Christian Unity Homily 2017

Crossing Barriers: Jesus scaled the walls of a garden tomb in Jerusalem Jesus crossed the ultimate barrier from life to death to Resurrection.

Homily delivered by Rev A D Davidson, Minister, First Armagh Presbyterian Church during Annual Service to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2017, In St Patricks Church Stonebridge, 24 January 2017

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come the old is gone,
With you I can break through any barrier
With my God I can scale any wall

The year was 1989 – 9th November to be precise. My son Mark was only 4; the news appeared on TV.  I nearly said what my Dad used to say and my grandfather used to say before that: You children you only start making a noise when the news comes on.

But I decided to break the generational cycle and placed my 4 year old son on my knee and said; “Watch this with me and when you are a big man   you will tell your children about this day. You will never forget this day”.  His eyes and ears opened wide.

It was a major news story – the fall of the Berlin wall.

A few months previously Bruce Springsteen had been allowed to play a  Concert in East Berlin at which 300,000 attended.  He said:
“I’m not here for or against any government. I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down”.

Mark watched as ordinary Berliners scaled the wall and crossed the barrier, soon this solid wall was reduced to rubble.  Berliners cheered partied and celebrated freedom.

I explained to Mark that the Berlin wall had been erected when I was a little boy – actually 4 years old – the wall defined the cold war era
east and west Berlin, east and  west Germany, capitalist and communist USA v USSR. I had lived through an era of barrier, he might live through an era of crossing barriers.

Mark never forgot it, this became his first current affairs memory, but Mark now 31  said something interesting to me recently:

“Dad I have lived my life between  2 walls – the Berlin wall and the Mexican wall so now there is a new era coming I have lived my life between  2 walls – the Berlin wall and the Mexican wall so now there is a new era coming.”

My heart sank because it was true. I suspect we are going to live in a frightening and divided world but I know we will  find truth, help and hope from God, to cross barriers in a new era of man made barriers and walls.

This year  the material  for the week of prayer for Christian unity was  written by German Christians. They have chosen the title Crossing barriers ‘If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come the old is gone ,With you I can break through any barrier, with my God I can scale any wall’

Last April Christine and I visited Berlin for the first time. We were staying in former East Berlin.  I felt nervous as I walked up to the Brandenburg gate situated on the site of the old wall. It is iconic, I had seen it on television, I had  looked at pictures, but here it was in 3. D, On one side I could see the dull angular ugly  buildings, in the East of the city – the legacy of years of oppression –  I  could imagine the hated Stasi, the east German secret police, spying on  everything and everybody,  spreading suspicion and fear. But, by climbing   to the top of the adjacent German parliament I could appreciate not only the old but also the new. the bustling  commercial city, watching Berliners enjoy the freedoms we now take for granted: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, an active commercial city, political democracy;, Different races mixing freely.

So I could see the ugliness of the old, alongside  the beauty of the new.

Now when Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, I picture him standing at the gate of Resurrection. He  is glimpsing back to an ugly controlling moralistic way of life  ,and with a sigh saying the old has gone, but he is also peering into the future, into the moment when heaven comes to earth and everything becomes dazzlingly new the old has gone and the new has come.

Why?

Someone crossed a barrier
Someone crossed from sin to virtue
Someone crossed from hate to love
Someone crossed from death to life

Jesus is the one who went through that gate. He took on the hate of the crowd, the sins of the fathers, the cruel death by crucifixion And then he turns round and says  “Want to come with me. Do you want to cross over into a better future, do you want to glimpse   your destiny?”
Paul says it is all new  He had old ways of thinking about Messiah. He waited for a messiah for himself – to make him feel good.
He waited for a messiah for us, for the people who would deliver them politically from the hated oppressive Romans. But now, he sees Christ from an openly new view point, not a messiah for him, not a messiah for us but a Messiah for all, a messiah who crosses barriers, died for all he lives for all He rose for all, For Jews and Greeks, for slaves and free, for men and women for rich and poor.

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come the old is gone, With you I can break through any barrier, with my God I can scale any wall.
In our gospel lesson we read the well known story of what we tend to call the prodigal son. Of course the story is more about 2 other characters, the Father and the elder son.

At the climax of the story: The challenge from the father to the elder son is to see people not from an old point of view, but from a new point of view.

The Father is saying to the elder son,  “ This roguish sinful wayward boy is your brother, he may have broken every   family law,  he may have wished his father dead, he may have been greedy and wasted his inheritance, he may have lived it up in a foreign land  but he is still your brother.  The Father embraces his younger son, he sees him through the eyes of grace, compassion, generosity. He can imagine new possibilities for his wayward son, but he also calls his older son to cross the barrier of suspicion and enjoy a reunion party.  If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come the old is gone.

With you I can break through any barrier
With my God I can scale any wall.
Coming from Germany the material from the week of prayer for Christian unity mentions a 500th anniversary.

In 1517 a significant event occurred: The Reformation.

As German Augustinian monk called Martin Luther pinned 95 theses on a door wall in Wittenberg. These 95 theses were to change the world.
In one sense this act of protest at a wall erected another barrier, a wall between his followers called Protestants and those who disagreed,  Catholics.

