Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2009

One from Two

A sermon preached on 25 January 2009 at St Andrew's Church, Old Headington, as part of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, by Revd Prof. Paul S. Fiddes, Regent's Park College

Ezekiel 37: 19 ‘I will make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand’

Ephesians 2:14 ‘In his flesh Christ has made both groups into one, and has broken down the dividing wall.’

Making two one

On the border between North and South Korea there stands a small bridge over a river.

The bridge looks harmless enough,  but it’s heavily guarded with soldiers on both ends, and it bears a terrible name: it’s called ‘The Bridge of No Return’.

When the Korean War ended in 1953, the North Korean Government released prisoners of war, and gave them the choice: stay in the North under the communist regime, or return South to democratic Korea.

But if they crossed the bridge, they could never, ever come back – even for a short visit.

These Koreans had families on both sides of the border: they had wives in the South, but mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers in the North.
Some had children living in both North and South.

As they walked over the Bridge of No Return they felt they were being torn apart inside.

They never could go back the other way over the bridge, and that’s still largely how things are today, more than fifty years later.

Apart from a few rare opportunities for Southerners to visit the North, families, friends, land and homes are separated and divided.

Bridges are meant to connect, to bring people together. But this one had become a wall, a barrier keeping communities apart.

I want you to keep in mind that picture of the bridge that became a wall. 

For today, in this week of Christian unity, we’re using a theme for our worship that has been given to us by the churches in South Korea.

The passage we read from the prophecy of Ezekiel has come to mean a lot to them. They hear it as the word of the Lord to them in their own situation, with North and South of their country deeply divided from each other. They find in this passage God’s promise for unity – in the nation, among the churches and between groups in society.

Ezekiel spoke this word about 500 years before the birth of Christ, and like the Koreans today he was a member of a divided country. Israel, his country, had once been a united kingdom under the famous kings David and Solomon, but after that it had split into two parts.

The North was called Israel, and the South was called Judah. The land of promise had become the land of division. There was a long history of hostility and misunderstanding between the two parts, and then both had hit disaster.

Both, one after the other had been conquered by a super-power, and most of their people had been taken off into exile in a foreign country.

First the North had been invaded by Assyria, a mighty power which included what parts of what is modern-day Iraq and Syria.
Then, over a century later, the South was invaded by the Babylonians, who’d taken over as the new super-power in the area.

Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah, was reduced to rubble; the great and beautiful Temple – the centre of Jewish faith – was flattened to the ground. Only a few Jewish people were left behind in the shattered pieces of Northern and Southern Israel.

Ezekiel is among those deported from the South into Babylon, and his ministry is to try and help his people understand what had happened to them, and to awaken some hope for the future.

People were full of despair, asking:

Are we still the people of God? Has God abandoned us? Is our God powerless?

Living among a strange people with strange Gods, all seemed darkness, without any hope.

So prophets like Ezekiel preach to the exiles: they picture God as full of sorrow and distress, calling for his people to return to him in repentance and faithfulness, urging them to be obedient, to practice justice and mercy; and promising a brighter future if they do.

God has not been left behind in the smoking ruins of the Temple; he is a mobile God who travels with his people and who can always give new life. 

And so we come to the prophetic sign of the two sticks, that Ezekiel presents in this oracle.

He takes two sticks, and writes ‘Israel’ on one, and ‘Judah’ on the other. One stick for the North, one for the South.

Two sticks, two parts of the divided nation.

Then he holds them together in his hand so that they appear as one.

He speaks the promise of God:
‘Thus says the Lord: I will make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand.’

God promises to gather the people of North and South from their exile among the nation, to return them to their land, and then to make one out of two.

God says:
‘I will make them one nation in the land. Never again shall they be two, and I will make them clean. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.’

Perhaps you can see why this text speaks so powerfully to the churches of Korea, and not just about their national life.

They are painfully aware of their own division between Catholics and Protestants, and of many years in which each church has been hostile to the other.

They are also well aware of the gap between the rich and the poor in their own country, which has been getting worse in recent years.

Together, Catholic and Protestant leaders have affirmed that ‘2009 will be the year of confessing our faults to God and forgiving our brothers and sisters.’

They confess with Ezekiel that only God can bring about the miracle of making one stick out of two. It is not a matter of mere human political or ecclesiastical strategy:
it is in God’s hand.

The Korean Christians are not proposing a political programme for reunification (let’s be clear about that):
they are looking for the reconciling power of God in all areas of life – church, family, society – in God’s hand the walls of division can become a bridge again.

And they are confident that unity can come in every part of life –  it can come, not only because of Ezekiel’s words of promise, but because of what Jesus Christ has actually done.

Here the Korean Christians point out the the two sticks can also be joined together to make a cross.

In his death on the cross Jesus has broken down all the barriers that separate human beings from God and from each other.

This is the point of our passage from the New Testament, from the letter to the Ephesians where we read:

‘Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility ... that he might create in his body one new humanity in the place of two’. One out of two.

The New Testament writer has in mind the terrible division of his own time between Jews and Gentiles.

Christ, in his hand, in his very body, has drawn both ethnic groups together into one new people, the church.

Christ has given himself to the uttermost to reconcile all people to God and to each other.

He has suffered bitter hostility and forsakenness in his death, in order to break down the dividing walls that people build against each other and against God.

In his broken body Christ has made a new body, a new community, creating out of difference races a single new humanity.

This holy household of fellow-members who were once aliens and strangers to each other is a witness to a society in which there is still alienation.

It stands as a promise to the world that a new community is no mere castle in the air, but is actually possible.

God can turn walls into bridges.

We read: ‘He has created from different peoples one new humanity in himself’.

