Dismantling Dividing Walls
Readings: Ephesians 2: 13 – 22 and 1 Corinthians 12: 12 -27
Well something I’m sure we all find challenging at some time or another is adapting to change. And yet we live in a time which seems to be one of constant change. And it’s the same for the Church too as we seek to reach out to a changing world with the unchanging message of the gospel – the good news of Jesus.
And, of course, a big change for us here was when we become part of the North Scarborough Group ministry not all that long ago. And I suppose in some ways it’s something we’re still getting used to – and yet having said that I think there’s much to celebrate in what has been achieved so far. But then, there’s still some way we can go in building stronger ties across our churches and reminding ourselves of our place within it all and also committing ourselves to working and going forwards together.
Well I’ll be developing some of these thoughts a little more later on but first of all I want to place them within a wider context.
And so let’s start with some words of Jesus when he says: “Come, follow me.” And something we see in the gospels is Jesus calling people to follow him. And as the gospel story unfolds we see him taking a ragtag group of followers, who at one stage seem to have lost the plot, and then, as they journey with him, we see him moulding and shaping them into a group of people who could be entrusted with taking his mission to the ends of the earth.
And the Christian life itself is often likened to a journey – a journey that begins when we come to Christ and takes a life time to complete. And I suppose the person who made this most clear is John Bunyan who in prison (for his beliefs) had a dream which became a book called the Pilgrim’s Progress. And it’s an allegory of the Christian life – a journey in which the central character ‘Christian’ begins the way of salvation and eventually arrives in the celestial city having had many dramatic adventures along the way.
And it’s not surprising really that the Christian life should be likened to a journey as the early followers of Jesus were originally called, followers of ‘The Way’ which meant the road or the journey. And didn’t Jesus himself say: “I am the way.”
And in much the same way as our individual Christian lives can be likened to a journey – when we come together corporately as the Church we’re also on a journey. But let us be clear by what we mean by the Church. As I’m sure you’ve heard many times before, the church is not really the building but the people, the fellowship of believers – living stones as it says in the New Testament. We are the Church. We are the body of Christ in this place, in this locality with a calling and the enabling of the Holy Spirit to continue with the mission of Jesus and to be an ambassador for him.
And St. Paul uses this metaphor of a body to show that the church like a human body is made up of many parts which are all dependent on one another to function efficiently and healthily. As St Paul says:
‘the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary those parts of the body that seem weaker are indispensable’
And so we too – each one of us, all have a part to play in supporting and encouraging each other in the body of Christ; and to build each other up in the faith. We are all part of one another – all part of one body. And if we are together the body of Christ, we need one another, not only for the health of the body as a whole, but also to enable each individual to function at their full potential.
And so as a fellowship of believers we are journeying together. But as in any journey it’s one in which things can happen along the way and we can slow down or even come to a standstill. We can even go backwards or if we are not careful stray from the path and lose our way.
And there’s quite a vivid example of this from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress if we can go back to that for a moment. And it’s where ‘Christian’ and his companion near the end of their journey and they reach the edge of the Jordan River. And from where they are standing they can see on the other side the heavenly city. But at this point Christian’s friend says, “I’m not going through the river and he turns and walks down a side path, hoping there’s another way to the heavenly city.” And Bunyan writes, “And in my dream I saw there’s a road to hell even at the gates of heaven.”
Well we need to keep on going and keep our eyes focussed on the Lord Jesus. And it seems clear to me from Scripture that God’s desire is for us to keep moving in the direction in which he is leading. ‘Let us keep in step with the Spirit’ is what Paul says to the churches in Galatia.
And for us here at St Laurence’s if we are seeking to keep in step with the Spirt there will be times when God will call us into places and situations we’ve never been before: places and situations which will create not only new opportunities but new challenges as well. It’ll not always be easy but when he calls we need to follow where he is leading.
And there’s a fascinating image that often comes to mind when I think of the different stages in my own personal journey of faith. And it’s in the Old Testament story of the Exodus as God leads his people across the desert to the Promised Land. In the text it says:
‘By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light.’
