Today, I want to talk to you about “the dividing wall of hostility.” The Epistle to the Ephesians mentions one and I will mention another.
Before its destruction in 70 A.D., the temple in Jerusalem had four separate courts: 1) the Court of the Gentiles, 2) the Court of the Women, 3) the Court of Israel (aka the Court of Men), and 4) the Court of the Priests. The Court of the Gentiles was the outermost court. It was the only part of the temple where non-Jews were allowed. In it, God-fearing but uncircumcised gentiles could pray, exchange money, and buy animals for to be sacrificed on their behalf. In the gospels, Jesus drove the money changers and animal sellers out of the court of the Gentiles. Non-Jews were allowed to enter the Court of the Gentiles, but that was as far as they could go. The inner courts were separated from the Court of the Gentiles with a wall, and on that wall, priests had posted notices in both Latin and Greek, waring that any uncircumcised person passed over it was liable to be killed. Not unsurprisingly, the wall which bore these solemn warning was known as “the dividing wall of hostility.” This wall was real. It stood in the temple. It was also a metaphor for the animosity between Jews and Gentiles
In Ephesians the apostle tells us that Jesus broke down the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances–and offering a better way, the way of the cross. After Jesus, the Jews no longer had to have an elaborate system of laws to separate them from the Gentile nations, or an elaborate system of sacrifice by which to secure forgiveness for sin. And Gentiles no longer had to become Jews. Now, both Jews and Gentiles could simply embrace Christ and his cross. We all know that “He died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures.” And we all know that “he rose again on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures.” “That we too might walk in newness of life,” as we look forward to “sharing the glory of God.” Because Jesus lives, we will live also. Jesus broke down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles.
Today, there is a dividing wall of hostility emerging in the Moravian Church. Some say it started with the 2018 Synod, and with Resolution 14, which allowed Churches to marry same-sex couples if they choose. I think it goes deeper than that. It has to do with our differences about the nature of Scripture itself. The Concerned Moravians—many of whom are my friends, have been presenting their view of scripture at every opportunity. So, I thought I should give you, my view. It is not unique. It is Moravian, though not uniquely or exclusively Moravian. I take my warrant for this sermon from something Brother Bishop Wayne Burkette once said to me. Wayne said that if pastors do not teach theology in our churches, someone else will. That has never been more true. Of course, as always, I will present my views by a series of positive statements about my own belief.
1. I believe that the Bible we have is the Bible God wants us to have.
I say this, knowing, that in the case of the New Testament alone, we possess c. 1,000 manuscripts of its 27 books, some shorter some longer. And those manuscripts contain more “differences” than there are words in the entire text of the New Testament. That said, none of those differences affect a major Christian doctrine. This is not just my opinion, it is the opinion of my teacher at Princeton Seminary, the late Bruce Metzger, almost universally regarded as the leading text critic of the 20th century. Now all those differences—and the fact that they don’t affect doctrine, tell me something of utmost importance: God is not primarily concerned with words, but with the ideas behind the words. Inspiration is not verbal, but vital. The words–and our understanding of them, are fluid and changing; they change every-time they are translated from the original languages into any other language, like English.
2. I believe in the inspiration of the Bible. “Holy men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” 2 Peter 1:21.
God has always allowed his people to participate in receiving and passing on the Scripture. I believe God inspired not just the authors of scripture, but the editors, the churches, and the councils. God still inspires his church today. If he does not, why do we go to him for guidance? Remember, the Old Testament did not create Israel, Israel created the Old Testament. And the New Testament did not create the church, the church created the New Testament. The imperfections in Scripture are from its human authors; its Divine quality and message come from God. In the Bible, God speaks as nowhere else.
