Perhaps the most famous wall ever built was the Berlin wall. Constructed on August 13, 1961, that twenty-five mile long wall was erected in the heart of a divided city. But it was really just a small part of a much larger wall called the Iron Curtain.
The Berlin wall symbolized the separation of East from West with its menacing parapets and threatening barbed wire and its steel roots running down into the sewers. It was made up of concrete segments with a height of 11 feet, usually with a concrete tube on top of it. Behind that there was an illuminated control area, also called “death area.” Refugees who had reached that area were shot without warning. A trench followed which should prevent vehicles from breaking through. Then there was a patrol track, a corridor with watchdogs, watchtowers and bunkers, and then a second wall.
At least 100 people were killed at the Berlin Wall. But millions of people rejoiced when that wall came down on November 9, 1989.
Another famous wall is the Great Wall of China. It’s more than 2,000 years old, but it remains one of the great wonders of the world. Stretching 4,500 miles, from the mountains of Korea to the Gobi Desert, it was first built to protect an ancient Chinese empire from marauding tribes in the north. But it became a symbol of Chinese ingenuity and will.
And the Bible speaks of the famous wall, the wall of Jericho. Joshua marched the people of Israel around that wall seven times, then they blew on horns and the wall fell. The old spiritual says, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the wall come a tumbling down.”
These are perhaps the most famous walls, but there are walls everywhere. Robert Frost wrote an interesting poem entitled “Mending Wall.” In the poem, he described the New England farmer’s job of patching up a rock fence in the spring after the ravages of snow and ice had broken it down during the winter. Together he and his neighbor between whose properties the wall ran patiently put the fence back together stone by stone. Frost was convinced the wall was unnecessary. One line in the poem says, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
But his neighbor was of a different mind. He still believed the word that his father had taught him: “Good fences make good neighbors.” I am not so sure that famous line is true, but it is a line that many believe. There are fences and walls everywhere.
My former pastor Don Harbuck once said that all these walls are really just one wall. He said, “The wall is everywhere. All of us know about it. No age or age group has gone unshaped by its pernicious power. Its menacing power moves the length and breadth of human existence. What wall is it? Paul calls it the dividing wall of hostility. It is the wall that separates and fragments and isolates. It is the wall that keeps people apart. It makes them suspicious and distrustful of each other. It kills fellowship and breeds prejudice and spreads gossip and sets loose the dogs of war. It takes many forms but it always remains the same wall wherever we encounter it.” (1)
He went on to suggest that it is sometimes a velvet covered wall which separates those of us who are affluent and wealthy from the people who do not have it and never will have it. Then there is the sheepskin wall which raises hostility between the educated and the uneducated. Humankind must love a wall; we’ve built so many of them. We live in a wall-weary world.
In our text, Paul’s primary reference was the five-foot high wall between the Court of the Gentiles and the Court of Women in the temple at Jerusalem. On this wall appeared the often repeated inscription to Gentiles warning them to go no deeper into the temple precincts. If they did, they would have only themselves to thank for their death, which would inevitably follow.
This wall represents the prejudice, which was a burning issue between the Jews and the Gentiles. There was no love lost between these two groups of people. There was such contempt for the Gentiles that there were many laws against them. For example, a Jewish person could not offer aid to a Gentile woman even if she was in childbirth and desperately needed help. To enter a Gentile house rendered a Jew ceremonially unclean. Marriage of a Jew to a Gentile was looked upon as the equivalent of death. They actually had a funeral service for the Jewish person who married a Gentile. Bible commentator F.F. Bruce said, “No iron curtain, no color bar, no national distinction or frontier of today is more absolute than the cleavage between the Jew and Gentile was in antiquity.” In fact, the miracle of the New Testament was the inclusion of the Gentiles into Christianity.
Paul makes the bold statement that Jesus came into the world to tear down just such walls of hostility. Listen to it again:
“For he is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the hostility, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man of the two, making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, having killed the hostility thereby.”
This is a powerful paragraph, which if properly understood will put an end to all hatred and prejudice between the races. I find it interesting that this passage of scripture is so clear on the subject of prejudice. This is one of the clearest passages in all the Bible, and it says in no uncertain terms that prejudice is wrong in the sight of God.
It seems that in every society, there is someone to be prejudiced against. Where I grew up in South Arkansas, I thought the only prejudice there could be was the one between whites and blacks. But then I learned that in Oklahoma, many are more prejudiced against Indians than they were against blacks. And in South Texas, there is an intense prejudice against Mexicans. In Florida, there is a prejudice against Cubans. After September 11, 2001, many people turned to hating Muslims. In almost every culture, there is someone to be prejudiced against.
Why is that so? What is there about human nature that makes us so love to hate? Columnist Maureen Dowd once said, “It turns out that stereotypes are not only offensive, they are also comforting. They wrap life in the archetypal toastiness of fairy tale and myth. They make complicated understandings unnecessary. They permit people to identify the appearances with the realities, and so exempt them from any further mental or emotional effort. They keep familiar things familiar. They are not completely false, but they are completely shallow.” (2)
We should make no mistake about it. It was wrong for the Jews to hate the Gentiles. It is wrong for people in Oklahoma to hate Indians. It is wrong for folks in Texas to hate the Mexicans. And it is wrong for us in Kentucky to hate blacks. It is wrong for Christians to hate the Muslims and for Muslims to hate the Christians.
