A Church without Walls
Scriptures: Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 15:33-39
On the way into the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem there is a football field size model of the city as it may have looked in the time of King Herod, which is also the time of Jesus. We don’t know for sure how the city looked at that time. Almost all the buildings in Jerusalem at that time were destroyed by the Romans or by a string of other invaders. But the ruins of some of these walls still exist, and using archaeological finds and descriptions of Jerusalem in ancient writings, scholars have reconstructed how the city might have looked in the time of Jesus.
Front and center is the temple, built on a hill called the Temple Mount. What I found particularly striking in this model are the layers of walls around the temple. The outer walls may have been designed to help repel invaders, to keep the temple grounds secure. But the inner walls of the temple were designed to keep certain groups of people apart. The area just inside the outer walls was known as the Court of the Gentiles. The Gentiles—non Jews—were allowed into this outer courtyard but not into temple itself.
Even today there are still walls separating Jews and Gentiles, like the wall running through the middle of the ancient city of Hebron. On one side of the wall only Jews are allowed; on the other side only Arabs. Foreign tourists are allowed to cross the wall through the gate, but if they have a Jewish guide, the guide cannot go with them. We had to pass through the gate by ourselves and meet our Arab guide on the other side. The reverse happened when we crossed back.
There are still walls between Gentiles and Jews, but the walls don’t end there. Back to the model of the temple. The next area of the ancient temple was the Court of Women. Women were allowed inside the temple, but not into the same area as the men. This is still true in Israel today at the Western Wall, sometimes called the Wailing Wall. There is a barrier separating women from men when they pray at this wall.
Back to the model. Women were kept out here in the Court of the Women, while men could go into this area, closer to the center of the temple. But even for the men there were walls. Ordinary men could not go inside the inner building of the temple, only priests. And when you got inside the last building, there was a curtain on one end separating even the priests from a place called the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest could enter once a year.
The whole thing was designed for two purposes. One was security, but the more important was purity, to protect the holy places from being defiled by people unworthy to be there.
But now we come to the Apostle Paul, writing to Gentile Christians in Ephesus. He says,
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 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.
In Jesus the walls have been broken down. The first wall broken down was the wall between us and God. In our first scripture Mark says that at the moment of Jesus’ death the curtain separating people from the Holy of Holies—that fabric wall designed to prevent anyone unworthy from entering the presence of God—that wall is torn down. Jesus’ death on the cross tears down the wall between us and God. But when that wall is torn down, it also tears down the other walls, the walls that separate us from one another.
Paul tries to explain that at several points in our scripture reading.
- Verse 13: “You who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
- Verse 16: (that he) “might reconcile both groups (Jews and Gentiles) to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.
How does Jesus’ death on the cross break down walls between people? This is a difficult thing to explain, but let me try. Who is responsible for Jesus’ death? At times people have blamed the Jews or at least the Jewish leaders who asked Pilate to execute Jesus. Others blame the Romans, who were Gentiles. Pilate could have seen that Jesus was innocent and turned down their request for his execution. He had that power, and in other cases he was not at all afraid to stand up against the Jewish leaders. But in this case he didn’t. He went along with them. So the Romans also share responsibility for Jesus’ death.
But it does not stop there. At the last supper Jesus said to his disciples, “This is my body broken for you; this is my blood poured out for you.” He was talking about his death on the cross. Jesus died for all of us, which means we are all responsible for Jesus’ death. As Paul says in Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We are all equally contaminated, equally unworthy to stand in the presence of God. So there is no point in anymore in the walls. We are all equally unworthy to be here.
You were allowed into our church this morning, not because you are a member, not because you passed a background check, not because you possessed the proper documents, not because you gave money or volunteered. You are here because Jesus gave his life for you on a cross, just like he did for me, just like he did for all of us.
This church cannot be contaminated by anyone who enters it, because we are already contaminated. We are all people struggling with selfishness, greed, lust, pride, anger, racism, bitterness, envy, and a host of other maladies from which we can only be delivered by grace. It is not the walls that make a church; it is the grace that we find inside of it.
I am not saying we should tear down our building so we can be drenched by the Seattle rain. Nor am I saying we should take off all the locks on our doors. But what about the other kind of walls we might put up, the emotional walls against people who are different from us, whose personalities rubs us the wrong way, whose politics we find offensive, whose theology is suspect, whose race, language, gender, age, or sexual orientation makes us uncomfortable?
These were problems for the first followers of Jesus. James and John were ambitious, narcissistic disciples who wanted to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in his kingdom. The other disciples resented them. Matthew was a tax collector whose political association with the Romans no doubt offended Simon the Zealot who was committed to overthrowing the Romans. But Jesus welcomed them both.
You don’t think the first followers of Jesus had issues with each other? Just read the New Testament. The New Testament church was full of people who wanted to kick out certain other people. But God wouldn’t let them. Because the church is not a fortress defending itself against alien invaders. It is a home for refugees. It is a home for people who in one way or another have lost their way and been rescued. Or for people who did not know they were lost, but who were befriend and brought together into God’s family, giving them a home they did not know they needed until they got here.
In Ephesians 2:19 the apostle Paul says, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” In this church no one is an alien, no one is deplorable, no one is unworthy, no one is unwanted. You are home.