Pass it One: When Walls Disappear

Pass it One: When Walls Disappear

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, 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. But now 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.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.

In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. Ephesians 2:11-22

Let me begin this morning with a trick of the trade, as they say… on how to write a good sermon. There’s a formula that sometimes works. It goes like this. A, B, A.1, B.1. Pretty simple.

A is a problem in the Bible. B is a problem in the world.

A.1 is resolution in the Bible. B.1 is resolution in the world. Like I said, its pretty simple. Let’s see if it works this morning. Here goes.

Not unlike the times in which we live, the letter to the Ephesians was written in a period of change. There was no upcoming presidential election, but there was societal uncertainty. Written in the second half of the first century to a community on the edge of the Roman Empire, dealing with some new pressures, both internal and external, the letter responds with confident hope and promise. Though scholars say that this letter addresses the concern of far more people than just who lived in Ephesus in the senatorial province of Roman Asia, the basic issues were surely felt in this local congregation. The question was twofold: what did being part of the body of Christ really mean; and who was in and who was out— and how was that determined?

The backdrop of all of this was in a time and a place when the Gospel was taking root, winning the day, claiming hearts and minds of curious and seeking people; both Jews and Gentiles, insiders and outsiders. The message of God’s love made real in Jesus, a man who had lived and died and was raised from the dead- just a few years before-and not far away, was too good to pass up. People wanted to know more about him and to be part of his growing family. So where would the line be drawn, who was in and who was out, and what was the measuring stick for inclusion?

This brief portion of the letter we’ve read shares something of the nature of the dividing line, the boundary, the Wall of division, as it were. The Greek term used for “wall” can be translated as a Palisades, a very tall hedge or fence. It can also specifically refer to the Temple area in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day that prevented Gentiles from entering the sacred area; a definitive wall of division separating the worthy from the unworthy, the clean from the unclean. This concept was then applied to those ‘insiders’ of the faith- Jews, and those who were to be excluded- non-Jews, or Gentiles.

This was the problem in the Bible. If God had come to this earth in Jesus Christ who extended his love to one and all, to Jews and Samaritans, tax collectors and foreigners, all sinners alike, then how could exclusion exist as part of the way of life in a church in Jesus’ name? How could walls be put up to divide, figuratively or literally? That was the problem in the Bible.

So, what’s our problem in our world? Symbolized by the image on the bulletin cover today… it’s a picture of the “Versöhnungskirche’, the Church of Reconciliation that once stood on Bernauerstraße in Berlin, Germany. Its story is illustrative of our problem. I know about it from living there. The church was built in 1892, a beautiful, spacious brick building, much like our own, about the same size, too.

In August 1961, during the height of the Cold War, the building found itself on the border between East and West, literally. The Berlin Wall was built, again, literally, at its doorstep, separating the city in two. The entire church found itself in ‘no man’s land,’ part of the ‘Death Zone’ guarded by the machine gun towers that punctuated the Wall. It remained this way until 1985.

When I was a Volunteer in Mission for the church, back in 1983-84, serving as an intern at another Berlin church, the Martin-Luther–King Kirchengeinde, not too far away, I used to bicycle past this church and was always taken aback at the odd sight of it all. Of all the views of the Berlin Wall, this was definitely the oddest, the most telling about the state of the world, what humans can do to each other, the length to which governments will go to try to make a point. In 1985, the East German government decided to demolish the entire church, in order ‘to increase the security, order and cleanliness on the state border with West Berlin.

So there was just empty space where there once had been this glorious church- an open field devoid of any markings whatsoever, not one brick left on top of another. It was symbolic of the state atheism of the official stance of the German Democratic Republic.

After 1989, when the Wall finally came tumbling down, an opportunity presented itself to do something new; to make a change, to do things differently. I’ll save this part for later….

A wall pretty well sums it up our human problem. The history of the Bible is a log of division and reconciliation, from Cain & Abel, Moses & Pharaoh, David & Saul, Ruth, Esther and Jonah, Jesus & Judas, Paul and all his varied opponents. The God of creation, of heaven and earth, created us all in God’s own image, as one people, together. The God of the Bible, as Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann puts it, “is inscrutable.” God exercises love and compassion to whom God chooses, and ‘does not function as a mascot who dislikes the same people we do.’ In Jesus Christ, God has arrived to break down the dividing wall between us.

Our problem is that we too easily allow our human imperfections to become fissures of division, to put up walls of all sorts, rather than recognizing the one who has come to us all- equally.

One of the most formative theologians of my seminary years- a product of Cold War times, was the Czech scholar, Josef Hromadka.

