Lectionary Sermon for 17 November 2019 on Luke 21: 5-19

Walls to Enclose, Walls to Exclude

I have sympathy with ancient tribes looking to walls to safeguard their safety, sometimes even sending the message to strangers on the outside of such walls that such constructions also imply a declaration of power and warning.

Yet not everyone welcomed the Berlin wall or now its modern equivalent, the wall with Mexico in the Southern US. We only need to reflect on some of the better known walls round historic cities or even kingdoms to realize that these hardly fit Jesus’ teaching of welcoming the stranger in our midst.

The Great Wall of China, the city walls of Europe and Britain that provided protected citadels and extended walls like Hadrian’s Wall successfully sent a clear message to potential enemies across national boundaries. But that message is not the Sermon on the Mount. Walls, even Church walls, raise an interesting question. What do they say about ourselves? – and our relationships?

To the Jews and also I guess for the early Christians, watching the Romans destroy the walls of the Jews’ precious Temple and exact terrible vengeance on the Jews for rising in revolt, must have seemed an unmitigated disaster.

There are numerous references to the Temple in Jewish history and religious writing. We might remember Jesus himself, (as for virtually all his first followers) was a Jew with feelings of identification with the Temple. Luke implies a greater respect for the Temple than the other New Testament writers and for example, unlike the other gospel writers, Luke places virtually all of Jesus’ final teaching in and around the precincts of the Temple.

In Acts Ch 6, Luke shows the Apostles were not criticising either the Temple or the Law and in the following chapter he is careful to tell the story of the stoning of Stephen in such a way that Stephen is not thought to be attacking the Temple, but rather drawing attention to the misuse and abuse of the temple.

Certainly the Temple building was a magnificent structure. The pillars of the porches were reportedly some 40 feet high columns of white marble, each allegedly made of a single block of stone. According to the contemporary historian Josephus, the front of the temple was encrusted with gold plate and from a distance the body of the temple appeared to onlookers as if covered in snow. One of the most significant of the offerings (which presumably were the ones talked of by Jesus in this passage) was a gold relief model of a grape vine described as having clusters of grapes, each cluster standing as tall as a man.

As the religious centre for the Jews, the Temple had additional significance and although a cynic would no doubt say that it had been rebuilt principally to glorify Herod, it was clear that as far as most early followers were concerned, they considered it first and foremost to be a Holy place. Jesus’ reported indignation in clearing the temple of the money lenders and his apparently single minded intention to return to the Temple to complete his mission were indicative of how Jesus viewed the Temple’s importance.

Luke tells us that Jesus had prophesied that the entire temple would shortly be pulled down with “Not one stone left upon another”. In fairness we should also acknowledge that Luke was recording prophecy in hindsight. By the time Luke recorded his gospel, the Temple was finished. Yet there is a strange anomaly. The destruction of the walls and the consequent dispersal of Jews and Christians from Jerusalem was in all likelihood a good part of the key to the spread of the gospel.

Although in one sense the Temple was a celebration of the way to approach God, the walls themselves had been designed to put visitors in their place. Certainly Gentiles were encouraged to visit the outside courtyard, but the archaeologists have discovered the sign on the gentiles’ wall which could hardly be more direct. The gist of the translation: “If you are a gentile, and if you go beyond this wall, it will be your own fault when we kill you!”

The next courtyard was as far as Jewish women were allowed to go, then it was the courtyard for the Jewish men, then an area for the Priests and finally that veiled place of mystery, the Holy of Holies, that only the High Priest was allowed to enter – and then only one day a year.

Walls to confine, to exclude and to obscure but ultimately walls that would not and perhaps should not last.

We humans do so love our significant structures. The immense effort which has gone into building great walls and huge buildings throughout the ancient world is an indicator and even a barometer of the fortunes of history. Think of the Great Wall of China which the contemporary historians of the day claimed cost more than a million lives, the great cathedrals of Europe –the great Cathedral at Cologne took 600 years to build – and some of the great mosques, palaces and lavish tombs of the mighty rulers of the past also required great effort. Yet for outsiders, and even for insiders, the walls and buildings also serve as symbols which may obscure true understanding of the spirit they are supposed to represent.

At its most basic the problem is if you can’t see in, by the same token you can’t see out. Here we might think of our modern Churches as well as the Temple. And if you listen to the language inside the Church services and the language used by the same people outside the Church you might be excused for thinking that there are two separate worlds and even separate existences…. I even sometimes wonder if we should think of ourselves as bipolar Christians!

