4. Breaking down barriers
Jesus. All About Life
4 October 2009
Welcome to the Wesley Theatre in Sydney. Here at Wesley Mission, we are joining with a wide range of churches who are engaged in a project entitled Jesus. All About Life. We have had a special guest sharing with us … Trevor Hudson from South Africa. We now want to take this theme a step further by asking what the implications of this gospel are … beyond our own personal lives. I want to consider our calling to break down the barriers that divide.
Lucy and Linus have a chicken wishbone. They are about to pull it to make a wish. As Lucy explains to Linus how the wishbone works, Linus asks, ‘Do I have to say the wish out loud?’ Lucy says, ‘Of course, if you don’t say it out loud it won’t come true.’ Then she makes her wish first. She says, ‘I wish for four new sweaters, a new bike, a new pair of skates, a new dress and one hundred dollars.’
Linus goes next. ‘I wish for a long life for all my friends,’ he says. ‘I wish for world peace, I wish for great advancements in medical research.’ At this, Lucy takes the wishbone and throws it away. ‘Linus,’ she says, ‘that’s the trouble with you; you’re always spoiling everything.’
It is certainly true that our self-centred, materialistic world often builds walls of division. In the original context of the New Testament, ‘walls of division’ would have a tangible link to the Temple and the restrictions placed upon Gentiles. Not only is there a sense of being Gentiles, cut off because of the darkness which is the condition of those who did not believe, but there is an imposing balustrade in the Jerusalem Temple which separates the Court of the Gentiles from the temple proper.
The fearful inscription placed on it said everything: ‘No foreigner may enter within the barrier and enclosure round the Temple. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.’ Obviously when the Jerusalem Temple fell in AD70 the barrier would be destroyed. Two of the Greek notices were found in 1871 and 1935. The earlier notice, on a white limestone slab, is in the Museum of Istanbul.
My text describes the work of Christ in this way:
‘For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier …’ (Ephesians 2:14)
This text speaks with clarity in relation to the notable symbol of temple division, but it also reminds us of the power of Christ to break down all walls of division.
The Gospel brings a new inclusive way of looking at the world
As Christians, we are called to take seriously our part in knocking down the walls of hate and hostility … to build bridges of love and reconciliation. The Temple was a parable in stone, which exposed the prejudices of people … and which have been replicated again and again throughout history – and in all cultures!
What are the causes of the barriers which divide?
- The dangerous fact of ‘pride’
We know that not all pride is bad … pride in your country, your state, your city, your church, your family and your close friends … and so on! That is not the kind of pride that causes barriers … when exercised with care and concern. On the contrary, it can be a positive feature.
One evening some years ago, a minister visited a couple in their home. They had expressed some interest in joining the church, but the minister sensed an uneasiness. He could feel the tension and stress in that home. Suddenly the woman turned to her husband and said, ‘I’m going to tell him the truth. I’m going to tell him about our family.’
She went on: ‘This is killing me! It’s eating me up! For seven years my husband and my son have not spoken to each other although they have lived in the same house.’ She pointed down the hall: ‘Look at that hallway. It’s an average size hall, yet they pass each other in it, brush against each other, and never speak.’ The mother said the son wanted to speak to his father and tried to, but the father ignored him. Finally, the teenager gave up.
The minister turned to the man and asked him what started the estrangement in the first place. Amazingly, the man admitted that the whole thing was so trivial that he really couldn’t remember what it was! Yet, he said firmly, ‘I’m a proud man. I’m a man of my word. I vowed that I would never speak to that boy again … and I’m going to keep my word!’
That is so sad! It is actually pathetic and pitiful. What do you think Jesus would say to that man? He might say, ‘Come on now! That’s enough! Knock down that wall of pride that’s separating you from your son. It’s not worth it. Go love your son! Go make peace with your son! Go reconcile! Go fix that! Get that divisive, destructive wall of pride out of here!’
- The destructive force of ‘prejudice’
Is there anything more destructive than prejudice? The word literally can be broken down to mean ‘pre-judge’.
