Tearing Down the Walls: More Than Tolerance

A sermon by Rev. Dr. Ken Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville, MD
Ephesians 2: 11-22

Ken Kovacs

“We who worship God in a new way, as a third race, are Christians.”  These are the words of Clement of Alexandria(c.150-c.215), written near the early third century.  We are “this new race,” a new people, he said.[1] If the Christian emergence on the world-scene denotes the arrival of  a third race of people, then who are the other two?   To which Clement would have said, Jew and Gentile.

In the early church, before Christians started to worship on their own (around 90 AD), Jews and non-Jews worshipped Jesus together.  In fact, the most divisive issue that confronted the early church, long before the church became divided theologically over the humanity and divinity of Jesus, was the Gentile question.  Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian.  His followers were originally Jewish and only later in the gracious providence of God were Gentiles included into the Jewish congregation.  This posed a problem for both Jew and Gentile – did one have to first become Jewish in order to be part of the community to worship Jesus?  If not, then what about the Law and its dietary regulations?  What about circumcision?  What happens when Jews and Gentiles gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, which was more than just a tiny piece of bread and a sip of grape juice, but a meal?  What if a Gentile brought a side of beef?  And what if the beef had been purchased from a butcher who slaughtered the cow in a pagan temple ritual?  What then?  What do you do if the Gentiles bring crab cakes? (These would also have been on the forbidden list.  Sorry Marylanders.)  The Jew and Gentile division was deep and wide.  We see it throughout the book of Acts, and all of Paul’s letters.  It’s the back-story to this text here in Ephesians.

It’s vividly represented with the reference to the “dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph 2: 14).  What is this wall?  It’s a powerful, multi-dimensional symbol.  It represents the separation between Israel and the nations; it points to the wall of the law and its many statutes and interpretations; it is the wall of enmity between Jews and Gentiles; and it also refers to the wall of enmity between both Jews and Gentiles, alike, in their enmity against God.   This division between Jew and Gentile was vividly portrayed by the vertical barrier that stood in the temple precincts in Jerusalem, “preventing Gentiles from proceeding from the outer court,” known as the Court of the Gentiles, “into any of the inner courts,” especially the Holy of Holies.  The historian Josephus (37-c.100), writing from just after Jesus, tells us “how this barrier encircled the higher ground [of the temple] that contained the inner courts and had attached to it at intervals notices in Greek and Latin [, note, not Hebrew, but Gentile languages so that no one would misunderstand], warning Gentiles not to proceed farther on pain of death.”  Two of these signs have been discovered by archeologists, one in 1871 and another in 1934. Whether or not the wall in the temple is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to Ephesus, it probably wasn’t far from his thoughts, given the fact that we know from Acts 21 that Paul was arrested in Jerusalem because he was “charged with aiding and abetting illegal entry by a Christian gentile through the temple barrier.”[2]

For Paul as a Jew, that middle dividing wall in the temple separating Jew and Gentile had to come down, or at least it had to become, literally, immaterial, for it did not matter ultimately.  Why?   Because of what he came to know about Jesus and what he discovered about God’s plan to incorporate and include Gentiles into God’s plan for the salvation and redemption of the world.  There was a time, of course, when Paul did not believe such things.  He did everything he could to keep that wall strong and secure.  That was until Jesus knocked him off his high horse (Acts 9) and blinded him with the truth and completely turned his life inside out and God said in time, “Now go – and preach the gospel of Yahweh to the Gentiles.  And no, you don’t have to first turn them into Jews in order to welcome them at the table.  If they arrive for worship and stay for a meal, then you better make a place for them at the table – because I have invited them. Oh, and don’t treat them as guests.  They’re more than guests.  They’re now members of my family, so treat them as members of the household, because in this new people that I am creating through Christ, they’re now your sisters and your brothers.”

