This past week the world commemorated the 20th anniversary of words about a wall. They were in a speech that shook a generation and marked the changing of the tides of human history. I am referring, of course, to Ronald Reagan’s famous “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech at the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987. To many folks on this side of that old wall, Reagan’s words seemed impossible: that massive barrier, and the ideological polarizations that inspired it, seemed impenetrable. I remember wondering: “Is Reagan for real, or is this just political grandstanding or hopeless naiveté?” The Cold War—those words seem almost archaic now—spawned years of fear and power that only perpetuated a kind of cynical paralysis. Now, Reagan towers as a kind of prophet whose words of authority crushed the giant and led people to freedom. A sentence of six simple words, so obvious that no one hardly dare utter them, were long enough, at the right time and place, to become Archimedes’ lever and move the world. Like “Thus saith the Lord, ‘Let my people go’” and “I have a dream today,” Reagan’s challenge demonstrates the power of words.
Christ’s holy Apostles also prophesied against a wall. Such was the heart of their apostolic ministry, a ministry of reconciliation. As significant as Reagan’s words were—and the breaking they evoked—the preaching by Christ’s holy Apostles catalyzed a still greater revolution, announcing the destruction of The Wall. St. Paul called it “the middle wall of partition:”
“Now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us” (Ephesians 2:13-14).
What is this Wall that St. Paul is talking about? In short, it was the Wall in the Jewish temple that separated the Gentiles from the Jews, limiting the Gentiles to the outer court. The Wall was the physical expression of a Spiritual Reality, one that restricted the works and grace of God to God’s covenant people, the Hebrew people. Paul knew this Wall all too well; not only was Paul a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” but as an Apostle of Christ he was falsely accused of (and imprisoned for) bringing a gentile into the inner courts of the Temple precincts (Acts 21:28-29, 24:6). Now, this Wall had been demolished by Jesus Christ, and the covenantal gifts of God available to both Jew and Gentile alike. St. Paul and the other Apostles announced the destruction of this Wall, and the liberation of God’s gifts previous held behind the dam of covenant and ethnicity.
Of course, destroying walls is one thing; actually knowing and experiencing newfound unity and freedom is another. The walls of the heart loom large, deceiving even the faithful. I suppose that is one reason why St. Paul called Christ’s destruction of the middle wall of partition a mystery: something once hidden, but now established and revealed. This is the mystery of the Church, which St. Paul actually calls “the fellowship of the Mystery” (Ephesians 3:8-10). Now God’s covenant promises, His gift of salvation, is for all peoples, Jew and Gentile alike, who are united in God’s New Creation in Christ. Isn’t it strange that the City of Ephesus, so far from Jerusalem and its religious institutions, needed St. Paul’s words about the unity of the people of God resulting from the destruction of The Wall? It was far away, but that wall still existed when Paul wrote the Ephesians, its physical destruction was perhaps ten years off. In 1871 archaeologists actually discovered pillar of the “middle wall of partition” once described by the ancient historian Josephus. On that pillar appeared the words:
“No man of another nation to enter within the fence and enclosure round the temple, and whoever is caught will have himself to blame that his death ensues”
The threat of the physical wall was all too real in St. Paul’s day; his words were concerning a spiritual destruction and liberation revealed in Jesus, in His death on the cross and holy resurrection.
Spiritual divisions, even anachronistic ones, do have a way of extending far beyond physical ones. The Church was the very place—the locus—of spiritual reconciliation and unity in Christ. Where else on earth could all peoples worship God “in spirit and in truth” but in the mystery of the Church? Amazingly, the Apostles had to continue to proclaim the destruction of spiritual divisions, not only to the local churches, but even amongst themselves. St. Paul had to rebuke Peter and Barnabas when they were intimidated to break table fellowship with Gentiles who were brothers and sisters in Christ. When the Gentiles began flowing into the Church, the Apostles had to hold the first Church Council, as described in Acts 15, to discern what God had done and was doing in Christ. Yet, as Jesus promised, the Spirit of God did in time lead the Apostles into all truth (John 16:13) about God’s work of salvation in Christ.
So, for us today, to be Apostolic is to proclaim and live out this spiritual unity in Christ, as “the fellowship of the mystery.” The spiritual barriers have been shattered; all peoples can be reconciled to God, and to one another, in Christ. To know this and to live this reality continues to be a struggle in the Church, especially in America. Are we not divided once again by ethnicity? Why do we place the moniker “Greek” or “Russian” or “Serbian,” et al., before the word “Orthodox” on the signs in front of our churches in this land? This not only separates the brethren from one another, but intimidates those who would visit our worship, only to perceive that such was only for a particular group. Besides our labels, we continue in our churches to be divided by language in our service. There may be a place for some use of ancient liturgical languages, but to allow incomprehensible tongues to dominate the landscape of our worship is again contrary to the spirit of the Apostles, dividing us not only from the unchurched, but even from our children.
Such impediments cannot be rationalized; such words are contrary to the spirit of the apostolic gospel. We who on Sunday proclaim the words “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” from the Nicene Creed must remove all contrary words from our life together. And perhaps there is even someone amongst who will stand up, in the right place and occasion, and utter the words about our jurisdictional divisions that we all yearn to hear:
“Patriarch Bartholomew, tear down these walls!”
“Patriarchs of Orthodoxy, tear down these walls!”
Whoever will do this, and all that I mention, will truly be apostolic. And the greatest revolution of human history—of liberation in Christ, will be furthered in our day.