Is God Home?
Pentecost VII (O. T. 16); July 23, 2017
Ever since the front wall of the new Commons went up, we have been able to imagine what the new space will be like and what we will be able to do in it. We can also imagine light flooding in the great front windows and enjoying looking out at what will be our beautiful courtyard.
A wall can be a beautiful thing when it exists to define space. This wall will beckon to our community: come in. And it will nudge us: look outside. This wall does not separate people, but defines space that people occupy.
It will also contain our front door. For decades when people have come up the hill to this place they have looked around and wondered, "Where do we go in?" I hope this new design will make it clear: this is the front door; come in here. And so I can imagine someone knocking on the door and asking, "Is God home?"
Ephesians chapter two says a lot about walls, both good and bad. Let's start with the bad. A wall can be used to keep people out. You hear a lot about that on the news these days. I don't think I need to elaborate. Folks live in neighborhoods with walls around them to keep out those who are unwanted. The Soviets built the Berlin Wall to keep people in who wanted out. And so the Apostle says that Christ breaks down the wall that divides people.
You might hear someone quote Robert Frost as a support for their desire to build dividing walls: "Good fences make good neighbors." If someone uses that to speak in favor of building a wall, it shows that person has not read and understood the poem. Frost and his neighbor are walking the wall, mending it, and Frost argues that the wall is unnecessary. "My apple trees will never get across and eat the cones under his pines, I tell him." But the neighbor is determined. "Good fences make good neighbors." Frost asks, "Why?" And he adds:
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
And he repeats the line he started with: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall,/ That wants it down." And that's the point of the poem, not that "good fences make good neighbors," but that there is something deep in the nature of things that rejects walls, that tears them down.
The Apostle says that something is the blood of Christ, offered on the Cross to break down every wall that divides people. And we are ingenious at devising walls and making excuses for why they should be there, walls that divide people by race, or nationality, or age, or language, or sex, or income, or gender identity. But Frost is right: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down" and that something is the blood of Christ.
The particular wall the Apostle addresses is one that we have talked about before, and that is circumcision. There was a cadre of people in the Church who went around telling non-Jewish Christian men that if they were not circumcised, they could not be saved. A lot of the New Testament is devoted to arguing that that particular wall has been broken down, and that salvation in the blood of Christ does not depend on whether you are circumcised or not. And it is no stretch of the imagination and it is in complete harmony with the Bible to see the same argument applied to the other walls we build. Salvation is in Christ, not in whether you are circumcised, or male, or middle class, or white, or heterosexual.
But let's stop and think. When God commanded circumcision, did God intend it to be a wall that divides? No: God commanded circumcision to Abraham and then again to Moses (Genesis 17:9-14, Leviticus 12:3) as a sign of identity. This is the mark of the covenant; this is the sign of who we are. It is to be a wall that defines space, that says these are the margins of the house, not a wall that divides and says, "This people is good; those peoples are bad."
We have a spiritual wall too, of course, that defines who we are. We are the Church of Jesus Christ. The wall that defines our space is baptism, and is expressed in the Apostles' Creed and, especially, in the simple affirmation, "Jesus is Lord." But that does not need to be a wall that divides. We do not need to apply religious litmus tests to people to decide if we will do business with them or if we will vote for them. Once, while driving on a highway back East I saw a van that had a sign reading, "Christian Exterminator." My first thought was that I didn't care whether the exterminator was a Christian or not, so long as the exterminator got rid of the unwanted bugs. Then I wondered if maybe it was a company that exterminates Christians. Anyway, our baptism is not to be a wall that defines who we do business with; it is a wall that defines space. The wall that defines our space should be clear: we are the Church of Christ and our faith in Christ defines who we are. But it does not divide us from other people.
I recently had an exciting conversation with a member of the new Islamic Center that recently opened in the Tri-Faith Campus. I told her of one of my hopes for us as a congregation: a mutually enriching and engaging relationship with a Muslim congregation. We don't tear down the wall that defines us – our faith in Jesus Christ – but we keep the front door open for fellowship. Muslims are convinced the Word of God has been spoken in the words of the Holy Quran; we are convinced the Word of God has been made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. We can learn a lot from each other. That wall – our faith in Christ – does not divide us from other people, but it does define our space: it tells us and it tells the world who we are.
The passage concludes by changing the image somewhat: the Apostle goes all metaphorical on us and says that you and I are the wall of a new Temple. The Temple is built on the foundation of the prophets and the apostles, and the cornerstone is Jesus Christ. We are the walls of the Temple, the house where God lives. So I suppose I should change the picture: it is not people knocking on that physical front door that we will soon have on our building and asking, "Is God home?" Rather, people will knock on the door of our life as a congregation and ask, "Is God home?" They will knock on the doors of your hearts and minds and ask, "Is God home?" I pray that we are and that we will be a people that can easily answer, "Oh yes; come on in."
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska "Mending Wall," which I have in The Poetry of Robert Frost, Edward Connery Lathem, editor (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975), pp. 33-34.