Ephesians 2: 11-22; Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56
Jesus has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.
In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul – or whoever was writing in his name – is naming the divisions that existed between those who were circumcised, that is those of Jewish heritage, and those who weren’t. It’s a good reminder to us that divisions between people – whatever their basis, are nothing new. From the earliest days of the church, people formed tribal groupings, made something of their differences.
I’m interested this morning in exploring that metaphor about a dividing wall. A wall creates a substantial barrier. You can’t see through a wall. You may not be able to see over it. It muffles sound so that what you hear through it can easily be misinterpreted. You can’t be sure what’s happening on the other side of a wall. People might be happy or sad; angry or relaxed; frightened or frightening. So when we can’t see people who are the other side of the wall, we are left to imagine who they are and what they are like – and that gives plenty opportunity for our imaginations to run away with us. In the imagination of certain people in power, a wall offers protection. We see that in Israel and in the last president of the United States. Walls that were erected to keep some people out, to pick off those who aren’t like us. And do those walls offer safety or do they threaten safety?
We know, and are constantly reminded, that people can be very wary of anyone who appears to be different from them. I don’t know whether we are hard wired in some way to look for difference, as a tool for self-protection. I guess that at a time in human evolution when people lived within their tribes with limited access to travel, anyone who arrived from elsewhere was potentially a threat. We now live in multi-cultural communities, with -at least in normal times – easy access to anywhere within our world. Is there perhaps some kind of an evolutionary hangover that we need to manage?
In the letter to the Ephesians, the divisions aren’t between people who look different, or who come from different places; they are divisions between the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. The epistle puts it this way: you are no longer strangers and aliens…
No longer strangers and aliens. No longer people who we can imagine are different from us. No longer people on the other side of a brick wall but people whose faces we can see; people who walk the same roads, have the same concerns and worship the same God. Once we begin to notice what we have in common, what is not in common becomes less significant, less dominant. Once we’re on the same side of the wall, we can hear one another; see one another; begin to understand one another.
That’s true within our society and it’s true of the churches – when we stop to listen to one another, to respect one another – we discover that there is little that divides us and much that unites us. And what about within our communities, and within our church communities. What is it that causes us to create divisions, to look for what we don’t recognise, rather than what is very familiar? This isn’t about popularity, or being friends with everyone; it’s about seeing the Christ in other people, recognising that which is sacred within them and hoping that they can recognise and encounter the sacred within us.
Our Gospel reading touches on that same theme – the disciples found that they were in demand not because of who they were, but because of the hope for transformation that they brought. So can we think for a moment about the walls that we erect, the barriers that we create that allow us to hide and prevent us from taking the risk of sharing that message of hope for transformation. Taking the risk is infinitely easier if we can see the person in front of us, can read their body language and gauge their response. We find it easier to reach out to the people who are in front of us, to take a tentative step towards them in the hope that they won’t step away.
We could all rehearse the excuses we use to maintain barriers – there are probably as many as there are people within this building. We all know what we ourselves do, the behaviours that we excuse in ourselves when we might not be quite so generous to others. And we also know that we are called to follow the Christ who not only made no differences between people, but in whom we are promised that place of reconciliation and healing and hope.
There is actually nothing we can do that changes the behaviour and attitudes of other people. Change can only begin with us. Reconciliation and healing begin with us. Risk taking begins with us. But what we discover is that when we can find ways to reach out; when we can find ways to be open to Christ in our lives, working with and through us, then there is the space for something to shift. The wall may not be down, but there may be a couple of missing bricks through which we can see and communicate. There may be some loose stones that we can remove in order to better make contact and listen. And listening is at the heart of what will eventually make a difference. When we listen to other people’s stories, when we hear about their journeys, when we honour them for who they are and how they are, then we are beginning to live that life of discipleship. Then we are beginning to lay the ground for mutual respect and sharing, for everyone concerned to learn and to grow.
As we listen to people’s stories, recognising the resonance with our own and perhaps finding ourselves fascinated by the differences, we begin to see that what each of us brings strengthens and enhances what the other brings. We begin to really see that collectively we are more than the sum of our parts. And then, and only then, can we honestly begin to be the Body of Christ. As the Body of Christ, we are able to move beyond hoping for transformation to acting on our longing for transformation. We are able to support one another to make small changes that collectively are noticeable. We are able to suggest and encourage and to dare to dream.
We might dream that one day the walls between us will be smashed; that one day we will have no need for places to hide, for artificial ways to imagine we are keeping ourselves safe – because we will let go of our fear. Our fear of the other. Fear of the stranger. Fear of the alien. In God there is no room for fear – God is love and we who know God know love. And love is the way, and the only way, to secure a future within which there are no strangers or aliens.