Sunday, March 27, 2016

Tearing Down Barriers

Easter Day
Acts 10.34-43; Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15.19-26; John 20.1-18
Sunday, March 27, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

One quality of the human condition is that, for some reason, we feel a need for barriers. We humans are really good at erecting barriers. Physical barriers to mark out territory and to keep others out – or in. And ideological barriers to define our beliefs and to separate “us” from “them.” One of the great examples of such barriers was the Berlin Wall, erected in 1961. This was a physical barrier separating East and West Berlin. But it was also a tangible manifestation of the ideological barrier separating the political and economic ideals of communism from the perceived evils of democracy and capitalism.

I had the opportunity to be in Berlin in September of 1990. It was ten months after the Berlin Wall fell, and just a few weeks before reunification of East and West Germany. Many parts of the Wall were still intact at that time. What had been a means of separation had become a symbol of liberation. People were still taking sledgehammers to the Wall, knocking off pieces. Some as a means of expressing their own political ideologies. Some as a way of taking out aggression and frustration against the former Soviet regime. And some as souvenirs. As I walked along the remnants of the Wall, a man approached me and offered to let me use a sledgehammer so I could chip off my own piece of the Wall. For a price. Capitalistic ingenuity being flaunted in the face of the former state economy the Wall represented. I declined. Somehow it did not feel right. This was not my country. This was not my ideological fight. I felt the “honor,” the privilege of tearing down the Wall belonged to the people of Berlin, both East and West. Instead, I purchased a couple of pieces that had been previously broken off the Wall. In honor of what destruction of that wall represented – liberation and freedom.

The result of tearing down barriers, as in the case of the Berlin Wall, is a freer flow of people, of goods, of thoughts and ideas. But even as we seek to tear down some barriers – the wall of racism, sexism, and many other isms, we still seem to find new barriers to erect. Like the walls built by Israel to separate the Palestinian territories. Or calls to build a wall along our border with Mexico. Barriers that are both physical and ideological. It’s almost as if we have this need to put ourselves in little boxes, in protective bubbles, to continue to create this separation of us and them. Whoever that may be.

When I was the Episcopal Chaplain at UCLA, I would sometimes sit on Bruin Walk, the main walkway through campus, distributing information about the Episcopal Campus Ministry. I was just one of many other with similar goals, handing out information on their group or cause. I noticed that many students would traverse Bruin Walk with their cell phones to their ears, even though they did not really seem to be engaged in actual conversations. One day I mentioned this to some of my students. They said that, yes, many students use their cell phones to create the illusion of being engaged in phone conversations so as to avoid having to interact with the people along Bruin Walk distributing information. It was a way of erecting a barrier between them and others.

As we come to this Easter Day, we find that one of the central themes, particularly of our scripture readings is the existence of barriers. And the tearing down of those barriers.

Perhaps one of the greatest barriers humanity has ever faced, since the beginning of time, is that between us and our God. This is not a physical barrier. Nor is it really an ideological barrier per se. That barrier is sin. The violation of God’s will, or religious law. That which is the barrier to full relationship with God.

Paul’s statement in our second reading, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, provides a sort of a timeline of sin, tracing evil and sin throughout human history. How sin began with the first human, Adam. And how it was through sinfulness that death first came to be a part of the human condition. How this timeline culminates with the ultimate destruction of sin and death through Christ’s own death and resurrection. And the resulting promise of new life in Christ to a world that has, until now, until Easter, been in bondage to sin and death.

As to the extent of the destruction of humanity’s bondage to sin and death, our first reading from Acts states boldly “God shows no partiality.” That God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has acted to tear down this barrier to relationship with him. That God has acted beyond our limitations to find a way to reestablish the fullness of the relationship he intended with humanity from the beginning. Those limitations that were not ordained by God, but which we established, effectively creating the barrier to right relationship. Limitations that are self-imposed, culturally imposed, politically imposed. How through Jesus Christ and what he has accomplished on this day, through his resurrection, God finds those who live within these limitations and brings them beyond.