Let me illustrate. Inside the walls of the Church we use our religious vocabulary to give thanks for salvation, seek forgiveness of sins and talk of meeting not for a mere cup of tea but for fellowship. In church you will hear those familiar phrases, the bread of life and the blood of the lamb …The fellowship of the Holy Spirit… and they all said AMEN. Comforting words no doubt to the initiated….

Outside much more commonly it is talk of what most would think as the real world. Not time for “fellowship” but meeting up for coffee at the town centre. Not time out there for prayers of confession. Rather: What have our politicians been up to behind our backs? Are the contractors offering a fair price? Did you watch the final? What’s for dinner?

This raises a question. If we can create this religious enclave in Church, having “done Church” on Sunday is there really any need to have anything to do with those awkward people we don’t really want to get to know outside the Church during the week? Or do you think what we should be asking about why we seem not to notice the difference? Having prayed for healing for Aunty Dolly on Sunday, we need to guard against thinking as if: having prayed, do we still need to visit Aunty Dolly in the hospital? Surely the more pertinent question is: if we prayed for Aunt Dolly in Church, what were we doing if we didn’t intend to follow it up with the hospital visit? Yet how different might it be if we return from Church to the world transformed, taking what we learn on one side of the wall to the other.

I don’t often get to see the Simpsons on TV these days but when I do I am intrigued how many of the apparently fatuous remarks of Homer Simpson seem a fair representation of what in our more honest moments we suspect many people think.

Let’s hear from Bart:
‘Dad, what religion are we?‘ —
Homer replies ‘You know… the one with all the well-meaning rules that don’t work out in real life… Christianity!‘ …….. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if that is the way it is meant to be, and from there, how the myriad of modern versions of the Temple contribute to this Homer-type attitude.

True a building can increase the pride and feelings of security and place for those who are privileged to use the building, but there is always a cost. Because outsiders cannot see in they feel excluded and of course those inside, while they are there they cannot notice what goes on beyond the walls.

I am not against the idea of Churches. I have always been struck by the atmosphere inside, the architecture and furniture and wall hangings which help us centre our thoughts and provide a place of contemplation and even wonder. Yet surely we must remain keenly aware of what our building can do to the way we interact with those beyond the walls.

In Robert Frost’s work entitled “Walls” I was struck by a thought in the poem
“….Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was likely to give offence”.

As far as the religious community was concerned the destruction of the Temple was tragic and in all likelihood totally traumatic. The Jews who were not tortured or killed were driven out of Jerusalem and forced to interact with the world outside the city gates. And in truth it must have seemed to them like the end of the world. Yet like so many apocalyptic events through the centuries it was not the end of the world. The Christian missionaries, like so many since, were forced away from their protective Church enclaves into a world where they lived and shared their faith and actions as best they could, and we inherit their efforts.

In choosing which of Jesus’ words to recount, Luke is not pulling any punches. Not only will the Temple have to go but genuine problems and even anguish is ahead. And that is of course the nature of the real world. Some will have it worse than others. Some might be lucky enough to live tranquil lives and die peaceful deaths but when you are prepared to put faith and life on the line – in the real world, even life itself can be required. Luke finishes this section of his gospel with Jesus having just said some will be put to death, yet then Jesus comes out with this curious enigmatic statement. “But not one hair of your heads will perish. By your endurance you will win your souls”.

For the survival and spread of the faith, in the last analysis the temple is not needed. If anything, by its misuse, the temple once got in the way of the next step of faith, just as our Church will get in the way if we allow its walls to become part of the problem. Yet outside the security of those walls, even if the sacrifice of life itself is called for – that which Jesus calls the soul – or if you prefer – that which is most important because it is the very essence of life – is somehow won.

It is frankly beyond my knowledge and level of faith to talk confidently of exactly what it means to win our souls, yet it does seem to me that in restoring our priorities, we regain the dignity of the human condition, which at the very least is a prize worth winning.

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2 Responses to Lectionary Sermon for 17 November 2019 on Luke 21: 5-19

  1. GEM says:

    I really like your discussion of walls. So many examples in history of walls being to protect a group against the external sometimes, at other times to contain the group. Or both. I am thinking about the options in this passage: focus on upheavals ahead (that are always ahead, for life’s course is a mystery) or on how to live now. Alongside the passage this week we have Parliament’s decision to go to the country with a referendum on the end of life bill … the two are jostling in my head.

  2. peddiebill says:

    Another thought. Since I posted the sermon I came across another reflection about walls suggesting that the walls we set up in our attitudes to others are sometimes just as impermeable and just as serious as barriers between ourselves and others. Your example of the end of life discussion is a good example because some approach that debate with minds as firmly set as concrete – and often with a good dash of predetermined religious justification in the mix to speed up the hardening.

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