(No one knows about him any more.) His starting point for understanding Jesus Christ has to do with a wall. He said that you could understand the world divided between two camps, with a big wall separating the sides. On one side of the wall is Jesus Christ. On the other side of the wall is everyone else- sinners one and all, everyone in need of redemption, rich and poor, all races and religions together, Christian, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim and everyone else, too. Humanity is humanity and God is God, and Jesus comes to us to break down the wall that divides us. (Josef Hromadka was citing the Apostle Paul pretty liberally, and it fit.)

The message to the Ephesians was about God’s breaking into our world, into our lives, in Jesus Christ. The imagery can be pretty dramatic. The resolution was not easy, but it was transforming. The wall referred to in Ephesians wasn’t built of brick or cement. It was a ‘dividing wall of hostility’; discord and enmity between racial, ethnic and social distinctions. It sounds pretty daunting, centuries old, festering rivalries, pagan worshippers suddenly somehow won over by Jesus; locals and immigrants in a melting pot of a city in Asia Minor. And somehow, through the Holy Spirit, that little, diverse church in Ephesus began to grow.

As Paul penned this letter while himself a prisoner, accused as an opponent of Imperial Rome, his message of Christian freedom resonated and took root. A new standard of expectation was given to people to live up to, in Jesus’ name… and apparently it took hold.

We would not know of this church if it had not been so.

Called to be faithful to their better angels, the Ephesian Christians grew into the good news of the Gospel that had been proclaimed to them. They lived into their calling an became an example for other congregations around them.

God in Christ calls everyone to worship and love and serve together.

So what does all this mean for us now? Let me get to an answer through the example of the Versöhnungskirche in Berlin.

I have not been back to see this in person; what I know about it is what I’ve read on the church website (brushing up on my German a bit.)

Out of the dirt and ashes of the old church grounds, literally, a new chapel has been built. Architects must have loved it. Made out of ‘rammed earth’- the dirt of the old site, including shards of brick, metal and glass, there now stands a very different worship space – more contemplative, more inviting for some, very much a place of deep and reverent worship- including an old altar piece from the old church and a cross of nails, donated by the people of Coventry England.

Instead of letting the field go fallow, or trying to recreate a past that went very, very wrong- both in the history of the Second World War and in the years when their own nation was divided; split in two in more ways than one, people in Berlin who through it all still loved Jesus chose to recognize the gift of reconciliation given them in Christ.

When the Berlin Wall disappeared, a new place of reconciliation was put in its place–a centerpiece where history, understanding and the grace of God can be joined together. In recent years, the Versöhnungskirche has been opening itself up to interfaith services, reaching out to the increasing number of Turkish refugees in the city.

The problem of human division in our world has not been solved by the eradication of the Berlin Wall, or by the construction of a new, ‘open’ church in its place. But it is a good place to start.

Now, for us, one last part of a formula for good sermon is sharing a story that can help to drive home the central point, make it real for us. Here’s what I can share from my time as intern there over 30 years ago, in ministry in Berlin. I spent time on pastoral visits, along with one of the lead Pastors of the parish I served. (The German Church still maintains official ‘parishes’: if you live within a certain geographic region of the church, you are part of the parish.)  I remember a visit with Pfarrer Uli Krumm and a confirmand, young Bettina, just thirteen, that eventually changed this young girl’s life, though she did not know it at the time. Under duress, as part of the confirmation process, she went with us on a visit to a nursing home. Her mother had insisted that she go, despite that she didn’t know anyone there- and that there were a number of new refugees there, just having arrived there from Turkey.

This past week I went back through a box of old letters I’ve kept from that year… and I remember translating Betinna’s letter to me, now over 30 years ago. This is what she wrote, reflecting on one particular visit to an older woman, her head wrapped in a colorful shawl (clearly not a Berlin native), who we had coaxed for her to approach with care.

“Smarting from the awkwardness, I stood before this ancient-looking woman, in my hand a bouquet of crepe paper flowers we had made. Everything about her saddened me – the worn-down face, the lopsided grin, the tendrils of gray hair protruding from a read and gree scarf wrapped around her head. I sort of tossed the bouquet to her, at arms length.

Then she looked at me, a look that pierced me to the marrow of my thirteen-year-old bones. Then she spoke the words I will never forget. “You didn’t want to come, did you, child?”

The words stunned me. They were too painful, too powerful, too naked in their honesty. “Oh, yes, I wanted to come,” I protested.

A smile lifted one side of her mouth. “It’s okay,” she said. “You can’t force the heart. But your feet led you to be true.”

If Bettina Schmidt had never met this stranger, perhaps her heart would never have been pushed toward a new direction of compassion. Her feet had led her to where her heart would have held her back. A wall came down for her. She has since become a Pastor herself, with whom I’ve shared some correspondence over the years.

I’m blessed to have remembered this account.

May God help all of us, our feet to move and our hearts to open up, to all for whom we can make a positive difference in life – in anyone’s life; in Jesus’ name. Amen.