Can you hear the good news in that? Christ Jesus has broken down the dividing wall of hostility! That is not a faraway promise. That is not good hope for the distant future. No, it is written in the present perfect tense, indicating both that something was done in the past and also that it continues in full effect all the way to the present: Christ Jesus has broken down the dividing wall, and it is still broken down! It is a done deal. Finished. Complete. Accomplished. Taken care of. Signed, sealed, and delivered.
What a wonderful and powerful formulation of the gospel, at once ancient and contemporary! The gospel has to do with the facts of the work of God in Jesus Christ. We are not asked whether we like it. Our opinions are neither sought nor valued. It is not up to us to say whether it was called for. We are asked only this and this alone: we are asked to believe and to obey. Belief is not a necessary human response. Obedience is certainly not automatic. But we were chosen before the foundation of the world to believe and to obey. That is who we are. It would be a shame for us to oppose our pre-destiny by falling into unbelief and disobedience. It would be a crying and damnable shame for us to believe instead the lie that Jesus Christ has not broken down the wall or for us to obey the evil one by continuing to honor the dividing wall of hostility. I proclaim to you this good news, that Christ has broken down the wall, and I urge us all to believe and obey.
I think you know what I am talking about. We usually preach salvation in terms of reconciliation to God. That is pretty comfortable as long as we keep God at a good distance. But the letter to the Ephesians is clear that reconciliation to God comes in a package deal with reconciliation to each other. We cannot have one without the other! And we in the Presbyterian Churches desperately need reconciliation across many boundaries: rich and poor, small and large, male and female, city and country, and especially those painfully obvious and obviously painful racial, ethnic, and sometimes linguistic boundaries of whether our origins are in the Americas, Europe, Africa, or Asia.
The language in Ephesians is clear: “Christ Jesus . . . is our peace, who has made us both one . . . by abolishing the law of commandments . . . that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, . . . and might reconcile us both to God in one body. . . . So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners.” I submit to you that this is the only foundation upon which we can build. None other will be adequate. This alone will be sufficient.
Now what, you may be asking, has Ephesians to do with us? Ephesians is about Jews and Gentiles, not us! It is a fair question, if it seeks an answer. I am glad that the Gentiles were brought in. That is where most and perhaps all of us were brought in. This reconciliation simply cannot be accounted for on human terms. The Jews dispersed throughout the empire were despised, and they despised others. Ancient hostilities of religion, race, war, ethnicity, language, and blood kept them separated from the Gentiles, all the other nations. And yet, through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Jews and Gentiles came together to worship and sing the praise of the one Lord, one Savior, one God and Father of us all.
And according to this letter, this stands close to the heart of the gospel, not out at the edges. This is not an extra or a bonus. This is what the work of Christ is all about. The significance of this is that the reconciling work of Christ extends to other human divisions, even our own.
We are not the first in the church to have dealt with this. It does not appear likely that we shall be the last. Let it not be said of us, however, that we presumed that our hostilities were too great for the Lord to overcome, that we presumed our problems were too great for God to solve, or that we presumed our situation was so unique as to be beyond the reach of the gospel.
In fact, I am convinced that we are, in the providence of God, in a special time in history so we can and need to hear more clearly than ever before precisely this gospel from Ephesians: Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.
For centuries in the life of the early church, (1) death was the overriding problem of human existence. The gospel was, accordingly, framed and articulated in terms of the resurrection of Jesus Christ being the promise of our own.
During the medieval church and into the Protestant Reformation, there was a shift of attention toward the problem of (2) sin: how can a sinner stand before the righteous God? The gospel was, accordingly, framed and articulated in terms of the forgiveness of sin, salvation by grace through faith.
In our own century the problem of human existence has been voiced in terms of the sheer (3) meaninglessness of human life, so the gospel has been announced in terms of meaning, purpose, direction, and hope.[i]
None of these are exclusive, of course. They build upon one another. They continue to be important and valid formulations of the gospel. And yet, the problem of death, though still universal, does not seem to be so pressing as when the average life span was under twenty-five years. The problems of sin and guilt are not very pressing in an age when it is difficult to find a conscience at all. And the people I know are not burdened by a lack of meaning in their lives but are instead harried by a multiplicity of demands calling them in different directions and assigning them different, conflicting meanings to their lives. Faith assigns one meaning, family calls for another, work imposes a third, while race and economics and community and society and nation pile on to add others.
I submit to you that the overriding problem of human existence today is (4) fragmentation. We are being torn into a thousand pieces—individually, as families, as society, and even as the church. That is why we need to hear again this formulation of the gospel for today: “Christ Jesus . . . is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” Jesus Christ is the only one who can overcome the fragmentation of our lives, the disintegration of community, the failure of the church, and so re-integrate us into the unity of his one body.
So how do we apply the gospel to the church? As I have already urged us all, we are to believe and obey. But no sooner have I said this than many voices cry out that I am naive and an idealist, living in a fantasy world, pointing to things that are not real.
