#3 One Family of God

Series:  The Other Lord’s Prayer

#3 – One Family of God

John 17:11 and Ephesians 2:13-18 (NRSV)

I build walls:

Walls that protect,

Walls that shield,

Walls that say I shall not yield

Or reveal

Who I am or how I feel.

I build walls:

Walls that hide,

Walls that cover what’s inside,

Walls that stare or smile or look away,

Silent lies,

Walls that even block my eyes

From the tears I might have cried.

I build walls:

Walls that never let me

Truly touch

Those I love so very much.

Walls that need to fall!

Walls meant to be fortresses

Are prisons after all.1

I build walls.  And I suspect I’m not the only one here who does that. It seems that it is human nature to build walls – walls to hide behind, and walls to keep others out.  Of course, this poem is talking about the psychological walls we hide behind, thinking they will protect us from being hurt, but instead we discover that they become walls that imprison us, and lead to loneliness and isolation.  We all know how damaging psychological walls can be – they are the root causes of most of the problems we face in our relationship with others, especially those closest to us.  Counselors spend their entire careers helping their clients tear down the walls they have spent a lifetime erecting. It can take years of therapy for someone who has barricaded themselves behind walls to finally break out of their emotional prisons.

The damage wall-building can do might start with our interpersonal relationships, but it certainly doesn’t end there. As societies, we have resorted to wall building as a strategy to make ourselves feel more secure, or to keep those we feel threatened by out.   It seems we just can’t help ourselves – whenever we feel threatened, we instinctively built up walls.

Another poet described our impulse to construct walls like this:

Oh! the walls we build, the chasms we create,

The Us versus Them that we proliferate!

Oh! the bonds that we share that we choose to ignore,

As we search and search, then search even more,

For things to separate and keep us apart,

For differences we decide to take to heart.

Oh! the walls we create full of fear, doubt and hate,

Self-fulfilling prophecies we choose to generate,

As we slice and dice the human race into bits,

By religion, by income, by “race”, by politics,

By history and nationality, and oh! so many ways,

Oh! the walls we build, that consume our days! 2

Yes, we do love to build walls:  We do it to designate who is “US,” and who is “THEM.”  Those on our side of the fence are people like us, people we assume are “good.”  And all the other “bad” people – those not like us – are on the outside of the fence.  That is the way it is, and the way it has always been.

This morning, we are continuing our sermon series, based on Jesus’ prayer in the Upper Room just before the events leading up to his crucifixion were to begin unfolding.  He lifted his eyes to heaven, and launched into the longest prayer of Jesus we find in any Gospel.  In this prayer, Jesus prays to his Father on behalf of his disciples, both those in the room with him that night, and those down through the centuries who would one day come to believe in him.  On the even of his crucifixion, Jesus was praying for us!

In the verse we have read from the prayer this morning, as well as our scripture from Ephesians, we hear the desire of God’s heart that we might be united in faith and love.   In other words, it was Jesus’ hope and prayer that there be no walls to separates us from one another – that instead, we might be One Family of God.  That may have been Jesus’ desire for us, but that is far from the reality in which we live.

In our first lesson from the pen of Paul, we actually find references to the ancient “walls” which divided the ancient world into “US” and “THEM.”  One of the many “walls” that separated people in Biblical times was the historic animosity that existed between Jews and non-Jews (who were commonly referred to as “Gentiles,” or simply as “Greeks”).  In the verses just before our text from Ephesians, Paul names the two sides, the “circumcised” and the “un-circumcised.”

In our sermons and Bible studies, we have all become familiar with the hate that existed between Jews and (people who where considered half-Jews), but we may be less aware of the depth of animosity which existed between Jews and Gentiles, between the circumcised and the un-circumcised.  The Jews despised non-Jews.

For instance:  Some Jewish Rabbis taught that God had created Gentiles to be the fuel for the fires of hell . . . that, of all the nations that He had made, God loved ONLY Israel.  It was even unlawful for a Jew to help a Gentile woman in childbirth, because that would mean bringing another Gentile into the world.

