This is the message I preached Sunday, March 18, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC. Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.
Letting the Walls Fall Down
20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 36While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.
Oh still speaking God who we hear and see not just in the pages of Holy Scripture but also throughout our lives — in the many colors of flowers in bloom, in the sparkling whiteness of falling snow, in the scurrying feet of squirrels and songs of birds, in the silences that punctuate our days, in the whisper of friends patiently listening to us in our pain or celebrating with us in our joys, in the laughter of little children at play, and even in our deepest hearts — we know you yet have more light and truth to yet break forth from your Holy Word. Open our hearts and minds today, dear God, so we might know what Word your have for us in these words of Scripture. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing to you, my God, our Rock and Redeemer. Amen.
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”. These words echoed across the miles when then-American president Ronald Reagan first said them, shaking the way things stood around our then troubled world. Reagan stood as he spoke these words before the Berlin wall, a barrier of concrete and wire that cut Germany in half, right in the heart of Berlin, dividing that great city and nation in two. On one side stood democratic West Germany with its freedom of thought and speech and, on the other, a totalitarian Soviet East Germany where all who questioned the Soviet government or did not fit its system were cruelly crushed under foot. This wall did not just separate East and West Germany but symbolically divided our world between these two ideologies, symbolizing the Cold War in which they were locked, and our fears of nuclear conflagration if tensions rose too high.
The author of those words of course was not the President himself – it almost never is – but instead one of his speech writers. Later on this speech writer shared the conversation that inspired his words.
After German officials begged him not to have Reagan reference the wall in his speech, in hopes that people could become used to this wall keeping out those across their border, he asked friends of his in then-divided Berlin, “Is it true? Have you gotten used to the wall?”
His friends glanced at each other uneasily. Then one man raised an arm and pointed. “My sister lives twenty miles in that direction,” he said. “I haven’t seen her in more than two decades. Do you think I can get used to that?” Another man spoke. Each morning on his way to work, he explained, he walked past a guard tower. Each morning, a soldier gazed down at him through binoculars. “That soldier and I speak the same language. We share the same history. But one of us is a zookeeper and the other is an animal, and I am never certain which is which.”
These words — “tear down this wall!” — which called for the dividing wall separating East and West to come down became prophetic. I still remember sitting spell-bound in a class-room with other elementary school kids my age watching as our teacher wheeled in a TV so we could see the many hands taking that wall down brick by brick. I didn’t fully understand what I was seeing then but I do now– one new people arising united out of the two. The end of a decades-long Cold War. Space to breathe, and a whole new day dawning.
Jesus’ words — “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. . . And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” — are likewise prophetic, for they too challenge the many walls we build to keep others at bay, and the walls we build to shield ourselves from real but challenging encounters with God and with others.
These words come as a response to the questions of Andrew and Phillip. A group of strangers show up, wanting entrance into Jesus’ usual crowd of followers. They speak a funny language — Greek, not the Hebrew and Aramaic of Jesus’ Jesus followers. They dress funny — with clothes and hairstyles more reflective of the Hellenic culture in Athens and Sparta than the far more reserved dress and appearance of Palestine. In all likelihood, these visitors were in a different social and economic class than Jesus’ normal crowd– not the oppressed and poor masses Jesus usually spoke to who were crushed under foot by oppressive Roman soldiers and taxes but probably instead the well educated, with wealth and power to throw around.
Is it any wonder Andrew and Phillip respond with distrust? Why are these kinds of people here anyway? Can’t they look around and see we don’t serve their kind? That they don’t belong. After all, aren’t there temples back where they come from they can go to, where people look like them and speak their language? Why do these strangers and outsiders have to crash our safe little space?