Of course, I’m paraphrasing God here (if you hadn’t guessed!) – but that’s the gist of what Paul discovered.  Paul came to see that the enmity separating humanity from God received a decisive death-blow on the cross; Jesus’ victory over death signals God’s forgiveness, acceptance, and welcome of humanity.   Paul realized that God was trying to show him something new, that both Jesus’ cross and his resurrection reveal that reconciliation is at the heart of God.  It always has been; always will be.  The core of God’s being is reconciliation.  As Paul later said to the Corinthians, “[God] reconciled us to himself through Christ For in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us,” (2 Corinthians 5: 18, 19) “us” meaning the church.   The realization of reconciliation at the center of God’s being was like an earthquake for Paul that shook the foundations of his life and tore away at the fabric of his being, shaking everything he thought was true and strong and firm and lasting.  That’s what resurrection does.  With the tumbling of the wall of separation between God and humanity, nothing was solid or sure, and then walls began to tumble everywhere in Paul’s world, one after the other, walls that hinder reconciliation between and among God’s children, as well as walls that hinder God’s children from knowing who God is, from knowing that they too are reconciled to God.  “For [Christ] is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14), bringing together those who were “far off” from God and those who were “near” to God.  It’s why Paul could later say to the Galatians from a mature, theological viewpoint – this is what the earthquake taught him, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28).

It’s very difficult for us to grasp how revolutionary it was for Paul and other early Christians to tear down the barrier separating Jews and Gentiles.  It was revolutionary, especially when we hear this verse from Galatians regarding the relationship between males and females in the community and remember that the same faithful Jew in Paul’s time, who daily thanked God that he had not born a Gentile, also thanked God that he had not been born a woman.  It gives us some indication of the extraordinary spiritual journey Paul was on, to hear him living out the implications of the resurrection and his own encounter with the risen Christ.   Paul and others could be so bold and take enormous risks because that’s what the gospel frees us to be and do.  Paul and others were being faithful to the reconciliation with God they experienced in their own lives and could not, therefore, withhold reconciliation in those places of enmity, division, and separation, because reconciliation is God’s will.

It still is.  The church was formed to embody God’s will.  God still needs agents of reconciliation.  Because it is the world that has been reconciled to God; and the world needs to know this.   And because in the world there are all kinds of wonderfully beautiful and bizarre, diverse, wacky, and, at times, really scary people in the world –  it’s astonishingly kaleidoscopic – and if they are here in the church because Christ has called and calls them here, then they are our brothers and sisters and we are called to love them.  When the walls come down, new communities are formed. Strangers – all are welcome, people from whom you might be alienated due to differences of race or gender or belief or sexual orientation or because they’re just plain different or you think they’re odd, the way Orioles fans might consider Yankees fans, or maybe the way a Colts fan is thought of in a city that bows to the god Ravens – whoever the other happens to be – all of these differences are transcended by the presence of Christ who is forming us into a new people.  We are all citizens with the saints, as Paul says, and members of the –oikeoi tou theou – the household of God!

In other words, they’re all part of the family. Gentiles are not servants in a Jewish household.  The Gentiles are not guests at a table in a Jewish household.  The Jews are not guests in a Gentile household.  They are both members of the household, part of a new family.  There are no second-class citizens in this household.  It’s not hierarchical, neither is it patriarchal.  Each is given a rightful place at the table. Each is honored and respected and loved as the individual he or she is.  That’s how Christians live in community.  That’s what it takes to live in community.

The Jews didn’t just put up with the weird Gentiles at the table.  The Gentiles did more than simply tolerate their peculiar Jewish companions.  Once the walls come down, true communion can take place.  It was said to me after last week’s sermon, where I touched upon the sin of racism, that one should try to look at a person’s heart, not anything thing else.  That’s a good way to live in community, but until the walls (usually put up in fear) that separate us one from the other are torn down, then it’s very difficult to see that the persons who live on the other side of that wall or fence or division even have hearts.  However, once we discover or admit that he or she has a heart, we are called in Christ to not only tolerate them, but to love them into the kingdom.

