Many, Different, but One
On June 12, 1987 at 2pm, U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood behind two panes of bulletproof glass in West Berlin, at the Brandenburg Gate in the Berlin Wall which separated Communist East Berlin from Capitalist West Berlin and spoke these words, “We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Two years later, on November 9, 1989, the gates of the Berlin Wall were opened and East German citizens were permitted to cross the border in to West Germany. Shortly afterward the wall itself was destroyed. Two years later, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War was over. The Berlin Wall did far more than separate East and West Berlin, East and West Germany. It was symbolic of the Iron Curtain, the boundary that divided Europe into two separate areas, capitalist west and communist east. It separated families. It separated friends. It symbolized the separation of those who held to two very powerful and very different world views—western free enterprise and eastern communism. It represented alienation, separation, conflict.
I was in middle school and high school as these events unfolded, in the 8th grade when Reagan said those words, “Tear down this wall!” and a senior when the Soviet Union collapsed. It has been said that music is one of the things that defines a generation, and my generation was in large part defined by a song released by the rock band Scorpions as the world entered a time of hope for change. The song was called “Wind of Change.” It’s lyrics appear on the first page of my senior class yearbook, it’s title served as the title for the same yearbook. PLAY VIDEO.
The lyrics to that song are filled with hope and promise. Hope for a better, more unified tomorrow. Sadly, the promise was short-lived. Our world, our country, our cities, our families are still marked by strife, by division, by separation. How many of you have a family in which someone, or maybe several someones, don’t get along. Have to be kept apart. We will always have differences. But must those differences lead to conflict, animosity, and alienation? If you have a Bible with you, turn to Ephesians 2:11-18. Read text.
St. Paul describes two barriers that exist in our world. One is a vertical barrier. The other horizontal. The horizontal barrier we know all too well. It is the barrier that exists between us. The walls we erect between ourselves and those who look, act, or think differently than we do. The walls between us and those we disagree with. The vertical barrier is the barrier that exists between us as human beings and the God who created us and who loves us. The first we know all too well. There isn’t a human being alive who isn’t in some way alienated from a family member, friend, coworker, or neighbor. Our country is telling us loudly that race is still an issue, even though those of us who are white would like to deny that. We live in a world that specializes in building walls. But the second barrier, the wall that separates us from God, is ignored by many. But without dealing with that wall, the walls that divide us as human beings are insurmountable. No matter how filled with hope we might sometimes be. What most of us don’t realize is that God in Christ dealt with both.
Look at Vv. 12-13 & 16. Paul has already described the barrier between us and God in vivid language, saying that without Christ we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (2:1), going with the flow of this world (2:2) which is moving away from God, following Satan (2:2), and “objects of God’s wrath (2:3).” Later, in Ephesians 4:18, he says that without Christ, we are “alienated from the life of God.” Now, if you were here two weeks ago, you heard me say that after painting this dismal picture of our state when we are separated from God because of sin, Paul uses just two words to share the beauty of the gospel. Do you remember what they are? They’re the first two words of Ephesians 2:4. “BUT GOD …” Paul then launched into a beautiful description of the wealth of God’s grace and love made visible in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God has dealt with the sin barrier that separates us, alienates us, from him. Oh, we still sin. But Jesus Christ died our death for us and has given us his life.
We participate in a kids’ bicycle “trade up” program at a local bike shop. When we bought Eli his first “real” bike, we signed up for this program. So we paid for his bike, and when he outgrows is, we can trade it for the next size up, and so on, until he’s big enough for an adult bike. We do the same thing with his downhill skis. So when we left with his new bike, I said, “Eli, you need to take very good care of this bike, so that we can trade it for your new bike when you outgrow this one.” And the guy who sold us the bike said, “Oh no! He needs to ride this bike. Really ride it. He can bring it back beaten up, scratched up, dented. Whatever, and he’ll get his new one.” Which is a good thing because he found some spray paint and painted it this fall. That’s what Jesus Christ has done for us. He takes our beaten up, scratched, dented, used up, abused life and trades it for his.