Do you recall the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast which Disney translated to the screen? You might remember how the handsome prince was put under a spell that turned him into a beast. He was in front of his castle one day when what appeared to be an old beggar woman came by. She offered him a rose if he would give her shelter from the cold.
But the prince was spoiled, selfish and arrogant, and he didn’t want to have anything to do with the old beggar woman. He considered her to be beneath him, which led him to sneer at her and turn her away. The beggar said to him, ‘Prince, do not be deceived by appearances, for real beauty is within.’
The Prince continued to sneer, reject her and turn her away. Then the ugliness melted away to reveal a beautiful person. The Prince apologised, but it was too late. She had seen no kindness or compassion in him!
Gladly, the story doesn’t end there … and he is redeemed by a person who saw in him more than the outward appearance of his own life.
The point is clear: When we live under the spell of prejudice, we become something much less than what God meant us to be – and we need to be redeemed and changed by the sacrificial love of Christ. Jesus breaks down the dividing walls of pride and the dividing walls of prejudice.
- The divisive flow of ‘vengeance’
Vengeance is that angry, bitter spirit which simply refuses to forgive and longs to ‘get even’. Vengeance nurses wrath to keep it warm … that broods and festers and looks for an opportunity to hit back. It is a kind of spiritual poison.
Vengeance flows on into actions and seems entirely justifiable to the one who exercises it. It is, in fact, a self-destruct button for those who follow this pathway. In our understanding, it is often described in terms of revenge, reprisal and retaliation.
Francis Bacon suggested that a person who studies revenge keeps their own wounds green. The Old Testament model of ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth …’ (Deuteronomy 19:21) is a self-limiting way of responding to hurt … the call for forgiveness is far deeper and more meaningful.
The Gospel facilitates the possibility of new relationships
What happened in the events of the cross of Christ was God’s love made plain, showing what the power of God was able to do for a person, especially in the context of broken and damaged relationships. For this to happen, it requires an act of compassion, someone must scale the wall and go out on a limb …and that is exactly what Jesus did!
John Stott helps to describe this work: ‘Jesus has succeeded in creating a new society, in fact a new humanity, in which alienation has given way to reconciliation, and hostility to peace.’ This is a foretaste of the work of God to bring the whole human family together in love.
- New relationships are necessary, even for Christian people
Just as nations are divided, communities are also divided … so churches can be divided too. In the magazine Leadership, a cartoon showed a pastor sitting with two obviously exasperated parishioners at a table in his office. The caption read, ‘With our current hard feelings, would anyone object to my praying with my eyes open?’
Leaders of Christian communities, pastors, chairs of elders, pastoral visitors and so on ought to be the exemplars of this new way, which the Christian faith opens up. All of us sit under the authority of Christ and we ought to speak well of each other. The corrosive power of sin and selfishness strikes hard in our relationships as Christian people. We are responsible for the walls to be removed … from our side!
There is no way we can talk about a new community if it does not begin in the Christian context of our ‘life together’. James Dunn of Durham wrote, ‘The individual’s prerogative (inspiration or status) is always subordinate to the good of the whole.’
Martin Luther King Jr, in another context, wrote, ‘We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.’
- New relationships are needed in so many families
Families can implode … and it can happen so very quickly.
Not very long ago, we were involved in helping a young family where precisely this had happened. A relationship which had been to all intents and purposes respectable from the outside, burst into violence.
Dividing walls exist in the most unlikely places. The ‘dividing wall’ becomes a metaphor of the many divisions which occur, such as the one I talked of earlier … filled with pride.
A young man had great promise as an actor, but every time he was offered an important part, he would blow it. When it came to the time for signing the contract, he would fall out with the producer or his agent handling the negotiations. Eventually, the opportunity would die. He was, in point of fact, sabotaging his own career.
He worked with a therapist who suggested, ‘Imagine that you’re in your home town. There is the theatre and your name is up in lights.’ At that point, the young man jumped out of his chair, his face red with anger and hatred. ‘No, no!’ he shouted. ‘They don’t deserve it! They don’t deserve to see me a success!’
