Breaking the Fourth Wall

Homily, Breaking the Fourth Wall
Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C, 2022
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

My son, Bear, and I love to read together. And one of our favorite book series is by an author named Mo Willems which features the friendship between an elephant named Gerald and a pig named Piggie. Gerald and Piggie are best friends and each book is about the silly adventures they go on together such as sharing ice cream, playing catch, and waiting for the sunset. But by far my favorite book in the series is one called, “We Are in a Book.”

The book begins like any other Elephant and Piggie adventure with two friends spending time together when suddenly Gerald seems to look in the direction of the reader and whispers to Piggie, “I think someone is looking at us.” So the two draw closer to investigate and find that, yes, someone is looking at them, and that someone is a reader. “We are in a book!” they exclaim. The friends then proceed to play with the reader by getting us to say fun words like “banana” over and over again until they realize that the book will soon end and they along with it. So they devise a plan and on the last page they ask the reader to read the book again, and thus they can live on. For the reader, it’s startling, surprising, and pretty funny to see these characters who have become so well known through the other books suddenly become aware of the reader’s presence and invite the reader into their own story. 

When stories do this it’s called “breaking the fourth wall.” And it’s a literary tool that goes back as early as the 17th century in the Don Quixote stories. The idea of a “fourth wall” comes from stage plays where there’s three literal walls (or curtains) around a stage and an invisible fourth wall separating the characters from the audience. This fourth wall allows the audience to watch the story of the characters unfold without getting involved. As one scholar put it, it allows the characters to be “alone in public” and we can see into their personal lives without participating. 

Today the fourth wall has become such a foundational component of plays, books, and movies that we expect it and when a character breaks the fourth wall and becomes aware of the viewer, it’s startling! Suddenly the character becomes part of the viewer’s world and the viewer becomes part of the character’s world. The boundaries of time and space have collapsed into a shared moment of existence.

Something very similar is happening in our gospel reading today. Our gospel passage from John 17 has all the elements of a traditional story with a fourth wall. In it Jesus is alone, praying to God. And the reader has an inside look at this deeply intimate moment between Father and Son. Jesus is “alone in public.” 

As he talks to God he prays for himself, he prays for his disciples, and he prays for the world. And then suddenly there is a very subtle breaking of the fourth wall, and Jesus prays for “all those who will come to believe in him.” …which is us. We, right here sitting in these pews listening to Jesus pray, are those who have come to believe in him, along with generations of Christians through the centuries. In this story Jesus seems to be aware of us—seems to be aware of our presence—and so he prays for us. Jesus breaks the fourth wall so that we have a shared moment of existence with him. His world becomes our world and our world becomes his world.

And isn’t that typical of Jesus? Because throughout his whole earthly ministry Jesus’ mission has been to break down walls between people. Story after story the gospels tell of Jesus breaking down walls between Jews and Samaritans, zealots and Romans, rich and poor, men and women, children and adults, sick and healthy. Story after story. And so it’s only natural, isn’t it, for Jesus in this prayer to break down the walls of space and time to bring us in this very moment together with Jesus in his story. 

Jesus is in the business of breaking down walls. It’s what he does. And in this prayer he’s inviting us into that mission as well. Jesus prays “that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them.” Jesus is praying for unity and the end of all division. Jesus is praying for the breaking down of walls.

That’s a prayer we could use today, isn’t it? It’s been a tough week. It’s been a tough week as the nation has witnessed unimaginable pain and loss. And while we all agree in our condemnation of the violence in Uvalde, it seems like we’ve never been more divided in what to do about it. Rather than coming together we back into our corners to defend our beliefs whatever the cost. As a nation we seem to care more about throwing blame than taking responsibility. We care more about taking sides than working together. We are utterly divided. 

And so when Jesus breaks the fourth wall and comes into our world praying for unity, it’s this world for which he prays, and it’s for this divided world that he prays for us to be witnesses. He prays for us, those who believe in him, to come together united so that the world may see his love (and the world is in desperate need of his love). Jesus breaks the fourth wall to be united with us so that we might break the walls of division around us by being united with one another. 

And being united doesn’t mean being united in exactly the same beliefs, or political perspectives, it doesn’t mean being united in a single organization. No, this passage speaks of being united in love. We break down the walls of division around us not by forcing our opinions but by offering our love. Jesus is praying for unity, not conformity. Sadly, we don’t always remember the difference. 

So our invitation this morning is to hear Jesus’ prayer. Our invitation is to open our hearts to him, and to one another in love. We’re not all going to agree on how to address the problem of violence in our society, but as Christians, we must be committed to dialogue in love. What does a conversation about gun safety and gun regulation look like when it’s starting place is love? What does a conversation on mental health look like when it’s starting place is love? What does a conversation on school security look like when it’s starting place in love? These are all conversations that we must have, but what do they look like when the starting point is love? For love is the answer to division. Love is the answer to violence. Love is the answer to Jesus’ prayer. So let us join with Jesus as he joins with us, breaking down every wall, in love. Amen.