Jesus didn’t call us to tolerate our neighbor, but to love.  He didn’t say, just get along.  He didn’t say put up with one another, but to love, even your enemies.  He didn’t say, just be civil.  He didn’t say put aside all of your differences.  Instead, Jesus showed us that you can bring who you are, all that makes you different, distinct, and unique, or as James Loder (1931-2002) used to say at Princeton Seminary, all of your “particularity,” bring it all into the household of God; which means we can then make space so that she can bring all of her difference-ness, and he can bring his uniqueness, and she can bring her particularity and together form a community “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3: 17).

This is why contemporary journalist and writer, Gustav Niebuhr, claims that “tolerance is a floor, not a ceiling,” for us.  Former religion editor for The New York Times, Presbyterian, and child of the Niebuhr theologian dynasty; his great uncle was Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and great grandfather was H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962); Gus Niebuhr argues that in our age, “outside of dangerous situations, tolerance is a low bar to clear.”  In his book Beyond Tolerance:  Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America (Viking Press, 2008), Niebuhr argues that “appeals to tolerance are inadequate to our dealing constructively as a society with expanding religious diversity,” as the recent flap over the construction of a new mosque in Lower Manhattan near Ground Zero has shown (new, because there’s already a mosque there).  But he also believes the same “argument applies to other types of diversity, including race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.”  What’s so wrong with tolerance?  Tolerance can live with walls.  Tolerance can live with separation.  I can tolerate you better when you live on the other side of the fence or the wall or the tracks or the river.  “Good fences,” said Robert Frost (1874-1963), “make good neighbors.”[3] Or so we think.  Tolerance means I grant that you exist and put up with you, but I don’t have to really talk with you, listen to you, get to know you, try to understand your story, know how you feel, know your hopes and fears, discover your pain and your joy, or how you view the world.  “Tolerance,” Niebuhr says, “requires nothing more than passivity as a response to others.  It is not active, but signifies a state of intellectual and moral repose.”[4]

In fact, Niebuhr claims, “tolerance should never be mistaken as radically different from intolerance.”  We might pat ourselves on the back for being tolerant, but it’s not really far from intolerance.  Thomas Paine (1737-1809), back in 1791, referred to this common error in his book, The Rights of Man, when he wrote, that “tolerance was ‘not the opposite of Intolerance, but is the counterfeit of it.  Both are despotisms.’  The one, Paine wrote, assumes the right of withholding liberty, while the other assumes the right of granting it.”[5] Tolerance and intolerance have a way of rendering invisible the uniqueness of our neighbor, which means we really can’t say we see them, and if we can’t see them, then how can we say we love them?

Christ is always calling his church to something more than tolerance.  That’s the minimum requirement for the church.  He calls us to go deeper and extend ourselves wider and broader and reach higher, to that “still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 13).  If God is love (1 John 4:16), and God is, then love must be about reconciliation (s) because God is the Great Reconciler who sends us to do the same. He calls us to love one another and love involves a deeper communion with and connection to our neighbor, it requires empathy, radical acceptance, and it’s tough and sometimes it really hurts.  We cannot be truly concerned about our neighbor unless we believe our neighbor has inherent worth and dignity.  And to assume that is to do more than simply tolerate him or her.  It is to extend to them recognition of their uniqueness in the world, their status as full members of the household of God and a safe, welcoming place at the table.


[1]Clement of Alexandria, Stromata (Miscellanies) and Epistle to Diognetus, cited in F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans 1984), 296.

[2]Bruce, 297-298.  The sign found in 1871 is now in the Archeological Museum, Istanbul; the one found in 1934 is in the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem.

[3] Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall” (1915).

[4] Gustav Niebuhr, “Tolerance is a Floor, Not a Ceiling,” talk given at the Covenant Network luncheon at the 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Full text may be found at:  www.covnetpres.org/2010/07/tolerance-is-a-floor-not-a-ceiling.

[5] Niebuhr at Covenant Network Conference.

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