Fifth Sunday of Easter – 4/28/2024

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John 17:17-26  17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.  20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,  21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,  23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.  24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.  25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me.  26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Ephesians 2:11-22  11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”– a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands–  12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  14 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.  15 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,  16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near;  18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.  19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,  20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;  22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

The Walls Come Tumbling Down

When I was a child on Saturday or Sunday afternoons we would gather in the living room and my father would play records on our record player.  We would sit around together and sing along with the records.  After all, these were the days of television programs like “Sing Along with Mitch” were the words were displayed on the bottom of the screen so people could sing along.  Singing as a family was great fun.  My father would buy boxed sets of records from the Reader’s Digest.  Some were classical, some were popular music.  One collection was of hymns and spiritual songs.  I remember the set included all the words printed out so we could sing along.  Looking back, one of the records in the set must have been a collection of spirituals.  I remember one about Moses, go down Moses, way down in Egypt land, tell old pharaoh to let my people go.  The other one I remember is the one about Jericho that I used for the title of the sermon today.  Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho, Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down.  The Bible tells us the Israelites marched around the walled city of Jericho for six days and on the seventh day they marched around seven more times, the priests blew their ram’s horns and the walls came tumbling down.

Those walls around Jericho were physical walls that came down.  Before the invention of artillery, walls protected many towns as we see with Jericho.  Think of the Great Wall of China that was built to protect China from the Mongols and other invaders.  Walls exist for protection but they also exist to bring separation.  Think of the walled ghettoes in European cities that separated the Jews from the Christians and in more recent times, there was the Berlin Wall which remained until 1989. The purpose of that wall was to separate the people of communist East Berlin from free West Berlin.  

In our scripture this morning Paul tells us that Jesus has broken down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, that Jesus has reconciled both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  

Why would Paul use a wall to symbolize the division?  I’m glad you asked.  The temple in Jerusalem in Paul’s day was built by Herod the Great to replace the older one from the time of Nehemiah.  Much of it was overlaid in gold.  It must have been a most splendid sight.  It sat on a raised platform that still exists today, known as the Temple Mount.  This is where the Wailing Wall stands, the only remaining wall of the temple.  Jews from all over the world still come to pray there almost 2,000 years later. Glorious as it was, the temple was a place of divisions between people.  The temple itself was divided into various courts and each group had their own court.  

The innermost court was known as the Court of the Priests.  Only male members of the priestly tribe of Levi could enter here.  Next came the Court of Israel which could be entered by any male Jew.  After this, there was the Court of the Women where any Jew could go.  It’s name came from the fact that this was as far as any Jewish woman could go.  All of these courts were on the same level so despite the differences there was not the barrier there was at the next level.  From the Court of the Women one descended five steps to a level area in which there was erected a five foot tall stone barrier.  This was followed by another level space and then one descended fourteen steps to the Court of the Gentiles. This was as far as Gentiles could go.  The wall dividing the Jews from Gentiles was marked at intervals with signs stating that no Gentile was permitted to enter the Jewish-only area upon pain of death.   

Just think of all these barriers between God and His people.  There was yet another barrier within the temple itself.  Within the Court of the Priests was the Holy Place which was separated from the Holy of Holies by a six inch thick curtain.  This area was entered only once a year and then only by the high priest.  In this area resided the Ark of the Covenant.  It was this curtain that was torn in two from top to bottom at Christ’s death on the cross as we hear in Matthew 27:51.  The fact that the curtain was torn in two symbolizes that the barrier of sin that separated humanity from God had been removed.  Reconciliation has been achieved!  The way is now open for people to approach God through faith in Jesus Christ and his work on the cross.  Here is a love that stretches out a hand to touch every person who has been excluded or ostracized by social, political, religious, and cultural systems of oppression, a love that welcomes the prodigal home, a love that inspires human love to reach out beyond its evolutionary endowments, and a love from which no one is excluded.

Perhaps the most important verse in our Ephesians passage is verse 14. “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.” Eugene Peterson in The Message translates it, “He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance.”