So here we are, not with Ezekiel in Babylon, or with the early church in Ephesus, or even in Korea, but in Headington.

We are called this week to pray for the full visible unity of the church as a witness to the divided world.

We are here, opening ourselves to be held in the hand of God, to be held in the body of Christ.

This applies first of all to unity between churches, but also to the overcoming of other divisions between people; the walls they build are just as hurtful as those made of concrete and steel.

There are divisions of race, of class, of money, of sexual orientation.

There are divisions that come from the different interests we have, the different football teams we support, the different music we listen to, the different fashions that we follow.

Let’s not underestimate the divisions among young people in our schools, because of the way they dress or the music heroes they idolize, divisions that can flare into sudden violence.

Do you recall only recently the 15-year old boy who kicked and stamped to death a young woman just because she was dressed as a Goth?

Why is it that we raise barriers against each other? Why is it that we turn bridges into walls?

I want to suggest just two reasons, and see if they strike a chord with you. The first is that:

1. We are unsure of ourselves

When we come up against people who are different from us, we feel ourselves being questioned in a shattering way:

We may already be asking ourselves: ‘Who am I, really?’ ‘What am I for?’ ‘What should I be doing in life?’

When we meet those who are not like us, our doubts and anxieties become even stronger.

So we try to quieten our doubts by asserting ourselves, by shouting louder: ‘This is who I am! And you must be like this too!’ We insist that we are the normal people; we try to put ourselves in the right.  But all the time we are feeling rather helpless and unsure of ourselves.

You can have this shaking experience of coming up against the different, just by crossing the English channel. Try to change a tyre in a garage, or change a cheque in a bank, in France or Germany.

Suddenly, normal everyday things have taken on a strange, new appearance. The familiar drops away; you thought you were master of the situation, but now you find you can’t cope. You feel helpless. Shouting won’t help.

And meeting people who are different from us, really meeting them in a true relationship, can have the same disturbing effect. We begin to discover that we are not the master of our lives, that we have only been blustering our way through. We begin to discover how helpless we are, how unsure of ourselves we are.

At these times, instead of trying to assert ourselves, we can discover the good news that God accepts us.
Christ tells us who we are; he gives us our identity. He awakens in us the sense of what we are and where we are going. We receive life from his hands.

So we can deliberately look for those who are not like us, especially within the fellowship of Christ’s people. We search out the brother or sister who is a stranger - in church allegiance, or in race, or background, or health, or way of life. We share with him, or her, the forgiveness of Christ, and then we experience that helplessness which we so often cover up. In the presence of the stranger we know that we are being questioned and challenged: we are being asked, ‘who are you, really, deep down?’ And it is here that we can experience together the gift of being accepted by God.

But we feel insecure. And because of this, (and here’s the second thing)

2. We want people to be like us

We like to think that making friends with strangers means that they should become like us. Yes, we will seek relationships with those who are not like us, as long as they intend to become like us, and to do things our way, at least at some time in the future.

[As we read the story of the early church in the New Testament, we find that Jewish Christians were ready to welcome Gentiles into the commonwealth of Christ, as long as they became Jews first.Surely, they thought, this was God’s way. First they should join God’s ancient people, adopting their way of life and their code of rules; then they could be joined to Christ.]

But our text says: ‘Christ creates in his body one new humanity in the place of two’.
When we are accepted by God into the fellowship of Christ, something really new happens.

When the barrier comes down, something new is created. When we are brought into peace with God and with each other, things cannot be the same as before.

When we reach out to the stranger, we will both be changed.

While there is much to value in each of our backgrounds, in our own way of living, yet there is something really new possible, something for which we both have to die a little.

Let me dare to mention briefly two areas in ecumenical conversation where this can happen.

Baptists like me need to listen to Anglicans, Catholics and others when they testify to the way that God began a gracious work in them through their baptism as an infant. And perhaps, in covenant conversations between Anglicans and Methodist, the question ought not to be “Bishops or no bishops” – but what kind of bishop are we each thinking about? We should expect to be changed, for Christ to show new things to both of us. Christ makes ‘one new person in the place of two’.

This is where our New Testament picture takes us further than the Old Testament one. We are not just like sticks held together in one hand – we are members of a body which is growing together, each part affecting, shaping, the other.

There is a joy in different people sharing the wonder of being accepted by God into his household, and so amazing the world. There is a peculiar strength here, in an association of people who are naturally unlike each other in many ways.

This is what our brothers and sisters in Korea are hoping for – the coming together of Northerners and Southerners, Protestant and Catholic, rich and poor.

And it can happen anywhere. Some while ago I read a piece in the Guardian newspaper called ‘return to Aberfan’. The writer was describing a visit she had made to the Welsh village of Aberfan, 10 years after the disaster it had suffered when a coal tip had slid down on the village school and many children had been killed. She had gone to see how the village was getting on in the aftermath of the tragedy, 10 years on.

Now the journalist was not a Christian believer, and so she was surprised to find the effect which the local church had had in the stricken lives of people there; they had found help and peace within the church, and she was intrigued. She said that she was especially impressed by the way that people from all walks of life within the village, people quite unlike each other - came together to confess their need of help and forgiveness each Sunday. She was moved by the sight of bank manager and factory worker, the scientist and the shop assistant sharing the prayer of confession. None of them might normally have found the other an acceptable friend.

In this breaking down of social barriers she perceived the source of strength in the midst of tragedy. 

Would it not, she asked finally, be possible to create such a communion without the inconvenience of belief in God?

But the church of Christ knows from where it finds the courage to make witness to peace and unity in our divided society. Our eyes are opened to the truth that we are to accept the stranger in our midst as Christ has welcomed us.

So all walls will become bridges again, until we are one in Christ and he is all in all.

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