The barrier between Jew and Greek was absolute.  If a Jew married a Gentile, the family would hold a funeral for that son or daughter . . . he or she was considered dead and buried.

Yes, there WAS a great “wall of hostility” dividing Jews and Greeks.  So you can imagine what troubles this caused in the early Church.  After all, the early church was made up of both Jews AND Greeks who had to overcome ancient hatreds in order to become one family of God.

But the ancient walls of division weren’t limited to Jews and Greeks.  In the Gentile world, there were also barriers between Greeks and non-Greeks. Cicero wrote, “As the Greeks say, ‘All men are divided into two classes, Greeks and barbarians.’”  Aristotle described the non-Greek peoples as “the remote tribes of barbarians belonging to the bestial class.”  And Plato put it even more bluntly by saying that those barbarians are “our enemies by nature.”  So, you see, no culture is immune from hatred and bigotry.

It’s true that there were many “dividing walls of hostility” in Biblical times.  But fence-building didn’t’ stop with the advance of history.  Every people in every generation have managed to fine someone to hate.  All cultures have erected “walls” to separate “US” from “THEM,” often with tragic results.

And today, it seems we have more “walls” than ever:  We have walls of hostility separating nations from one another as they fight and kill each other’s sons and daughters over where boundaries should be, and other trivial matters.  There are fences of hatred which ethnic groups have built, neighbors who are intent on exterminating one another in the name of “ethnic purity.”  There are barriers which history has erected that cause people of different races or religions to despise and oppress one another out of ignorance and fear.  And there are economic-class divisions, caused by the “HAVES” of the world building walls of exclusion to keep the “HAVE NOTS” in their place.  And politically, we in the American family are practically at each other’s throats, spewing hate and event threatening violence against those who support the other “evil” party.  (That is what our political discourse has degenerated into.)

Yes, our world today is fractured and broken by many walls and fences, perhaps today more than ever.

But “walls” are not limited to the secular world.  One of the greatest tragedies I know of is the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ, itself, has built “walls” of separation and exclusion.  Like our Christian sisters and brothers of the first century, the walls of division that fracture societies divide the Church today, as well.

In some parts of the world, Roman Catholics and Protestants have had such an historic hatred for each other that they would murder one another in the name of God.  Thankfully, over the years, great strides have been made in tearing down that wall of hostility.  But the movement toward church unity was set back several decades ago when the Pope at the time decreed that salvation was only possible through the Roman Catholic Church!  (Perhaps the current Pope believes differently – it seems he might.) And, we’ve heard the same type of arrogant declarations made by a number of Protestant denominations and preachers, as well!  Unfortunately, even many Christians have felt the need to build fences of exclusion and hostility.

The church in the developed countries of North America and Europe are suspicious of Christians in third world countries because those Christian-leaders in the third world accuse us of complicity in the oppression of the world’s poor . . . a charge that may well have some merit.

And within American Christianity, there are plenty of walls to separate “US” and “THEM:”  Evangelicals don’t trust “mainline” Christians;  Black and white churches continue to be the most segregated institutions in our nation;  Conservative Christians question the motives of liberal Christians, and visa versa.

Even within our own beloved United Methodist Church, walls have been erected.  As you know, there is an ongoing debate in our denomination about how scripture should be interpreted and lived out.  We have become divided almost to the point of schism because we can’t seem to agree on how we as United Methodist Christians ought to address the moral and social issues of our day.

And even within our own congregation, we are not completely of one mind on all things.  While, I don’t think we have built walls of US and THEM, it can’t really be said that we are completely of one mind. The same tensions that exist in the United Methodist Church in general exist here at Mims UMC.  We don’t all believe exactly the same, we approach social issues differently, we have a variety of political perspectives, we don’t all agree on the style of music or worship, we have different priorities concerning the use of our resources, and we don’t share one uniform vision for the future of our church.  Our Mims congregation may not be fractured by a “dividing wall of hostility,” but we are not completely united, either.

Where is the unity of the Body of Christ? How can the “walls” that we have built to separate us from one another be demolished?

