The Cross and Our Divisions

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Ephesians 2:14-16

God has acted on your behalf to break the barriers down. He offers you forgiveness, new life, membership in His family.

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.

Ephesians 2:14-16 RSV

As I walked one summer near Buckingham Palace in London, I was impressed by the wall surrounding the palace grounds —a massive bulk of brick and stone, crowned by menacing steel spikes which jab outward and upward. Curling around and through this forest of spears is a live electric wire. The whole structure seems to say in emphatic, threatening tones, “Keep out!” I remember sensing the same atmosphere when I looked at the walls around home after home once in Mexico City. They were high and thick, and at the top of each, imbedded in concrete, were sharp nails or jagged pieces of glass. The message came through loud and clear: “Visitors not welcome!” I’m not against those structures, though I do respond in some ways to that haunting word of the poet, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” I suppose that in some instances the safety of people depends upon strong, forbidding walls, but they always point, don’t they, to a rift between persons? They remind us that we live in a grimly divided world.

THE SEPARATING WALLS

How many barriers of mistrust and alienation still separate people! There are walls of race, of nationality, of social set, of economic class, of religious preference. The political world knows such partitions well. We call them by names like “the Berlin Wall,” “the Bamboo Curtain,” or “the Cuba Blockade.” And those are only large-scale symbols of what is happening all around us. In every nation, among every people, pride, fear, suspicion and hate are building unseen barriers. We are estranged from one another. Some of you, perhaps, are living with dark, cold walls of separation between you and members of your own family. The sons of Cain still kill their brothers, and marriage partners by the millions shut themselves off from their mates.

The wall of antagonism often in the news today is that between Jew and Arab. But that, in some form, is an old story. The deepest rift in the world of the first century was between Jew and Gentile. The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians about a “dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile, an intense, long-standing enmity.

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had called Israel to be His special people. He had purposed through them to bring blessing to all the families of the earth. Their unique role was willed by Him, but bad feeling had somehow grown up around it. Israel at her worst saw her divine calling as an occasion for pride and viewed the heathen nations around her with scorn and contempt. And the Gentiles, at their worst, responded with an uncommon hatred.

This tragic enmity found symbolic expression in Israel’s place of worship. To an area surrounding the temple, called the Court of the Gentiles, anyone had free access. But to the inner court, only Jews were allowed to come. Between the temple proper and the court of the Gentiles stood a stone wall which bore an inscription in Greek and Latin “forbidding any foreigner to go in under pain of death.” This is what the apostle may have meant by the “dividing wall of hostility.”

Why, we wonder, do we have such barriers? According to the Bible, they all root in a more basic separation: we are estranged from each other because we are cut off from God. We have all shared in a primal human decision to go our own way, to throw off God’s rule, and declare our independence. In our disobedience we have forfeited God’s fellowship. Now we live as those banished from His presence. That “flaming sword” of the Genesis account which “turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” was a truly eloquent symbol. We who have left the Lord can never make our own way back.

Within the tabernacle and later within the temple God gave His people another striking visual aid. Outside the “holy of holies,” the inner sanctuary where God was to be especially present, hung a heavy, opaque curtain. No one could enter through it except the high priest and he but once a year to offer an atonement for the sins of the people. The veil conveyed the same message as the flaming sword: “No admittance!” Sin has walled us off from the presence of the Lord. And because we have no peace with God, we find it very hard to live in peace with one another.

THE BARRIER-BREAKING LORD

So much for the walls that separate. Now for the Christ who breaks them down. Listen to these words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:14.

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.

Remember how Jesus in His earthly ministry had a way of crossing lines of distinction and breaking barriers down? Women, for example, in those days were often despised by men. They were not allowed to read the law of God and men would not even speak to them in public. But Jesus treated them with the greatest dignity and respect. He accepted support from them, taught them gladly, even initiated conversations with them. Again, the poor were often despised by the rich, but Jesus had special words of comfort for them. He defended their interests, praised their offerings and promised them the kingdom. The “people of the land,” those who had neither time nor money nor inclination for various religious observances, were looked down upon by the strict Pharisees. But Jesus so prized these very people that He spoke of them as the ones whom He had come to call. And think of how the Samaritans were hated by the Jews. Yet Jesus chose to go through Samaria. He poured Himself out in ministry to these people and made “the good Samaritan” the hero of a matchless parable. Christ could not bear the petty man-made distinctions that divided people from each other.

But His greatest work of barrier-breaking was done on Golgotha. There, by dying for the sins of the world, He destroyed all the enmities that separate us. He took away every obstruction between us and a holy God by bearing Himself the condemnation we deserve. And by taking us down into death with Him, He slew the evil that sets us against each other. That’s what the apostle Paul was celebrating in this marvelous passage of Scripture.

