A DIVIDED SOCIETY
Like many of you, I was raised in an era where we were taught to treat everyone with a measure of respect and dignity. The colour of someone’s skin was not important and neither was their language. I remember some new immigrants in our neighbourhood but while we sometimes found their ways to be a bit strange, we still played with the kids at recess and if they could swing a baseball bat to good effect, that was all the better.
To be sure, there were people back then who were racists, homophobic and xenophobic, but I also believe that the vast majority of us tried to follow the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do to you. Were we perfect at it? No, we weren’t. Mistakes were made but that happens in life and we did the best we could to make amends and move on.
But the world, lately, seems to have gone nuts. It is becoming more and more divided every day. Those promoting things like identity politics and critical race theory are constantly segmenting society based on the colour of our skin. Language, gender, sexual orientation and religious affiliation are all being used to divide us into groups. We are told that our society is systemically racist and that patriarchy and capitalism will spell the end of civilization because they are inherently evil and need to be replaced by Marxist ideologies.
We see the divisions all over the place. And what really concerns me is the growing we/they mentality that is emerging stronger and stronger. It’s no longer good enough to respectfully disagree with someone. Now if someone disagrees, they are demonized and ridiculed with each side lining up opposite the next in a no holds barred battle for supremacy. To disagree or to share a different opinion is labelled as hate speech and, it doesn’t take much for someone to start calling you racist, sexist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic or any one of a dozen insults that are thrown around so freely today that they have almost lost any real meaning.
Why is this happening? Part of it is a very biased news media which means that it’s almost impossible to get real unbiased news anymore. It seems that more and more people are realizing that. I saw a recent Gallop poll in the US this past week that reported that only 21% of Americans had confidence in the reporting of newspapers and on 16% trusted television news. So clearly people are waking up. Another poll, in fact, showed that the US media is the least trusted media in the industrialized world.
But let’s not get too smug up here in the great white north. While our news media fared better, it was nothing to write home about. We ended up in the middle of the pack alongside such bastions of truth as Croation, Singapore and Columbia. People, more and more are realizing that every major media outlet is clearly biased.
Social media has something to do with it. It used to be that when people disagreed, they would meet face to face and share their opinions and why they had come out on that particular side of an issue. But you can’t do that with social media. It is almost impossible to have an intelligent conversation on Facebook. That’s because when it comes to important issues, Facebook posts generally consists of simplistic analysis by people who often don’t have a good grasp on the subject matter themselves and don’t seem to want to do the research to find out what’s really going on. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming Facebook. I have an account and I use it most day. It’s great for keeping up on the news of people I know and care about. It’s a great way to keep in touch with old friends and family. But it’s just not a good place for intelligent dialogue because no one actually has to face the person they’re talking to and that makes it very easy to be obnoxious.
I relish a good debate with someone who doesn’t agree with me. You bring your best points and I’ll bring mine and we sit down with a cold one and respectfully discuss the issues. At the end of it all, we still may not agree but we still respect each other and no one has resorted to name calling and put downs. That is enlightening. It’s energizing and it’s fun. But it’s also increasingly difficult to find. Why? Because we have become so divided in our society.
THE CURTAIN WAS TORN
Paul was a Jew. He was trained as a Pharisee, a very legalistic kind of Jew. He was raised to think that there were two strata of people in God’s world. There were the Jews who stood of the very top of the ladder and then below them was everyone else. Paul would not eat with non-Jews. He would not worship with non-Jews. He would have preferred to not touch or even talk with non-Jews.
In his mind, the world consisted of Jews and the non-Jews who are called Gentiles and it was clear who Paul thought was superior. The place where this separation was most apparent was in the Temple in Jerusalem. It consisted of a number of courts which had restrictions about who could enter them. The outer court was called the Court of the Gentiles. Anyone could go in there. Inside of that was the Court of the Women where any Jewish person could go but it was not open to Gentiles. Inside of that was the Court of the Men where only Jewish men could go. No women were allowed. Inside of that was the Court of the Priest. Only Jewish male priests could go there; lay people remained outside. You can see how the Temple was more and more restrictive as you got closer and closer to the centre. Inside of the Court of the Priests was the Sanctuary where only certain priests could enter and finally inside of that was the Holy of Holies where only one priest could enter and only at specific times of the year.
You can see how the Temple was intended to divide the people into groups by erecting specific barriers to keep out the unwanted. The most critical barrier, however, was called the curtain or the veil which separated the Holy of Holies from everything else. Only A Jewish male priest could cross the veil but when he did so he was not there just on his own. He was representing the rest of the Jewish nation. He went behind the veil for them. God was their God. Of all the people on the face of the earth they were his Chosen People.
