back, after all, their actions deserve it!” –Another brick added, your wall is almost complete! “Paul didn’t have the kind of terrible sinners in his church that we have in ours, I won’t even talk to some of the people we allow into our temple because they are so unclean.” –There! All finished, and what a lovely lovely wall of hatred, hostility, and sadness we’ve created!
You see the reality of what happens when we let thoughts like that creep into our minds, we’re actually rebuilding the walls that Christ gave his life to tear down. When we have such an attitude, we’re stepping outside the flow of Grace. Like the Jews, we’re looking at ourselves and how good we are, instead of at the cross and how miserable we would have been had it not been for Christ. In essence, such an attitude toward others suggests that my Lord is not for them. I know none of you want this (CLICK). So let’s get rid of it.
Take a step back, take a look at yourself the way God sees you: you’re one who’s been washed clean in his son’s blood, a redeemed child of the father. Now I want you to think of those people you greeted today at the beginning of service, those sitting around you, maybe the people you’re avoiding in the second service, maybe the family members who’ve hurt you. God sees them in the same exact way. Do you understand Paul’s point today? We’re all “Created in [Christ], as one new humanity.”
We’re not on one side of the fence or the other with our fellow Christians based upon our feelings toward Church spending or our attitude toward the ministry arms of the church. It’s not our tenure as a member. It has nothing to do with age, family, or whether we came from Baptist, Methodist, or Wisconsin Lutheran background. It doesn’t even matter that you’re a giants, cowboys, or packers, Alabama or Tennessee Fan.
Today Paul takes all Christians, no matter who we are, and leads us together out of those doors and up the road to Calvary. He has us look up and he asks: “What do you see? Are there two crosses there? Are there two different Saviors? Of course not! He is one. He made one sacrifice with his one body. And through it, he’s made you one with God and one with each other.” There are no longer walls of hostility to separate us from each other. Christ broke those down when he reconciled us to God. So what we have left, is meant to be a blessing.
You know, in the last 4 years, my wife and I haven’t really been able to settle in to a church. Schooling and moving has pretty much picked us up and dropped us around from church to church. It’s very easy to take for granted the blessing of a church family, until you don’t have them anymore. What a blessing that is to have that back again: to have brothers and sisters who reach out to one another when they’re hurting. Who bring each other meals when they’re sick, when they have a new baby, who build each other up with the Gospel when they’ve lost a spouse, a parent, a sibling. Believers who joyfully study the word as one body. Christians whose faith is evident in the way they show love to their fellow believer. But do you know where all that love comes from? It’s not found in here, but there (the cross. When we stand together and survey the wondrous cross, that unites us, that moves us to share his love with fellow believers.
You may have noticed when you look closely at your bulletins or at the screen, that there are two words underlined in today’s theme and text: IN CHRIST. That’s who makes all this possible. That’s who tears down the walls we create for ourselves. That’s who gives us peace. Because it’s Jesus who assures us that we can one day stand before our God, unafraid. And it’s Jesus who gives us the amazing bond we have right here as a united family IN CHRIST.
May we always keep our eyes focused on the cross and the one who hung there. Christ gives us peace with our God. Christ keeps us united with each other. For as Paul writes, In Him you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. The Word of God Amen