And when the people were camped this cloud would rest above the tent of the tabernacle but when it lifted it was a sign they were to pack up and move to the next stage of their journey and into a new place and a new situation. And if we think of it in modern day terms that cloud speaks to me of God’s presence amongst his people.
And it was not long ago when we, at St. Laurence’s moved into this new stage of our journey as we became part of the North Scarborough Group Ministry. I like to think of it as if the cloud of God’s presence lifted and moved us into a new set of relationships with new opportunities and new challenges. A coming together with others but still all one in Christ. And we find an echo of this in our reading from Ephesians when Paul speaks of Jesus bringing Jew and Gentile together and making them one in him.
And if we go back to the Old Testament nation of Israel for a moment – these were a people given a special calling by God. Abraham and his descendants were called to be a ‘light to the Nations.’ But somehow over time they strayed from the path and by the time of Jesus had lost their way. Instead of being a light to the rest of the world they had built dividing walls to separate themselves from everyone else. An example of this could be seen in the temple in Jerusalem where there was an inscription on the wall warning those who were not Jews to go no further into the temple courts – as if they did, they would only have themselves to thank for their death, which would inevitably follow.
Dividing walls – and that’s what walls do – they determine who’s in and who’s out; who’s included and who’s excluded. And there are not only physical walls we can see with our eyes but also the invisible walls of the heart. And it’s walls that keep people apart and it’s walls that make people suspicious and distrustful of one another: yet there’s something about human nature that wants to build walls.
And we catch something of this in a poem by the popular American poet, Robert Frost called ‘Mending Wall.’ And it’s the poem mentioned in the last issue of ‘parishlife.’ And it’s really a metaphor for the things that divide people. In fact, it’s one that President Kennedy quoted from when he inspected the Berlin Wall in June 1973. And what the poem does is to describe two neighbouring farmers who routinely each spring meet up to patch up a rock wall after the ravages of snow and ice over winter have broken it down. Together the narrator and his neighbour, between whose properties the wall runs, patiently put the wall back together stone by stone. But as they do this, the narrator begins to question the point of the wall in the first place as neither of them keep any livestock that are going to stray and they both grow different crops. He sees no reason for the wall to be kept at all. The neighbour doesn’t really have an answer to the question, yet will not be swayed from keeping the wall. He simply keeps trotting out something he remembers his father saying: “Good fences make good neighbours.”
But that then takes us to the heart of the reading we had from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus as there can be walls within churches and between churches. And these can be some of the most difficult. As for Ephesus this was a mixed church made up of Jews and Gentiles – two very different groups of people at one time separated by culture, ethnicity, religious practices and beliefs. And yet, in this new Christian community they are brought together through their new found faith in Jesus and into a new identity
It’s no longer a case of who’s in and who’s out; who’s near to God and who’s far from God. Through the cross of Jesus, the dividing wall that used to stand between the two has been torn down
And this speaks very much to our world today. While it may be the inclination of humankind to put up walls; it’s the inclination of God, through Jesus to pull them down. And God’s purpose is for inclusion, not exclusion, it’s to bring us closer to him and to one another.
And as I was reflecting on what this morning’s readings might be saying to us in the North Scarborough Group today – some well-known words of a hymn, we often sing, kept coming to mind – the one that says:
‘Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live. A place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive. Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace; here the love of Christ shall end all divisions.’
And we live in an area of rich diversity don’t we, and that is reflected in our churches. Yes they are all different with different needs – yet we are all one in Christ Jesus. This is who we are – the body of Christ in this area and ‘if one part suffers’ says Paul ‘every part suffers with it’ and therefore we all need to support and encourage one another and to build each other up. To draw alongside and to give practical help where one might be struggling
And wouldn’t it be good if each one of us could seek to reach out across the group and also to other churches to build new relationships and friendships. And so let’s together build a house where love can dwell.
And if we are to keep in step with the Spirit isn’t that what we should be seeking to do – to build the household of faith in this area of North Scarborough.
a house where love can dwell;
a house full of grace, friendship and forgiveness;
a house where all dividing walls have been dismantled;
a house full of people who are passionate about Jesus; and
a house where all are welcome. Amen.
Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at St Laurence’s, Scalby at a service of Holy Communion on Sunday 14th October 2018