Our scripture gives us the answer:  Listen again to our scripture from Ephesians, this time from the Good News Translation: “But now, in union with Christ Jesus, you, who used to be far away, have been brought near by the sacrificial death of Christ.  For Christ Himself has brought us peace by making Jews and Gentiles one people.  With His own Body, He broke down the walls that separated them and kept them enemies.  He . . . create(d) out of the two races one new people in union with himself, in this way making peace.  By his death on the cross, Christ destroyed our enmity;  by means of the cross He united both races into one Body and brought them back to God.”

The Good News is that, by His sacrificial death on the cross, Christ has demolished all the walls that WE have built to separate “US” from “THEM.” In Christ, there IS no “THEM,”  . . . only “US.”

Jesus prayed, “that they may be one, as we are one.”  Do you realize what that means?  His people, his disciples, his followers should be just as close with one another as the Father is with the Son.  And, you can’t be any more united than that!

We are one people of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, children of the same Heavenly Father.  We are no longer strangers to one another, but fellow citizens of God’s eternal kingdom, and members together of the “Family of God.” And it’s time we all finally began to act like it.

In France during the Second World War, some soldiers brought the body of a dead comrade to a French cemetery to have him buried.  The priest told them gently that he was required to ask whether or not their friend had been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church.  They said that they did not know.  The priest said that he was very sorry, but in that case, he could not permit burial in his churchyard.  Saddened, the soldiers took their friend’s body and buried him just OUTSIDE of the fence of the graveyard.

The next day, they came back to make sure that the grave was alright, and to their astonishment, they could not find it! They searched and searched, but they could fine no trace of the freshly dug soil.  As they were about to leave in bewilderment, the priest walked out to meet them.

He told them that his heart had been troubled because of his refusal to allow their dead friend to be buried in the churchyard.  So, early in the morning, he had gotten up and, with his own hands, the priest MOVED THE FENCE OUT to include the grave of the young soldier.

If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the walls begin to crumble and the fences being re-moved.

As Paul described it in our text: Christ is breaking down the walls that separate us and keep us enemies . . . “reconciling us to God in ONE BODY through the cross,”and . . . “bringing us near by the blood of Christ.”

You see, it was the greatest desire of Jesus’ heart that all his followers might one day become One Body, through His Blood. This morning’s focus verse from Jesus’ prayer is echoed later on in his prayer, a text we will be addressing in a few weeks.  But, it has special meaning for us this morning.  Listen to how The Messagebible translates John 17:21-23:

21”The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us.  Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.   22The same glory you gave me, I gave them, so they’ll be as unified and together as we are–23I in them and you in me.  Then they’ll be mature in this oneness, and give the godless world evidence that you’ve sent me . . .”

Jesus couldn’t be any more clear.  We are not to be in the business of building walls.  Instead, we should work to tear down walls that cause division and fracture the Body of Christ.

One of my favorite poems is “Mending Wall” by the great American poet, Robert Frost.  You probably know it is one of my favorites because I quote it all the time.  In closing, listen carefully to his wise words:

Something there is, that doesn’t love a wall,…

…Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know

                        what I was walling in, or walling out,

                        and to whom I was like to give offense.                                                   

                       Something there is, that doesn’t love a wall,

                        that wants it down.3

I don’t know if Robert Frost was a Christian, but in these words, he certainly was echoing the prayer Jesus prayed that night in the Upper Room – that those of us who call ourselves God’s children might finally begin to dismantle the walls that divide us – that we might finally set aside our differences, and arguments, and debates, and become “of one heart and mind,”- one Family of God, –  one Church of Jesus Christ, – one Body of Christ for the world.

As Jesus prayed, “And now I am no longer in the world, (Jesus said) but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

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Prayer for Unity (from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer)

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace:Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 4

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1http://www.rhlschool.com/read8n3.htm

2http://worldunderstandingandpeace.com/2007/05/14/break-down-the-walls-poem/

3http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/frost-mending.html

4Book of Common Prayer.  14. For the Unity of the Church, Rite One