Sermon for July 22, 2018: Unity (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
When I was a young boy growing up in Texas I would often see my mother along with other church women sit in a circle and carefully rip the seams of brand-new pieces of clothing and partially take them apart. They would package the disassembled clothing to be sent to relatives and friends in East Germany. My mother explained to me that it was necessary to take the clothes apart because if they didn’t the Russians would take them. The people who received the clothes would stitch them together as needed. As this was in the very early 1950s and I had only started elementary school, I had little concept of a divided world, so their activities didn’t make much sense to me.
As I grew I learned that there was a division between the society that I lived in, “the free world” of the West and the communist world of the East. The division was given the name, the Iron Curtain. Then in 1961 the East Germans build the Berlin wall – a visible, tangible representation of this division. The wonderful women of our church had long since halted their garment subterfuge because all contact with the friends and family on “the other side” had been lost.
Fast forward to 1989 and something happened that very few believed would ever happen, the Berlin wall was torn down. With great celebration the wall was chipped, Jack hammered and brought down. Sadly, after the euphoria wore off we looked around and saw that there are still dividing walls everywhere.
Walls have basically two uses, to keep things and people in or people and things out. The Berlin wall was built to keep people from fleeing East Germany to freedom in the West while the famous walls of Jericho was built like most city fortifications to keep enemies out.
In our epistle reading this morning St. Paul is telling the church at Ephesus that Christ has broken down the wall that separated the Gentiles (those far off from the law) and the Jews (those near the law). The wall that Paul references is the Soreq, a 5-foot-high wall with 13 openings that separated the court of the Gentiles from the court of the women in Herod’s Temple. A Gentile, or non-Jew crossing this barrier would be subject to the death penalty. This wall represented the prejudice that existed between Jews and Gentiles that had found its way into the early church.
Robert Frost wrote an interesting poem entitled “Mending Wall.” In the poem, he described the New England farmer’s job of patching up a rock fence in the spring after the ravages of snow and ice had broken it down during the winter. Together he and his neighbor between whose properties the wall ran patiently put the fence back together stone by stone. Frost was convinced the wall was unnecessary. One line in the poem says, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” But his neighbor was of a different mind. He still believed the word that his father had taught him: “Good fences make good neighbors.” I am not convinced that this famous line is necessarily true, but many must believe it, for there are fences and walls everywhere.
A Baptist Pastor Don Harbuck once said that all these walls are just one wall. He said, “The wall is everywhere. All of us know about it. No age or age group has gone unshaped by its pernicious power. Its menacing power moves the length and breadth of human existence. What wall is it? Paul calls it the dividing wall of hostility. It is the wall that separates and fragments and isolates. It is the wall that keeps people apart. It makes them suspicious and distrustful of each other. It kills fellowship and breeds prejudice and spreads gossip and sets loose the dogs of war. It takes many forms, but it always remains the same wall wherever we encounter it.” There is the wall that separate the affluent from the needy, the wall that sometimes separate the educated from the uneducated, the wall that separates the churched from the unchurched, and even the wall that separates residents from aliens. I am sure you could add many more walls that separate us to this list but suffice it to say we live in a wall weary world.
As Paul attests the wall that separated Jews and Gentiles was destroyed by the blood and flesh of the crucified, who is our Peace. Jesus does not simply represent peace but is our Peace just as God is love. Paul describes Christ’s peace as reconciling “both groups to God.”
Paul wrote “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.”
This is the very peace we share with one another during the Eucharist. We don’t simply share a greeting with one another but share Christ’s Peace. In the biblical tradition, peace is a very rich concept. It implies much more than simply an absence of war and strife. It implies more than simply a passing feeling of contentment, relaxation, and order. It implies the fullness of joy and life that can only be attained and experienced in a climate of justice, order, truth, respect, and good will. Saying “peace” in biblical language is akin to what we moderns might imply by the phrase “peace and prosperity.” By wishing this for those around us, and asking Jesus to give it to us, we are invoking our hope and faith in God who is the source and sustainer of all good things, material and spiritual.
The peace of Christ is a new reality in which former enemies who would not touch or eat with one another may now reach out to one another in recognition of their common humanity. By this we affirm that there are no walls between us. We may
imagine that reconciliation involves two parties, but human schisms cause an even greater separation than the hostility between clans, tribes, and nations. They alienate us from God. Our reunion in Christ reunites us not only with one another, It is the path to our reunion with God.
Through the rite of exchanging the peace of Christ, we give concrete expression to our sincere desire to love our neighbor, which no wall can contain. Is it even possible to sustain enmity between our neighbor if we are wishing them divine peace? Also, this exchange of peace becomes a wonderful expression of divine love for one another, which opens our hearts to receive more fully and fruitfully the grace of God. It is a fitting preparation for our approach to the altar and to Holy Communion.
Peace be with you, Shalom Aleichem is an ancient Hebraic greeting, a divine greeting, a greeting from God to his children. A greeting of Angels used to mark something new. Shalom, Peace, do not be afraid. Shalom Aleichem – Amen.