But how do we go about bringing this peace between the races that Paul describes. I guess there is no more difficult problem to overcome than prejudice. Perhaps you, like me, grew up with prejudice. I suspect that most of us still harbor some in our hearts. While some of us still struggle to overcome the last vestiges of our prejudice, others nurture their hatred of other races as if they were tending a campfire on a wet night.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Hi Dick: Just sending along a message of gratitude to you this Christmas Season. I started in a new ministry in a small-town church a few months ago — a church where folks are so eager to grow and learn and to ‘become’ that I needed to start two study groups right away, and, of course, try to get my office and all those functional details in order, do funerals that came up right away, etc., etc. You know what I am saying. I worked hard preaching on the lectionary psalms last month, but now in Advent I am swamped.
“Well, not to worry. Your sermons for Advent not only fit our situation, but are so adaptable to my style, etc. This is a real gift to me during Advent. Thank you, Dick…and be blessed richly in this season of anticipation.”
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Prejudice is a difficult attitude to overcome. How in the world can someone bring together people who are so different? Look at Paul’s situation in the New Testament. How could someone bring together these people who hated each other so much? They had nurtured their hatred over hundreds of years.
How can someone bring together the radically different cultures of black and white in America today? It can’t be done just be reasoning with them. You can never talk people into getting along just because they ought to. You can’t even convince them that America would be a better place if everybody loved one another. Then how can even God bring them together?
Paul reveals the secret of bringing the races together when he says, “For he is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of partition.” Christ is the one who broke down the wall.
I can still remember a sermon that I heard Joel Gregory preach at the Southern Baptist Convention in 1988. He built the sermon around a gripping illustration. He told how there was a castle on the English coast owned by an landlord, but no one currently was living there. Vandals were coming in and destroying the place. So he hired a contractor to build a nice rock wall around the castle. The fee was agreed upon and the contractor began his work.
But after a short time the contractor began having trouble finding rocks for the wall. So he called the owner to complain about the situation. The owner sharply replied, “I don’t care where you get the rocks, I want you to build that wall!”
Some time later the owner came to see the progress of the work, and found a beautiful high wall. He was so impressed with the fine work the contractor had done. It was a perfect wall for his castle. But then he went through the wall, and was stunned to find that there was no castle! The contractor explained, “There were all these wonderful rocks in that run-down old castle, so I used them.”
That is the folly of anyone who is so prejudiced that they do not open themselves up to the grace of God that can come through another human being. We think we are protecting ourselves, we are protecting something of cherished value, so we build a wall. But when the wall is built, we find that we have torn down everything of value within ourselves.
Paul says the secret is that both are brought to God in one body through Christ. You see, one can’t get closer to God and still be distant from others who also want to be close to God. It’s like a circle that gets closer and closer to the center. The closer we are to God, the closer we become to other races. It is only God who can break down the dividing wall of hostility. When we come close to God we become like God, and God is love. I believe the Bible tells us we sin when we build walls between us and someone else whom God created. That is someone for whom Christ died. Such is sin against the other, against God, and against ourselves.
Jesus came to break down the dividing walls of hostility, not just between the Jew and Gentile but between all people. God intends to create “one new humanity.” As Paul says in my favorite verse, Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
There was once a little black boy who was watching the balloon man at the county fair. The man was evidently a good balloon salesman, because he allowed a red balloon to break loose and soar high up in the air, thereby attracting a crowd of prospective customers. Next he released a blue balloon, then a yellow one, and a white one. They all went soaring up into the sky until they disappeared. The little black boy stood looking at the black balloon for a long time, then asked, “Sir, if you sent the black one up, would it go as high as the others?” The balloon man gave the kid an understanding smile. He snapped the string that held the black balloon in place and, as it soared upwards, said, “It isn’t the color, son. It’s what’s inside that makes it rise.” (3)
We might re-phrase Galatians 3:28 this way: There is no longer black and white. There is no longer Mexican or Cuban. There is no longer American or Russian. There is no longer the upper class and the lower class. For we are all one in Christ Jesus. People are just people. Folks are folks. God loves them all, and so should we.
John Oxenham wrote a wonderful hymn that we sing too seldom. Listen to the words:
In Christ there is no east or west
In him no south or north
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.
In him shall true hearts everywhere
There high communion find
His service is the golden cord
Close-binding all mankind.
Join hands then brothers of the faith
Whate’re your race may be
Who serves my Father as a son
Is surely kin to me.
In Christ now meet
Both east and west.
In him meet south and north
All Christly souls are one in him.
Throughout the whole wide earth.
1) “The Wall,” unpublished sermon by Don Harbuck.
2) NY Times, 4/22/01.
3) Heart of the Enlightened, Anthony de Mello (London: Fount, 1997) p.99. Quoted by Gary Botha, PRCL, 4/18/2000.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2003, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.