“Breaking Down Walls and Building Bridges”

Preached by Michael Cheuk, July  19, 2015
Taken from Ephesians 2:11-22

AspiringTearWallsBuildBridges

Walls. Throughout history, human beings have constructed walls for various reasons: to mark boundaries, to protect inhabitants on one side and to keep out intruders or enemies on another. There have been famous walls, like the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall in England, and the Berlin Wall that divided Germany. When I was in Israel earlier this spring, we visited another famous wall, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a 187-foot-high section of the ancient wall that once enclosed and supported the Temple at the time of Jesus. It is also called the “wailing wall” because for centuries Jews have gathered there to lament the loss of their Temple, which was completely destroyed by the Romans about forty years after Jesus’ death.

Today’s New Testament lesson mentions another wall, the “dividing wall” that separated Jews from Gentiles. There was such a wall in the Temple during Jesus’ time, but it was also destroyed by the Romans. If you look at your bulletin insert, you’ll find a simple diagram of the Temple in Jerusalem during Jesus’ time, and you’ll see a dark rectangle that separated the court where Gentiles could gather from the inner court reserved for Jews and Priests. Gentiles were separated from Jews because they were seen as unholy and unclean. In the middle of the diagram, you’ll see a small shaded T-shaped building which is the Temple building. Inside was the “Holy of Holies,” the most sacred dwelling place of God, which must not be defiled by unclean and sinful human beings. Not even Jews were allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies, except for the High Priest once a year in order to offer a sacrifice seeking God’s forgiveness for Israel’s sins.

For centuries, Jews understood the holy nature of God and the unholy nature of Gentiles in this way. The dividing wall in the Temple was a physical symbol and reminder of the historical, racial, religious, and spiritual divide between the Jews and the Gentiles. For centuries, Gentiles were seen as detestable and an abomination (Deuteronomy 18:9), without God, and with no hope. Gentiles were called “the uncircumcised,” which was a racial slur and a religious insult.

Imagine yourself as a member of one of the congregations in the region of Ephesus that heard the message of our New Testament lesson this morning. “So then, remember that at one time you who are Gentiles by birth, you were without Christ, you were labeled with derogatory terms, you were excluded from citizenship in Israel, you were segregated from God.”

Have you ever been treated as an outsider? I have. When my family moved to Shreveport, Louisiana in the 1970s, my sister and I and our cousins were the only Chinese students in our elementary school. For some of my classmates, I might as well have been an alien from Mars. Looking back it’s hard to blame them since they’ve never seen anyone like me. However, some showed their discomfort by making fun of me, making “slanty eyes” faces at me, and calling me names. It was painful to be reminded again and again that I was different. It was painful to be excluded, to be on the outside looking in, to feel inferior and ashamed.

I wonder if those Gentile Christians in Ephesus felt the same way? Thankfully, while they were once strangers and aliens, that was not the whole story. The good news was that while they were once far away from God, now in Christ, they have been brought near. It’s as if the physical dividing wall in the Temple courtyard that separated them from the Jews had been torn down, opening the way for the ending of hostility between the two groups.

According to the writer of Ephesians, Jews and Gentiles were brought together as one people, as a new humanity, by Christ. Through Jesus’ painful rejection and death on the cross, all human beings, Jews and Gentiles alike, now have access to God in one Spirit. Instead of depending on a high priest to offer a yearly sacrifice in the Holy of Holies, Jesus himself is described as the ultimate High Priest (in the book of Hebrews) who continually ministers on our behalf to God. Jesus our high priest not only broke down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, but even more importantly, he broke down the dividing wall between human beings and God.

In Christ, Gentiles were made full-fledged citizens with God’s people, and not just citizens, but also members of the family of God. Do you know how radical this is? It would be akin to someone saying that all undocumented aliens in the United States are now full-fledged citizens, and not just citizens, but members of our families with a right to an inheritance from our parents! All this sounds like amazingly good news if you are the outsider, the alien, the Gentile. It does not sound so good if you are already an insider, a citizen, a Jew. To put it another way, this all sounds like grace if you are the laborers who only worked an hour and still received a days’ wage. However, we’re likely to sound off and grumble if we are the laborers who’ve worked all day and got the same pay as the latecomers. Breaking down walls is a messy business. Some see it as an entry way toward unity and reconciliation. Others see only ruin and the rubble of a former way of life. We need not only walls to be broken down. We also need bridges to be built up to span and connect the divides.

Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully human, serves as a bridge for all human beings to have full access to God. Toward the end of this passage, the writer uses a construction image: Christ Jesus is the cornerstone, and in Him, we are being built together spiritually into a dwelling place, a temple, for God. In these two verses, the writer of Ephesians radically redefined the Temple, overturning one thousand years of history and religious practice! Because of Christ, the Temple of God is no longer made of inanimate bricks, but is being built together spiritually by you and me and all those who call Christ Jesus “Lord” and “Cornerstone.” We are now the dwelling place for God! What’s more, the Holy of Holies is no longer a place in Jerusalem, but it is the person of Jesus, who, as we’ve seen in the Gospels, was not defiled by unclean and sinful human beings. Indeed, Jesus hung out with unclean people. When he touched them – like lepers or the woman who suffered twelve years with bleeding – Jesus didn’t become unclean. Instead, Jesus made them clean and whole. That’s why Jesus is our peace, who brings not only an end to hostilities, but who also brings wholeness, healing, and reconciliation . . . with God and with others. Christ, who left the holiness and comfort of the heavenly realms to dwell on earth and identify with human beings, both broke down the wall and bridged the divide between God and humanity.

