Walls or Temples?

Posted 7/22/2018

Scripture: Ephesians 2:11-22

I remember both times when the culture of the presbytery I belonged to then started to change. We were a large presbytery. Well, not that large in number of churches, but very large in geography. Like most large presbyteries we had a few relatively larger cities — complete with colleges — and a whole lot of rural territory. As you might imagine, we also had a lot of theological diversity in our churches.

When I first arrived, we were a presbytery terribly divided, primarily over allegiances to various members of the presbytery staff. But then the staff left and there was some very intentional work to bring the presbytery back together. All this happened very early in my something like 12 years in that presbytery, and it was something that I was aware of only vaguely since I wasn’t particularly involved in the presbytery structure.

It wasn’t long into that healing process, however, that I found myself becoming involved at the presbytery level. That’s when I began to notice what to me became the hallmark of this presbytery during the majority of my years there. It was something I had never experienced in any other presbytery - Christian unity among pastors with very different theologies. And it showed up in one very obvious way.

Our meetings took place over 2 days. (Remember, I said we were large geographically. Many people traveled 8 or perhaps even 10 hours to get to the presbytery meeting.) After the evening session on the first day, which usually ended about 8 PM, presbytery commissioners would go out together for a bit of evening socializing before turning it. It was something about that time of socializing together that is what struck me.

You see, we might have a very heated debate on an agenda item during the afternoon or evening session. But when that happened it was a given that at the next break in the meeting the individuals who had so vehemently disagreed on the floor of the presbytery meeting would find each other and make arrangements to go out to socialize together that evening. This pattern held for something at least 8 years of my time there. To me, this was a presbytery where everyone was committed to building a temple not walls.

In our epistle lesson for today, we read about temples and walls. In Paul’s day, the walls were between Jews and Gentiles. They were not only social walls that divided people in the world “out there;” they were walls that were dividing people within the church. We read about this division in a variety of Paul’s letters as well as in Acts. 

Within the church there were “Jewish” parties, who felt that continuing to keep the Jewish law (for instance, the dietary laws on what was permissible to eat) and those Gentiles who saw no point in such laws. While we read in Acts that Paul confronted those who insisted on Gentiles keeping the Jewish dietary law, in other places (for instance in Romans) we read about his urging church members to be tolerant of each other’s beliefs and practices. In both cases Paul was saying in essence, “Don’t let what you eat divide you!” 

But Paul goes beyond simply urging tolerance, because he knows that mere tolerance won’t build a community up. He urges that both parties be considerate of each other. That both go out of their way to make sure that the relationship between them isn’t damaged. And that, to me, was the wonder of what I witnessed in that presbytery. 

As I said at the beginning, though, the culture of that presbytery started to change before I left. We had a pastor or two who moved in who began to not seek out those with whom they disagreed. It wasn’t long before an undertone of those who disagreed with one feeling that those “others” weren’t really Christians started to develop.

And, in a nutshell, that’s the problem with walls. When we build walls not a temple, we find it perfectly fine to question the faith and faithfulness of other followers of Jesus because they don’t believe just like us or live out their faith in the same way we do. 

But we are urged in Scripture to build a temple, not a bunch of walls. We are urged to not let all those things that can divide us — beliefs, practices, cultures, ethnicity — to divide us. We are urged to focus on our unity in Christ not our differences in how we follow Christ.

More than that, we are urged to actively work at maintaining our unity in the midst of all our differences. One doesn’t build a temple without work. It takes work to fit the various blocks of stone or brick (the building materials of that day) together. It even may take a bit of cutting and grinding to fit them together properly. In the same way it can take some “cutting and grinding” in our lives to enable us to fit together — a process Paul describes in his letters as a willingness to put aside our own interests in favor of those of our fellow Christians.

The fact is, it is easy to build walls. We can always find ways in which we differ from others; no two of us are exactly alike. It is easy to let those differences lead us into judging one another. It is easy to avoid the hard work of learning to live together with our differences.

Yet over and over Scripture tells us we are to be about building temples not walls. We are to be about helping one another live out our faith in the way that fits our own personality and life experiences. We are to be about living together and sharing our spiritual gifts with one another so that each and every one of us might grow in faith and be stronger in our discipleship. 

As I said, building temples is hard work. It requires we listen — really listen — to what another has to say. It requires that we not make our own faith experiences the standard for judging everyone else’s faith experience. It requires a humbleness that quite frankly isn’t a part of our culture.

It requires a willingness to accept that we might be mistaken. A willingness to reconsider and potentially learn. It requires an openness to discovering there is something we need to consider that we never thought of in forming our belief. 

That it is that commitment to Christ that matters more than our own personal (or denominational) theological understanding. That we recognize while we may have important — even vital — insight to bring to the table, there is none of us who have the whole truth.  

In saying that I’m not suggesting that just “anything goes.” What I am suggesting is that we remain humble about the differences that may exist between us, but very serious about our mutual commitment to Christ. That we take seriously what Scripture says about accepting one another in love. That we listen carefully when Paul tells us, “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Co 12:3)

Otherwise we become quick to build walls instead of temples. We rush to judgments and divide the body of Christ. Instead of thinking the best of everyone (as Calvin urges we do), we start to think the worst of everyone. 

Building walls is easy and it is also what “comes naturally” to us as humans. Yet we are called to build a temple. We are called to do the hard work of allowing ourselves be bound together with others — including others who differ from us, sometimes radically. We are called upon to value our bonds in Christ more than our own individual ways of living out that relationship with Christ. We are called upon to not simply tolerate each other, but to actively work to build the unity we have been given in Christ.

So, which are you doing? Are you building walls or are you building a temple?