Across The Barricades

Sunday, 19 June 2016

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

The Greeks had a word: “barbaros” - “barbarian”. For the Greeks the barbarians were those beyond their borders. They were those who were different from them because they spoke a language the Greeks didn’t understand. They were those who were different from them because they were “uncivilised” - they didn’t live in cities as did the Greeks and the Romans. They were those who were different and who were - in their difference - threatening and alien. The barbarians were the peoples that the Greeks looked out at across the borders and across the barricades.

As human beings we’re very good at dividing ourselves into groups - into those who are “inside” and those who are “outside”. we divide ourselves by nation and by race; by sexuality and language. We divide ourselves by religion and by politics; by the football team we support and in many other ways. And sometimes, huddled in our groups, we look out fearfully and with hatred at those who are different. Sometimes we want to drive them away and lock them out and keep them at a distance. Sometimes we throw up barricades between ourselves and those who are “The Other”.

How many barricades did Jesus just step over in our Gospel reading today? He arrives in the country of the Gerasenes - an area dominated by the city of Gadara on the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee from Capernaum. Early on in my Christian life I remember reading the story of the Gadarene swine and wondering what this herd of pigs was doing in a country where they were unclean animals. The Gerasenes, though, were not Jews. They were culturally Greek. In stepping off the boat into this place Jesus goes among people who are different from himself culturally and racially. He reaches out to someone who is possessed - who is “unclean” by Jewish standards. This is a man who lives among tombs, with all the taint of death that might imply for someone of Jesus’s culture. Jesus reaches out to a man who has become so strange, so different that his people have been known to chain him up out of fear. Yet Jesus ignores all the barriers that come between him and the possessed man. He reaches across the barricades.

Paul speaks of life in Christ as one in which the barriers are broken and the barricades are cast aside: where we are not Jew and Greek, nor male nor female, nor slave nor free; where we are one. This is an important vision this Sunday after a week when the hatred that can be generated by our failures as human beings to love one another in our differences has cost so much. 

This week a young woman who had worked to support those fleeing the war in Syria  was murdered by a man who gave his name to the court on Friday as “Death to Traitors: freedom for Britain”. This is clearly a man for whom the sense of nationality has engendered terrible hatred. And maybe that’s not surprising when all we have heard from certain sections of the media has been talk of our nation being swamped by migrants. “Britain Faces Migrant Chaos”. “Migrants Cost Britain £17bn A Year”. “The Invaders” - just a few of the headlines that have featured on the front pages of our papers. Maybe it’s not surprising when a campaign poster features a seemingly endless tide of foreign faces on the road. Maybe its not surprising that some see in migrants the frightening face of “The Other” and want to throw up the barricades.

In Florida this week we saw the brutal slaughter of people who frequented a gay bar. We saw men and women murdered because they were different; for a label we place on one small part of their beings as God-made human beings. The man who carried his gun into that bar may have had mixed motives for what he did, but what is clear is that these people were marked out for death because of their sexuality - the thing that made them “Them” rather than “Us” in his mind: the thing that made them “outside” rather than “inside”.

Also, this week there has been another round of bombings from those who have adopted a twisted and perverted form of Islam which sees anyone who is not of like mind as “The Enemy” - those who are to be targeted across the barricades. It all seems a far way from the image of a humanity united in Christ that Paul speaks of in Galatians. But that image is a precious one. It is one we must not lose sight of. It is one we must cling to, work toward and try to live out in our daily lives. It is an image of hope for humanity fractured into armed camps living in fear and hatred of one another.

What, though, are we meant to do about the hatreds and divisions of humanity? Don’t buy into them. Take the opportunities that come our way to set the barriers aside and reach across the barricades. Here in Annan we have just such an opportunity. A refugee family from Syria has been settled here. Another will be coming. These are people who, because of their different race, their different language, their different religion and culture, may find this place strange and alien. It would be nice if folk here made them welcome - if they set the barriers aside and reached across the barricades in love.

Sexuality has been, for a very long time, a troubling matter for Christian churches. Many people in the outside world are quick to label us as homophobic and as hating homosexuals. That gives us a kind of superpower. Every Sunday we open our doors to all and everyone. We can make it clear that everyone is welcome here - whoever they are and however different they may be to us. Sure I know all about the texts in Romans and Leviticus, but they do not trump the most basic, most fundamental teaching of Christ about the way we treat others: love your neighbour as you love yourself. We have the opportunity in this place and in the way we live our lives as Christians to show what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about: whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, however strange and different you may seem we are all bound together by the love of God. We have the opportunity to set the barriers aside and reach across the barriers in love.

We people of religion have a superpower. We live in a world where religion has too often been associated with hatred and violence. But it doesn’t have to be like that. We can choose to follow in the ways of Jesus. We can choose to accept the words of Paul that in Christ there are no barriers between brothers and sisters; between children of God. We can choose to let God’s Holy Spirit stand guardian over our hearts and minds and warn us when they turn to prejudice and bigotry. We can choose love in place of hatred. we can choose peace in place of conflict. We can choose to accept others for who they are in place of fearing them as strange and different.

Wouldn’t it be great if that’s what the world outside associated with religion? Wouldn’t it be great if what people thought of when they thought about church was doors opened wide to accept anyone and everyone who stepped across the threshold; as a place where there were no barriers and everyone could know the acceptance and love of God in the proffered hand and the welcoming smile? Wouldn’t it be great if we took the idea that is just beginning to flower in Paul’s words “there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free” and really ran with it. What if we were known for reaching across the barricades in love?

Lord, guard our hearts and minds. Guide them away from hatred and fear of those who are different. Guide us in the way of love taught and demonstrated by your Son that we may offer your love to all your children

Preached at Annan Old and at Dornock