The Unwalled City

Note: I preached a version of this sermon on July 22, 2012 at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Like everyone else, I was horrified to hear about the ghastly shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado early on Friday morning. Like many crimes, it is brutal and incomprehensible. But unlike much of the world’s violence, this is the sort of thing you can imagine happening almost anywhere we go. Aurora is a suburb of Denver, like pretty much any other suburb anywhere in America or in much of the world. Its movie theaters are really no different than the ones you can find in Lake Zurich or Lombard or Schaumburg.

This is the sort of crime that makes you shudder, beyond the pain inflicted on the victims, survivors, and first responders. It makes you shudder because there’s no obvious reason it couldn’t happen to us or anyone we know and love. “We human beings,” the ancient philosopher Epicurus, who wrote about 3 centuries before the life of Jesus, “all live in an unwalled city.”

So while this particular crime truly horrified me, it would be wrong to say that it shocked me. People my age have spent their whole adult lives in the shadow of mass-casualty shooting events, starting roughly with Columbine. It was only on Tuesday that a gunman in Alabama opened fire on bar patrons, leaving 17 people injured and, thank God, no one killed. Among the most heartbreaking things about this event is the certainty that something similar will happen again, probably before we’ve had the chance to forget this. As a society we–and this includes, at this point, both Republicans and Democrats–seem to believe that this sort of thing is price worth paying in order to have free and essentially unlimited access to deadly weapons.

It has also not escaped notice that the killer in this case chose to use as his backdrop a film that is already famous for depicting the very same kind of chaotic violence. It’s a movie that plays on the kinds of fears that became so terrifyingly, fatally real for a theater full of innocent people. There are places where we are accustomed to a certain level of fear. We have been taking our shoes off at airports for, what, ten years now. If you’ve worked in Chicago public schools, or at a courthouse or federal building, you know about going through a metal detector every day. But the terror of this new Batman movie, like the last one, is the spectacle of bombs going off at packed football games, or at random places throughout Gotham. 

And people will point out, correctly, that guns don’t commit violent crimes and neither do movies. A human being did this. But the very difficult truth is that we don’t know, we may never know, what makes a person do this violence. What strange mix of anger, depression, paranoia, and resentment sparks this monstrous action? Everyone experiences dreadful, miserable feelings, after all. I remember, in the years after Columbine, seeing different protocols for identifying students who were a high risk for school shootings. They included data like, “they’re depressed, introverted, they write sad poetry or read depressing books.” And I thought, “holy cow, all of my friends and I would have been flagged as murderers before we were done with tenth grade!” And the fact is we don’t know, and we may never know, why out of all the depressed and lonely people out there on July 19th, this one man chose to attack a packed theater with 2 guns and 6,000 rounds of ammunition purchased on the internet.

We live in an unwalled city. We are vulnerable, even we very fortunate suburban Americans. When the philosopher used this phrase, an unwalled city, it was a very different world. We don’t have cities with walls in the U.S., but if you’ve been to Europe or even to Quebec in Canada, you’ve perhaps seen old cities with high, thick walls around their old quarter. The cities in Bible times had walls to keep out invading armies, and armies were pretty much always invading. An unwalled city was basically helpless. If you stand on the walls of an ancient city, you can get a glimpse of what the world looked like to its citizens. Inside the walls are the big public buildings, the city hall and the marketplace, the theatre, and the temple or the cathedral. Outside the wall is the place occupied by the transient people, the foreigners, the farmers, the poor. Inside the wall is protection, privilege, citizenship, and peace. Outside the wall is danger, deprivation, alienation, and war.

In Jerusalem the walls of the Temple also served to protect the holiness of God’s people. Walls were used to create the space where the Gentiles, the people who worshipped false gods, could go and to separate that space from the area where only God’s people could go. If the holiness of the Temple were compromised by the presence of unbelieving people, God would withdraw his presence from Jerusalem. Walls were very important in the world of the Bible. “Rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,” the poet cries in Psalm 51. “Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers,” we pray in Psalm 122.

I tell you all of this to explain what exactly Paul is getting at when he says that Jesus Christ has overcome the separation between Jew and Gentile in the ancient world. You Gentiles, Paul writes, were at one point strangers, foreigners, outsiders when it comes to the promises God made to Abraham and his descendants. You had no access to the Temple. You had to camp outside the city gates.

“But now, you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

And here’s the key part: “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Think about what that means for a moment. Paul is saying that Christ has broken down the defenses, the protections, that divided Jew from Gentile, nation from nation. This is no cheap metaphor. A city without a wall, or a Temple without a wall, was vulnerable. It was naked. Yet Paul here is saying that what has happened in Christ Jesus and in the preaching of his Gospel has broken down the wall that kept Jew and Gentile in hostility to each other. The people who share in the gifts of his body and blood and who receive his triumph over sin and death by faith, those people are no longer divided into insiders and outsiders, into the safe and the abandoned, into the privileged and the excluded.

Christ “abolished the law,” Paul writes–that is, he overcame the power of the law of the Old Testament to divide people who believed in God. In place of two nations, Christ made one single humanity–Christ who died and rose again not for some, but for all. And so now those who were far off could hear the good news just as well as those who were near; now we are all one body, now we are all one household, growing together into God’s holy dwelling. We are, in the wonderful phrase, “citizens with the saints.” We have full privileges in the kingdom of God, and no one stands above anyone else based on where they came from, who their parents were, or what language they speak.

Look what Paul has done here. In a few sentences he moves us from the image of a walled city, with people far off and people inside, to the image of a household, where everyone is inside and no one is a foreigner. We have become part of this household, Paul says, not because we did God any favors but because Christ made peace between us and with God in his death and resurrection. “He is our peace,” Paul writes. Not the city wall, not the Roman army patrolling against barbarian invaders, but Christ is our peace.

This is what gives me hope as we live through one senseless act of violence after another. The church, like life itself, is an unwalled city. This is the Body in which we have no choice but to be vulnerable to each other and to the world. We have no choice but to accept one another as Christ has accepted us. We have no choice but to embrace the ones who are far off and the ones who are near.

It is beyond our powers to explain things like what happened in Colorado early yesterday morning. Even if the church were in the business of explaining things, we’d be better off observing reverent silence in the face of such fear and such grief. What we do is bear witness: with our prayers, with our charity, with our fellowship, and with our faith. We bear witness that Christ can and does overcome alienation, and hostility, and violence. That Christ breaks down every wall we put up, and Christ makes peace where no power of humanity can. Amen. 

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