Breaking Down Dividing Walls

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
July 22, 2012 Ephesians 2:11-22

I am an inveterate fan of Batman. I watched the TV show as a kid, dressed up as Batman for Halloween even into college. My kids get me Batman mugs and t-shirts for Father’s Day. I devoured the previous set of movies and have done the same for the first two of this new series. We will go see the third in the trilogy, perhaps even today. But I will do so with a heavier heart than usual, because of the events of this past Thursday evening into Friday morning.

Religious columnist Paul Brandeis Rauschenbush wrote this: “The first reaction to a tragedy such as the horrific shooting in Colorado is a sickness to the stomach and disbelief, followed by a breaking of the heart as we hear the stories and see the faces of the family and loved ones of those who died. And then we move to the question of why. And if we are gentle, and if we are kind, and if we are wise -- we pause there and do not answer too quickly. We stay with the pain and the tears and the terror and in response offer compassion, prayers, and thoughts and demonstrate a willingness to be supportive and loving in any way we can.” (Huffington Post, July 20, 2012)

That’s where I am today. Perhaps you are as well. Silence, prayers, compassion. That is what we people of faith have to offer, our hopeful vigilance in the face of brokenness. But I also must wonder about access to such destructive weapons. You may agree or disagree, which is fine. But common sense, at least mine, would suggest that self-defense or the sport of hunting would never require the kind of military arsenal this apparently troubled young man had access to. So silence, prayers, compassion, but perhaps also a conversation gathered around the teachings of the one we follow, who said more than a few things about peacemaking, who we call the Prince of Peace.

Let us pray. O God, we pray for victims, for those who mourn and grieve, for those who recover, for those who respond, for those who offer care, for those whose minds or spirits are troubled enough to perpetrate violence, for communities seeking recovery, for all of us, living in this conflicted world. Give us hope, and allow us to share hope. Open now your word to us, O God, and in our hearing and in our seeking, transform us, that we may follow and serve you in word and deed. For Christ’s sake we pray. Amen.


The new Batman movie was filmed in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is known as the Steel City or Iron City, but it is also known as the city of bridges. Because it has three rivers (Can you name them? I can!) and lots of hills and ravines, Pittsburgh has 446 bridges within the city limits, the most of any city in the world, surpassing Venice by three. Several impressive bridges are visible from the Pittsburgh Convention Center, where the Presbyterian General Assembly met earlier this month.

I was not planning to speak any more on the assembly, but as I’ve been connecting the dots between our national political scene and national church scene and how we are called to live as citizens of both and all those Pittsburgh bridges and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I couldn’t help myself.

People have wondered how divided the Presbyterian Church is. It is. But it’s not nearly as simple as right and left, liberal and conservative. On the three big issues facing the church at this assembly, they all divided differently, like a precious stone shattered randomly in many directions. Marriage broke out in the predictable right and left pattern. Middle East divestment was largely a debate on the left of center, as some liberals supported divestment and some opposed it, partners on many things but opponents on this one. On a new plan for church organization the divisions were even murkier. Liberals were opposed to a new model while conservatives supported it, so that it really wasn’t about left or right but new and old, or familiar or different. But it really wasn’t about that either. We might be divided, but we are also unsure and unclear as we move ahead.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and so much more, including our national landscape which seems to unable to have civil discourse on anything.

And those bridges.

And the good word of scripture. Last week, this week, and for several weeks during the remainder of the summer, we will explore Ephesians, Paul's later letter to a new church. If you haven’t read it yet, read it soon – 15 minutes will do it. It will be well worth the investment.

Paul insists that God’s grace made known to us in Jesus Christ is the central power and principle in human history and that all of it – every moment, every human life – is enfolded into God’s redeeming activity that we encounter through Jesus. God has gathered up all things in Christ, Paul says. All things. Therefore we do not live in fear or anxiety. We live in hope. And, we respond by living lives of commitment and compassion, responding gratefully in the world because of God’s graciousness. No condemnation. Grace. No fear. Hope. No death. Life. Which means that the brokenness in which we find ourselves by virtue of our basic humanity is not the final word.

This morning Paul advances the case. Once we were dead. Now we are alive. Once we were controlled by earthly matters. Now grace saves us. In words that appear just before this morning's passage, Paul shares the heart of the gospel – “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Amazing grace.

And then this morning. At one time, Paul writes, we were aliens and strangers, with no hope. Once we were far off. Now we have been brought near.

And then this. “He is our peace. Christ is our peace. He has made both groups – in this case Jews and Gentiles – he has made both groups ONE group. One…and has broken down the dividing wall. Broken down the dividing wall.”

Paul continues with Jesus’ mission to create one new humanity, making peace, building reconciliation, ending all hostility and enmity that exists between us.

We therefore are no longer strangers or aliens, but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, joined together, a dwelling place for God.

Those words have power this morning, poignant, creative power. In Christ – not because of what we believe or don’t believe – in Christ, we are made whole, we know peace, we are welcomed home.

Charles Cousar writes that these words have “horizontal consequences.” This is not just about how we relate to God; it is about how we relate to one another.

It will take a lifetime for each of us to live into that promise, and it could take a lifetime of sermons to explore the vast implications. What dividing walls are operative in your life, and mine? What bridges need building to get us from where we are to where God intends for us to be?

* Perhaps, if you are a youth, the bridge that needs to be built is the one from how you perceive yourself, and how you perceive that the world perceives you, to the beautiful child of God you truly are.

* Perhaps, if you are a youth, or an adult of any age, the bridge that needs to be built is the one that would draw you closer to a child, or a sibling, or a parent. There will always be differences, and perhaps even tension. But God’s hope is that dividing walls between us – even blood relatives – be broken down.

* Perhaps, if you are one of any age, the bridge that needs to be built is the one from the person you are now – depressed, angry, addicted, despairing, searching in some way or any way – to the free and whole and healed person God makes you to be. That bridge might be help from another, a friend, a counselor, to give you a new understanding of yourself and a hopeful path forward.

* Perhaps, if you live in this country right now, the bridge that needs to be built is the one from how we engage each other politically and culturally to a new way, filled with respect and civility. We will always have political disagreements. But must we be disagreeable, unable to sustain a discussion on behalf of our democracy and its cherished values? Must the next few months get worse and worse, or can some form of dividing walls be broken down to allow for something different?

* Perhaps, if you live in the church, the bridge that needs to be built is actually many bridges: between liberal and conservative, between older generations and younger generations, between “we’ve always done it that way” to “let’s experiment with something new,” between small and big, rural and suburban and urban and metropolitan, between all sorts of dividing walls that prevent us from sharing the gospel joyfully and effectively and living fully into its promises.

You know your life. You know your own dividing walls, whether the ones that have been built within your own spirit, or the ones that exist in the relationships that matter to you. You therefore know the bridges most needed.

And we, together, whether in our national life, our life in Rochester, our life in the church, are called both to identify dividing walls and work to build bridges. That is our common calling.

But this is the gospel, and what we know to be the hopeful promise of God. That God breaks dividing walls down and builds bridges.

* From despair and hopelessness to hope.
* From alienation and estrangement to home.
* From violence and brokenness to peace and reconciliation.
* From having no place to live to living in God’s home, God’s dwelling place, God’s grace.

That is good news, perhaps the best news we ever can imagine. Amen.


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