3. I believe that the Bible we have in infallible. By this, I mean what Isaiah meant, nothing more and nothing less. In Isaiah 55:11, God says:
“My word that goes forth from my mouth… shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”
The Bible will accomplish all that God purposes for it to do. Sometimes this is immediately clear to us, but sometimes not, for as God says in Isaiah 55:9:
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
4.I believe that the Bible is the record of God’s revelation of Himself on the plane of human history.
God acted on the plane of human history when he called Abraham, to leave his country, his kindred, and his father’s house to go to the land of promise, when he appeared to Moses in the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed, when he visited the Ten Plagues upon Egypt, caused Israel to pass through the sea on the dry ground, gave the Law through Moses, and spoke through the prophets. Above all, God acted in the Incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
The Bible is not the revelation. It is the record of the revelation. Yet, the Bible does carry the revelation even today. John Calvin was right when he said the Bible is truly inspired when the same Spirit that inspired the writers of scripture, inspires a reader of scripture. We go to the Bible and say, “Have you seen him whom my soul longs for?” And the Bible shows us Jesus Christ. And in Jesus, by faith, we come face to face with the God who remains, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”
5. I believe the center of the Bible and of all Christian teaching is Christ and his cross.
This straight out of The Ground of the Unity. When I consider the depth of human suffering, the only God I can believe in is the God of the Cross. The cross is not just the justification of humankind before God, it is the justification of God before humankind. I believe that the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God, with this proviso, it has to be read and interpreted in light of Jesus Christ. That one principle of interpretation changes everything. Above all, it prevents Christians from being set up as “strawmen” by those who call our faith obselete.
6. I believe that the Bible teaches two forms of Revelation: 1) Revelation in Nature and 2) Special Revelation.
The idea of Revelation in Nature is set forth in Psalm 19 which reads, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” It is also set forth in Romans 6, wherein St. Paul says, “I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind.” (In context, the “law” of Paul’s mind was shaped by the Law of Moses). Revelation in Nature includes all that we can see through a telescope or microscope and all that we can discern about ourselves and our human condition by honest study and observation. Those who would see Revelation in Nature must sit with humility at the feet of the facts, just like scientists. No wonder Karl Barth called theology “the queen of the sciences.”
Special Revelation is different than Revelation in Nature. It is special because only God can reveal it. The birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus tell us more about God than all our speculation about the God of nature every could. Nature is red in tooth and claw. It preaches strength and teaches the survival of the fittest. Jesus Christ came “not to be served, but to serve.” When the Son of God allowed himself to be driven out of the world onto a cross, he showed us the true heart of God.
7. I believe that both Natural Revelation and Special Revelation are progressive, or, at least, progressively understood.
King David looked from his sheep up to the night sky and said, “the heavens are telling the glory of God.” We know more about the heavens than David ever did because we have the advantage of technology like the Hubble telescope. (It was renewed just this week!) God wills this progress. Likewise, Moses gave the Law, but St. Paul knew more about the gospel of Jesus than Moses (in the days of his flesh) ever did, because Paul was a witness to the Resurrection. And you and I know more about God’s plan of salvation than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets of Israel, combined because we are the heirs of the gospel. God wills this progress, too. If you need a text for this, try 1 Peter 1:12: “It was revealed to (the prophets of Israel) that they were serving not themselves, but you…”
8. I believe in Progressive Revelation. This does not mean that God’s plan of salvation has changed. It does mean that our understanding of it has changed. The words of the Bible are historically conditioned, as are some of its ideas–slavery for instance. However, the ultimate truth behind all the words of scripture, the Eternal Word, Jesus Christ, is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
9. I believe that the Bible does not contain a single system of Doctrine. Moravians practically invented—or reinvented, “Biblical theology,” and we have steadfastly refused to go beyond it. Zinzendorf especially saw that the different voices of Scripture matter immensely. Thus, when I read Paul or John I do not interpret them in light of Calvin, or Luther, or any other systematic theologian, I interpret Paul by Paul, Mark by Mark, John by John, etc. And I read all of them in light of Jesus Christ. I ask two questions of every text: First, I ask, “What did the original writer mean to say to the original reader?” Second, I ask, “And what does God now wish to say to me?”
