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.+

The Idol and the Servant

What has religion to do with idols? Plenty, if you're not careful!

SJF • Easter 6c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.

I want to talk to you today about idols: and by idols I don’t mean statues with five heads and a dozen arms — but the more insidious idols that can creep in around the edges of even Christian worship. These idols disguise themselves so well, that one can fall into worshiping them without knowing it.

Because we are not disembodied spirits, our worship requires physical expression: we need people, places and things. We are called, as the Collect says, to worship God in all things and above all things, so things play a part in our lives: our worship lives and our ordinary lives. In the church certain people are ordained to carry out special functions in our worship. Certain places, like this building, receive special honor, as a place where we gather to worship God. Certain physical things, such as the crucifix over the altar, serve to focus our worship. These people, places and things — the means of our worship — are not meant to be the object of our worship: God is.

Some years ago a priest friend of mine, who was wearing his clericals out on the street, was challenged by an aggressive fundamentalist. “Why do you Roman Catholics worship statues? Don’t you know that’s idolatry?” My priest friend said, “First of all, I’m Episcopalian, not Roman Catholic; but I will admit there are statues and images in my church. But before I answer your question, would you mind showing me your wallet?” Somewhat startled, perhaps expecting to be hit up for a donation, the man reluctantly took out his billfold. My friend said, “Would you open it for me, please. Ah — I see you have a picture of what I assume are your wife and children. Would you mind very much tearing it up and throwing it away?” The man said, “Are you crazy! I love my wife and family.” The priest responded, “But I’m not asking you to do anything to your wife and family. I’m just talking about a picture. It’s just a piece of paper.” The man — who still didn’t seem to get the connection, though I’m sure most of you have by now — said, “It isn’t the picture, it’s what it represents!” The priest said, “Well, it’s the same way with my church. We know the image of Mary isn’t Mary, and the one of Jesus isn’t Jesus. We don’t worship these images; we honor and respect them as reminders of the reality of which they are just representations and reminders: the real Mary whose obedience changed the world, and the real Jesus whose saving death on the cross purchased salvation for all of us sinners. And I’m no more willing to destroy these reminders than you are willing to do so to the picture of your family.”

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And that’s the truth. We know full well — or at least I hope we know — that this building on the corner of 190th and Jerome is not the New Jerusalem. For one thing, the New Jerusalem doesn’t require a new roof on the parish hall every 30 years! Also the New Jerusalem is lit by the light of the Lamb, not bu our lovely knew light-bulbs just installed this week. We know that the figure over our altar is made of brass and plaster, that the icons are painted wooden panels. We do not worship the physical things that we see, but we treat them with respect as reminders of the spiritual truths that cannot be seen.

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However, sometimes people in the church do become so attached to the people, places and things of the church — which are meant to guide us and lead us to God — that we lose sight of God himself. Have you ever received a birthday package so beautifully wrapped that you said, “Oh, I hate to open it!” Or been presented with a birthday cake so beautifully decorated that you said, “Oh, I hate to cut it!” I’ve heard people say those things many times. But did you ever actually leave the present wrapped, or the cake uncut? Anyone? I didn’t think so. But sometimes in worship, people get so caught up with the things of worship, that they stop there, just as it is, and fail to reach the reality behind them.

The pagan priest at Lystra — the priest of Zeus — and of course pagans were used to idols so perhaps this was natural — was ready to offer sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, because of what they had done, and how they spoke. But the apostles cried out, “No! Not this! We are men like you! We have come to bring you the good news... to turn you from empty idols and point you to the God who made heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them.” The apostles were there to get the people to worship the true and living God; they didn’t want to be set up themselves as idols of a new cult!

Yet many times since then, we Christians have “gotten stuck” on the things meant to guide us, like a car stuck in the ruts of the very road meant to aid our journey. When this happens, we make the error of traditionalism. And when we get stuck on a church leader or minister, we fall into what is called the cult of personality. And both of these are deadly to the church.

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First, a few words about traditionalism. It is not the same as tradition. Tradition is the heritage of our religious culture. Without tradition, we are like people with cultural amnesia, ignorant of our past. As I’ve said before, How can you do what Jesus would do if you don’t know what he did? Or what the Apostles did, or the other great saints and sages of the church’s history have done down through the years even to our own time? Tradition is a vehicle for our journey in faith, but it must be a living tradition, a vehicle which moves, which brings us somewhere, not becoming an end in itself. For that’s when tradition becomes traditionalism. As a wise man once said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Traditionalism reminds me of that tragic character from Dickens’ Great Expectations, Miss Havesham, who was jilted on her wedding day, and lived forever in that moment, in a musty room still dressed in her wedding-gown, with an untouched wedding cake covered with cobwebs, nourished only by her thirst for revenge.