This is the context into which Paul writes his letter to the Ephesians. The church in Ephesus consists predominantly of Gentile converts to Christianity. This means, of course, that Paul has had a change of heart. He was someone who despised the Gentiles as almost subhuman compared to the Jews. But something happened to change that. What happened was that he met Jesus on the road to Damascus and that experience caused a radical shift in his attitude and his theology. Listen to what this new and improve Paul writes to the Gentile brothers and sisters in Ephesians 2:11-18 (NIV):
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
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 commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
What an amazing change of heart. Listen again to what Paul writes in verse 14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…” He is referring, of course, to Jesus as the one who destroyed the barrier. What barrier? The barrier that separated the Jewish people from the Gentiles, the barrier that said that non-Jews were not part of God’s salvation plan, that they had to stay outside and were not included.
Do you remember what happened in the Temple when Jesus died on the cross? In Matthew 27:51 (NIV) it says that when Jesus died, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” This is the curtain that Paul is talking about in Ephesians. Scholars have debated whether the curtain actually split or whether it was just a symbol but whether it was an actual tearing or a symbolic tearing, the significance is still the same. Jesus’ death forever destroyed the barrier that separated the Jews for the Gentiles. It brought the two together on a common road of salvation.
Paul echos this thought in Romans 10:12 (NIV) which says: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” The bottom line is this, through faith in Christ we are one. There are no Jews or Gentiles, slave or free, male or female, young or old. All have equal access to God’s kingdom through faith in Jesus Christ.
That was good news for the new Christians in Ephesus because back in those days there were still many well-meaning Jews who saw the Gentiles as second class believers, squatters in the realm of salvation. What Paul tells them is that this is not true. They are every bit as legitimate as the Jewish believers. They have every right to be part of God’s kingdom. They belong not because they were born into the right ethnic group or speak the right language but because of the only thing that really matters – their common faith in Jesus Christ. The veil is torn. The divisions are ended, separations gone. They are one in Christ.
A CHURCH DIVIDED
That’s how we need to treat one another, like we are one in Christ Jesus. That doesn’t mean that we all have to agree on absolutely everything. We can have good discussions about a pre-trib or post-trib rapture or whether there will be a rapture at all. We can share the various viewpoints on baptism, communion and what happens to us after we die – do we sleep in Christ or go straight to heaven. We can have conversations about which parts of the Bible should be taken literally and which are more symbolic in nature. All of that is okay. In fact, it’s healthy because it helps us to clarify what we actually believe.
But none of those things should ever be used to divide us one from the other. Having said that, there are some things are not debatable. For example, there is only one way to be right with God and I’m not going to be wishy-washy about that. Jesus died on the cross to pay the price of our sins and rose again on the third day so that all who put their faith in him will have eternal life. That is basic Christianity and we waiver from those core beliefs at our peril. But many other non-essentials are up for discussion and we don’t have to agree on all of them.
As Christians, we are one in Christ Jesus and we are called to live in peace with one another. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:14 (NIV), “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,” that separated us one from the other. There is no barrier between those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. The goofy thing, however, is that in our sinfulness, we have an uncanny way of erecting barriers where no barriers should exist.
We see it in the Church all the time. Liberals against conservatives. Evangelicals against social activists. Creationists against evolutionists. Infant baptism versus believers’ baptism. People separate themselves into groups of like-minded people who have a disagreement with the other group that believes something different. And pretty soon churches split because one group wins the fight and the other one goes off in a huff.
There’s something wrong with that. I don’t think that all churches should look the same. I happen to appreciate the rich diversity of worship experiences that are available in the Christian church. I also appreciate the fact that various churches focus on different missions. After all, no one church can be all things to all people. It’s good that some churches focus on evangelism and others on social justice. It’s also good that some churches manage to do both to some degree. That’s perfectly fine. What is a problem is when on group of Christians thinks that every other church should look just like them. Well, guess what? That’s not the way that it works. We need to allow Christians and churches to follow the path down which God leads them and not be concerned that they may be different than us. That’s because the curtain that separated us was torn when Jesus rose from the dead. We are one body and one church in Jesus Christ.
BRINGING DOWN THE BARRIERS
So much for the things that divide us. What can we do foster unity in the church and heal the divisions that do exist? Two things. First, we need to be clear about what is essential to our faith and what is not. While we can have great discussions about the non-essentials, we need to stand firm on the essentials. Second, we need to recognition that the barriers that separated us have come down and we are one in Christ. As Paul writes, Jesus has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility that kept us apart. We are one in him.
How do we live that out in our day to day lives? What does that mean for us that the barriers have been destroyed and the dividing wall of hostility has been torn down? In a word, it means that we are called to live in peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m not saying that we have to agree with them on everything. But we still have to be willing to live in peace.
But what does that look like? This is challenging but please listen to what I have to say. First, you don’t walk away and give up on someone who disagrees with you on a non-essential point of theology. You don’t call into question their commitment to Christ just because they may not stand where you do on a non-essential element of faith.
