Fifth Sunday of Easter C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
Capital University, my and Debbie’s undergraduate alma mater, is known for many things. It is the oldest university in central Ohio, having first been founded as a seminary in 1830 before it was reorganized as a university in 1850. It is home to nationally renowned nursing and music programs (both Debbie and I received world-class educations from our professors—and if this sounds like an advertisement, okay, guilty as charged).
It is also home, though, to a relic from another time. Capital University is one of the places that holds a piece of the legendary Berlin Wall. It used to be housed in the university’s Blackmore Library as a testament and reminder to history. Covered in graffiti, it is as much a piece of art as it is a protest against what the wall meant.
I won’t assume everyone knows the history of the Berlin Wall. After World War II ended, Germany was spit into 4 zones: one controlled by the United States, one by France, one by the United Kingdom, and one by the Soviet Union. The capital city of Berlin, which was situated completely within the Soviet zone, was similarly divided into four districts. In 1949, the Soviet Union formed the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, out of the Soviet zone, while West Germany became the Federal Republic of Germany. The border between East and West Germany was fortified in 1952 to restrict the movement of East Germans into the west. The one loophole was the unique situation of Berlin.
With so many people leaving through Berlin, East Germany closed the border in 1961, and then the built the wall. Because West Berlin was surrounded on all sides by East Germany, the wall completed surrounded that portion of the city. It was 12 feet high and topped by a smooth pipe to make it difficult to climb over. It was supplemented by a “death strip”, a no-man’s land that provided easy lines of fire for the guards to shoot people trying to cross the wall. It was also supplemented by barbed wire fencing, attack dogs, beds of nails, and protected by 116 watchtowers and 20 bunkers. Everything about the wall was meant to separate people with deadly force.
That wall stood for almost 30 years until, in 1989, under increasing economic and social pressure, the border in Berlin was reopened. By the end of the year, the wall was demolished.
Human beings are extraordinarily good at building walls. Not only are we good at it, we’re proud of it. Human history is the history of walls, physical and not physical, meant to keep other humans out and away.
As Peter understood it, God had walls, too. I don’t really blame him for that assumption. After all, the Torah stated clearly that the Judean people were a people apart, separated from everyone else by invisible walls. Their customs were a reflection of that. God specifically commanded the Hebrew people not to eat certain foods—it was a rule right from God’s own lips. And it’s a rule that gets blatantly contradicted by God.
Peter gives the executive summary of his experience to the Judeans he meets, but here’s what happens. Peter is in Joppa and goes to sleep. In a dream, he sees a vision of something like a sheet come down, on which is every kind of unclean animal that God has forbidden him to eat. He’s told to eat, and for maybe the first time since he started following Jesus, he gives the right answer: “I’m not allowed to eat that, according to scripture. So I won’t eat.” Three times he’s told to eat, and three times, he is a good, law-abiding Judean and refuses to eat, until God firmly tells him: “What God has created clean you must not declare unclean!” and pulls the sheet away.
The implications of this vision from God are made clear when messengers from a man named Cornelius arrive to bring Peter to him. Cornelius is a soldier, a non-Judean, an outsider. But he’s also someone who fears and respects God, doing his best to follow God’s law without becoming a Judean himself. No matter how well he loves and respects God though, the law still says he’s an outsider. He doesn’t fit in. He’s not allowed to fully participate. This is the man Peter is brought to.
Hearing that Cornelius has had a vision from God, Peter starts a long speech about Jesus and God’s salvation, as Peter has suddenly become this eloquent speaker. But right in the middle of the speech, Peter gets cut off by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit rushes in and descends on Cornelius and his entire family.
God bless Peter, who is stunned into silence. And he reflects on his past day: he’s had a vision from God that directly challenged the very strict, clear divisions he has believed in his entire life. He’s met a man whom his religion has said is outside the group and watched as an impatient God literally interrupted him because he wasn’t welcoming him fast enough. Given everything that happens, Peter asks himself, “What is preventing these people, who I’ve been taught all my life don’t belong because they are sinful, from being baptized? What’s preventing them from being full members of the community of God?” His actions speak louder than words as he baptizes the entire household right then and there.
