Jesus Breaks Down Walls of Hostility
Where were you when the Berlin wall came down? Many of us will have vivid memories of where we were in November, 1989 when we heard the momentous news. And who could forget the images on the television news? Jubilant crowds on both sides tugging and pushing at the wall until eventually, with great cheers, that great dividing wall came tumbling down. That wall, so symbolic of hostility, was now a pile of rubble.
In today’s epistle reading we hear of another dividing wall – a wall of hostility that divided people. In verse 14 we read: For he (Christ) is our peace; in his flesh he has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. What is Paul talking about here? What is this dividing wall he mentions? Well, let’s find out the background to these verses.
Like so many of the congregations Paul wrote to, the Ephesian congregation was made up of Jews and Gentiles. Today we find it hard to comprehend the great hostility between these two groups. But many Jews had acquired the inflated notion that they alone were worthy of God’s favour – some even saying that the Gentiles were merely fuel for the fires of hell. The Jews were highly conscious that they alone had been chosen by God as his special nation – and they were quite right. But they had also forgotten that the whole purpose of their favoured status was to be a light for the Gentiles. On the other hand the Gentiles resented the arrogance of the Jewish groups, and were prone to isolate and persecute them. As Paul writes in this letter, a dividing wall of hostility stood between these two groups of people.
But it’s also likely that Paul is actually referring to a real wall – the middle wall of partition in the Jerusalem temple. Immediately around the temple were a number of courts where Jewish people could worship – one court for the priests, one for the laymen, and one for the women. But if you descended a series of steps and levels and passed through a wall, then, at a much greater distance, you were in the court of the Gentiles. The Gentiles could view God’s house from a distance, but they could never come near. They were ‘far off’. And barring their access was a wall – a dividing wall. And on this wall was a notice (which archaeologists have unearthed): ‘Any Gentile passing this wall will have only himself to blame for his ensuing death’. It was a real dividing wall – but it reflected an even deeper dividing wall of hostility.
But now a number of Jews, and an increasing number of Gentiles, were coming to a common faith in Christ. Jews and Gentiles were becoming members of one church. So did the hostilities and prejudices just fall away overnight? Of course not. Many Jewish and Gentile Christians still only barely tolerated each other – if that. They still called each other names: Gentiles referred to Jews as ‘the circumcised’; Jews referred to Gentiles as ‘the foreskins’. That explains why so often Paul’s letters reflect a concern that Jews and Gentiles recognize each other as full members of God’s family. Much of Paul’s work consisted of reconciliation between these two groups. And that concern also lies behind today’s passage.
So how does Paul go about bringing the Jews and Gentiles closer together? Well, surprisingly, he doesn’t actually ask them to do anything. He just tells them once again what Christ has done for them. In these verses we can count up at least seven things that Christ, and Christ alone, did to bring Jew and Gentile together.
Christ’s reconciling work can be summarised in three stages. First, Jesus has completely demolished the dividing wall of hostility. When Jesus died on the cross, that great Berlin wall between Jew and Gentile came tumbling down. In the Old Testament there was a dividing wall between Israel and the rest of humanity. But now that wall is a pile of rubble. Jesus’ death and resurrection has put an end to it. But that’s not all.
The second step was that Jesus now brought both groups together into one in his body. Jesus didn’t just break down the wall and then walk away. He didn’t say: ‘OK, I’m off now, let’s see if you can just get along with each other now’. He brought them together in his body, ‘in his flesh’. Only in connection with Jesus, could Jew and Gentile stand united. Only their common baptism into Christ’s body could keep them together. It’s like this: in place of the dividing wall, Jesus now stands there, with his arms outstretched. Inside his arms are the Jews and the Gentiles, and Jesus’ arms stretch all the way around them, and embrace them. The Jews and Gentiles are now one family, but only because Jesus’ arms are all the way around them: only because they are in his body.
And finally, Jesus brings this newly united group to his heavenly Father. Jesus picks up a scattered and divided people, brings them together into one, and takes them home to God as one new family.
Well, that is how Paul urged the Jews and Gentiles to recognize each other as fellow brother and sister in Christ. Was he successful? Sadly, not always. In many places Jews and Gentiles went their separate ways. But where they did listen, imagine what a great step it was when Jew and Gentile could finally say of each other: ‘He is my brother in Christ’. ‘She is my sister in Christ’. What a divine achievement that was!
What relevance does this have to us, who are many generations removed from the church in Ephesus? Does this passage speak to us: us who are almost entirely Gentile? Absolutely – because we too build our dividing walls. So easily our sin makes us construct dividing walls of hostility. In your average Christian congregation any number of walls can spring up. They might not all be walls of outright hostility, but they may still be walls which prevent us from seeing our fellow member as a precious brother or sister in Christ. Any number of walls can obscure the unity we have in Christ – our nationality or accent; the colour of our skin; our wealth; our level of education; our job; whether we are a long standing Lutheran or a relatively new member of the church. Some walls have particularly troubled the church in the last 20-30 years – worship styles, music tastes, the so-called generation gap between older folk and the youth culture.
Of course it is in the home, in our family and marriage, where we often experience our dividing walls. Sometimes it only takes the odd comment or criticism for a dividing wall to rapidly build itself between husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister.
Yes, we are expert builders when it comes to dividing walls! And that is why Paul’s words will always speak to us as well. How we need Christ to continually come into our lives, our home, our congregation, to break down the dividing walls before they become too large! How we need Jesus to make us one in his body! And praise God that he does. He is our peace. He does extend his arms right around us. Through Jesus we have a real unity.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: if it wasn’t for Christ who has his arms around us right now, many of us would have nothing to do with each other. There would be nothing to bring us together, nothing in particular to make us love one another, no reason for us to join our voices with each other week in week out. If it wasn’t for Christ, why would the under 40s mix with those who are over 80 unless there was some natural reason, like being related? Why would we pray for each other? Why would we be sitting here side by side? If it wasn’t for Christ, there would be no compelling reason. We would instead mix with those with whom we shared some kind of interest. But the miracle of this congregation, the miracle of the Ephesian church, the miracle of any Christian congregation is that Christ is our unity. He has not only made Jews and Gentiles one, but he has made all of us one as well.
Christ has torn down the dividing wall and made us part of his body through our baptism. He continues to make us one with his body and blood through Holy Communion. Thank God for the ongoing work of reconciliation of Jesus and look forward to the eternally united family we will be part of in heaven.
And may the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
This message is brought to you by Grace Lutheran Church, Web and Park Street, Mountain View, Arkansas. For prayer or more information, contact Pastor Kenneth Taglauer by email: [email protected] A Pass it On Project You can read more at Sunday by Sunday