So Andrew and Phillip become border agents of a type. They decide to build a wall with their bodies and become bouncers guarding the way in to see Jesus. But these Greeks won’t be stopped. They are persistent. They don’t take the hint and leave. Let us in, we want to see Jesus, they keep saying again and again. They not only persist but, even worse, they also use the same language Andrew, Phillip, and the first followers of Jesus used first to describe their desire to know him — “sirs, we wish to see Jesus.” This must have rattled Andrew and Phillip. Words so similar to their own requests to see Jesus with their own eyes at the start of their callings shake them. Are we wrong? Should we persist in towing the line, refusing into our number those so very different than ourselves? Or should we risk losing the purity and safety we feel in the way things have always been and welcome these new and different kinds of folk into our community?
So they come to Jesus, asking how he wants them to respond to these strangers. Jesus doesn’t hesitate. He answers clearly: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. . . And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”. Jesus is saying: I am tearing down this wall you want to prop up. Who is welcome to come to me? Is it just people like you, Andrew and Phillip? Is it just those who look like you, dress like you, speak like you, who love the people you think they ought to love? No. I will draw all people to myself. All people. Not just some. Greek people. Poor people. Rich people. You name the kind of person, Andrew and Phillip, and they are welcome here. The way of the cross I am paving, Jesus says, has the power to tear down all these barriers, so all can come to know God and follow in my steps.
In fact the language of “I, when I am lifted up…, will draw all people to myself” suggest another group with whom Jesus is tearing down walls. Jesus’ words echoes the language used centuries before by Micah, the prophet after whom my parents named me. In Micah chapter 4, this prophet announced a day in which the mountain of the Lord’s house would be lifted up — just as Jesus says he will be on the cross! — and all people from every background would be drawn there, where they would learn God’s ways so they would not only stop their fighting but even take their weapons — swords and spears — and beat them into garden tools. Jesus is letting us know here that the way of the cross he is paving with his foosteps, the very footsteps he is drawing us in to follow and make our own, is a way that can tear down walls not just between us and those we feel are different but even between people who have been at odds, folks fighting like enemies. It can lead them and us to lay down our weapons, to listen to each other with open hearts, to make peace.
We see another wall Jesus is tearing down by following the way of the cross when Jesus says his heading to the cross means “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” His being lifted up is about the judgment of this world and its ruler. Normally when I have read this in the past, I thought it was about the devil and, though maybe that is part of what Jesus is saying here, this is not what his audience would have thought of first. In the minds of the people who first heard Jesus, there was a literal man sitting on a throne they could point out whom they thought of when they heard the phrase “ruler of this world.” In Rome, Caesar sat on a throne from which he ruled a world-spanning empire. And Caesar was called by his government propaganda mill “son of the gods, prince of peace, savior of the world”, titles the Gospel says only can refer to Jesus. Those people gathered around to hear Jesus knew that such so-called peace Rome and its powers brought came at great cost. It came by people like them being crushed under foot. They knew the powers that be pushed down the least of these, trampled underfoot the powerless, in the name of their enforcing law and order and its so-called peace. It is this system of power as it existed then, and as it still exists now, that Jesus is saying the way of the cross throws under judgment.
Such judgment of the world and its rulers can sound frightening — is this hellfire and damnation about to rain down on us all? No. This is not what Jesus is talking about here. Instead, he is describing a bringing of justice, a leveling of the playing field, a setting free of people caught in bondage. Such justice is what Jesus talks about in Luke 4 when he says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This sort of judgment of the world is what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King talked about when he said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” Such judgment of the world and its rulers is about tearing down every barrier and knocking down every wall that stands in the way of love: tearing down all that block us individually and as a community from fully loving others, loving God, loving ourselves, loving God’s good creation.
Ultimately the way of the cross that Jesus begins traveling in our reading as he starts his journey to Jerusalem demonstrates how we can stand up against every system or force in the world that seeks to set up walls that push people out or shapes how we treat people into weapons to persecute or put people down in ways that “steal and kill and destroy”, as Jesus says the thief does in John 10:10, rather than letting them “ live life to the fullest”as that same verse tells us Jesus is always working to make possible for every person.
What is this way of the cross Jesus is living out, and calling us to embark on?
