Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity - Choral Evensong

  • Preacher

    The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn

  • Readings

    Nehemiah 6.1-16; John 15.12-27

London Wall, towards the north of the city, hints at what is there but the sections of the old Roman wall that surrounded the City of London are but a mere shadow of what they must once have been like. But the walls of Jerusalem are on a completely different scale!

Whether you walk those walls at ground level, stopping at each of the gates working out their significance – Lion Gate, Herod Gate, New Gate, Dung Gate and the rest, or walking on the top of the walls looking down at the city beneath you, which you can do for long sections, the experience is wonderful. 

Walk about Sion, and go round about her
and tell the towers thereof.
Mark well her bulwarks, set up her houses
that ye may tell them that come after.

writes the Psalmist and that is what it’s good to do.

Of course, the walls that you see nowadays and the gates are not the ones that we heard referred to in the First Lesson from the Book of Nehemiah.  The walls that you see now are the work of Suleiman the Magnificent from the 16th century and have been heavily restored.  It takes a long time to completely understand how the walls and the shape of the old city have moved and changed over time to the extent that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the site of the crucifixion of Jesus, which as the hymn describes was ‘outside the city wall’, is now well inside the walls.  It has all changed so much.  But nevertheless the walls serve to define Jerusalem.

But the archaeologist, historian and chronicler of Jerusalem, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor in his book ‘The Holy Land’, says of them

[The walls] enclose without dominating, limit but do not define. The impression of strength is an illusion; the city is not a fortress and its walls are not a barrier but a veil.  The visitor is drawn forward, challenged, and finally embraced.

Yet there was something of the fortress mentality about Nehemiah.  He wanted something that was defensive so that the people would be safe within the walls, so that the Temple would be safe within the walls.  And so he returns from exile in Babylon to do the work of reconstruction and as we heard, in the face of their neighbours and enemies they complete it.  The walls were repaired and the gates reinstated. 

Jesus is talking to his friends, to his disciples, and we heard part of what he said in the Second Lesson.  This is in the lead up to his arrest and trial and that crucifixion outside the city walls.  Jesus recognises that enemies are a reality.  There are people out there who hate you, who hate us, there are people out there who will wish you and will do you harm he tells them.  He knew that it would be true for him.

‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.’

Yet Jesus has just spoken to them about the power of love, about the power of laying down one’s life for one’s friends. 

They were deeply powerful words that would be a continual challenge to his disciples then and his disciples now.  The call is not to surround ourselves with walls but with love.  That is why dying outside the walls, rising outside the walls, becomes such a powerful symbol.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews uses that symbol in what he writes

‘Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.’

We go boldly through the gates and beyond the walls into the place of vulnerability where both death and resurrection await.  The place for the church is the place where Jesus was, outside the camp, in that place of vulnerability.

Murphy O’Conner says ‘the city is not a fortress and its walls are not a barrier but a veil.’ Yet in Jesus, even the veil that separated the people from the holy of holies was torn apart.

Every wall is broken down in Christ which is why whether the wall is across Mexico or in Belfast, or whether it’s a virtual wall across the island of Ireland, every wall is unacceptable.  Christ breaks through our walls and brings us into his freedom where the only thing that surrounds us is love.