That accusation could be a serious affront to the gospel, but let us hear what these voices are saying. The point of the protest is that the dividing wall of hostility is high, and wide, and long, and deep, and hard, and ancient, and impenetrable.
That is all true, of course. If it were not, Christ would not have had to have died on the cross to break the wall down. To deny the reality of the dividing wall of hostility is to belittle the work of Christ and, indeed, to make God a liar. To say that we are forgiven is to say that we are sinners; to say that we are saved is to say that we were lost; to say that we are redeemed is to say that we were enslaved.
And yet, while we are painfully aware of, and believe in, the continuing reality of sin, we believe even more in the greater reality of forgiveness.[ii] That is to say again, in the present perfect tense, Christ has broken down the wall. We can believe it or we can deny it. But we cannot change what has already been done, and we should not look to the future for something that is in the past. Our choice is to honor the wall or to honor the gospel, but we cannot do both! That is impossible. So, which will it be?
It is with profound regret that we have to admit that we still have not seen the prophetic dream of our brother, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., realized in our communities, our society, or even the church. It was almost sixty years ago, in Washington D.C., that he shared his dream with us. Listen again to these words:
It is time to honor the dream and to dishonor the wall. It is time to let go of the wall. We can believe in and cling to the dividing wall of hostility between us, or we can believe in and cling to the cross of Jesus Christ, but we cannot do both. Which will it be?
There are many differences among us, and there always will be. At least some of them have to do with the beauty of the diversity of God’s good creation. We rejoice in and give thanks for these. But those stubborn differences and divisions which deny and contradict the gospel are to be eradicated.
It was centuries ago that Augustine, that wonderful African pastor and bishop, the greatest theologian with whom God has yet graced the church, dealt in his massive work, The City of God, with the issue of openness to diversity limited only at the point that it might contradict the gospel. We would do well to listen to and learn from him again:
While this Heavenly City, therefore, is on pilgrimage in this world, she calls out citizens from all nations and so collects a society of aliens, speaking all languages. She takes no account of any difference in customs, laws, and institutions, by which earthly peace is achieved and preserved—not that she annuls or abolishes any of those, rather, she maintains them and follows them (for whatever divergences there are among the diverse nations, those institutions have one single aim—earthly peace), provided that no hindrance is presented thereby to the religion which teaches that the one supreme and true God is to be worshipped. Thus even the Heavenly City in her pilgrimage here on earth makes use of the earthly peace and defends and seeks the compromise between human wills in respect of the provisions relevant to the mortal nature of man, so far as may be permitted without detriment to true religion and piety.[iv]
The openness to compromise with political realities is important; the refusal to betray the gospel is even more important. Augustine understood how radically and fundamentally different the church is from the world.
Let us be very clear and to the point. It is a part of the irony of human existence that some of our best intentions lead to actions which have results that run exactly opposite of our intentions. [v]
Thus, some of the things we do to resist racism and sexism end up embodying and institutionalizing racism and sexism. We run the very grave danger that anything we do to acknowledge the difference between us will spill over into acknowledging and honoring and exacerbating and perpetuating the dividing wall of hostility between us, and then we will be found to have been opposing the gospel.
It occurs to me that we are not called upon to overcome the wall. We are called upon to believe and to obey the good news that Christ has already broken it down. It is incumbent upon us, so far as it lies within our power, to structure the life of the church in ways that are in accord with the gospel of Jesus Christ and not in ways that are antithetical to it.
In this regard, it is significant that Ephesians says that Christ Jesus “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility, abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.” Christ abolished the law; yet we continually write new ones to separate and bind ourselves, as if our rules and regulations could save us! They will not! They cannot! We run the risk of idolatry with them and as we use them to reconstruct the dividing wall of hostility, we do so to our own damnation.
I understand that the constraints of rules are easier than the terrible responsibility of freedom. But we who worship the Christ of the cross ought to know better than to try to take the easy way out. We have labored too long under the failing premise of trying to do things the easy way. It is time for the church to do things the right way.
In conclusion, I proclaim again this gospel: “Christ Jesus . . . has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” That which we could not do for ourselves, Christ has done for us. We are called upon to believe and obey. If we do not believe this, we might as well pack up and go home right now, and quit pretending to be the church of Jesus Christ. But if we do believe it––and that is my fervent hope and prayer––if we do believe the gospel and obey Christ and honor the victory he has won for us, it is incumbent upon us to begin living and embodying and acting upon this gospel. Let us get on with being the church of Jesus Christ!
[i] Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought: From Its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism, ed. Carl E. Braaten (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967, 1968), 539–41.
[ii] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley et al., four vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), vol. II: The Doctrine of God, second half volume, 167, 490, and especially 742–63.
[iii] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have A Dream,” in Lerone Bennett, Jr., What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., with an introduction by Benjamin E. Mays (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., 1968), 162.
[iv] Augustine, The City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson, with an introduction by David Knowles (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1972), Book XIX, chapter 17, 878.
[v] See Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952), especially vii–ix, 151–74.