Sermon: Breaking Down the Dividing Walls
“For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh.”
Many times in the Bible, what we are likely to interpret as a generic comment, like St. Paul’s “dividing wall of enmity” today, actually refers to something very concrete. In this case, Paul is talking not just about the problem of divisions in general, but about a specific, physical wall in the Temple of Jerusalem. A certain portion of the Temple could be accessed by any person, regardless of whether or not he was Jewish. This was the outer court, in which Christ overturned the tables of the money changers and drove out the ox and dove sellers with a whip of cords.
This court of the Gentiles was separated by a low wall that those gathered could see over in order to behold the glories of the Jewish temple worship – the ornate and bejeweled vestments of the priests, the animal sacrifices, the clouds of incense. The separation was a serious one. A pillar from that wall was found centuries later in an archeological dig at the site of the Temple bearing this inscription: “NO MAN OF ANOTHER NATION TO ENTER WITHIN THE FENCE AND ENCLOSURE ROUND THE TEMPLE, AND WHOEVER IS CAUGHT WILL HAVE HIMSELF TO BLAME THAT HIS DEATH ENSUES.”
The seriousness of this ban was well known to St. Paul. We read in the book of Acts how he, though himself a Jew, was accused of violating this sacred precept by taking Greeks with him into the inner courts of the Temple: “[The] Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up all the crowd, and laid hands on him, crying out, ‘Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching men everywhere against the people and the law and this place; moreover he also brought Greeks into the temple, and he has defiled this holy place.’ For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. Then all the city was aroused, and the people ran together; they seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut.” (Acts 21:27-30, RSVCE). Paul is saved from stoning only by the Roman officials’ intervention. Note that the man they presumed Paul brought into the Temple was from Ephesus, and Paul’s letter from which we read today is to the Ephesians. So it’s not a stretch to assume he is referring precisely to this incident.
Paul writes to the Ephesians, then, that this “dividing wall of enmity” has been broken down by Christ. Here’s the odd part, though: Paul wrote the Letter to the Ephesians while in prison in Rome in the year 62 or 63 AD, seven to eight years before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. So the dividing wall that Christ “broke down” – past tense – was actually still standing. And Paul indeed knew that very well, since being accused of violating the dividing wall was why he was in prison writing that letter in the first place.
All of this might seem like an obscure exercise in biblical history, but there’s an important point for all of us: Paul is confident that the Resurrection of Christ has reconciled “those who once we far off” even if physical barriers still stand. The opposite of the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile in the Temple is the flesh of Christ. Christ’s body is no less a real physical reality than the dividing wall inscribed with the menacing threat against the gentile’s entrance to the inner courts of the temple, but this physical reality does not divide but unites. Rather than the wall that divides, Christ’s flesh is the bridge that unites. He has put the enmity between Jew and Greek to death in His own body on the Cross.
Paul, then, presents the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles as an essential part of Christ’s mission. The promises made to the Jews are not abolished, but they are fulfilled and all peoples are now invited to participate in the fulfillment of those promises – eternal life. In the Gospels, Christ too presents reconciliation with one another as an essential component of being His disciple: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
We all know that reconciliation between opposing parties is deeply needed in our world, that enmity is growing and dividing walls are more common than ever. Paul wrote with confidence, though, that the “dividing wall of enmity” had already been broken down, even as he sat in prison for violating it. Faith and confidence in Christ’s power to reconcile us are at the center of how the walls of enmity can be torn down in our own day.
Paul writes that Christ established peace with Jew and Gentile by “reconciling both with God” in His own body. We will have no reconciliation in our lives and in our society without a reconciliation with God in Christ. Whether we consider warring political factions or just personal enemies, unless both parties are reconciled with God, that enmity can never be put to death and real peace is impossible.
Now that could be a depressing thought. Will those who war against the Church, Her teachings, Her traditions, and Her rights be reconciled to a God in whom they do not believe or whose teachings they reject? For man, surely, this is impossible, but for God it is not. Christ invites us to share today the confidence of St. Paul that the wall has been broken down, peace has been established, and those who were far off have been brought near.
Furthermore, we see here a similar need for self-examination to that we saw two weeks ago: It is easy to think that those who are far off are the ones who reject Christ and His Church, but St. Paul’s emphasis is precisely the opposite. He writes to “you who were far off.” Reconciliation has to be begin with us. Or rather, it has already begun with Christ, with what He has done. We have been reconciled to God in Him, and we are the first ones who have to start living in accord with what Christ has already done.
Writing from prison, St. Paul sends a message of hope today not only to the Church at Ephesus but to us as well. Whatever divisions present in our families, our communities, our schools, our friendships, or even in our world – and even in the Church, they can be healed by Christ’s saving power. He has already broken down the walls of division and brought peace through His Cross. We ask Him today to help us to live in accord with what He has already done for us, that our lives might reflect the peace and reconciliation He desires to share with the whole world.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XVI Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXI