A sermon given on Remembrance Sunday 2019
The human race has an incredible capacity to divide and to exclude other people.
We do it according to the sport that you support. Are you Liverpool or Everton, City or United, Spurs or Arsenal? We do it according to race. Hutus and Tutsis massacring large numbers of the other race in Rwanda. We do it according to the colour of our skin. That could be decades of apartheid in South Africa. I lived in Liverpool in 1981 when Toxteth erupted into racial riots. And even some parts of the United Kingdom and the United States in the past 12 months have been inflamed with those same tensions. We do it according to someone's cast. In parts of India, people are hideously discriminated against simply because they were born into the wrong family. And we do it according to our religion. There are countries in the world where it is illegal for Christians to own property. And who is not aware of the tensions, and in years past appalling violence, caused by the division between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
These are all examples of the way in which we human beings say, “I am in this group not that group”. Or, more specifically, “not in your group”. And fundamentally the problem is that this is then our identity. It's how I define myself. I define myself by the fact that I'm not in your group, your tribe.
It makes me ask myself what hope there is for the human race, with such deep divisions like this everywhere. Of course, these are the same tensions, and the same divisions, that fuel war. Whether it's the two great wars of the last century, or the many that there have been before and since.
The Great Division
I'm going to tell you this morning about one specific example of this kind of division from the time of Jesus. That's a long time ago, but this is not just an abstract piece of ancient history. No: the key to solving this ancient division is also the key to solving all the other divisions that I have just mentioned. That is the division between Jews (people who descend from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and Gentiles (that is everybody else).
God gave the Jews some amazing promises to bless them in specific ways. He also gave them laws to keep, laws that marked them out as a specific nation, that separated and distinguished them from everybody else. The idea was that if they trusted God enough to keep his laws, then God would bless them in the ways he had promised. And therefore their distinctive identity as a nation became very important to them.
There were certain privileges that were theirs and exclusively theirs. In particular, only Jews were allowed to go into the temple proper. The outer courts around the temple, that was an area that anyone could go to, but then there was a low balustrade fence that marked off the area within that into which only Jews were allowed to go. In 1871, archaeologists discovered fragments of that balustrade fence / dividing wall, and they found intact one of the notices that was affixed to the wall. When translated it says this: “No foreigner shall enter within the forecourt and the balustrade around the sanctuary; whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.”
And so there was this dividing barrier that divided on two dimensions. It divided horizontally – a division between Jew and Gentile, out and in.
But it also divided vertically, because it sent the message to the Gentiles that they were not good enough for God. Because in the middle of that sanctuary area (where they were not allowed to go) was the temple sanctuary itself, in which God himself symbolically dwelt. That fence said to Gentiles: you cannot go in to where God lives. it was a vertical division as well. (It actually, by the way, also made the point that Jews too were not good enough to enter the presence of God. Because inside that outer balustrade fence there was another division within the temple building itself. There was a curtain, that ancient historians tell us was as thick as the span of a man's hand, that divided one part of the temple from the innermost sanctuary which was the actual presence of God.)
So Jews and Gentiles divided from each other horizontally, and Jews and Gentiles alike divided from the presence of God – a division vertically.
The Great Reunification
The bible reading I read a moment ago from Ephesians chapter 2 tells us that Jesus dealt with that division, and so he sowed the seeds to deal with all of our other divisions. What he did was he created one brand new united humanity.
Let me read for us again verses 14 and 15. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one, and has destroyed the barrier the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.”
He did this by his death. It says “in his flesh”, and the next verse (verse 16) says that he did it “through the cross”. As Jesus died, he dealt with both barriers.
He dealt firstly with the vertical. The vertical barrier, the division between us and God, is actually of our own making. We do not want God to be God; we don't want him to be in charge, to tell us what to do. So as we step out from God's good rule over us, so God himself is no longer on our side; God is no longer our friend. Instead, we are no longer able to enter his presence and enjoy his favour.
Well, Jesus dealt with that vertical barrier. As he suffered and died, he took the punishment for all of his people's rebellion. He suffered the anger and judgment of God, so that everyone who attaches themselves to him will never have to. That vertical barrier has been dealt with, and by knowing the Lord Jesus it is possible to be forgiven, to be part of God's family, to enter his presence, and to enjoy his favour. The vertical barrier is gone.
Jesus dealt with that vertical division, and in so doing he also dealt with the horizontal because all that matters now is that you know Jesus.
You no longer need to be a Jew, and therefore being a Gentiles no longer excludes you either.
What's more, if you are attached to the Lord Jesus, you are also attached (in and through him) to everybody else who has attached themselves to him.
And so it is that Jesus has done two things. He's destroyed the barrier the wall of hostility, and he's made the two one. So here's the end of verse 15: “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.”
So previously there were two categories of person: you were either a Jew or you were a Gentile. But now there are three categories: there are Jews, there are Gentiles, and then there's a new category – those people who know the Lord Jesus, who are part of this new humanity.
Therefore Jesus has brought both Jew and Gentiles back to God. Jesus has brought Jew and Gentiles back to God together, in the same way. Therefore Jesus has brought Jew and Gentiles together. And they come together – in him.
This is the grand re-unification of the most ancient division in the human race. (The division between Jew and Gentile goes back nearly 4 000 years.)
I am old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That was an extraordinary event, was it not? Almost overnight, a divided city (East and West Berlin), a divided nation (East and West Germany) reunified, brought back together, a single nation with a single capital city. Well, the reunification that Jesus achieved is far, far greater than that.
A United Humanity
He did all this by dying on the cross. Jesus has made a new humanity one, in which people's identity is no longer about whether they are black or white, whether they are young or old, whether they are male or female, whether they are married or single, whether they are rich or poor, whether they are Arsenal or Chelsea supporters. But their identity comes from the fact that they know and love him.
So people would say, “I'm not black; I'm not white; I'm a Christian.” Or they'd say, “I'm not male; I'm not female. (Well, I mean, of course – they are one or the other – we all are one or the other, but the point is that's not their identity.) Their identity is to say, “I'm a Christian; I follow Jesus.”
Which means that in this new humanity, all the things that cause division and war just cease to matter.
Now, of course, sometimes even within the Christian church there is division. That, incidentally, is why Paul wrote this letter that we're looking at this morning, to the Christian church in Ephesus. He wants them to see how to work out in practice this great reunification into a new humanity that the Lord Jesus achieved.
But why do we get divisions like this within Christian churches? Well, just because someone is in a church, that doesn't automatically mean that they are a Christian, who with perfect consistency sees their identity in the fact that they know and love the Lord Jesus. Someone I used to know would say that the problem in Northern Ireland was that there are too many Protestants and too many Catholics, and not enough Christians. Very true.
So, whenever you look out and long for our divisions to be healed, they will be.
They will be healed in the new humanity that Jesus created when he died on the cross.
And if you want to be a part of that new united humanity, then you can be. You just need to know and follow Jesus now, and in so doing you will have joined that new humanity in which true and lasting peace will be found (will increasingly be found, and one day will totally be found). You can be part of it.
And if you want to see that future come on the earth in our own lifetime, then do all you can to spread the good news of Jesus, and to encourage others to join his new humanity as well