The early Church faced its own unique set of issues. The biggest one was whether or not non-Jewish male Christian converts were expected to be circumcised. Some said yes and some said no. That was as big of an issue back then as anything we face now in the Church. But they found a way to stay together despite their differences on this issue because this was a non-essential issue of faith. We seek to live in peace and reconcile our differences because Jesus destroyed the barriers that divide us.
Second, deal with your differences. You cannot hold a grudge and be faithful. If you have a problem with a sister or a brother in Christ, think about it for a while and then do your best to settle it. And if you can’t do it on your own, then feel free to seek the support of other Christians. But don’t sit there and stew. Don’t lie awake at night and think nasty thoughts about someone else. It does neither of you any good. If you have an issue with someone else, you really only have two choices; either choose to deal with it or forget about it. If it’s not important enough to deal with, it’s not important enough to keep you up at night. Jesus destroyed the barriers that divide us.
Here’s the third thing; always support your sisters and brothers in Christ. Never ever put down a fellow believe or question their faith just because they disagree with you on a non-essential issue. I cannot think of anywhere in the Bible where we are called to put down another believer. I can point to many places, however, where we are called to support one another and to lift one another up in prayer and in love. I’m not saying that it’s always easy. But I am saying that it’s always necessary. We see this in Philippians 3:15 (NIV) where Paul addresses disagreements: “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already achieved.” What Paul is saying is to trust God. His Spirit will nudge people towards the truth in ways that you will never be able to. It is your job to support your sisters and brothers in faith. It is God’s job to reveal the truth to them. That can all happen because Jesus destroyed the barriers that divide us.
Paul writes, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…” We need to believe these words and live them.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
God of All Creation, your Spirit flows around us reminding us of your love and care for even the least of your creatures. We give thanks that you are as close as a prayer. When life seems to be too much to bear, your hand reaches out to us offering hope and help and healing. We give thanks for all of your precious gifts.
We put our lives in your hands. We ask that your Spirit may control every action and every moment. Enable us to come to you with all things, to follow your will and fulfill your purpose for our lives. Thank you that you offer us more than we could ever comprehend or even imagine.
Thank you for Gesstwood Camp and all of the ways in which people of all ages are touched there for Jesus. Bless the staff and counsellors. Bless the children who attend the programmes and the parents and guardians who bring them. May your word be shared and your purpose made known.
We lift up in prayer the broken people of the world. There are those who suffer from inner turmoil and are broken in spirit. There are those who suffer from broken relationships and unhealthy environments. There is our world that is filled with war and oppression. We are also aware that people right here in this congregation experience brokenness in their own lives. We lift them up to you. Heal our woundedness and our strife. We think especially of the family and friends of Wayne Watson whose funeral was this past week. Bless them with your peace and comfort.
We pray for those in need of healing, especially Carol, Rachel, Mark, Richard and Angela. Bless them with your healing and Holy Spirit.
Summer is here and the activities of the season are with us. We are grateful for fresh fruit, corn on the cob, trails and roads upon which to ride our bikes, early morning dew and refreshing evenings spent on the front porch.
Father God, we know that all life is valuable in your sight. We are grateful that your love and compassion are limitless and unconditional. When we are faced with difficult decisions or situations, help us to remember that you are always ready to help offering guidance, strength, patience and wisdom. You provide the example of how we should treat others. Keep us faithful as you are faithful. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
July 18, 2021 / Pentecost 8 / Proper 11
2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56; Ephesians 2:11-22
CALL TO WORSHIP
Your mercies are wonderful, O God.
Your faithfulness is witnessed on earth and in heaven
Every age shall know your name.
Every tongue shall declare your praise.
Grace us with your favour;
and grant us your peace.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
We come to you, our Father, out of the busyness of a hectic life to find a place of quiet and peace. Many people want a piece of our time. Many forces pressure us to do things in their way. Out of the stressfulness of life we seek your presence. When we do not know where to turn, remind us that you are at our side, sometimes silent, sometimes active, but always there. Be with us now as we worship. Remind us that your Spirit and your angels are all around.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Your mercies, O God, are from everlasting to everlasting. You have offered to fill our hearts with joy and our lives with purpose. But we have chosen to turn away from your path. We have preferred to walk the wide road that takes us to many places rather than the narrow path that leads to our love. Forgive us for wandering and calling to you only when we get into trouble. Forgive us for forgetting about you in the good times but thank you that even in our sinfulness, you will not abandon us.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
In the quietness of our souls, we reflect on our lives and find that we are wanting. The Good News is that no matter how far we might fall, no matter what the direction of our wandering, God is still there ready and willing to take us back home when we truly and humbly confess our sins.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
All that we have is from your hand, O God of Creation. We cannot thank you enough for you many blessings but we do what we can. Our thankfulness is best shown in how we use the resources that you have given to us. Keep us faithful as you are faithful.
Jesus’ disciples found a place to rest. There they found renewed energy and commitment to do the work of God. Our time of refreshment is over. As we leave this place, may we continue the ministry which Jesus began in his life. May God’s Kingdom come. May God’s will be done.