But tradition is not such a musty museum. Tradition is a vital thread of truth passed on from generation to generation, linking us back to the time when Christ first promised that even as he went away he would send another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would continue to teach the disciples everything, and, importantly, remind them of all he had said and taught and done. This is tradition as the gift of God himself.

So the Spirit works to help us keep tradition in focus as we learn about the road we’ve traveled since the days of Paul and Barnabas. We learn from our history by asking questions, with respect and understanding. For when we can no longer tell what greater truth something points to, it is no longer a tradition in any meaningful sense. It has become just one more thing; it has become a vehicle that goes nowhere; it has become an idol.

Sadly, the church has a long history of people getting stuck in ruts of traditionalism, so focused on the thing itself that they loose all understanding and perspective. Sometimes people get so attached to a tradition that they even resort to violence against those who disagree or sooner die than give it up!

I’m not exaggerating. In the eighth century, a monastery of English monks resisted the instructions from Rome that they begin chanting the psalms in the Roman fashion. And so the king stationed archers in the gallery of the monastery, and as the monks persisted singing their traditional English tunes, they were slaughtered in the choir where they stood.

Maybe you’ll say, Oh, but that was in the dark ages; the eight century; things have gotten a lot better. Well, things weren’t better a thousand years later! In 17th century Russia, the Patriarch of Moscow instituted changes in worship, and open warfare broke out — thousands of people died defending the “old ways.” Whole villages were destroyed, people were burnt at the stake in the hundreds. What changes so angered these traditionalists, these “Old Believers”? What earth-shattering reforms did the Patriarch insist were crucial to the faith? To make the sign of the cross with three fingers instead of two, and to say the Alleluia three times instead of once. And as those Old Believers went to the stake, they defiantly crossed themselves with two fingers instead of three. I guess they had the last word.

When people worship their worship rather than worshiping God through their worship, then worship itself has become an idol: an end in itself rather than a means to the highest end of all, which is God.

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The other side of the coin, shown in the story of Paul and Barnabas, is what happens when people start to worship the messenger instead of the one of whom the messenger speaks: this is the cult of personality I mentioned a while ago. We’ve seen this happen with televangelists who rise on the wave of popularity and then crash on the rocks of scandal. But it can also happen in more subtle ways: when ministers are seen as so central to the life of their congregation that they are valued not for what they do but for who they are.

And this is why I am glad to take this opportunity to remind you about what ministers are and what they do. This is in part a message for Sahra our seminarian who will soon be exercising ministry in the church, as an ordained minister of the church.

First of all, that word minister. People will use it with respectful tones. “Oh, she’s a minister,” they might say. So it may come as a surprise to learn that the word minister comes from the Latin word for servant. And it’s the kind of servant most of us are still familiar with: a waiter! So it’s nothing to get high and mighty about! It is about serving — about serving God and the people of God.

This is why all ordained ministers especially should take Paul and Barnabas as their model: it isn’t about us; it isn’t about who we are, but about the One whom we serve. And our primary service is to help the whole people of God to come closer to God and to each other in Christ, and then to go forth into the world in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, the same Spirit Jesus promised would come to the Apostles and guide them and lead them into all Truth.

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We as believers in the One God reject idolatry. We honor those who minister not for themselves but for the sake of the mission of God and its outreach to the ends of the world. Even as we gather in this place, we reach out towards the heavenly Jerusalem, of which this is merely a foretaste, to that place beyond where all symbols and traditions and ministries have their end and goal.

For in the New Jerusalem, there is no Temple. The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the Temple. There is no special class of ministers, for all of God’s people are kings and priests to God, a royal priesthood, and all of them also and at the same time servants of the Lamb. In the New Jerusalem there are no statues or images or icons, as reminders — for we will behold sanctity and divinity with our own eyes, lit by the lamp of the Lamb. In the heavenly city we shall no longer worship through traditions or customs, or things, or places, or with the help of ministers, but face to face with the one whom we adore, serving one another to the glory of God alone. God give us strength to persevere, that we may one day walk in the light of the Lamb, in the land in which there is no night, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+