So what does breaking down walls and building up bridges look like for us? Let me offer three vignettes.

First: Mark Andrew Miller’s life is a study of contrasts. He is black, but was adopted and raised in a white family, a situation that came with a good bit of tension trying to figure out his racial identity. He went to Julliard and trained in classical organ, and he knew he wanted to be involved in music ministry. His first job was at a black church in Harlem, and on his first Sunday, he played “This little light of mine” on the organ, in a style much more appropriate for Julliard than this particular church. The church actually stopped him in the middle of the song and told him he couldn’t play like that. It was only then that Mark discovered a whole new genre of music: gospel. So he immersed himself in this new musical culture and learned from scratch how to play gospel music in a black church. Now, almost all of the songs he composes are a mix of classical and gospel music. Mark Miller is on the faculty at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University. Will and Erin Brown sang under his directorship in the Gospel Choir at Yale. He’s also the composer of today’s Hymn of Response: Christ Has Broken Down the Wall.

Second vignette: In Molly Baskette’s book, Real Good Church, she shared a testimony offered by a young woman named Celeste. Celeste said:

“I confess that I have hated myself. As I gradually, begrudgingly, painfully realized that I was attracted to women and not men, I had to radically reassess how I viewed myself. I came from a tradition where all the adults I loved and respected taught, in no uncertain terms, that being gay was a choice, and a morally reprehensible one at that. It is hard and stressful for any of us to rearrange deeply embedded convictions. The process for me has included grief-filled years of journeying through denial, shame, paranoia, fear of exposure, desperation, and, quite recently, outward rejection by those whom I most sorely want to give me protection and unconditional love. . . . To my surprise, some of my biggest supporters have been two conservative evangelical friends who are uncomfortable with homosexuality. Some people would call them homophobic, but in my time of great need, they have been nothing but gracious and loving. They respect me. They trust my love in God. They are grieved at the fact that I am in pain. They love me. And I love them. . . . Even though their lack of enthusiasm for my sexual orientation is hurtful, I love them too much to draw lines in the sand. None of us are interested in talking about who is “right” or “wrong.” And slowly I think we are challenging each other’s assumptions. These conservative friends and I are parsing out what is means to be friends, despite beliefs that hurt each other. They know that a house divided can’t stand and the love we have isn’t worth losing.”[1]

Third vignette: During my years as a college student, whenever I came home for a visit, my mom would sometimes ask me this question: “So, have you found somebody?” She would most often ask this question while she was cutting my hair. Mom probably figured that since I couldn’t get away in the middle of a haircut and she had a pair of scissors in her hands, I was stuck and had to answer her question.

“Have you found a girl that you like?” Mom continued. “Maybe a nice Chinese girl?”

“No,” I would answer, “I haven’t found anyone.”

For three years, Mom asked me that question, and every time I said, “No.”

But during the spring of my senior year in college – I’m such a procrastinator – I did find someone that I liked . . . a lot. I liked Beth so much that I asked her to ride up from Houston with me to Shreveport to meet Mom and Dad. Incredibly, she said yes. But throughout the trip, I was fearful, because I wasn’t sure how Mom would react. I had told Mom about Beth, but would she welcome her? Would Mom be disappointed that I didn’t bring home a Chinese girl? I have heard of parents who disapproved of their children dating and marrying outside their race.

We finally arrived, and Beth and I knocked on the front door. Mom opened the door and the first thing she said was, “Beth!” and wrapped her arms and gave Beth a big hug. I was both relieved and disappointed. Relieved that Mom truly welcomed Beth into our household. Disappointed that Mom acknowledged Beth first before turning to me to say, “Oh, and hi, son!” Had I been less secure in my mother’s love, I might have been afraid that Mom’s welcome and inclusion of Beth might mean that she would love me less. But of course Mom has shown over the years that her love is big enough to include my dad, me, my sister Lisa, our Anglo spouses, and her four grandchildren fully, equally, and uniquely.

I believe that God’s love is big enough to include all humanity and strong enough to transcend our pain. For God so loved the world that God sent Jesus, who has broken down the dividing walls between heaven and earth, between Jews and Gentiles, between female and male, and, I believe, between black, white, Chinese, gay, straight, trans, and all other categories that the world uses to identify people. I don’t believe that God wants to destroy those identities. God only desires that as Christians, our main identity comes from Christ.

Christ is our peace. He breaks down our walls of guilt, walls of shame, walls of fear. Christ is our cornerstone. He builds up bridges to connect us to God’s grace, forgiveness, and love. Christ ushers in a new humanity, bringing wholeness, healing, and reconciliation.

In other words, God invites us to be fully conformed into the image of Christ, which is a life-long journey that begins with our baptisms, as John Brown reminded us this morning. Remember also, at one time – you, me, we – all were Gentiles by birth, outsiders, unclean, aliens, separated from God. Thanks be to God who, in Christ, has broken down the dividing wall and built a bridge for us to become citizens with God’s Kingdom and members of God’s family!

In Christ, we have been recipients of God’s grace. May we now follow this Christ in extending the same grace to others by breaking down walls that divide and building up bridges that connect us to God and with one another!  Amen.

Go now with the blessing of God. And as you go,

May Christ our peace break down walls of guilt, shame and fear

May Christ our cornerstone build up bridges of grace, forgiveness and love

May the Spirit of wholeness, healing and reconciliation make us into a new humanity,

citizens of God’s Kingdom and members of God’s family.

Amen.

 

[1] Real Good Church by Molly Phinney Baskette (2014), p. 133-135.