After his trip to Mexico this year, the leader of the Roman Catholic church, Pope Francis, entered into American politics when he responded to a reporter’s question on his plane about Republican candidate, Donald Trump. The reporter asked what do you think about his plan to build a physical wall between Mexico and the United States. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.”
The controversy that followed centered on whether Trump was Christian and whether we need a wall or not separating us from Mexico. I will take Trump at his word that he is Christian and I will let you decide for yourself about his plans for a physical wall. What rang true to me though was the Pope’s urging for Christians to build bridges instead of walls. The resurrected Christ revealed a world to come where all of us are united into one body and our differences of nationality, class, race, language, and gender fall away. Yet, for all people both in the church and outside of it, walls are easier to build than bridges and a little more comforting, too.
Peter built a bridge and the leaders of the early church wanted a wall instead. His accusers want to know why he had visited the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, baptized the entire family, then sat down and ate a meal with them before he left. Peter’s Jewish faith told him not to do any of these things. God had set apart the Jewish people and to stay holy they were to separate themselves in real, physical ways from those who were not God’s people. They were especially not to sit down and eat with them. In Peter’s day eating with someone was a way of publicly declaring that you were one with those at your table. By sharing a table with Gentiles, his accusers were afraid he had ruined the reputation of the early church. People would misunderstand and think he was declaring that in Christ walls had been torn down and now there was now no difference between Jew or Gentile.
Peter carefully laid out for these accusers that God was saying just that. He told them of his strange dream, where God commanded him to eat food that had always been forbidden. He told them of his misgivings when Cornelius’ men came to the door to take him to his house, but the Holy Spirit told him to follow and not to make a distinction between Jew and Gentile. He told them that after he shared the Good News of Jesus with them, the Holy Spirit landed on them, just like it had him and every other Christian he had known. He baptized them immediately because it was clear God had already come to them, just as God had come to him. And since in the Resurrected Christ, there would no longer be an us and them he sat down and ate a meal with the entire Gentile household.
God used Peter to build a bridge and tear down a wall. It is so easy for people of faith to build walls. We start believing that God chooses us alone for salvation, underestimating God’s passionate love for all of the creation. Since it is obvious we are chosen, it is only logical that those who do not agree with our beliefs fully are not chosen. We pin labels on others, liberal, conservative, homosexual, heterosexual, Catholic, Baptist or Lutheran, male, female, pastor or laity, black or white, married or divorced, felon or free. Every label is a distinction, a marker making clear who is us and who is them, a wall that keeps us from seeing our neighbor fully.
In our Christian hearts we know God loves all of us equally, but it is hard to get our Christian heads and hands to believe this because of these walls. Many Southern slaveholders shared the Good News about Jesus and his grace to their slaves. They believed that the same Jesus that saved them, would save their slaves. Their hearts knew it was the same Jesus, but their heads wouldn’t let them tear down the wall that separated them from their slaves. Forget about freeing their Christian brothers and sisters, their hands would not even build churches where they could sit next to each other. They were both saved by grace, but that didn’t make them the same.
And the Holy Spirit told Peter to make no distinction between them. Daily, I encounter walls that I simply assume are a regretful part of the way the world is. I don’t challenge them. Painfully, I admit that like the slave holder, I am not even sure the wall is such a bad thing. You know the old saying, walls make for good neighbors. Until, we get to heaven, maybe it makes sense to make distinctions between us and them. The world is a complicated place and it would be like tilting and windmills to be constantly busy knocking down these walls and building bridges.
When I was a student in the seminary in the 1990’s, while helping with confirmation I was asked if I could take home Michael, a twelve year old African American boy. Of course, I said and the two of us got into my car and started driving to his home in the near east side. He took me to what looked like an abandoned house. Boards were on some of the windows, the front porch was falling off, the paint had long ago faded away, I could see no lights inside the house. “You live here?” “Yeah, our electric just got turned off, but my mom said she was going to get it on tomorrow.” “Okay… see you next Sunday.” He jumped out of the car, ran to the door and disappeared into the darkness. I drove to my nice home in the suburbs.
It made me feel bad that Michael lived in a house like that, but honestly I never followed up to see if the electricity got turned on. I never got a group together to replace those boards with windows. I never even asked that cold winter night, do you have heat? The house concerned me, but I had an unspoken assumption that kids like Michael, economically disadvantaged, African American kids, just get used to living like that. I wasn’t outraged because he wasn’t like me. He wasn’t like my kids waiting for me in my snug home with windows, heat and electricity. There was a distance between us that didn’t build a bridge to overcome. There was a wall that kept me from seeing clearly the image of God we both shared.
Peter’s experience of seeing Cornelius and his household receive the Holy Spirit taught his head and hands what his heart already knew, that the same resurrected Christ that called him into new life, called Gentiles, too. In Christ, there was now no difference. We must not forget what a radical conclusion this was for Peter. We must not forget how brave it was for him and the early church to welcome a people they had spent their life being separate from. We must hear clearly the powerful statement that in Christ there is no longer and us and them. It is the same Spirit that saves us. It is the same heaven that is promised to us. It is the same Lord who calls us.