One of the first things that I noticed when moving into Pennsylvania were all of the stone walls. If you have lived in Pennsylvania your whole life, or even for a very long time, you probably take them for granted. Most Pennsylvanians do not even thinking twice about seeing one. But, coming from the Midwest, where stone walls are a luxury of the upper-middle class and the rich, you cannot help but see them.
Stone walls are everywhere. They run through people’s yards. They run along roadsides. You can even find a stone wall, far from the roads, in the middle of the forest while hunting. It is hard to throw a rock in Pennsylvania without it helping to build up a stone wall!
All of this is to say that walls and fences, anything that separate us from our neighbors, have been on my mind for quite a long time.
In those early days of my moving to Pennsylvania, I saw a man who was repairing his stone wall. I was walking by and I took the opportunity to stop and chat for a moment.
While the man absentmindedly picked up fallen stones and stacked them on top, he mentioned that he was not getting along with his neighbor. Something about an apple tree…I do not quite remember.
What I do remember is that the man was the living embodiment of the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Or, in this man’s case, “Good two foot thick solid stone walls make for good neighbors.”
Walls and fences are built to keep “them” out and protect “us” within. They are a visible means of separating ourselves from our neighbors so that we do not have to care about them, or the rusty lawn mowers and broken lawn chairs littering the yard. Yeah, I noticed that too as I moved out here.
It is easy to take this notion of walls and apply them to the heavenly realms.
As a child I imaged heaven as having a long wall that stretched in both directions beyond the horizon, with a huge golden gate right there as the only entrance. Inside the walls of heaven it was green and lush, but outside it was a deserted wasteland of red shaded, parched dirt.
I, of course, was on the green side of the wall, safe from those evil-doers on the parched side. Ryan, the class bully was on the other side, of course.
We all instinctively know who is on the parched side of the wall.
The bullies, the cheats, the law breakers, the foreigners, the system abusers, the sexually immoral, the people voting for the other candidate in the presidential campaign; all of those idiots are over on the other side. We are safe in the green lushness of God’s heavenly realm. But, they miserably look through the gates, dust gritting in their teeth.
It is a natural sort of image to have in our heads. We, of course, are the ones who are right. It is so obvious that we are right. If only people could slip into my brain and understand just how right I am, the world would be a better place.
What I am trying to say is; we are the righteous and they are not. Those people, on the other side of the wall who have made all of the wrong choices in life, are the unrighteous. We deserve to be inside, and they do not.
Then the day came when the image of the wall began to crumble to the ground. It was the day that I learned a horrible truth: Ryan, the class bully, went to church also. He too was a baptized member of the body of Christ, and he, probably through some elicit, covert means, had made it into the lush, blessed part of heaven somehow.
I did not know how to handle that news. I even avoided bible camp one year, which I loved, because I heard he was going the same week that I was planning on going.
But, it was my pastor who took the last swing of the sledgehammer to my nicely constructed wall when he quoted from the pulpit these horrible words from Romans: “there is no distinction…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
If there is a heavenly wall with a gate, my pastor seemed to be insinuating that we all fall on the deserted, dusty side.
My pastor continued, “Not one person looks great and wonderful to God because of all the good works that they have done. Everyone sins, and not a single one of us deserves the green lushness of heaven.”
All of the words are right there in Romans, and the words were enough to shut me up. All of the complaining about other people…it ceased. We all sit on the deserted side of the wall, and there is nothing that we can do about it.
Let us just sit with that idea for awhile, because that means some astounding things.
For example, it means that there are no insiders and outsiders; we are all outsiders.
There are no countrymen and foreigners; we are all foreigners.
There are no morally upright and morally corrupt; we are all corrupt.
Even thinking that we are better than someone else makes us idolize ourselves, and that goes against commandment number one, “Thou shall have no other gods.”
You cannot get much worse than breaking the big number one! And you thought murder was bad! That is way down at number five on the list of commandments.
All have sinned and fall short. That means we are all stranded. If we are all stranded, that means there is no one who will be able to figure out how to save us from our deserted wasteland. If no one among us can save us…well…that is a slightly depressing state in which to live.
Most of you reading are Christians, so you know where this reflection is going. And, if you are not that strong of a Christian, at least you may have already read the text from which this reflection is being written, and have thus already heard what Paul says about all of this. So, I am under no delusion that I am going to proclaim something new and earth shattering at this very moment. You have heard it many times before.
We are made right…we are saved…by God’s “grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”
We are not set right with God by anything we did, or will do. We are set right with God because Christ Jesus decided to rescue us from the deserted side of the wall, as a gift. We did not, and will never, earn this salvation. You are saved by God because God wanted to save you.
There is not much to boast about there.
“Hey, I’m the scum of the earth, and I needed someone to some save my sorry soul.”
Well, as I said, you have all heard this before a million times. But, I think that the part of the gospel message that we continually forget is that Jesus’ love erases all of the walls.
There are no insiders and outsiders in God’s kingdom.
There are no walls to separate us from our neighbors.
There are no walls.
That man who was rebuilding his stone wall to separate himself from neighbor was wasting his time.
Jesus prefers us to forgive our neighbor rather than to forget our neighbor.
Jesus prefers us to love our enemies rather than close them out.
Jesus prefers salvation to damnation.
Jesus prefers wall destruction because that sort of love is how the entire cosmos is pulled back together.
So, I have one question for you: With whom have you built a wall?
Do not be surprised to see Jesus taking your wall down, stone by stone, because that is what eternal love looks like.