Breaking down barriers
Church Anniversary Sunday, 22nd September 2019
Today we live in a world which is full of barriers – a world of walls and fences, of barred windows and locked doors. This morning when you left home you almost certainly locked your front door behind you. Very likely your back door and all your windows were locked as well, and possibly you activated a burglar alarm.
There are good reasons for taking such precautions, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where it wasn’t necessary. But there are other barriers also, and many of them are more troubling than the ones I have mentioned so far. Not all of them are modern. When I visited Port Arthur many years ago, before the terrible massacre, I found myself confronted by older dark memories than that. I particularly remember entering a solitary confinement cell and sitting in the chapel. I found the chapel even more depressing than the cell. It seemed to me that it made truly Christian worship, shared worship, impossible. The God whom Christians worship calls his people to have fellowship with one another as well as with him. The God whom Christians worship is not a God who loves to erect barriers, but a God who delights in. This is precisely what Paul celebrates in the passage from Ephesians which has been read breaking down barriers aloud this morning. I’d like to read part of this passage again – read 2:13-14,15b-16.
Breaking Down the Barrier Between Human Beings and God
The Apostle Paul reminds the Ephesians of what God has done. Through the death of his Son on the Cross God has done what no one else could do – Jesus Christ has broken down the barrier of sin! In addition Paul underlines the significance of what Jesus has done for those who have faith in him by means of several contrasts: without Christ we were far away from God, but Christ by his death has brought us near to God; without Christ we were separated from God by a barrier of hostility, but Christ has replaced hostility with peace; without Christ we stood condemned by God’s law, but now Christ has satisfied on our behalf the requirements of the Law. The triumphant conclusion is provided by v.18 – read. The Greek word translated “access” was used of being permitted to come into the presence of a King. Most people in Paul’s day could not hope for this. But Paul is saying that Christ has made it possible to come into the presence of God himself, the Creator King of the whole universe. This is the Gospel! This is wonderful Good News! But it isn’t the whole of the Good News. In this passage Paul is also interested in another barrier which Christ has broken down.
Breaking Down the Barriers between People In fact he begins this part of his letter by speaking of the breaking down of the barrier between Jews and Gentiles – read vv.11-13. Paul’s readers understood more readily than we do how great a barrier this was. A strict Jew would not eat with a Gentile, and was often unwilling even to enter the house of a Gentile. Paul goes on to say this – read v.14. The expression “the dividing wall of hostility” would have spoken with particular power to Paul’s readers. It would probably have made a first century Jew think of the wall which prevented any Gentile from going beyond the outer court of the temple in Jerusalem. It may well have also made them think of the way Jews of their day spoke of the Law as a fence which kept them safe from being polluted by the Gentiles. So Paul is saying here that Jesus Christ has broken down a very great barrier! The barrier between Jew and Gentile was a huge barrier in the first century. But it was not the only barrier between human beings which Jesus Christ broke down. Later in this passage Paul speaks again of Jews and Gentiles coming together in Christ, but does so in a way which at least hints at something wider – read vv.19-20. This verse suggests that all Christians, whatever their backgrounds and whatever barriers there have been between them are now fellow citizens, fellow members of God’s household. But there is more than suggestion in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, a letter almost certainly written at about the same time as the letter to the Ephesians. Read Colossians 3:11. Paul speaks again here of Jews and Gentiles, but he goes beyond this. Greeks and Romans despised many other races as inferior, as barbarians, and Scythians were seen as a particularly uncultured race, but Paul declares that this barrier no longer mattered among Christians. And the barrier between slaves and free citizens was probably the most fundamental barrier of all in the first century. Slaves did not have the rights of a citizen, and were often viewed more as items of property than as fully human. But all such barriers have been broken down by Christ, whose great importance to every Christian makes all such barriers unimportant. This is also part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, this is also Good News. We who belong to Jesus Christ have double reason for celebration, in God’s breaking down of both these barriers. But celebration alone is not enough.
Living as People of the Broken Barriers Consider what Paul goes on to say to the Colossians – read 3:12-15. Paul was well aware that Christians didn’t always act as though all barriers had been broken down. As he wrote to the Colossians, Paul would have remembered that he had to rebuke no less a person than Peter for refusing, when under pressure from zealous Jewish Christians, to eat with Gentile believers. He would have remembered that wealthy Christians in Corinth had made a mockery of the Lord’s Supper by failing to share their food and drink with poor Christians. And he would have certainly been conscious that he was sending another letter along with the letter to the Colossians, the letter to Philemon. In this letter he urged Philemon to forgive his runaway slave Onesimus and, since he had become a Christian, to welcome him as a brother in Christ. And the same need exists today. It is always easier to talk about being one in Christ than to act it out. We, no less than the Colossians in the first century, need to be reminded to show that we are truly God’s people by the way we treat each other. By our compassion and kindness, by our patience and love, by our readiness to forgive one another.
Breaking Down Barriers Here
What are your hopes for this church as we move toward a rebirthing process? One of my hopes is certainly that this will be a church where barriers are broken down. A church where people of varied backgrounds celebrate their unity in Christ. A church where visitors and new attenders see this happening. A church which deliberately embraces its multi-ethnic character. A church which deliberately reaches out to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the varied people of its community.