Pentecost 7, Year B
When I first arrived at St. John’s, a lot of people were baffled by the fact that I lived in Norfolk. Even after explaining the reasons (I prefer to live with my husband), people still seemed aghast. I know that part of it is the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel (Herbert), but it is more than that. It is almost like Norfolk is a different world. You might not know this but Herbert is technically in Hampton, which means I live 4 miles from Hampton and 9 miles from the church. This is not an insurmountable distance. But it’s not about the distance. It’s the culture. I lived in Norfolk for 8 years before I started at St. John’s and I had been to Hampton 5 times. It is amazing what a bridge can divide. It’s not just bridges that divide us. Norfolk and Virginia Beach are right next to each other and they are entirely different places. Virginia Beach doesn’t want to connect to the Norfolk light rail because they know that will make it easier for Norfolk people to get to Virginia Beach and they don’t want us there. These are obvious divisions, divisions that we can see on a map. But there are a lot more divisions in Hampton roads. There are the divisions between white and black, poor and rich, military and civilian, Virginia Tech and University of Virginia…. This is certainly not unique to Hampton roads, nor is it unique to this moment in time.
The division in the first century was primarily between the Jews and the Gentiles, the circumcised and everyone else. The differences between Jew and Gentile were not just differences of religion, but culture and national identity. The Gentiles hated the Jews because their customs were strange. They had rules about circumcision, what could be done on the Sabbath, what could be eaten and who could be worshiped. Even to Christians today, some of these rules seem extreme. On the other side, the Jews had absolutely no respect for the Gentiles. The Jews were the chosen people…chosen by God. Despite the fact that they were a people without country they had a seemingly indomitable national pride. They were committed to the rules of the Torah and the rules of the rabbis. This allowed them to judge anyone who did not follow these rules. There was a metaphorical wall that divided them and a solid wall as well.
The temple of the Jews was a holy place. Jews believed it was the home of God. There was a wall that surrounded the temple and then a courtyard outside. It was this courtyard where the Gentiles were allowed. On the wall surrounding the temple was an inscription that read: “No foreigner may enter within the balustrade around the sanctuary and the enclosure. Whoever is caught, on himself shall he put blame for the death which will ensue.” Any non-Jew who entered that holy area could be killed.
Jesus was not one to tolerate such walls of division. In the Gospel of Mark, we have already heard that he went into Gentile territory to teach and to heal. Yet even he could not eliminate these divisions, not in his short life. The disciples and those who came after him worked hard to break down these walls, both real and imagined. The apostle Paul was a Jew. He honored the Jewish law. But he also knew that Christ was calling him and others to move past these walls that surrounded them. So he preached to all, Jews and Gentiles alike. In his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote, “For [Jesus] 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.”
There are disagreements regarding the wall that Paul is referring to. Some think he was referring to the actual wall that separated the temple from the courtyard. Others think that he was referring to the laws that the Jews interpreted in such a way that kept people away from God, away from Jesus. I am not sure it makes much of a difference. The point is that there was something real that was separating one group from another. The life and death of Jesus provided an opportunity. It started the dismantling process. It was Jesus blood that ran through this crumbled barrier and brought two enemies face to face.
We sometimes depict the death of Christ as a victory. That language is misleading. There was no triumph in the violence that caused his death. The triumph was what came after. The triumph was the resurrection. We tend to want to skip over the difficult parts, the parts that make us uneasy. We think we can break down a wall without actually dismantling a thing. Jesus was beaten and then broken on a cross. His body was broken….not just for us, but for all people, the people in Norfolk, the people in Virginia Beach, the people who left the Episcopal Church because they did not like the 1979 prayer book, the people who left because they did not like the ordination of women, the people who stayed and considered themselves the victors, the people who stayed because the Episcopal Church was their home….his body was broken for all of us.
I know there are some of us who are not pleased about the Episcopal Church’s stance on same sex marriage. There are some people who are joyful. There are some who are in the middle. Most of us who have seen division in the church are anxious, anxious about what this all means. We no longer have literal walls around our holy places. Anyone can approach the altar. Anyone can worship here. The walls we have now are more subtle and nuanced. They are protective walls, walls that we hope will keep us safe. We need to talk about the walls. Not talking about them will not make them go away. We’ll just keep running into them until we are battered and beaten and no closer to the love of Christ.
I know that there is fear that if walls come down the whole structure comes down, but this is not so. If our foundation is firm, if our foundation has Jesus Christ as the corner stone, then we don’t need these walls dividing our holy places. Look at this holy place. Do you see walls between us? And yet this building continues to stand, through wars, hurricanes, floods and even a rector who lives in Norfolk. Paul wrote, “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in who you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
I do not know what is coming. I really do not. I do not know what is on the horizon for St. John’s, the Episcopal Church, or even our nation. But I know this. Together, we are stronger. Even when we disagree….we are stronger together. Outside of this holy place, we depend on common interests and alliances bringing us together. But here, in this holy place we depend on something so rudimentary, so very uncultured that we don’t even like to say it very loud. We depend on the blood of Christ. Jesus was not broken so that we could build more walls and live in our own privately holy places. He was broken so that we could come together, into one whole and holy body.
Instead of building walls or maintaining the ones that we have, let us build one another up. Let us support one another in our desire to be closer to God and closer to one another. That is how we achieve peace. We will never agree on everything. That is not what brings peace. Peace comes with the ability to love one another even when we are disagree….even when we don’t like one another, we love one another. Jesus didn’t die so we could all just get along. Jesus died so we could live with one another, not divided by walls. Break down the walls.