You don’t have to go too far to discover walls of hostility that divide people. Unfortunately, conflict is one of the most ordinary spaces in which we live as human beings. It is true at the global level. Nations are constantly clashing against nation. Israelites and Palestinians, Egypt, Iran. It’s true at the national level. The mudslinging between Republicans and Democrats is just going to get worse the closer we get to November. It’s true in the back seat of our car. These sweet little, innocent children draw an imaginary line between them and spit out the venomous words, “Don’t cross that line! Mom, she’s touching me!”
I would like you to think about conflict that you are experiencing in your life right now. Hold it in your mind. Now, I’d like us to think about conflict like a brick wall that is built between us and that person or group of people. How do you build a wall? One brick at a time. Each of those bricks are moments in time. They are actions taken, words spoken, love withheld. A bitter word. A hateful comment. A cold shoulder. Brick after brick is laid down until, sometimes the wall is so high and so thick that it seems impossible to change.
Can you see that wall in your mind? The question for us today is, “How can we break down this wall?”
How many of you have seen the movie War Horse? Great movie. I want to show you a clip in a moment. First let me set the stage for it. This movie takes place during World War I. In this scene we see the British army entrenched on one side and the German army entrenched on the other. The battle has been raging for months. These men are about to mercilessly destroy one another by shooting bullets into each other’s bodies, skewering each other with bayonets, filling each other’s lungs with toxic mustard gas. I know this is horrific, but we need to see the brutality of the context in order for this scene to have impact.
In the middle of this battle a horse gets free and starts running. The horse runs through a bunch of barbed wire and gets so tangled up that it is trapped on the battlefield right in between the two armies.
As we watch what happens next, try to observe the setting. Notice the color and tone of the scene. Then notice what changes. Let’s watch.
Do you see what happened? Two men who were about to kill each other came together in a bond of peace. Why? Because they shared compassion for this helpless creature. The walls fell down for a moment. It is possible.
Sadly, this wall went right back up and these men resumed the killing.
The question before us remains. How can we break down this wall?
Our Epistle lesson deals with this topic. I encourage you to take out your Bible and turn to Ephesians 2:11-22.
The Apostle Paul wrote this letter from prison. It is important to note this fact because the reason he is in prison is directly tied to our topic. Paul was in trouble because he was accused of breaching a wall.
The Temple that sat in the heart of Jerusalem was a series of walled in courtyards. You can see in this illustration. Right here, in the center is the Temple itself. Only priests were allowed inside the Temple, because this represented the very presence of God. Even then, only one priest was allowed to go into the Most Holy Place, and that only once a year. Then the next courtyard was called the Court of Israel. Which meant that only circumcised male Jews were allowed to come in here. You know, I’ve always wondered how they checked that. Talk about an awkward way to start a worship service. I know, that was bad.
The next courtyard was the court of women. Again, only Jewish women were allowed here.
Then, way out here, on the side, was the Court of Gentiles. If you were not a Jew, you were not welcome here.
Imagine what our worship space would be like if it were under these rules. We’d have a big curtain around the altar, and only Pastor Mark could go there once a year. Then another curtain around the chancel, and only Pastor Karri and I would be allowed to step foot in there. Then only male members of this congregation would be allowed to sit in the pews. Female members of the congregation could stand in the Narthex and look in. Everybody else could stand outside if they wanted.
Enter Paul. He had been out traipsing around the countryside, interacting with Gentiles. He even brought some Gentiles back with him. The horror! He was accused of bringing one of the Gentiles into this space. Gasp! That’s why they wanted to kill him.
I take the time to map this out because when Paul speaks of a wall of hostility, he is not just speaking in the abstract. He’s talking about this physical representation of the division and exclusion of people from the community of God’s people.
Let’s look at what he says. This passage can be broken down into two main parts. A before and an after.
In the before part he says:
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Here’s the key phrase in the whole passage: But now
Say it with me. But now. Again. But now.
Something has changed because of Jesus. Look at how central Jesus is this section. Notice all the red squiggly boxes.
in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.
You see, this is the Gospel. This is the good news. Jesus has put to death that hostility through his death on the cross. You know we say this all the time, but have ever asked how that works? What really happened?
Think about it this way. The biggest wall of hostility in the universe is the wall built between us and God. How many times have we hurt God by our pettiness, and anger, and lying, and cheating, and on and on. If anyone had the right to be hostile toward us it would be God. But God looks at us. He looks at you and says, “I have died to the wall. I have died to your sin and the many times you have hurt me and others. I forgive you, and I love you.”
And as he looks at us with that eternal love, all the bricks just vanish.
And then Jesus looks at the walls of hostility that still remain between us and says, I’ve knocked this down. I have proclaimed peace. How ‘bout it?
What about your wall today? Look at each of those bricks. Each of those hurtful things that you want to cling to. Once you were defined by them. Once there was the other person far off on the other side, and you on this side. But now. Because of God’s love demonstrated in Jesus, and through the power of God’s Spirit moving between us, we can let go of the past, forgive the bricks, and work toward the future of peace in the presence of God.
I know its way more complicated than that. I know that in 20 minutes I can’t even scratch the surface of how to do this. I realize that there are legitimate times when people need to be kept apart. However, I also think that many times we hide behind these walls and use them as an excuse for not loving the way Jesus called us to love.
Maybe this week you can start with one brick. I challenge you to think about that wall, and think about the bricks. Choose one thing that someone has done to you. Write it down. Ask God to give you the strength to smash it. Jesus has smashed it already. Just let yourself see it dissolve. One brick at a time, let’s let the walls fall down.