Those barriers led to religious wars all over Europe. The barriers took on a particular vicious form here in Northern Ireland. However it did not have to be like that and it does not have to be like that. Martin Luther wanted simply to emphasise that the grace of God was available to all. All can be justified by faith, grace was free –  you did not need indulgences you could come to Jesus by yourself, you did not need clergy
The priesthood of all believers you could read the bible for yourself in German or English or whatever your tongue. In a sense Luther crossed barriers: of class, language and religious vocation. 500 years on we can  commemorate the reformation as a crossing of barriers
Pope Francis has written this

‘We are pilgrims journeying alongside one another, This means that we must have sincere  trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking; the radiant peace of God’s face.’

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come the old is gone , With you I can break through any barrier with my God I can scale any wall.
Can I return to my sons’s comment:

He has lived in an era  between 2 walls: The Berlin wall and the Mexican wall.

After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 the rich and powerful of the globe gathered in Geneva, in Washington, in London. Bankers, speculators,, politicians. the chief executives of leading global multinational companies and world trade organisations. They saw an opportunity, They would dismantle trade barriers, they would deregulate markets ,they would exploit the freedom to travel, to move money around via computers, and to lend money  freely. They would intentionally stimulate consumer spending, and encourage personal debt. This would be an age of globalization. People could move to where jobs are located,obs could move to where labour was cheap. People were encouraged to be greedy – their duty was to buy anything from anywhere, unprecedented economic growth was the result. Until it all came crashing down in the great recession of 2008.

Since then, as people found themselves stuck in  debt, with rising prices and static pay, They looked around for someone to blame a scapegoat, foreigners seemed an obvious target It did not take long for politicians to play on fears. The British wanted to take back control. In France Italy Netherlands and Germany, elections are pending in which, fears will be played on and barriers erected. In 2016 in USA Donald Trump played on these fears to be elected as  45th President of USA He was inaugurated last Friday in Washington. The danger is that, as he and others fail to deliver on all those promises to make America great. He will deflect attention by picking on the weak the vulnerable the different.

This could happen anywhere in any country So race barriers, s social barriers, national barriers will be erected. The world seems more divided now than at any other time in my life. You can feel the barriers going up all over the world it will be a boom time for wall builders
Former President Obama reminded us recently how social media can reinforce barriers as we only relate to what we like. People living more and more in social media sites like Facebook are living in echo chambers, seldom challenged by contradictory world views. Yet it is not all doom and gloom as people weary with conflict have stumbled out of war torn Syria.

They have done what has been done since Abram sought refuge in Canaan, since Hebrew slaves sought refuge from Pharaoh in the promised land, since the baby Jesus sought refuge from Herod in Egypt, Syrians  have fled; some  even to Northern Ireland. In these times some Christians have been brave, in crossing barriers and welcoming the lost, the weary the vulnerable. Remarkably, there are reports on how there is among refugees  a changing perceptions of Christians,

Not as the aggressors in the middle east but as warm welcoming people.
‘If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come the old is gone, With you I can break through any barrier with my God I can scale any wall’

Here in Northern Ireland we feel as though we are being dragged back into the old ways of imposing walls and barricaded streets. It is difficult to believe how, in the space of a few weeks, a scandal  about  boilers could be transformed into a sectarian issue which is erecting walls between communities – as we await what is being  described as a brutal election.

We have watched as in public life many have failed to display integrity humanity and compassion. Instead, most seem to be doing  a good impression of the elder brother, dripping with suspicion huffily refusing to participate in dialogue, and fearing that one side would be treated better than the other This is what my colleague Norman Hamilton said in a public lecture recently  I find it striking that the language and tone of public and political discourse in recent times has been that of aggression, disillusionment, despair, scandal, horse trading, blame, counter blame, and the likelihood of weeks – perhaps even months – of negotiation.  Maybe I have missed it, but I have heard little or nothing about the common good, about apology, about trusted relationships, consensus or generosity of spirit.  That is deeply worrying – even if we accept that there is a measure of ‘rough and tumble’ in our particular brand of adversarial politics.

It was good to hear Ian paisley junior’s more measured relational remarks about Martin McGuiness. God the Father sees new possibilities for huffy elder brothers and wayward prodigals. The Father simply refuses to stop embracing. He reaches out in grace to both brothers.
Christians believe that beyond the current times there will be better days. We have to see people through Jesus Christ. We have to keep our arms open to all.  Eamonn Mallie wrote a piece entitled Grace in the Irish Times,  It included this memorable sentence: Our society is crying out for humanity and hope.  Let me tell you I know this is difficult.

I experienced my formative years in 1970s in Dungannon. Only now am I coming to terms with the turbulent times in which I lived. I watched as my Dad’s business was blown up and he was forced for periods to leave home for fear of being assassinated. But the old had gone the new has come. I have been facing the challenge of talking to those on all sides, who were causing mayhem and death round me.

That is what Christians do, we have to scale the walls of suspicion and division, we have to cross the barriers of hate and despair

Why?

Because Jesus scaled the walls of a garden tomb in Jerusalem
Jesus crossed the ultimate barrier from  life to death
to resurrected life so that you could be reconciled.
He says to you and me as he said to a church in Corinth 2000 years ago

Christians believe that beyond the current times there will be better days
we have to see people through Jesus Christ
we have to keep our arms open to all

why?

Because Jesus scaled the walls of a garden tomb in Jerusalem Jesus crossed the ultimate barrier from life to death. to resurrected life so that you could be reconciled. He says to you and me, as he said to a church in Corinth 2000 years ago. I am giving you the ministry of reconciliation so we are ambassadors for Christ, since Christ is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on belief of Christ, be reconciled to God. If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come the old is gone. The new is come With  you I can break through any barrier with my God I can scale any wall