Thanks to modern technology and an over-conscientious work ethic, this blog comes to you from a remote valley in Bohemia. Jacqui and I are spending a few days with her brother who has elected to live in Hejnice, a small town to the very north of the Czech Republic.
Hejnice used to be known as Haindorf – and here lies a whole (tragic) story, culminating in the Sudetenland annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938 courtesy of Neville Chamberlain, followed by the forced expulsion of German speakers in 1945. For this is a region of changing borders.
So later this morning, on our journey home, we drive just 10 miles north into what is today Poland but prior to 1945 was part of Germany, before that, Prussia, and before that, Saxony. Then just a few miles later we turn west at Zgorzelec – I fear asking for directions! This is the Polish half of what had been the single German town of Gorlitz before the postwar settlement split the town into two.
Borders are important – they define how we live, sometimes with hugely important implications. And so borders inevitably cause conflict, often war. That’s essentially the dilemma facing the government of the Ukraine – many from the Russian-speaking population to the east see themselves on the wrong side of the border with Russia.
Borders were just as important for the people of Israel as the people of God, even more so if you are going to define Israel geographically.
So even before they get there. God promises his people through Moses their own land. “I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River.” (Exodus 23:31)
But the story of the Old Testament was that the people of God were not to be defined by these land borders. In fact, such was their faithlessness to their covenant with God, they lost their (promised) land, most to the Assyrians, then what was left to the Babylonian empire. As ever, human nature was to cause havoc to God’s purpose of healing and blessing his world through his chosen people.
So who are the people of God?
One of the most important insights of New Testament studies in recent years is to understand the whole Jewish ‘works of the law’ – circumcision, dietary laws and Sabbath observance – as border posts, defining ‘us’ from ‘them.’ So for the Pharisees, the Gentiles are defined as those on the other side of the frontier: they are outside the covenant, the promises of God are not for them.
That’s why the good citizens of Nazareth tried to kill Jesus, even though they initially claimed him as their favourite son. In his sermon at their synagogue recorded in Luke 4:14-28 Jesus undermined their whole understanding of the border between Jew and Gentile. He showed them from the Hebrew scriptures that God chose to provide for a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon and also to heal Naaman from Syria, both Gentiles living in alien territory. Dangerous teaching for a frontier town.
As ever, the cross of Jesus changes everything, not least in abolishing those frontiers which keep people out of the Kingdom of God.
This afternoon we are flying out of Berlin, a city no longer divided by a wall of hostility. This could be a visual aid for these words of ex-Pharisee Paul: “For Christ himself is our peace, who has made the two groups (Jew and Gentile) one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.
“His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.” (Ephesians 2:14f).
There still is a border, between the Kingdom of God and the dominion of darkness, but now it is defined only by the decision to place our faith in Jesus as the risen Messiah. And the good news is that this border is welcoming rather than excluding, for entry is freely available to anyone without condition, whoever you or your parents are, wherever you may live, whatever you may have done. Anyone.
Good news for a fractured world.