One of the things that had distinguished Jews from Gentiles was their ceremonial law. The Jewish system of sacrifices and their various dietary requirements had made close interaction between Jews and Gentiles almost impossible. Though worthwhile in themselves, these ceremonies had occasioned distance and discrimination. Christ abolished them all by fulfilling them completely and made it possible for Jews and Gentiles to meet on a new basis. But most important, He dealt with that in the hearts of both which had produced hostility. All that within us which makes us hateful and leads us to hate one another went down into death when Jesus breathed His last on Good Friday.

Christ, with hands outstretched on a cross, brings God and man together. And when we are reconciled to God, we can know a new kind of peace with each other. For the Christ who died is now risen from the dead. In Him a new humanity comes to birth. Jew and Gentile alike are born anew. Christ, says Paul, has made us both one. He has created in Himself one new person in place of the two, so making peace.

We are still Jews or Gentiles, but now the difference has been transcended. The most significant, fundamental thing about us is that we are Christ’s new people, recreated in His image, raised to new life as members of His body. Jew and Gentile together are now reconciled to God. Jew and Gentile together have access in one Spirit to the Father. In Christ they have all become God’s beloved children. In Christ they have all received the quickening gift of the Holy Spirit. They have now a new power to love. In Christ they have been joined together as members of the one body of which He is the Head. So the crucified and risen Jesus has toppled the walls and healed the divisions.

THE UNVEILED PURPOSE

Do you begin to see the picture? Paul had said earlier that it was God’s plan for the ages to “sum up all things in Christ.” He will show further on in this letter how the church is to be Exhibit A of this unifying purpose. God wants to see hostilities ended, barriers leveled. In the cross and resurrection of His Son He has acted decisively to bring that about. There, by His wisdom, love, and power, He has brought into being a new human race. In the fellowship of those who believe in Christ, the world and even the principalities and powers in heavenly places, are to catch a glimpse of God’s eternal purpose. They are to see, amid all the imperfections of a very human fellowship, something of a divine plan. The differences that breed jealousy and pride, hatreds and wars, are to be transcended. There, in the church, it is to become clear that God in Christ brings the scattered children of men together.

A great deal has been said lately about the importance of homogeneous groups for church growth. Those who have made extensive studies of how churches grow, point out that congregations which appeal to others like themselves have the best chance of enlarging their membership. The truth of this and the reasons for it are fairly obvious. All of us like to be with people of “our kind.” The more we have in common with a group, the more we tend to feel at home with them.

But what is scientifically verifiable and manifestly workable (and what feels most comfortable!) may not always be best. It may not always lead us to God’s design for His church. The people of God are not only to increase in numbers; they are also to embody by their very existence the purpose of the Lord. It testifies little to His grace and redemption that “birds of a feather can flock together.” But it does witness mightily to what He has done in Christ when people of different races, cultures, backgrounds and temperaments are brought together in His church. To be open to all kinds of people, yes, and to seek them eagerly, may not be a surefire method for adding to our numbers, but it will demonstrate powerfully to all who behold it what Jesus came to do.

That brings us to the matter of our response to all this. It’s well to ask the question that was first raised by the crowds in Jerusalem when the apostles proclaimed Christ to them. “Brethren, what shall we do?” Christ, Paul tells us, has made peace by the blood of His cross. Indeed, He is our peace, who has broken all the barriers down. And through His servants, He has proclaimed peace to us. Are we simply to be passive hearers of all this or are we actively to respond? God says, “Don’t just sit there. Repent! Believe the good news! Be reconciled to God!”

God has acted on your behalf to break the barriers down. He offers you forgiveness, new life, membership in His family. Now receive it with a trusting heart as you welcome the living Jesus as your Savior. The way is now open for you now to come to God through Christ. Take that way and walk in it. God has come in Christ to slay the enmity between peoples, so don’t you let it live. In the name of the risen Lord, tolerate no walls, no estrangements. Do battle against prejudice and discrimination. God wants the walls broken. Determine that you by His grace will be part of His demolition squad!

What about your church, your Christian fellowship, if you belong to one? Is there anything there that still denies what Christ has done? Would anyone feel like a stranger there? Are there still ugly walls among you? Remember, because of Christ crucified and risen, there need not be. His Cross breaks the barriers down and brings us together. May the Spirit so enable us that our common life will more and more bring to light what’s in God’s heart!

PRAYER: Forgive us, Father, for the way our pride and pettiness sometimes brings about division. Receive our thanks for the Christ who by His cross breaks all the barriers down, and bring us, we pray, together in Him. In Jesus’ name. Amen.