Tuesday 27 January 2004
'He has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility'
This is a text used so often at services for Christian Unity that it has almost become stale; yet no-one in this congregation is likely to find it so. It is hard to think of an image more poignantly relevant to where we stand today as Christians in this land over which so many storm clouds are hovering. The security fence stands as a terrible symbol of the fear and despair that threaten everyone in this city and country, all the communities who share this Holy Land. This is not the place to rehearse arguments about the fence; it is enough to recognise that it is seen by so many as one community decisively turning its back on another, despairing of anything that looks like a shared resolution, a shared future, a truly shared peace.
It is not the only symbol of despair, of course. The dismembered bodies of bombers and their victims are still deeper signs of the refusal of a future, the choosing of darkness and mutual alienation. Despair and rejection continue to reflect each other with a terrible inevitability. No, this is no empty image today: walls of hostility are not metaphors, and they are not the kind of harmless marking out of territory that the poet was thinking of when he wrote, 'Good fences make good neighbours'. Good fences make good neighbours, perhaps, when both know they are secure in their homes and can speak comfortably across agreed boundaries of custom and respect. That is not where we are.
But let's return to our biblical text for a moment. What isn't always noticed is that we do not read simply about Christ breaking down a wall, we read about something new being built on the foundation of faithful witnesses, with Christ holding the structure together; there will be one new humanity - but it must be built, worked for, although Christ alone by his death and resurrection has made it possible. The way is open to God the Father for all, for people of every race, even though their difference is not abolished. On the journey to that final maturity, fulfilment and joy that is the presence of God the Father, human pilgrims mingle as they go, in all their diversity, with all their separate vocations. No-one is shut off from the experience of another; all share one goal; each recognises that what is good for them as they journey is good for all. Anything that clears the road is a benefit for everyone. But to express this in an adequate form, in a structure of social and political life, is something endlessly challenging.
It has to be built. And for that building, what is necessary? Well, says St Paul, we need apostles and prophets. We need people whose lives are consumed by the conviction that they are commissioned for nothing other than announcing the possibility that Jesus sets before us - apostles, people of mission. We need people whose lives are consumed by the conviction that they must day and night proclaim the results of betraying, forgetting or refusing these possibilities, the terrible destructiveness of settling down in our sin - prophets, people who understand what God's gift and covenant truly mean.
We need in other words those who will give both a negative and a positive vision of what Christ has achieved for us - negative, because we have to see clearly how our divisions destroy us; positive, because we equally have to see that we can walk on one road, even in our differences. We must pray God to raise up such people; when there is a great vacuum of moral leadership, apostles and prophets come into their own. If they are not there, if our churches are not nourishing apostles and prophets and praying for these gifts to be given, we are in dire trouble. Churches that never ask where the apostles and prophets are to be found are failing deeply; they may know that the great walls of fear in the human heart have been undermined - but they have not yet begun to build.
And when that vision has been spoken out, what more do we need? Paul speaks of becoming citizens of a new society. A citizen is someone who has the freedom to take part in discussion about the future he or she shares with other citizens, freedom to be creative about how to live together. A citizen is someone who is recognised by others as having the dignity of sharing in this task - and so someone who lives in an atmosphere where it is possible to rely on law and regularity. St Paul speaks of a 'law' that needs to be set aside and put in perspective because it has become simply a system of regulations that enable one set of people to claim superiority over another because they keep the rules. The true law of God's people, Jewish and Gentile alike, is that universal recognition of dignity which checks and judges all selfish aims and tells us that we must find our good and our peace always together, always in relation to God and one another.
So where there is no creative freedom to discuss and to modify how we live together and where there is no law, no predictability and equity and openness, no guarantees against arbitrary violence, there is no citizenship. Where there is no citizenship, there is no building of the new world that Christ has made possible. It may be said that St Paul is not talking about politics; but the fact is that he is talking about how human beings become most fully alive and what the redeemed life looks like. Political and social conditions can make this closer or further away. If people are held back from responsibility and liberty in the places where they live, it is usually a good deal harder for them to see themselves as citizens in God's Kingdom, to know they are free in God's eyes.
So much of the tragedy that surrounds us here has to do with citizenship. Europe's history created a world in which it seemed that only in Israel was it possible for Jews to feel themselves fully citizens, fully in possession of their dignity and security; nothing should compromise our shared commitment to this. But now we also face a situation in which they and all of us must ask about those others who feel unable to exercise their civic and human dignities. What is needed is not only the refusal of violence and the continuing work of local and international peacemakers but the steady effort to create citizenship in the sense I have described in the disadvantaged communities of this region. This means a great deal of prosaic and undramatic work to create good policing and public services, realistic credit facilities for business, security for schools and hospitals. It cannot happen overnight, and it cannot happen without the imaginative co-operation of more than one government and a willingness to invest in a future which at the moment seems unimaginably far away. And in case we see this as only a matter of concern in the Palestinian communities, it is worth remembering on the other side of the fence the strains on civil society and welfare, on the whole of an economy, when the pressure is always to devote more of a national budget to military resources.
If two neighbour communities can begin to become truly civil societies in which law and human dignity are taken absolutely seriously, there is the chance of growth towards a human fellowship in which the presence of God can become visible - a community which is becoming a temple, as Paul says, a place where the Spirit dwells.
The vision of the apostle and prophet is essential, as we have seen; the life and witness of the Christian Church in its spiritual fullness is essential in this region. And the churches here and elsewhere have to examine themselves again and again as to whether they are nourishing these callings. It is worth remembering that Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in the last days of the war, just before he was executed for his resistance to Hitler, that the churches in 1930's Germany had lost credibility by concentrating only on their own problems and demanding their own freedom, and failing to work for those of their neighbours who were most appallingly at risk, the Jews of Germany. A church of apostles and prophets will have its eyes on whoever is most at risk in this present moment, Jews and gentiles together, not on its own inner struggles and tensions - and I know that this is in so many ways a reproach to my church and to myself as to others.
But then we need the vision of the practical organiser, the person who commits their energy to law and regularity, to controlling violence and enabling ordinary exchanges, helping the shopkeeper and the farmer and the nurse and the teacher. Heroism, for the Christian, is here, not in big gestures and words, let alone in threats and murders. And the challenge to churches and governments across the world is to put resources at the disposal of this work, without which so little can be hoped for.
And last we come back to the ultimate foundation which is also the keystone holding everything together: Jesus Christ. He alone has broken down the walls, because he is in his own person the embodiment of God's law and God's love. He has transformed how every human being may be seen; he gives dignity, citizenship in the Kingdom of the Father; he sustains the patient, undramatic labour of the daily faithful work that recognises this dignity. And it is his Spirit outpoured that raises up apostles and prophets. In our prayers for the unity of Christians this last week, let us pray for those gifts to be shared among us all, so that we may more and more see the one road we all walk upon towards the Father, so that we become true agents of peace, so that we may begin to build a holy temple in our life together and to draw all our neighbours towards the peace that reigns where God dwells. Even here and even now, we have to hear the voice which says, 'Do not let your hearts be troubled'; we have to let Jesus renew us in trust and lead us in the way where he walks before us.
© Rowan Williams 2004