Sunday, April 26, 2009

Walls and what to do with them!

Walls have a beauty all their own in the countryside, and dry stone walls have a special beauty, not least here in the Cotswolds.


We couldn’t do without walls.  They keep the rain out and the warmth in and what makes the Englishman’s castle.


Walls make this place what it is – a place of tranquillity in the middle of a busy world.


Walls have a beauty of their own.


Walls can be sinister.  Do remember us in your prayers as we travel to a place of walls.  On Tuesday, all being well, our coach will drive us through the wall to the Star Hotel in Bethlehem.  For Israel it is a security fence, for Palestinians an apartheid wall.


Bethlehem is not the only place where walls are sinister.  Only this week the Belfast peace wall has again been in the news.  Another stretch of wall has been built.  Disturbing to hear a speaker from a church in Belfast speak of the continuing need for walls in that city in spite of the peace process.


Walls can make for security, for consiness and warmth.


And walls can divide.


Paul had no time for the walls that divide.  The joy of the good news he came to proclaim was the Jesus had torn down the dividing wall of hostility that separated Jew and Gentile, Male and Female, Slave and Free


For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.


He was convinced … in Christ we are a new creation, there is no longer Jew and Gentile, man and woman, slave and free … we are all one in Christ Jesus.


That’s the good news.  That’s the vision.  That’s the dream.


And the tragedy of the Christian church is that so often we have built the walls again.  And the walls have been dividing walls of hostility.


And those walls go up not just in Belfast, not just in Bethlehem, but much nearer to home.


Between churches, between families, within churches, within families, in the work place, in the community it is so easy for dividing walls of hostility to be built up.


Not only is it a tragedy, but it is also a travesty of all that we stand for as followers of Jesus.


How can we tear down the dividing walls of hostility?


How can we live out the oneness of humanity Jesus himself embodied and called us to embody too?


Not only did we visit the National Stone centre while we were at our annual Ministers conference in Derbyshire.  We also had a week that seemed daunting to go to, not least as we were on tenterhooks anticipating Lake’s arrival.


I was looking forward to sharing a session feeding back my experiences of a year ago in visiting Tantur, taking part in a Journey of Reconciliation and in anticipation of our visit this week.


I pulled out an old talk, an old PowerPoint presentation.  I took as my theme Conflict and Reconciliation.  I explored the way in which we were encouraged to look through the eyes of the other.  Only as we cultivate the art of what one writer, Miroslav Volf called, Double vision – seeing through the other’s eyes, can we hope to seek understanding and work for reconciliation.


It was deeply moving to hear Jan Berry speak the next day.  Her father was killed in the Brighton Bombing.  Her life had been tunred upside down and inside out.  Quietly and in a riveting way she spoke of her decision to seek out the person convicted for the bombing.


She eventually met him.


They talked.


At first he simply justified himself.


But as they talked she began to see through his eyes.  She could begin to understand, so she told us.


And he began to see through her eyes, eyes filled with tears.


They have come together, sometimes more easily than at others, and together they are working on a Forgiveness project which seeks to bring people together and talk with each other.


Not simply seeing through the other’s eyes, but feeling with them … and working for forgiveness and for reconciliation.  They hope to take their project to the Holy Land and work towards getting victims on both sides of a conclict talking with each other.


But how do we prevent the walls going up?  How do we tear the walls down?


John Campbell, the Principal of Northern College, took us to three chapters in 1 Corithians I have to confess I had not taken on board much at all.


Corinth was a church that had walls, not the kind that make for security and warmth, but the kind that lead to bitter hostility.


Different groups went their own way, each convinced they were right.


One issue that divided them was an issue it is difficult for us to understand today, and so good reason not to dwell much on these chapters.


Should you as a Christian, or should you not eat food that had been presented as an offering in a pagan temple.


Some were adamant – what kind of food you eat makes no difference whatsoever as a Christian.


Others were equally adamant – food that had been used in the setting of a pagan temple should not be touched on any account.


It was an issue that was tearing the church apart.


And the fact it had become an issue to tear the church apart angered Paul.


Something was profoundly amiss.


Although that issue is not a live one for us today, what Paul said into that issue is profound in its implications for us today as we seek to follow Christ and tear down those dividing walls of hostility.


Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’



In so many disputes this is the starting point.  Each side knows!


The snag is that kind of knowledge that really knows the rights and wrongs of an issue is too often the kind of knowledge that leaves no room for the thing that is of the very essence of the God who is at the heart of our Christian faith, love.


Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.2Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3but anyone who loves God is known by him.


Whenever an argument rages in a church context about doctrine that is in danger of building up dividing walls of hostility, take care.


Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.


That’s a slogan to come back to!


What Paul next does is to take sides.  He sees through the eyes of those who say, ‘it doesn’t matter what you eat’.  And he develops their argument.  And it is watertight.  It is absoulutely clear.


Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ 5Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— 6yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.



There you have it.  That’s it in a nutshell.  The argument is resolved.  Paul’s knowledge has won the day for one side.


But wait a moment.  Paul does not leave it there.


He recognises that not everyone has this knowledge.  They are convinced that to eat food offered in a pagan temple will damage them.  They may be misguided in so thinking, but Paul considers that something takes precedence over the validity of the argument.


They may be misguided. But don’t damage their conscience!


12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. 


In chapter 9 Paul speaks of his own way of being an Apostle – we’ll finish with what he says there.


But in chapter 10 he comes back to the point of contention.  And this time he argues cogently for the opposite case.  Instead of starting with first principles, he goes to the Bible and chapter 10 is a closely argued case for not eating certain kinds of food especially when it has been offered in a pagan temple.


Paul is putting the opposite case.  And it is a convincing argument.  The argument seems to be clinched with reference to the supreme importance of communion..  But even there in communion a higher order prevails.


Eating and drinking bread and wine is at the heart of Christian practice.


The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? 17Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 1




It is apparent that a good case can be made out for both sides of the argument and that is precisely what Paul does.


But something is more important.


All things are lawful.


A good case can be made out on both sides of this argument.  Both are in line with the teachings of the Law, both are in line with the ways of God.


‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial.


Then comes a key verse in the context of any church disputes.


24Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others.


This suggested John Campbell is the nub of the matter.


The big issue, he suggested, is not how you win the argument, but how you treat each other.


Conscience is all important … but not so much your conscience


29I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. 


Not how you win the argument, but how you treat each other.


31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. 32Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.


This is none other than the way of Christ.


Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 11.1


In chapter 10 Paul sets out the authority on which his knowledge is based.  And it is a pretty awesome authority.  He extols the freedom he has as an Apostle of Christ.


But one principle prevails when it comes to this kind of argument.


24Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others.



That is something Paul takes very seriously indeed.


The importance of ‘other regard’ is the key to the kind of forgiveness project Jo Berry and                        are involved in.


That kind of ‘double vision’ that enables you to see through the eyes of the other.  This is the key to breaking down the dividing wall of hostility.


The big issue, he suggested, is not how you win the argument, but how you treat each other.


Get that right and so much else will follow – in a church context, in a family context, in a national context, in a Belfast context, in a Bethlehem context … wherever those dividing walls of hostility raise their ugly heads.


For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

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