The therapist now knew that the reason the young actor was sabotaging his own success was his anger towards his mother and father. Something had happened and he wanted to punish them with his own failure.
Walls can be built in families!
- New relationships are natural to the gospel community
Harry Emerson Fosdick once declared, ‘Christianity is like beautiful music. It doesn’t require defence or explanation. It requires rendition.’ If we are to serve Christ, then we must join forces with him to knock down the walls that divide … this will create possibilities which are unthinkable apart from Christ.
The graphic illustration of the temple curtain being torn in two (Luke 23:44-45) speaks of Jesus Christ breaking down the walls of division. God brings about a new relationship through Jesus Christ … and nowhere is it more needed than in our interactions with one another.
The Gospel challenges us to be a people who are peace-makers
The gospel is a message of how Jesus Christ has come to destroy all the walls that divide and separate us from one another.
Not only does Jesus Christ achieve peace for us in the cross, but he is also the very essence of peace itself … and calls us to be peacemakers. Markus Barth comments, ‘To confess Christ is to affirm the abolition and end of division and hostility, the end of separation and segregation, the end of enmity and contempt, and the end of every sort of ghetto.’
- The shift from ‘you’ to ‘we’
The Abingdon Commentary on Ephesians draws attention to the differences between the use of ‘you’ and ‘we’. It is a helpful way of describing the change that comes about when people see beyond their own narrow confines to an inclusive community.
Ephesians concentrates a good deal on the saving work of Christ as making it possible to bring Jesus and Gentiles together. In another letter, Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we read of the cosmological perspective of the reconciling work of Christ. But before talking about the wider enormity of this work, it has to make sense in the specific circumstance of a particular context.
It will have something to say to our own lives, as we stop to consider how those we call ‘you’ become ‘we’.
- The moving from ‘hate’ to ‘humanity’
The Old Testament referred to Gentiles as ‘far off’ (see Deuteronomy 28:49; 1 Kings 8:41 and Jeremiah 5:15). In Jesus Christ we are called near … and the Gentile is brought near through his work on the cross. This is a description of the way we understand the peace that God has made real in Jesus Christ.
Hate is not consistent with the way of God’s love, but sadly down the years it has been upheld by his followers. Any understanding of the work of Christ on the cross must do business with the abolition of hate.
This desire for peace is nurtured by a meaningful spirituality. George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community, wrote, ‘Where people are praying for peace, the cause of peace is being strengthened by their very act of prayer, for they are themselves becoming immersed in the spirit of peace.’
- The conclusion that Christ is our peace
As we are sharing in a time of focus, when we are talking about Jesus. All About Life, it is good to ask ourselves what are the implications of believing in the Name of Christ. What is it that he has done for us that will and does make a difference in our world?
Former students at Yale University have their own magazine and in one edition, Professor Robert Sternberg points out that IQs are rising worldwide as much as three points per decade on average. ‘We’re getting smarter,’ he writes, ‘but that doesn’t mean we are getting better people. Unfortunately a rise in IQs is not linked to a rise in our capacity to love one another.’ There are some things that are only achieved by what God has done in Christ.
Just over twenty-two years ago, the then US President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall. He spoke to the people of West Berlin, and issued a direct challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev, who was then leader of the Soviet Union. His words were stronger than any he had spoken in his Hollywood days.
He said, ‘General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you see liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’
Twenty-nine months later, Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Berliners to destroy that wall and, soon after, the Soviet Union collapsed.
The poet Robert Frost said, ‘Something there is that doesn’t like a wall. That wants it down!’
Jesus makes life possible by removing all those things which divide and destroy fullness of life. Jesus Christ came to be our peace … to reconcile us with one another – and more … to reconcile us to God!
What are the walls which need to fall in your life – in order to bring about a new beginning? The same power which has been made known in Christ is available to you today. Receive this power by opening your heart and life to its influence – and then allow him to flow through every part of your life … bringing refreshment, renewal and a new possibility, as it removes all the walls of division within our lives.