10. I believe that it is best to keep things simple. Yet, the simplicity we desire is the simplicity that lies on the far side of complexity. Jesus achieved it when he said all the law and the prophets can be summed up in two commandments, to love God with all the heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. (Matthew 22:35-40) In the 15th Century, the Ancient Unity achieved simplicity when it proposed just one Essential, “A heart relationship with the triune God, who has revealed himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that issues in faith, love, and hope.” In the 19th Century, Moravian Synods wittingly or unwittingly kept it simple as they showed us the bones of the One Essential by adopting a list of Five, Six, then Eight Essentials that correspond with the preaching of the apostles in the New Testament, especially the preaching of the apostles in the Book of Acts. The Eight Essentials include:
1) The universality of sin. Humanity has fallen and we can’t get up by ourselves.
2) The love of God for the world.
3) The atonement or “at-one-ment” that God made between God’s Self and Humankind in Christ, and his cross.
4) The two natures of Christ, Human and Divine.
5) The gracious work of the Holy Spirit in calling us to Christ and enabling us to believe, sealing us against the day of redemption, etc.
6) The fruit of the Spirit in the life of the believer: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance, against which there is no law.
7) The essential Unity of the Church in Christ. We all belong to him even when others say that we don’t. We must all work out our salvation with fear and trembling. No one can ultimately judge us but the Just Judge himself.
8) The 2nd Coming of the Lord in Glory. The Christ who appeared for the first time on the plane of human history in humility and hiddenness, his true identity known only to faith, must appear a second time, in power and glory, his true identity known to all. Whether this takes place as the last act of history, or as the first act of eternity, I know not. However, if Jesus is who we believe it is, this must someday come to pass.
“The Ground of the Unity” was adopted in 1957. It takes up and embraces the One Essential of the 15th Century and the Eight Essentials of the 19th Century and sets them in the context of our history and our relationships with the other churches. It is just under two thousand words long. Compare that with the sheer Mass of Calvin’s Institutes or Wesley’s 44 Standard Sermons. Moravians keep it simple.
E. Stanley Jones was a Methodist missionary and evangelist in India in the early part of the last century. He understood the value of the simplicity that lies beyond complexity. He said that when he went to India, he was defending a long line, a line that stretched from Genesis to Revelation, to the whole history of the Christian Church and Western Civilization. He said he spent all his time bobbing up and down behind the line, defending this, and defending that, while the important thing, Jesus Christ, was often left out. He said:
“I finally decided to shorten the line and take my stand at Him. There are many points of question re the Bible and the Christian faith—when we decide what we believe about them, we don’t decide anything, for God decided those things long ago. Jesus Christ is different; he is not a point of question. He is the point of decision. When we decide for or against him, we make a real decision, one that effects this life, and the one to come.”*
A Song of Acents, by E.Stanley Jones. Quoted from Memory, but close, very close. To be updated with page, no. etc.
In 1727, the Moravian Church was divided over matters of doctrine. Her members were from every conceivable church. She was made up of members from the Ancient Unity, Lutherans, Reformed, Anabaptists, and more. All championed their version of the truth, and they tried to press those truths on one another. After the revival of August 13, 1727, the Moravians were finally united, not in what they believed, but in whom they believed. Jesus broke down their “dividing wall of hostility.” That motivated the legendary Moravian mission explosion.
I believe that every Christian—every follower of Christ, has both the right and duty to interpret Scripture for him or herself. That is what the Protestant Reformation is all about. Therefore, though I believe in dialogue and working in community, and though I am happy to learn from everyone, I will not allow anyone to tell me how to read and interpret scripture. Nor will I tell anyone how they must read and interpret scripture. The one thing I insist on is that we all have a place at the table. Those who do not accept this are never completely happy among us.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.