13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
One of the things I notice when I drive around Bismarck is the amount of walls that are going up. There’s the First International Bank over on the corner of Divide and State. There’s Simle and Wachter Middle Schools. There’s the Capital Ice Complex. There’s the Governor’s House. That doesn’t even include all the new houses in the north part of town, the east part of town, the south part of town. I was doing some research to get ready for this sermon and found out that in the month of August alone there were 43 pages of building permits given out by the city. With about 4 per page that’s 172. So I looked for all of 2017. There have been a total of 309 pages of building permits issued. With about 4 per page, that is a grand total of over 1,200 permits given so far this year to build up something in Bismarck. One of those permits were for the parsonage basement, because we had to put up a few walls down there, too. That’s a lot of walls, physical walls made of steel, wood, brick, cement or whatever.
Now, what about the other walls that are going up in Bismarck, the kinds that aren’t made of steel, wood, brick, cement or whatever? What I’m wondering is how many walls have gone up because of a grudge or guilt, prejudice or pride, racism or rage, slander or selfishness? What about the kinds of walls that people build to keep others out of their lives because of something they said or did? The walls the people put up to stay clear of a certain group because of their differences, what about those? Well, they have gone up and they still do, not just in Bismarck but also all over the globe.
This is not a new concept. The Apostle Paul was living during the first century in the Roman Empire. There were different groups of people in Ephesus and all over the place. They had different personalities, different politics, and different passions. They had different backgrounds, different beliefs, different everything. The walls were up, including the wall separating the Jewish people from the Gentile people.
See, God had given the Jewish people a specific role. It wasn’t because of their special skills or their holy lives. He chose them because from Abraham’s descendants God would give this entire world, all people, the Savior. With that purpose in mind, God had given the Jewish people a specific set of laws to keep every aspect of their life different from the rest of the world, also known as the Gentiles. The Jews had a different diet and dress code, they had a different calendar and holidays, they had a different worship style and worship space.
Now, all these differences did not make them a better nation in God’s eyes. The wall was up between them because God intended these differences to be a magnet for Gentiles to bring them closer to the only God and his promise of eternal life through faith in him.
However, the Jews turned the differences into a source of pride. They loved the wall between them. The differences of the Jews did not draw Gentiles in but repulsed them even farther away. And so this wall that Paul talks about between Jew and Gentiles is not the differences between them but rather the hatred and hostility that resulted from the Jewish pride and selfishness.
These kind of walls keep going up today not because of differences but because of what we do with the differences. Unlike a common idea held in our culture, people are not born with a natural inclination to be good. We are born to think of ourselves first. That trait is called selfishness or pride and it is never going to help you with God or with others, because it makes me look inward to try and find the good that God requires. And if I can’t find the good, no the perfection, that God requires in me, then I start to look for it elsewhere. And because I am born sinful and selfish, I don’t naturally look for help from others, I look for comparisons to others. If there are differences with other people, then I will make sure that those differences make me look better in my eyes and to the world. If the differences make me feel better about myself and make me look good in this world, then they have to shine me in a good light to God, right? Wrong! Now anything different from me is not just different. No, I’ve turned one into the better option and the other into a worse option. And because I am born with this deep-seeded selfish pride, I make mine better and someone else’s difference worse. The wall goes up and it isn’t attracting anyone to Jesus, it’s driving them farther and farther away.
For example, the comparisons can be age related. “What’s the deal with millennials? They are entitled. They are lazy and thinned-skinned. The just care about how many likes they get on facebook; that’s being social to them instead of looking someone in the eye.” Or maybe the comparisons are political. “Can you believe that they voted for so and so? How can they have that view about education, foreign policy, immigration, or morality?” Maybe the comparison is economic. “You don’t want to live in that area. The people are lazy and looking for trouble. Why can’t they get a job? Or that neighborhood is so uppity and they don’t realize that not everyone was born with a sliver spoon in their mouth.” The comparisons can crop up in so many ways, and when they do the real tragedy is not what comes out but the pride inside that builds an unbreakable wall. The real heartbreak is thinking that our identity, purpose, value and appearance before God comes from what I can produce and how it’s better than what someone else can.
Taking a good honest look at how each one of us has put up these kinds of walls gives us a little idea on how these walls are going to come down. Spoiler alert: I can’t bring them down and neither can you. And that is exactly what Paul was saying to these two different groups in Ephesus, to Christian churches all over the Roman world, and to us. God’s strategy for tearing down the walls between people is not to make us try harder to see past the differences or to meet somewhere in the middle. God’s plan is bigger.
When a hurricane tears apart a state, when someone is stranded and sobbing on a roof, or when someone doesn’t have the capability to clean up the mess, do you think the differences matter? Do you think that age, race, political leanings or financial means are the first things that come to mind when you have lost everything? Does republican and democrat, black or white, rich or poor, old or young mean anything when tragedy hits? No, then it becomes quite clear what we have in common. The solution that Paul brings out so beautifully for us is something much much bigger than any of the differences that separate people. God’s solution is to give all people something in common.
In order to bring down the walls that we build up, Paul does not try to eliminate the differences. Instead, he points us to a different wall, one that is much bigger and that we all have in common. He points out the wall that exists between a holy God and sinful people. Every time we pick up a brick and add it to the wall between someone else, we might think we our adding value or making ourselves look better than someone else to God. But the reality is it’s just another brick in the wall between me and someone much bigger. When our pride and selfishness builds a wall, it is the almighty God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – on the other side.
Now listen to what Paul says: But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ…[he] has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. Christ came not to show us how to take down the walls, not to eliminate differences, but to take down the wall of sin the separated sinners from God. He took the wall of hostility down by paying for all our sins with his blood and death. He restored us. And now there is nothing between us and God.
Well maybe one thing, PEACE. Paul says, “…through the cross… he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” In Christ, we have no wall separating us from God. We have direct access to him and eternal peace with him.
Now, brothers and sisters, the things that define us, that give us our identity, the show us our purpose are not our differences but what we have in common. We were all born sinful on the other side of that wall. God had the same love for all of us. Jesus came and died for all sin. We all have the same forgiveness that he won. The doors to heaven are open for all from every nation. And all of us who have faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior possess in full the things the we try to pursue on our own. Why in the world do we need to pursue them by being different from or comparing ourselves to someone else?
Our loving Savior does not bring down the walls by eliminating the differences between us. Instead, he surpasses the differences by making the most important things about us, not our differences but what we have in common. We have been bought together by Christ’s death and brought together by the his gospel. So, not only do we have this peace with God, but Paul says this: “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household…” Some might look like foreigners from a distant land where we have no clue what life is like. Some might be strange to us, but Christ purchased a place where we, differences and all, are fellow citizens of the same land. Not only are we living in the same land but God’s grace in Jesus brought us all into the same family, members of God’s household.
“In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” Do you notice something about God’s house? It’s not like all the permits that are given in Bismarck. No, in God’s house, there are no walls. Amen.