Now if that were all that salvation was, we’d all be really happy. We’re so individualistic that most of us view our salvation as a personal thing between me and God, which it is, but most of us don’t think it really has anything to do with anyone else, and nothing could be further than the truth. You see, our new life in Christ is just that, it is a NEW LIFE. It is a new way of living, thinking, talking, relating, not just with God, but with one another. Sin created two barriers—we as human beings were alienated from God and from one another. And God in Christ has dealt with both barriers, not just the one between us and him. Our salvation has implications for how we live with one another too. God has reconciled us to himself, and to one another. Look at Vv. 14-15.
The Christians Paul is writing to are Gentile Christians. And they knew alienation as non-Jews trying to follow Jesus Christ. William Barclay explains that “The Jew had an immense contempt for the Gentile. The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell. God, they said, loves only Israel of all the nations that he had made … It was not even lawful to render help to a Gentile mother in her hour of sorest need, for that would simply be to bring another Gentile into the world. Until Christ came, the Gentiles were an object of contempt to the Jews. The barrier between them was absolute. If a Jewish boy married a Gentile girl, or if a Jewish girl married a Gentile boy, the funeral of that Jewish boy or girl was carried out. Such contact with a Gentile was the equivalent of death.” Jews viewed the world as being made up of two groups of people—us, and everyone else. God chose us. God loves us. We have a relationship with God. Everyone else is meant for hell.
Now, before they placed their faith in Christ, these Ephesian believers, Gentiles that they were, probably couldn’t have cared less about what the Jews thought about them. But after coming to Christ, they found themselves trying to become a part of a group of believers who didn’t want them. The original Jewish followers of Jesus said that they had to convert to Judaism in order to follow Christ. It never entered their minds that God would welcome anyone who wasn’t a Jew. The temple itself, where this God was worshipped, at this point the temple that had been rebuilt by Herod the Great, hammered this point home. The temple itself was built on a large hill, and within it was the holy of holies, which could be entered only by the high priest and then only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. And then outside the holy of holies was the holy place, occupied by the Levites who were on duty for daily worship. Then outside the temple was the court of the priests, where the altar for burnt offerings stood. And then outside of that court was the court of Israel, where Jewish MEN could gather to worship. And then outside that was the court of women, where Jewish women could gather. And then outside that and down a flight of stairs was the court of Gentiles. They could gather and even pray, but they could get no closer than that. In 1871, archaeologists found a white limestone tablet that would have served as a sign on the wall between the gentiles and everyone else. It had these words on it: “No foreigner may enter within the barrier and enclosure round the temple. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.”
Now, look at V. 14. This verse is the key. “For he himself is our peace.” Jewish men were to pray a prayer every morning and pray a prayer that began “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me …” and concludes, “a Gentile … a slave … and a woman.” Division. Alienation. Even within Jewish men, there were divisions. Between Pharisee and the rest. Between upper class and commoner. Are we any different today? Is it any surprise, then, that Paul would say in Galatians 3:23 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Blessed are you, O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me a Gentile. There is neither Jew nor Greek. Who has not made me a slave. There is neither slave nor free. “For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul paints a beautiful picture. And this is something that has already happened. Paul paints a picture of true peace. Not just the absence of conflict. Put true peace. Unity. The destruction of division and hostility. Access to God and to one another. Together. Reconciliation. What the ancient Jews would have described as “Shalom.” The Old Testament prophet Isaiah described it this way: “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them” (Is. 11:6). We read that one a lot at Christmas because of the reference to the Christ Child. And again “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the Lord” (Is. 65:25).