Of course, Peter’s only gotten the easy job out of the way. Now, he has to go back to the rest of the in-crowd, his fellow Christian Judeans, and convince them that they, too, should abandon their deeply held beliefs about keeping certain people out of full participation in their community.
If you’ve spent any time in the church, you know how difficult that can be. Religious communities, the church included, don’t like change. My experience is that whatever we learn as children we hold onto into adulthood, believing it to be immutable and unchangeable until death. That includes who is on which side of the wall. If you don’t belong in the church, it’s because God said so, and that’s that.
This reasoning is why 40 years ago, the first women ordained in the church were so scandalous. Women were not supposed to be pastors. No woman had ever been one before. Church tradition for almost 2000 years said that only men could be pastors. Saint Paul or whoever wrote the letters to Timothy explicitly said that women were to remain silent in the assembly, and that they shouldn’t have any authority over men. Everyone assumed that’s what God wanted and that it would never change.
The same thing happened with Africans and African Americans, who were barred from full participation in the church for centuries because we believed that God had ordained the white man to a special place of privilege and used scripture to prove it. Denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, who are conversation partners with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, exist because African Americans were forbidden from full participation in all aspects of the life of the church.
I’m sure we could think of other examples of people the church has decided don’t belong in some parts of the church community. We’ve even used scripture to justify it, as the church has done for every wall it has ever built.
Tearing down this walls is hard, hard work. It took 30 years for the Berlin Wall to fall. It took 1900 years for women to take their rightful place as leaders of the church. It takes a long time because we are stubborn, stubborn people.
You see the real miracle here in Peter’s story isn’t that God convinced Peter that his deeply held religious belief was wrong. No, that was Peter easy. It isn’t very hard to convince Peter of something.
No, the miracle is that Peter goes back to his people, back to his church, tells them that the walls are coming down, and he actually convinces them that he’s right. He convinces them that the Holy Spirit is doing something new and, let’s face it, radical. The Holy Spirit is radically altering the playing field, taking hundreds of years of purity belief and belief about sin and participation in the community and chucking it. And his people accept that.
It wasn’t a perfect acceptance, of course. Judging by both the Acts of the Apostles and the authentic letters of Paul, the church struggled for years and years to adapt to this new reality. There were some who continued to believe that Gentiles had to give up their lifestyle if they wanted to participate fully in the life of the church; Peter and Paul fought over this further down the line. The church took a long time to accept that what it believed about God and their community, and who was or wasn’t able to be a part of it, was wrong.
But the Holy Spirit, that same spirit that interrupted Peter and told him to “get on with it”, that same Spirit that convinced the other Christians that Gentiles were in fact still children of God and deserved full participation in the community, that same Spirit that spread the Good News of Jesus Christ through the Roman Empire like wildfire, that same Spirit that lit a zeal for reform in the church, that same Spirit that abolished the division between white and non-white American Christians, that same Spirit that would not keep silent until women were allowed full participation in the life of the community–
That same Holy Spirit continues to blow and change and destroy the walls we simply refuse to take down ourselves.
I was only 3 years old when the Berlin Wall came down. I don’t really ever remember a time when it separated that city. To me, in retrospect, it seems obvious that the wall needed to come down. I hope that, when the Israeli West Bank barrier wall that cuts off Palestinians comes down (and I do believe and pray that, eventually, it will come down) it will seem obvious in retrospect. I hope it seems obvious that the wall across the border with Mexico should never come up in the first place.
I hope that as we continue to tear down walls in the church, it will seem obvious that they need to come down. The walls that separate adults and children, such as arbitrary dates of first communion and the disparity in education and participation.
The walls that separate Scandinavian and German traditions from everyone else’s.
The walls that separate white and non-white.
The walls that separate heterosexual from non-heterosexual.
The walls that separate cisgender from transgender.
The walls that we human beings have built between each other, in the name of God, in the name of righteousness and right-ness, in the name of purity, in the name of tradition.
In 1987, United States President Ronald Reagan in a speech that gained little attention at the time challenged Soviet Union Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev to end the division of Berlin with the now-famous line, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” So it is with the church.
People of God, tear down these walls!
Featured Image: “The Fall of the Berlin Wall” by Daniel Antal is licensed under CC BY 2.0.