Well, I’ll tell you what it is not. It is not the way of pushing people out and putting people down, nor is it the way of returning evil for evil. Within living memory of those who first read the Gospel of John was an event that demonstrates what happens when you try to tear down these walls by returning evil for evil. Around 70 AD, just under 40 years after Good Friday and Easter Sunday, a group of Jesus’ countrymen became fed up with being used and abused by the Roman armies that oppressed them. They organized a militia, armed themselves, and attacked. A painful civil war happened which led the Roman armies to come with force, flatten the city, and destroy the temple in Jerusalem so completely it has never been rebuilt since. Blood ran thick through the streets of Jerusalem because, as Jesus warned them later, the choice to kill by the sword ultimately leads to dying by the sword.
This has not changed — the choice to take up the sword, to arm ourselves whether with guns or fists or even harsh name-calling — has consequences. The lesson of these events was described well by Dr. King when he said “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence, you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.”
Jesus models tearing down walls in a different way: not in a way that builds up new walls to keep others out, nor in a way that tears down or abuses others, and certainly not in arming people with more spears, swords, or guns. No, like Martin Luther King, Jesus chooses to resist injustice nonviolently, creatively, in a ways that value the sacred worth of even those whom he disagrees with and is trying to change. Jesus works in a way aimed at destroying no one but instead opening up everyone to new ways of thinking and acting, even though in the process he puts himself at risk of being killed as he was on Good Friday. Jesus arms himself not with weapons but with love, compassion, and understanding while also speaking out unflinchingly in deed and word against such injustice. In fact the model Jesus provides for us here in confronting injustice is the same blueprint for change used by those most successful at setting right injustice in our history — from Gandhi to Dr. King, from Desmond Tutu to Harvey Milk, from Sojourner Truth and Sarah Grimke to Cesar Chavez.
Jesus’ words and example — the way of the cross — calls us to tear down every wall or barrier that keeps us as individuals and as a community from loving as God loves.
Such barriers to love often flow out of a deep fear of being hurt. But, as one of my favorite authors once wrote, “Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies … the pain of the leaving can tear us apart. . . Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”
We need to ask ourselves — what do we fear that keeps us from truly loving as Christ calls us to love, individually and also as a family, as a community, as a church?
What barriers are we letting keep us from living out Jesus’ command to love God with all we are and have and to love our neighbors as ourselves?
What barriers stand in the way of all people in the communities where live being treated fairly, and who is it in our communities that are currently being pushed out, put down, mistreated, or abused? What walls are we letting keep us from helping level the playing field for them and widen the space at the table?
In our church, what people are we treating like Andrew and Phillip treat the Greeks? Who are we building walls to keep out rather than inviting in to see Jesus with us? What can we do to no longer stand like bouncers at the door barring entrance to God’s house to all but a select few, but rather to be a welcoming committee going out to invite in people of all walks of life, especially those very different from ourselves?
I want to ask the ushers to pass out some sticky notes to you, and pens you can use if you don’t have a pen. Take at least four sticky notes. I want to play a song in the background and, as you listen to it, I want to invite you think of what one wall is to you really loving God like you should. Then write that down on one sticky note. Then think about and write down what one wall is keeping you from fully loving others and loving yourself. Then I want you to think of one group being treated unfairly in our community and what walls keep you from helping them be treated more fairly and write that down. Finally, I want you to think of one group of people that you think could be better welcomed by our church than they are and write that down, thinking about what walls are standing in the way.
When you are ready, come forward and place these sticky notes on the cross, committing to follow the way of the cross and tear down these barriers to loving as Christ loves.
— play music during exercise —
God of love, you have loved us first and continue to love us lavishly. We come longing to love you in return, asking you help us lay down every barrier to love. We hunger for your healing love in our lives as we long to love ourselves, our neighbors, and your good creation. Fill our longing hearts as we join together to worship you, so that we may pour out our very lives as an offering of praise and love for you in this world, through Christ our Lord. Amen.