The truth is, grace doesn’t just connect us to God. Grace connects us to God and to one another. In Christ, God has formed a new kind of humanity. Look at Vv. 15-16. “One new man (human) in place of the two.” Truth is, the body of Christ isn’t made up of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, or Methodists and Presbyterians and Lutherans, or Protestants and Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. It isn’t made up of immersion baptizers and sprinkler baptizers. It isn’t made up of American Christians and British Christians and Australian Christians and African Christians, It’s made up of Jesus followers. Jesus is our primary identity. Not our secondary one. Or tertiary. Why do we keep getting this wrong? If this is something that has already happened, if this is already our reality, why do we keep missing it? Because we don’t even see the parts of Scripture that don’t fit in our culture. Mark Allan Powell did a social experiment using the Bible. He called his experiment “The Forgotten Famine.” He had twelve students in a seminary class read the story of the prodigal son from Luke’s Gospel, then close their Bibles and retell the story as faithfully as possible to a partner. None of the twelve American seminary students mentioned the famine in Luke 15:14, which precipitates the son’s eventual return. Powell then had one hundred people participate in the same experiment and the results revealed that only six of the one hundred mentioned the famine. The “famine-forgetters,” as Powell called them, had only one thing in common: they were from the United States. Later Powell tried the experiment in St. Petersburg, Russia. He gathered fifty participants to read and retell the prodigal son story. This time an overwhelming forty-two of the fifty participants mentioned the famine. Why? Just seventy years before, 670,000 people died of starvation after a Nazi German siege of the capital city began a three-year famine. Famine was very much a part of the history and imagination of the Russian participants.[i] Jesus open our eyes to see the whole of Scripture, not just the parts we like.
The Iron Curtain has been down for quite some time, but things haven’t changed for everybody. For years the Iron Curtain (actually, a fence) separated not just people. It also separated two populations of red deer living in the forests along the border between Germany and what is now the Czech Republic. When government officials began to dismantle the fence in 1989 (around the time the Berlin Wall fell), the physical barrier between those populations was removed. But when wildlife biologists began studying the deer in 2002, they quickly realized that the deer living in Germany were not migrating into the Czech Republic, and the deer living in the Czech Republic were not migrating into Germany. In other words, both populations of deer were still behaving as if the fence remained intact. One deer in particular has become a microcosm of the entire population. Her name is Ahornia, and her movements in the forests of eastern Germany were tracked for several years by a GPS collar fitted to her neck by biologists. During the time she was monitored, Ahornia’s location was tracked more than 11,000 times in Germany—but not a single time in the Czech Republic. She was tracked at the border of the two countries several times, but she never crossed over. Two elements of Ahornia’s story are particularly noteworthy. First, she was born 18 years after the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the fence that comprised the Iron Curtain. She has no physical memory of the fence’s existence, and yet she is still blocked by it. Second, the land formerly occupied by the fence and its guard towers has now been turned into a large and thriving nature preserve. In other words, the land beyond the fence has become a haven—the perfect home for deer like Ahornia and her family—and yet she will not enter. The biologists have come up with several explanations for the deer’s strange behavior. Most deer travel across traditional trails, for example—ones that are passed down through generations by modeling and repetition. It’s possible that Ahornia and the other members of her herd simply haven’t ventured beyond the beaten path. But a wildlife filmmaker who often works in the area, has a different explanation. According to Tom, “The wall in the head is still there.”[ii]
In Jesus Christ, the vertical wall separating us from God and the horizontal wall separating us from one another were torn down, and in Christ he formed a new kind of humanity, a new way of being human. Sadly, those walls still exist in our heads. We live, we talk, we think as if they are still there. Jesus Christ came to set us free. Free from sin, free from separation, free from alienation, and free to be one people, the people of God. He has reconciled us with himself. He has reconciled us with one another. May our thinking, our talking, and our living bear out this truth.
[i] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes, (IVP, 2012), page 14;
[ii] Associated Press, “Deep in the Forest, Bambi Remains the Cold War’s Last Prisoner,” The Wall Street Journal (11-04-09)