Paul emphasizes this in our second reading when he talks about Christ having destroyed every ruler, every authority, every power. Now, we know in our own time, just by listening to the news of the world around us, that rulers, authorities, and powers have not been completely destroyed. They are still in our midst. But the power of Christ’s death on the cross, the power of his resurrection from the dead, render them, if not powerless, at least less powerful. That through the elimination of the fear of sin and death, he has rendered these powerless over our lives in the ultimate sense. Destroying that which imposes barriers between God and his people, that which imposes limitations upon people, shaping us, defining our reality.

Oh, these rulers and authorities and powers still try to exercise their influence. They still try to impose their ideals on us in an attempt to control who we are. Through hateful rhetoric that pits one people against another, one religion against another, one gender against another. Through hateful acts, such as the increased violence we have witnessed in the streets of our own country in the past year or more, in acts of terror such as in Paris in November, in San Bernardino in December, in Brussels earlier this week. All of these are barriers that have been erected to prevent us from seeing the truth. From seeing and experiencing the love of God. From seeing and experiencing the fullness of relationship with our God that is possible.

Such actions are nothing new. These barriers to the truth were what was behind the actions and events we have just witnessed and commemorated during this past week, Holy Week. As we remembered and celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. And action whereby the crowds lining the streets of Jerusalem proclaimed the truth – “Hosanna! Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” As they proclaimed the truth of who Jesus is as Son of God, and the truth of the message he came to proclaim. And how over the days that followed, the temple authorities and Roman occupiers who were not willing to see the truth of who Jesus was, systematically sought to build barriers to protect their own ideologies and misguided images of themselves. How they sought to erect barriers to prevent the truth from being seen. How they sought to discredit Jesus in a mock trial. How they worked to turn the crowds against Jesus. And how they employed the ultimate means of preventing the truth from spreading – Jesus’ crucifixion. And to be extra sure, they even erected a physical barrier to prevent any possibility of the truth of what Jesus revealed – that on the third day he would be raised from the dead – from seeing the light of day. Pilate had a huge stone put in front of the tomb to prevent the truth from being revealed.

But this is the third day. The day when all barriers to our relationship with God, are shattered. When sin and death are destroyed. When the stone at the entrance to the tomb is found rolled away. The final barrier has been removed. Physical and ideological. There is nothing now to stand in the way of what God, through Jesus Christ, set out to accomplish.

This is effectively illustrated in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Here Peter preaches one of the early sermons about Christ’s resurrection, delivered at the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. He sums up the essential message of Christianity. That everyone who believes in Jesus, whose life, death, and resurrection fulfill the word of the prophets, receives forgiveness of sins through his name. The fact that Peter, a Jew, a leader of Jesus’ ongoing movement, is preaching and worshiping at the home of a Roman military officer gives a tangible image of the way in which, even the degree to which, barriers were being broken down. While barriers remain to this day, it shows what is possible, if we are faithful to Christ and let the Spirit guide us.

When Peter opens his sermon by saying “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,” he is proclaiming the truth that the temple authorities, the Roman occupiers, and even the rulers, authorities, and powers of our own day, do not yet accept. The truth that all humanity has received the forgiveness through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The final barrier of sin and death have been removed. And in that, we are all brought together in a common life. One characterized by right relationship with God. One in which we all come together at one table, God’s table, to be fed and nourished on the body and blood of our Lord, making us the Body of Christ in the world. Making us witnesses to the truth. Making us those who are charged with ensuring the truth continues to be seen and heard. That the Risen Christ continues to be proclaimed.

In this, we stand with Mary Magdalene at the entrance to the empty tomb, looking beyond that barrier to new possibilities, to renewed relationship with God, to new life. And with her, we boldly proclaim God’s presence in the world with the words “I have seen the Lord” – the one who breaks down all barriers, including the greatest barriers of all – sin and death.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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