Part one of a mini series by Nigel Beynon: God’s plan for his world and our lives.
This week: Unity and Division
While ago I read a book called The Warrior’s Honour by the journalist Michael Ignatieff. It talks about his experiences covering various ethnic conflicts.
In one chapter he describes Serb-Croat conflict and how he sat one night with Serb soldiers in a village that has been cut in half by the conflict. He writes – “this is a village war. The men on either side of the front line once were neighbours. The Serbs on guard duty … once went to school with the Croats in the bunker close by.”
He then says – “I want to understand how neighbours go to war…. How do brothers become enemies?”
And it’s a question that multiplies as you go round the conflicts in the world – Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Nigeria, we could go on and on with places where brothers have become enemies.
Why is the world like that? And what hope is there for a world like that? How can enemies become brothers?
That is where our passage is going to take us. Let’s start by seeing how Genesis 10 describes our world,
First of all, as fundamentally united
10v1 READ – and then he lists the descendants of the 3 sons of Noah. As he does that what he’s doing is taking us around the peoples and nations of the known world. Not all of them – but he lists 70 names – the number 70 being symbolic for wholeness – so the idea is that this represents the whole world.
The point is – the whole world comes from these three brothers. So the whole world is related – they are family.
As I’m sure you know the ruby world cup starts on Friday – I know you’re all very excited about that. Anyway – England are in a group with France and we play in a few weeks. England France matches are always feisty. Love to beat the French.
But imagine if we were told – yes the French, they came from your great, great, great, great, grandfather’s brother. You’re related. You’re family.
Well that is what is being said here. All these nations – come from these brothers – they are one big family. They are fundamentally united.
And a family that is united is a wonderful thing – loving and supportive relationships – looking after each other. Having fun together. Enjoying each other.
Well God made humanity to be one big family – wonderful, supportive, caring unity.
But at the same time this chapter also shows we are tragically divided.
Tragically divided, 10v5, 20, 31
And v20, READ.
And v31, READ.
At the end of each list – we’re told they are divided by clan – their family grouping. Divided by the language they speak. The area they live. And the nation they are part of.
As one commentator puts it – they are divided anthropologically, linguistically, geographically and politically.
We just said that England and France are united – we are one family. But the fact is – if we’re English – we still do really want to beat the French. And they’d love to beat us. We are divided.
And while on the ruby pitch it doesn’t really matter - off the pitch these divisions lead to the fans fighting – it leads to xenophobia, and racism and bigotry. It leads to Serbs fighting Croats.
So here is our world – made by God to be united yet tragically divided. And so we come back to our question - why? How do brothers become enemies?
Well the answer comes in chapter 11. The order of these chapters is rather odd. Because at the start of chapter 11 we read, v1 READ. If there is one language this must be describing something before chapter 10 when there are lots of languages. But it’s put here to look back at chapter 10 and explain how the world got like that.
So chapter 11 describes how the world got divided. First part of the explanation is that,
Humanity united against God, Genesis 11v1-4
Let’s read v2-4 READ.
Now let’s be clear there is nothing intrinsically wrong with tall buildings. I quite like the Shard, the Pinnacle and the rest of them. The problem here isn’t the height – it’s the motivation.
They want to make a name for themselves. We could think of someone at work or school – wanting to make name for themselves. Means they want to stand out - be number one.
And they try and make a name for themselves by building a tower that reaches to heaven - where God is. So they want to make themselves number one – instead of God.
You can see they are against God by their other motivation - they say let’s do this to avoid being scattered. God has said in Genesis humanity should spread out – they are to fill the earth. But they are like a group of rebels who say – let’s stick together. Safety in numbers.
Together – united - we can we can rule the world – instead of God.
I said a moment ago that unity is a good and powerful thing. But now we see it needs to be unity around the right thing. We were made to be united – under God. With him in charge. But here humanity unite against God. It’s like a family – throwing the parents out. A team kicking out the captain. Work colleagues rejecting the boss.
And that leads to humanity divided by God,
Humanity divided by God, Genesis 11v5-9
God confuses their languages so they don’t understand each other.
The name Babel in Hebrew sounds like the word for confused – the place they hoped to make a name for themselves, they only end up with the name – confusion, babble.
And because of that – they can’t work together – and so the thing they tried to avoid happens – they are scattered. Divided. And they become what we saw in chapter 10. Different language, clans, nations and lands.
I imagine some of us went abroad on holiday this summer. If you’re anything like me you ended up having painful conversations trying to buy a loaf of bread – usually involves a lot of pointing – sometimes acting – and you end up with a tin of something you don’t want.
That is because of Genesis 11 – God has confused our languages and divided us. Here is the start of nations, and tribes and all the divisions in society.
Do you remember the riots in London back in 2011? Started in Tottenham at first and then in lots of places over London including Hackney. And then in different cities. Thousands of people were rioted - about 3000 ended up in court. It was a very strange summer wasn’t it – normal law and order and society got ripped up for a bit.
But can you imagine if the whole of Tottenham rioted? Every person, from every house, every street – started attacking police and property. And just Tottenham – Hackney – Harringay – whole of London – not a few thousand but millions – rejecting law and order – doing what they want.
That obviously wouldn’t happen – but just the thought of it is – frightening – bewildering. Because of the numbers and the unity. Everyone united in rebellion.
That is the sense here. God says – v6 READ. The potential here is frightening. Worse than the whole of London rioting. The potential of what humanity united – against God – could achieve. It’s frightening.
