Recently, I preached a message called “One Another”, an exploration of what it means to truly embrace fellow believers as brothers and sisters in Christ. This might seem like a pretty standard topic to teach about in church, but in response to current racial tensions, political divides, opposing social views and continual headlines of injustice and corruption, it’s no longer just standard, it’s crucial.
Ephesians 2:19 declares that as fellow followers of Jesus, “we are members of God’s family.”
The Bible describes the Church as family, and not as a corporation, a brand, an institution, a dynasty, a monarchy or empire. Why? …Because each of these conveys ideas of power, not people. They talk of agendas and products, but nothing of love and respect. They speak of progress, but not personal connection.
And God is a personal God. He’s all about connection! How we treat each other matters to God. It’s our commitment to be family to one another that not only models Christ’s love to a world searching for answers, but also brings healing and hope to each of us personally.
As followers of Jesus, we have been divinely thrown into heavenly family dynamics here on earth. This bond is not of our making; it’s entirely Jesus’ doing. Each of us are bound to one another not by our preferences or experiences or political views or economic statuses or personal achievements or cultural upbringings but by the blood that Jesus shed for us on the cross. And just like natural families can never break that common denominator of sharing the same blood line; neither can we as the family of God.
But if we are family, then we must ask ourselves the tough questions: “If we have been called family, then why don’t we always feel more like family? If Jesus has bound us together then what exactly keeps us from the full experience of being known and loved and celebrated as members of the same heavenly household? Why do we sometimes feel more like fellow attenders of the same church or Christian acquaintances or maybe casual friends who like each other’s photos on Instagram or who might hang out every now and again… and less like genuine family? What is keeping us from the deeper bond of family?”
Well, Paul wrote something quite revealing in Ephesians 2:14: 14 For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in His own body on the cross, He broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.
“He broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.” This was a significant statement for the early church, where heightened tensions existed between those of a Jewish background and those of a non-Jewish background, known as Gentiles. And this wall Paul is referring to was not just a metaphoric illustration, but a real life one that both Jews and Gentile converts would have been familiar with. At this point in history, Gentiles could enter the Jewish temple enclosure, but only to a certain point. Gentiles were not allowed access to the inner courts or the temple. A four-and-a-half-foot high barrier surrounding the inner courts served as a dividing wall. And surrounding the wall were written inscriptions warning Gentiles not to enter on the pain of death.
Paul was making a bold statement, one that not only brought clarity to the early church, but that brings a timely revelation to us as well. In essence Paul was saying, “The wall of hostility used to exist; we all saw it. It was a physical wall that signified a much greater relational barrier between Jew and Gentile. But that divide within must no longer exist. Those days are over. The days of preference and special treatment are over. The days of prejudice and segregation are over. The days of one people group triumphing over another are over. The days of some making the cut and some being left out are over. The days of seeing each other merely as victims and oppressors, as the left out and the included, as the mistreated and the privileged are over. The days of seeing each other on opposite sides are over. It’s time to tear down the wall of hostility amongst each other!”
And maybe the divide today is no longer between Jew and Gentile, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t still walls of hostility amongst believers today.
We can’t ignore the fact that there is racism, hatred, injustice, prejudice and inequality in our world today. It’s there. We’ve all witnessed some form of it, and we’ve all been affected by it in some way. And it would be ignorant of us to pretend that we leave all of that behind simply when we step into a church service.
It is possible to call ourselves Christians and still maintain walls within our own hearts- walls that divide, walls that protect, walls that keep us comfortable and keep others at a distance.
We all have walls… They reveal themselves in subtle ways… like in one gender’s distrust towards another after a few heartbreaks, or in the close examination of a tight-knit friendship circle that reveals everyone looks the same and dresses the same and thinks the same and comes from the same background, or in a liberal’s offense towards a conservative or a conservative’s offense towards a liberal, or an older person feeling disrespected by all these young people today, or a young person feeling as though older people aren’t interested in their lives, or when a person of a certain wealth feels uncomfortable around people of a different income, or a couple from a certain zip code not really wanting to hang out in a certain other neighborhood.
We all have walls. It makes us uncomfortable to talk about them, but we’ll never have any hope of tearing them down unless we first acknowledge them.
I recently began reading a book called Just Mercy, a true account of a modern-day civil rights hero named Bryan Stevenson who founded the Equal Justice Initiative. It’s captivating and heart-breaking, especially when reading stories of brutal mistreatment and injustice in parts of the world simply because of the color of someone’s skin. I’ve found myself at different times tearing up and shaking on the subway reading the book because I am not just saddened by what I read, but infuriated. But my first responsibility in learning about some of these racial injustices that exist today is not to get angry at all the racists of the world. It’s to search and probe for the racist in me. To find those subtle moments where I have dismissed certain people or over stereotyped a type of people or ignored certain signs of injustice that have been around me. My responsibility is to recognize that even though on paper I would seem like a very welcoming person who treats people with equality, who is a minority herself dating another minority and whose closest friends are of different ethnicities and backgrounds and who is a minister and runs a non-profit for crying out loud, who has all the characteristics of someone who can safely be put in the non-prejudice category… that simply appearing fair and just isn’t good enough.
No matter how small and hidden the wall of hostility might be within me- it might be one thought, one judgment, one comment, one criticism- it is still a threat to my ability to fully embrace fellow believers as brothers and sisters in the family of God; and therefore, it must be demolished!
Friends, isn’t it time we each face our walls of hostility and actively begin the work of tearing them down?
The work of tearing down walls within may not be easy, but I do believe it is simple in nature. We can each pray and ask the Holy Spirit to shed like on the places of our hearts that need adjusting. And then we can act. A wall of hostility begins to crumble when we simply walk across the room at church to someone different than us- someone with different experiences and views, someone who might look different than us and dress different than us, who might come from a different religious background or generation than us, who might hold very different political and social views than us, and we say, “Hi. My name is _________. What’s yours? I think it is crazy that we go to the same church and I don’t know much about you. Can we grab coffee sometime? I’d love to get to know you more.” …Or something like that. Say hi and hang out, and don’t make it weird. 😉
We are the family of God. So why not do what it takes to be true family to one another? Let’s not, for a second longer, let man-made walls of hostility keep us from our Christ-made bond as the family of God.