My professor, New Testament scholar, Craig Keener refers to this as the “shattered barrier”.  Andrew Walls, professor of World Christianity, refers to this as the “Ephesians moment”. The early church was in danger of becoming a Jewish church who called Jesus the Messiah and a Gentile church who called Jesus Lord. This is the moment, the turning point when the Christian church might have split into two.  

Robert Frost in his poem, “Mending Wall” expressed conflicted feelings about walls: “something there is that doesn’t love a wall” and also said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” 

I think everyone can relate to these mixed feelings about walls. On the one hand, we feel safe when we are surrounded by walls. Walls strengthen our sense of identity. On the other hand, every wall that protects also excludes. Every wall has an outside as well and an inside, so wherever you find walls, you find distinctions between “insiders” and “outsiders,” “us” and “them,” “natives” and “foreigners.” This Ephesians text proclaims that the cross also is the basis of our reconciliation with each other. 

In Paul’s day, there was the great division between Gentiles and Jews perhaps symbolized best by the wall within the temple.  There are many walls in our lives.  In our world today there seems to be a growing sense of alienation, of separation between people.  Gone are the days when you knew your neighbors, when children roamed free through our neighborhoods.  Nowadays we guard our children closely, fearful of predators.  The nuclear family lives surrounded by strangers whom they don’t trust.  How many of us don’t even borrow cups of sugar from our neighbors?  We live isolated lives with our time closely regimented.  We commute to work, drive up our driveways, park in our garages and never see our neighbors.

All of this creates walls that divide us from others and from God.  Walls that separate us and keep us from being united.  There are walls of race, class, economic status, ethnicity, gender, age and on and on.  Paul tells us that in Christ these walls have come down.  As Christians we are not to allow walls to separate us for in Christ we are all one.  Paul says we have been reconciled into one group, united through Christ.  

Our first scripture this morning also talks of unity.  It is from John’s gospel and has been called Jesus’ high priestly prayer.  He prayed this at the Last Supper, his last night with the disciples.  In it he prays not only for his disciples but also for us.  Jesus said, “I ask not only on behalf of these, (meaning his disciples) but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.”. That’s us, folks!  Jesus was praying about us!  All those many years ago Jesus was praying for us.  That we would be unified, that we would be one.  Jesus said, “so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  What a beautiful description of unity.  This is what Jesus wants for us.  Unity with God through Him and unity within the body of Christ.    

If we are in Christ there can never be a barrier between us and others who are in Christ.  James Boice, pastor at 10th Presbyterian in Philadelphia put it this way, “We may not see eye to eye with every other Christian on everything.  No one expects you to.  But you must not break with them!  And you must realize that regardless of your differences of opinion, the unity that you have with them is greater than the unity you will ever have with anyone else in the world.”

We have talked about walls between us and God and walls between groups.  There are also interior walls that separate us.  Walls of anger and hatred, of anxiety and worry, fear and doubt.  These emotions can keep us separate from others and even leave us divided against ourselves.  If we do not have unity within our own being how can we possibly be unified with others?  

Jesus Christ is the way to true inner healing.  He is the one to turn to when we are assailed by fear or doubt, anxiety or worry.  He is the one who can help us to turn anger and hatred into forgiveness.  Something we don’t often talk about in church or even our society is mental health. We eagerly pray for physical health but what about mental health? Do we ever see prayers for those suffering from anxiety or depression?   So many of us are in need of inner healing, for the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.  The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. Peace is part of the wholeness of God’s shalom.  We don’t have the ability to bring about this level of healing within ourselves, only in Christ Jesus is this possible.  Perhaps you have old wounds from childhood, perhaps you find yourself bound by anger, rage, disappointment or fear.  Has someone hurt you and you can’t find a way to forgive?  Whatever your wound, whatever your need, Jesus stands ready to heal you, to bring down the walls inside and to bring reconciliation.  

Hallelujah!  The walls that separate us have come tumbling down.  Just as the walls of Jericho could not stand before the power of God neither can the walls of hatred and prejudice stand before our God.  No longer are people bound by the chains of this world, in Christ we are free!  Free to be the people we were created to be.  Free to live united, without the dividing walls.  Free to turn from our differences and work together as the people of God to spread the good news of the kingdom far and wide, to let the world know of the freedom we all have in Christ, of the spirit of unity that is among the believers.