The dividing wall that separates nations is torn down in Christ -- a sermon for Proper 11b

Proper 11b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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.

Last week we heard about the prophet Amos and his vision of God holding a plumb-line against the rickety and tilting wall of the house of Israel. This week the architectural imagery continues, in Saint Paul’s description of the church as a temple, a spiritual dwelling place for God.

Of course, at the time Paul is writing, the Temple is still standing in Jerusalem, and Paul uses it as a symbol much as Amos used the plumb-line and the wall against which the plumb-line was set. The Temple as it stood in the days of the apostles was the one built by King Herod the Great. This was by far the most spectacular, but also the shortest-lived of the Temples that stood on that spot, as the Romans would destroy it in the year 70. But while it stood, it served as a symbol of the presence of God amongst his chosen people.

It also stood, of course, as a very real symbol of those who were considered not to be God’s chosen people — the Gentiles. More than a symbol, it was an obstacle. Although Solomon had declared that his Temple would be a house of prayer for all peoples, by the time Herod constructed his enlarged and improved version there was greater sensitivity to just who was in and who was out.

Although there was a portion of the Temple — the outermost precinct — in which Gentiles were permitted to offer their prayers, no Gentile was permitted to enter into the inner courts of the Temple. There was a clear hierarchy of holiness about the Temple, and Gentiles were the furthest out and the furthest away. Under the Law, who you were by birth determined how close you could come to the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, the place where God was believed to dwell. Only the High Priest could enter that most holy place, and even then only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. The other priests could gather in the court outside, the holy place. Then adult males coming to offer sacrifice, then Jewish women— yes, there was a “limestone ceiling” in those days and Jewish women and children could go no further — and then finally, in the outermost precinct, was the Court of the Gentiles.

And just to be sure that no Gentile made the mistake of trespassing even on the area that Jewish women were allowed to enter, there was a wall and a door and a big warning sign carved in stone to warn to Gentiles. You’ve no doubt seen the signs at amusement parks designed to keep children from getting on rides that might be dangerous to them: “You must be this tall to go on this ride.” (I’ve been turned away from a few myself!) Well Herod and his builders put up similar signs carved in stone with a warning that said: “Any Gentile who passes through this screen will be subject to death, and bring death upon himself.”

This architectural feature reflected the general feeling that devout Jews of that time had towards Gentiles. For the most part it was distinctly anti-Gentile. There are clear hints of this throughout the Gospel and the Epistles. Even Jesus himself, when a Gentile woman approaches him ask him to heal her daughter, said it was not right to take the children’s food and give it to dogs; and he also said that a sinful member of the church who would not repent at the church’s urging should be treated as a Gentile or a tax collector. And then in today’s reading from Ephesians, Paul sums up that prevailing attitude towards the Gentiles to whom he is writing — Greek converts to the Christian faith: “you Gentiles by birth... aliens from the commonwealth of Israel... strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” That’s how Gentiles were thought of: without God.

However — and it is a big however — as Paul goes on to say, that was then, this is now; in Christ, and by his blood, Paul assures that those who once were far off, the exiles and foreigners, have been brought into the promise. And he makes use of the well-known architectural feature of the Temple — the dividing wall with its sign carved in Greek letters so that Gentiles could read just how unwelcome they were — to show how God has changed things in Christ. Jesus has, as Paul says, “broken down the dividing wall” that separated Jew from Gentile. The old law that said that Gentiles were at best far-off strangers to God, without God, has been set aside, because Christ has made of all people a new humanity, making peace and reconciling them by the blood of the cross.

Just imagine how this message must have sounded to those early Gentile converts. Imagine what it would be like if the US government were suddenly to announce that all our borders were open — that the dividing wall that they’re building between Texas and Mexico was to be torn down, and that not only were all immigrants to be granted work-permits, not only green-cards, not just an amnesty for some but full citizenship for all, no questions asked — the only requirement to come forward and say, “I want to be a citizen of this land,” with no test to pass, no form to fill out, no fee to pay, but just to say, “Here I am; I want to be part of this country and all it stands for.”

Some of the early Christians weren’t willing to be that open about welcoming Gentiles into the church. They still wanted them to be circumcised and to follow the Law of Moses. Paul believed otherwise — as did the Council of the Apostles, eventually, when they saw how the first Gentile converts showed the same testimony of God’s Holy Spirit as they had experienced themselves. In spite of the decision of the Apostolic Council, and the experiences of Peter and Paul alike, there were still hard-liners in the early church, who persisted in their belief that the only real Christian was a Jewish Christian, or at least a Gentile who had been circumcised and agreed to keep the whole Law of Moses. Paul’s letters, including Ephesians, from which we heard this morning, and even more strongly Galatians, attest to this continuing debate and controversy — so if you ever are tempted to imagine that controversy between traditionalists and progressives is something new in the church, these epistles are a good testimony that it’s been going on for a long, long time, and as the wise man said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

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The good news — and I really mean Good News — for all of us in this, perhaps especially for us, is that this particular traditionalist movement eventually lost its steam and died out. As I say this is particularly good news for us, since we are all Gentiles by birth, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel by birth, strangers to the covenant by birth, far off by birth. But not, thanks be to God, having no hope and without God. For the dividing wall was torn down on Calvary, and the possibility to obtain citizenship in God’s kingdom was assured to us in the blood of Christ. We are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens by the new birth of baptism, citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles — who made that decision to remove the restrictions and the requirements of the Law of Moses— and of the prophets — who had promised this the day would come when all the peoples of the world, Jew and Gentile alike, would be gathered together into one people, God’s people, in a new and heavenly realm.

And more than people — to return to the architectural metaphor with which we began. With Jesus himself as the cornerstone, all of faithful humanity, Jew and Gentile alike, is joined together and grows into a holy temple to the Lord, in whom we are built together into a dwelling place for God. We, the living stones of God’s human temple, are the place where God abides and dwells. God does not just dwell in a building on a hill in old Jerusalem, but in the heart of all of the citizens of the New and heavenly Jerusalem. This is a citizenship greater than any earthly nation can provide. It is to this, my brothers and sisters in the faith, that we are called and builded up — to be the dwelling place of God, in which there is no dividing wall that says a stranger can come in only on pain of death — but only life, the life of God himself alive in us, through Jesus Christ, who has redeemed us through the blood of his cross, and made us One.+