In the north of England, two great rivers rise. One begins high in north Pennines on Alston Moor, flowing through Haltwhistle and Haydon Bridge to Hexham. The other rises on the Scottish border, and flows through Kielder Forest and Bellingham to Hexham, where the two rivers join. The first river is called the South Tyne, the second is called the North Tyne, and when they join it becomes the river Tyne, and flows through Newcastle to the North Sea.
Unusually, this is two rivers joining, not one being a tributary of the other. After they have joined, it’s not very long before you can’t see the join and all the water is mixed together. If you were paddling on a canoe along the South Tyne, once you’d got past the point where the two rivers join you could no longer say that you were on that river, nor have any confidence which water you were on.
In this slightly tricky reading, we are presented with two groups becoming one. In this case it was about Jews and Gentiles following Christ, and coming together in the young church. In the earliest days, Christians were all Jews and worshipped in synagogues. A great deal of Christian belief and practice can be traced back to Jewish roots and Jewish customs. Yet, it was inevitable that Gentiles would wish to join the church, and it was also inevitable that there would soon be more Gentiles than Jews. That made it inevitable that there would be conflict. Jews were upset with Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus, and who didn’t see any need for them to follow Jewish practices, and this is why the NT letters say much about whether uncircumcised people be proper Christians.
If you want to interpret that in today’s context, a new Christian might come into church and ask why it matters who sits where, or why it matters that we have flowers let alone who arranges and how, or why so many folk look miserable if Christianity is Good News, or why we talk about Communion being a family meal and then use tiny pieces of bread and glass thimbles of wine in what looks like a weird ritual if you’re not used to it, or why we talk about the church being God’s family but sit scattered and apart around a room that’s too big with too many chairs, and so on and so on. That was the kind of confusion going on between the Gentiles and the Jews. And Paul tells them that Christ reconciles both groups to God in one body. Or, to put it another way, two do go into one and you can’t see the join.
Two go into one, and you can’t see the join. Two groups came together to form the early church, just as those two rovers come together to form the great river Tyne, and you can’t see the join. Here in Farnham, as we are planning for how we make our unity with Farnham Methodist Church happen, I believe that what we’re trying to do is God’s will, and that very soon after we join, you won’t be able to see the join. Once those two branches of the river have joined together, another thing happens, which is that the river grows bigger and stronger, broader and deeper, and this is what happened in the early church after Jews and Gentiles came together. Obviously we live in a different context and face different challenges, but I believe that God can help us to grow bigger and stringer, broader and deeper, as one body.
Part of the context in which we live is that it’s very easy in a posh area of the English Waitrose belt to pretend that the world is now a civilized place, where most people can go about their business in peace, and at least relative prosperity. But the evidence suggests that this is over-optimistic. More people than ever, it seems, are displaced from homes and homelands, and ﬁnd themselves wandering the world in search of somewhere to live in peace. The countries where they arrive are often overwhelmed, and ﬁnd that their resources, and their patience, are under strain, despite feeling sympathetic to people who have often suffered a great deal. Lebanon, for example, is about the size of Devon and Cornwall, and has taken in anything up to five million refugees. What I understand most refugees want above all, assuming that they can never return to their original homes, is to be accepted into a new community where they can rebuild their lives and their families. And the ultimate sign of that acceptance is to receive citizenship in the country they have adopted as their own. Their new passport is often their proudest possession. At last they can hold their heads up and build a new sense of identity. Once they have done that, they may well abandon all thoughts of going back where they came from. They have arrived. They belong.
And that is precisely the position that Paul was declaring in that passage about the Gentiles who had become Christians. Once they were ‘foreigners’ and ‘strangers’ in relation to Israel, the family of the one true God, but now they are full members, simply because Jesus has declared peace. Peace is one of the best-loved words in the world, especially if you’re a refugee or an asylum-seeker. Often it must seem as though the world has gone mad. Many people escape from a war with nothing except the clothes they stand up in, only to ﬁnd that the country where they arrive regards them with suspicion, hostility, or even hatred. It’s a wonderful thing, then, to discover that peace has been declared. It’s even better to know that it affects everybody, including both those who have come from a long way off and those who live near at hand. This is what Paul is saying: both groups are now to be at home in the same family.
And Paul reminds his readers that the religious heart of all that was the Temple in Jerusalem. It was also the political, social, musical and cultural heart of Jerusalem, as well as the place of celebration and feasting. The reason for all this was, of course, that Israel’s God, YHWH, had promised to live there. It was, many believed, the place where earth and heaven met. But now Paul is declaring that the living God is constructing a new Temple. It consists, not of stones, arches, pillars and altars, but of human beings.
This edifice in which we gather today is not a Temple, because we do not belief it is a place where God lives any more than God living everywhere, but it is something that we believe, if we can improve and develop it, can again become a political, social, musical, and cultural heart, a place of celebration and feasting, and a place where all can encounter the living God.
The Pilgrim Project is not just about this building, but about a building a living community of people, about how we can enable God to be at work in this community. It’s about two groups becoming one, a living Temple, using these stones as a resource for our part in God’s mission.
Paul was writing, in strange and difficult phases, to an early church facing many of the challenges that we face, and his message as together they are stronger than the parts, that they can become one body where you can’t see the join, and Temple is rebuilt in hearts and minds, not just in bricks and mortar.
Together, and only together, they form one community in which the living God will be delighted to take up residence. Paul offers a breath taking vision of the new community created in Jesus the Messiah. The barriers can be, must be, overcome, to worship and witness together, not just from a renewed building, but a renewed community of renewed people. Then the beautiful Temple that Paul has in mind can be built in ways that will honour the one God of all the world.