Breaking Down Walls

Well, it’s been a hot minute since I wrote a blog post! By my records, it’s been almost a year.

So much has happened in the last 14 months. I finished my MA in Old Testament at Abilene Christian University. I started and completed a Master of Theology (ThM) at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. In February, I was accepted into SMU’s Graduate Program of Religious Studies to pursue my Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. In addition, I was honored to receive a prestigious Moody Fellowship from SMU, which provides 5 years of full funding while I pursue my Ph.D. On top of all that, I led a trip to Israel in June that has been in the works since before Covid. Needless to say, things have been pretty busy!

It’s not that I haven’t been writing. The problem is I’ve been writing so much that I haven’t had the chance to put my thoughts in my blog. I hope to be more diligent about posting in the future. So, here we go…

There’s an old joke I’ve heard from various sources in Israel that goes something like this:

A Jewish man was stranded alone on a deserted island. After several years he was rescued by a passing ship. Before leaving the island, he gave his rescuers a tour to show them how he had survived. As he showed them around the island, he pointed out the two synagogues he had built. One of his rescuers asked, “Why did you need two synagogues?” The Jewish man replied, “This is the one I pray in. That other one is the one I wouldn’t be caught dead in!”

Sadly, divisiveness seems to be part of every religion. Christianity is definitely no exception. My own tribe (churches of Christ) is as guilty as others. Pick any small town in Texas, and you are likely to find (at least) two churches of Christ often within walking distance of each other. No doubt, the two churches were necessary to separate the sheep from the goats over some great theological debate, like do we have biblical authority (either via direct command, biblical example, or necessary inference) to put a kitchen in the church building or whether women are allowed to wear pants to church. The First Council of Nicaea got nothin’ on churches of Christ!

For some reason, our religious convictions lead us to put up walls rather than tear them down. We find it easier to separate over differences than build bridges over shared beliefs. We have conveniently ignored Jesus’s prayer for unity in John 17 (vv 11 and 22) in favor of Paul’s admonishment to “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor 5:13, taken well out of context).

What are we missing? Is there a cure for divisiveness? I think there is. I’d like to propose that the solution to our divisions is proximity to sacred space.

On my recent trip to Israel, I led our group to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—the church of the empty tomb. Most Protestants dislike the Holy Sepulchre. It is steeped in Orthodox forms of worship, with incense, icons, and veneration sites. No wonder Protestants decided to create an alternate location in the so-called Garden Tomb. Sorry fans of the Garden Tomb, wishing it’s the place doesn’t make it so. The Holy Sepulchre has an ancient and unbroken tradition as the site of the empty tomb, and nothing in its location excludes it from contention—unlike the Garden Tomb.

What makes the Holy Sepulchre most interesting to me is that it is the only church in the entire world where the six major branches of Orthodox Christianity (Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, and Ethiopian) all worship in the same place. What’s more, nothing is done to the building without the agreement of all six groups. In fact, none of these groups hold keys to the building. None of them are responsible for opening and closing the building. Two Arab (Muslim) families share that responsibility. On any given day, you can see a member of one of these families sitting just inside the doorway to the Holy Sepulchre.

I don’t want to give anyone the impression that there are no disagreements between these groups. Sometimes their disputes can get quite vocal—even violent. Yet, these differences become less important at the place they all consider the most sacred space on the planet—the empty tomb of Jesus. The closer we get to the sacred, our differences seem less significant.

This power of sacred space was reiterated to me by a Jewish man at the Western Wall. After we visited the remains of the Temple Mount, I gave the group some time to pray at the Western Wall. The Western Wall is an exposed segment of Herod’s Temple platform closest to the former location of the Holy of Holies—the most sacred space for Israelite worshippers for the first and second temples. Today, the Western Wall is a site holy to Jews and a place of prayer.

After praying at the wall, I was standing a short distance away with a friend taking in what was happening around us. A Jewish man came to us and said, “Do you understand what you are seeing here?” Without giving us time to respond, he went on, “People are gathered together in small groups to pray. Here you have Jews from all over the world and from every branch of Judaism—ultra-orthodox, orthodox, conservative, reformed, and even secular Jews. Here at the wall, it doesn’t matter what group you belong to. Here everyone gets together in small groups and prays together. We may have our differences, but at the wall, all those differences go away.”

The closer you get to the sacred, the less differences matter. As one of my SMU professors was fond of saying, “that will preach!”

I can already feel the objections welling up in my fellow evangelical Christians. We don’t have sacred spaces; that’s too Catholic for us! Perhaps that’s true. Maybe, we’ve lost something valuable as a result.

Paul writes to the Corinthian body of believers:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

1 Cor 3:16–17 (NRSV)

There’s something in this passage that doesn’t come through well in English. Paul uses the 2nd person plural throughout. Paul does not say “you” (singular, individually) are the temple. He says, “you” (plural, collectively) are the temple! In Southern, the phrase is “all y’all” (For those that aren’t fluent in Southern, “y’all” is singular, and “all y’all” is plural).

According to Paul, the community of believers is the temple—a sacred space. It’s time Christians take this lesson to heart. Our individuality does not matter nearly as much as the collective body of believers. Together we form a sacred and holy space. When we understand that the community of faith is a dwelling place for God’s spirit, our differences and disagreements should pale compared to the Eternal living among us.

Part of our problem is that we fail to appreciate the importance of sacred space. In the ancient mindset, the separation between the divine and humanity is most transparent in sacred places. In Paul’s view, the separation dissolves as the spirit of God lives within the temple of believers. Imagine what might happen if we treated our faith communities as the sacred space they are. Perhaps it would be like the Western Wall: people of all flavors and degrees of belief (even those with little in the way of faith) gathering together to worship God. Imagine how God might work through such a holy community.

Paul’s message to the community of Jesus’s followers in Corinth also includes a dire warning. “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and all y’all are that temple” (1 Cor 3:17). I fear our tendency towards divisions rather than inclusiveness has put us at risk of experiencing Paul’s warning.

I know nothing more about the Jewish man who spoke to us at the Western Wall. I didn’t ask his name. I never learned his nationality. He gave no indication of which branch of Judaism he followed. But whether or not he knew of Paul’s words in 1 Cor 3, he certainly understood the concept and the miraculous breaking down of walls that happens in sacred space.

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