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The Edge of Empire
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NEHEMIAH 11:1-2; ACTS 1:1-8

 

When Hadrian’s Wall was built in the second century AD, it represented the very northern edge of the Roman Empire. The Emperor Hadrian had famously decided to halt the expansion of the empire, which he had believed had been overstretched by his predecessors and, instead, to fortify the gains made an stand pat. It was a strategy that some of his successors tried to overturn, such as the Emperor Septimus Severus, who built another wall called the Antonine Wall farther north in modern day Scotland—but that wall was soon abandoned as the Caledonians (modern day Scots) became even more of a problem. In fact, everywhere on the edges of the empire there were problems with revolts, uprisings, and barbarian enemies.

 

Jerusalem was no exception. Soon after the construction of Hadrian’s Wall began, another rebellion had broken out in Judea in 132 AD, led by a revolutionary named Bar Kochba. This, of course, wasn’t the first revolt. The Bible references the first major Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66-73AD, which resulted in the destruction of the Temple. Jesus had predicted this event and warned the people of Jerusalem about it. But continuing religious and political tensions did not end when the Romans finally crushed the last Jewish resistance at Masada—where the defenders committed mass suicide rather than be captured. The resulting larger Roman presence in Judea meant that there was more opportunity for conflict.

 

Simon Bar Kochba (son of the star) was the titular leader of the revolt and he was regarded as the Messiah by many Jews who wanted national independence. The Romans, however, had become good at crushing such rebellion and sent six legions and auxiliaries (some 30,000 troops) to invade Judea and Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s walls were leveled and, according to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, some 580,000 Jews died in the war. The Romans also experienced heavy losses. The war resulted in the substantial depopulation of Jews from Palestine, and a substantial Jewish population wouldn’t reappear in the region until the 20th century. Hadrian demolished Jerusalem and turned it into a Roman city, renaming it Aelia Capitolina.

 

A lot of this history came to mind as I walked along Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain. It was a reminder to me that empire comes at a steep cost, not only for the conqueror but for the conquered. Walls may work for a while, but eventually they come down. Empires come and go. The Jews (and, by association, the Christians) who were banned from Jerusalem by Hadrian still survive—the Roman empire behind its walls did not. On the other hand, the walls that Nehemiah rebuilt in Jerusalem didn’t last, either. They would be broken down and rebuilt many times in the coming centuries. Looking at those walls today reveals the history of a series of conquerors one level upon another. The remains of Hadrian’s cardo, or main street, the heart of Aelia Capitolina, are still there, buried under more centuries of modern buildings. History is a great leveler of walls.

 

That’s why when I read Nehemiah’s account of his reforms, and especially today’s brief text, it seems to acknowledge this cycle of walls going up and coming down. In chapter 11, the walls have been rebuilt, the city of Jerusalem made secure. Nehemiah has accomplished his mission. You would think, then, that most of the people would want to live inside the walls of the city—protected, strong, guarded. But the text reveals that Nehemiah had to hold a lottery to get people to live in Jerusalem! Instead of being the lucky winner, every tenth family actually felt like they “lost” by having to move to the city. The rest of the people were content to still live outside the walls, to tend their farms, and live unencumbered, even if that seemed risky.

 

After all we’ve read about Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild the walls, this seems counterintuitive. But it reflects a historical reality that we touched on at the beginning of this series. While walls can create an environment where people can thrive, they also present the danger of complacency and can create a people who are less than resilient, afraid to venture out, always worried about their security. Jerusalem in the fifth century BC had walls again, but that didn’t mean it was completely safe. As I said earlier, history reveals that there’s no such thing as an un-breachable wall. What is designed for safety and security can eventually become a trap. It happened to Jerusalem, it happened to the Roman empire; and it can happen to us.

 

We’ve been talking a lot about spiritual walls in this series, and what’s true for walls made of stone is true for the kinds of walls we put around the human heart. We’ve talked about some of the good walls we can raise: a wall of faith that keeps out falsehood and evil and keeps in a community. We’ve talked about standing in the gap, preparing daily to guard against the slings and arrows of the Evil One by putting on the full armor of God. We’ve talked about building on the firm foundation of the cornerstone, who is Christ Jesus. Those are good strong walls!

 

But the thing about those walls is that we were never meant to merely hide behind them and wall off the rest of the world. The arrival of the kingdom of God is a major theme in the New Testament and that wording isn’t a coincidence. Jesus preached about the kingdom as a different sort of empire that would rival empires like Rome and many others who would come and go like it. The kingdom of God is nothing less than the reign and rule of God upon the earth that he created. Jesus announced that the kingdom had arrived with his ministry, and that his death and resurrection were the beginning of the defeat of the evil powers that opposed God’s righteous rule and care for his good creation.

 

The kingdom of God is thus a kingdom that, unlike Hadrian’s Rome, is ever expanding—incorporating new people and new places. Unlike Rome, expansion wasn’t designed to increase the number of slaves and clients for the empire, but the expansion of God’s kingdom brings freedom to people who have been slaves to sin and death. The paradox of that kingdom, however, is that people become free by becoming slaves of Christ—servants of a kingdom that brings life, health, and wholeness to the whole world.

 

It’s a kingdom that calls us to guard our hearts and minds with appropriate walls, but also a kingdom that calls us to move out of negative barriers that can keep people from engaging one another. It’s a kingdom that drops the walls between people of different races, cultures, and backgrounds.