And so God acts to frustrate that unity. To divide us.
And of course it leads to more than confusion in buying bread – it leads to violence with football fans, it leads to racism, it leads to war.
Now we’ve got to be careful how we say this – because saying God has divided us - could sound like God has caused the wars and fights we see in the world.
So let me try and put this carefully. God has divided us – but what we do with that – what we do with our differences is up to us. And on the one hand those differences lead to different cultures – art, music, literature – the Bible celebrates that creativity and diversity.
But those differences also leads us to fight with each other. Not that God makes us fight. The problem is – we still want to make a name for ourselves. Still want to be in charge – wanting our way. We aren’t united in that anymore – because God has divided us – so now that sinfulness is expressed against each other – in fights and conflicts. Whether it’s miscommunication in marriage, or competitiveness at work, or nations going to war.
So this week if we hear about friends falling out, family argument, racism, hostility to immigrants or the war in Yemen – we should think – here is Babel being worked out. God has divided us – and we turn that into a fight.
What I want to do now is ask - where this theme of unity and division go in the Bible. What happens to this world which was meant to be united – but is so divided? Or to put it another way – can enemies become brothers?
God is reuniting humanity through Jesus, Acts 2; Revelation 5v9,10
The letter to the Ephesians talks a lot about unity. It’s written to a church made up of Jew and Gentile – the two big people groups of the ancient world – the ultimate in racial division – but Paul writes,
“For Christ himself is our peace, who has made the two one (Jew and Gentile) and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two thus making peace.”
He says, Jesus is our peace – that is, he brings us peace with God. Forgiveness and acceptance. But that leads to peace with each other. In fact Paul says Jesus’ very purpose in dying was to create a new man – a new humanity – not Jew or Gentile but Christian. And so make peace.
There’s a story of an Australian bishop who was travelling with a group of white boys and aboriginal boys in a bus. The boys kept arguing about being light or dark skinned – in the end the bishop stopped the bus and got all the boys off. Then told them – you can only ride on this bus if you’re green. As each boy got back on the bus he asked – what colour are? Green. On you go.
They drove on and there was peace for a bit. Then a little voice said – right, dark greens on the right, light greens on the left!
The bishop tried to make unity by creating a third category. Not back or white but green. It didn’t work but he had the right idea.
Jesus has created a new category. Not Jew or Gentile but Christian – at peace with God. And so at peace with each other.
Paul goes on “Consequently you are no longer foreigners but fellow citizens with God’s people, members of his household.” Jesus makes us fellow citizens – we’re one nation. United. And Jesus makes us God’s household - one family – united. Of course a big image of the church is that we are one body – united.
And that unity will be completely fulfilled when Jesus returns. Listen to how John describes the scene at the end of time in Revelation.
I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb… and they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.”
Every nation, every language is there – but they sing one song – salvation belongs to God. They are united around the throne.
Unity is a wonderful and beautiful thing – but only if it’s unity in the right thing. Here at last - humanity will be united under God. And it will be everything we wanted – a perfect nation, a wonderful team, a united family.
Let’s finish by thinking what this means in practice for us. I want to suggest to two things. We should spread this unity, we should live this unity.
First all we should spread this unity. By that I mean we should tell people about Jesus. But we often think of Jesus as bringing someone forgiveness. Or putting them right with God. And that’s true – but it’s very individual – very isolated.
Actually the gospel of Jesus – isn’t just how someone gets forgiven. It’s God’s plan for world peace. It’s how God is uniting the world back together – as he intended.
I’ve got a friend called Rosanne who is missionary in Japan. She spends her time telling people about Jesus. But rather than saying she’s a missionary – I could say – she’s working for world peace. She’s part of God’s world unity project. Because as a Japanese person accepts Jesus - they become this new category of person – a Christian. They part of God’s people, his family, his body – one day will be around that throne – enjoying true peace and unity.
And it’s not just missionaries in another country. This goes for us.
I don’t know who you are going to meet this week. People you live with, work with, go to school with. Neighbours, friends. They might be very different to us. Different culture, different language. We might feel very different – divided even.
But the truth is – they were once our family. We are very distantly related. And God is working to reunite his family. In Jesus.
So sharing Jesus with someone – is how we join in with God’s world peace plan. If they accept Jesus they become part of God’s remade, united world.
So – spread this unity. Secondly – live this unity.
If we go back to Ephesians – having explained God’s plan of unity and peace, Paul goes on by saying,
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There’s one body and one Spirit – one hope – one God.”
Keep the unity of the Spirit – God has united you through Jesus – now you are to live that out. We’re to make that real in our lives.
If someone is a bit rude to us this week – we don’t get proud and defensive – we are humble.
When someone let’s us down – doesn’t come through - we’re gentle.
When someone disappoints us again, yet again – we’re patient.
When someone is hard work we bear with them in love.
We support each other, we encourage, we’re gracious to each other, we forgive each other.
We live out this unity. As we live that – it’s like St Barnabas will give a glimpse of that united heavenly gathering - a tantalising, appealing taste of that perfect unity we’ll one day have.
Enemies can become brothers – because God is reuniting the whole world through Jesus Christ.
Let’s see what God is doing and spread this unity. And live this unity.
During the Peace
We’ve said Jesus purpose in dying is to make a new person – and so bring us to peace. We remember that now in these words. Let’s remember that as we take bread and wine. Often do it isolated – my relationship with God. Encourage us to be aware of each other – to think how Jesus died to unite us to each other. Pray for the person next to you.