 

Before Jesus ascended into heaven (Ascension Sunday was last week) he gave instructions to his disciples. Like those Judeans in the days of Nehemiah, their lives were going to be lived outside the walls and they would expand the kingdom through their ministry. In Acts 1 Jesus gives some clear instructions on how they were to go about it.

 

Jesus had been speaking to his disciples and instructing them in the 40 days after his resurrection. We’ve been in the season of Easter leading up to today, Pentecost Sunday, the day that celebrates the Holy Spirit falling on the disciples. Jesus said that his disciples would soon by baptized by the Holy Spirit.

 

But notice their question in verse 6: “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” In some ways, we can interpret that politically; after all, the disciples thought Jesus might be a Messiah like Bar Kochba and many others who were all about building better walls. Are you going to establish a border wall around Israel, kick out our enemies, and make us strong and secure once again?

 

Jesus reminds them, one more time, that his kingdom is a different kind of kingdom. “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v. 8).

 

In other words, you are going to receive power to expand the kingdom of God ever outward—you will be living your life of discipleship outside the walls. You’ll be tending new fields and connecting with new people. You will be empowered to be the fishers of men I called you to be when I first met you on the lake shore in Galilee. You are going to be like a mighty army that expands God’s territory not with weapons of destruction, but with the power of love.

 

The Christian movement began inside the walls of Jerusalem. In Acts 2, we learn that the disciples are “all in one place” inside the city when the Holy Spirit comes upon them as tongues of fire and a rushing wind. But notice that the first gift the Holy Spirit gives them is the ability to speak in other tongues—note here that it’s not ecstatic speech, which is another matter—but rather, they are able to speak in other languages—languages of even the “barbarian” people who live outside the walls of the empire! If you look at the list of peoples present in Jerusalem at Pentecost in Acts 2:9, the first people mentioned are Parthians, the descendants of the Persians—one of Rome’s bitter enemies.

 

The Holy Spirit equips the disciples to bring the good news about Jesus to an ever-expanding frontier. Had Christianity remained simply a Jewish sect, confined to the safety of the walls of Jerusalem, it may have died out with the destruction of those walls in the late first century. But Jesus had always intended his disciples to move outside the walls and engage the world, fulfilling the promise that God had made to Abraham that through him and through God’s covenant, “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”

 

The Spirit pushed the disciples outward, beyond the walls of race and culture. Rather than just being a sect of Judaism, Christianity also engaged the Gentiles, drawing two disparate peoples into one. The Apostle Paul was a Jewish Christian missionary to Gentiles, and in Ephesians he wrote about the coming of Christ and God’s kingdom as the means of breaking down the cultural and religious walls that had previously separated them. Paul wrote:

 

“For he is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its demands and regulations. His purpose was to create one humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16).

 

Some walls are necessary, others need to be broken down—that’s the key to understanding God’s kingdom. It has boundaries—boundaries that guard the faith and guard against the influence of evil—but it is also a kingdom that is ever expanding to bring others into its fold. There is no retrenchment in the kingdom of God—it is always moving forward into God’s future.

 

We live in a world that is very divided, both physically and spiritually. Christians are called to guard their hearts and minds while still breaking down walls that separate people. It’s a fine balance, and it’s easy to get that out of balance. We  either spend too much energy walling ourselves off with doctrine and law as a way of determining who’s in or out; or we spend too much energy tearing down walls that we unwittingly allow any and every evil influence to infiltrate. Jesus calls us to hold in tension the need for good walls in some areas of life and the need to break them down in others. We need the Holy Spirit to help us discern the difference.

 

This is the balance I’ve been struggling with as I prepare to go to Annual Conference this week. We seem to have both extremes in our denomination right now: those who want to construct stronger walls through more rules and legislation, and those who want no walls at all, with no restrictions. We see the tension between exclusivity and inclusivity, and we haven’t found a way to balance those things. It’s difficult work.

 

What we can do, however, is to put all of our focus on expanding God’s kingdom and allow the Spirit to do the rest. We cannot fall into the false dichotomy of us vs them. It’s a tempting trap, but it only leads to destruction. The truth is that every single one of us needs the saving grace that only Christ offers. For Paul, that was the thing that bonded Jews and Gentiles together—that all are sinners whom Christ died for. That’s the ground of our common human unity. None of us is more deserving, none of us are superior, and none of us get out alive without Christ.

 

We need to maintain the walls of truth, but we have to be willing to speak that truth and carry it outside the walls in love—to engage people with whom we may have sharp disagreements, to love those who are not like us; to not see our own sin as less egregious than someone else’s. Christ will expand his kingdom, with or without us. Every day for me is a challenge to do the right thing to expand that kingdom. Every day I need to ask the Holy Spirit to guide me well while guarding my heart. Every day I need to ask the Spirit to show me where I can do good for Christ and his kingdom.

 

I think that’s the power of the Spirit we all need right now—to slow down and examine our walls. Neither rebellion nor retrenchment are the answer.

 

Next Sunday, our youth director, Sam Hastings, is going to be sharing with you about the upcoming youth mission trip where our young people will be expanding the kingdom and expanding their hearts as they engage in work around racial reconciliation in Mississippi. That’s one way to break down the kind of walls that need to come down. It’s risk-taking, out of comfort zone kind of mission and I’m excited about it. I hope you’ll be here to hear more about it and support their work financially.

 

But I pray that all of us will be willing to engage in that kind of work—to engage our neighbors with good news, to learn to listen and understand, to love and care for those who don’t look like us, act like us, or think like us. That’s the call of the kingdom.

 

That’s what it means to live on the edge of the empire!



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