3 May 2020

We have acquired a new phrase in the English language: “Social Distancing”. It means of course staying away from one another at that magical figure of 2 metres. It has been inconvenient and painful as we are physically separated from the company of friends and loved ones. One of the amazing anomalies of the current situation is that despite being socially “distant” we have seen communities draw closer together in terms of electronic communication but also in terms of much neighbourliness and practical support being given to those in need. Loneliness and mental health however remain serious issues for our time.

The Bible doesn’t talk much about social distancing. The exceptions in that first century culture included the social exclusion of lepers and other similar illnesses and the monthly menstrual cycle of women. The Bible makes much however of what it means to be spiritually distant from God and the pain of social divisions among people- particularly in the New Testament the barriers that separated Jews from gentiles.

Some years ago, on a visit to Israel, I did what we always did, and “floated” in the Dead Sea” It is an extraordinary experience in the lowest place on earth. I was leading a school party from Glyn. A well spoken Arab floated alongside me and asked the question that no teacher ever wants to hear “Are you in charge of these children?” !! He then asked me if we had been to Yad Veshem, the holocaust memorial in Jerusalem where we had in fact been the previous day. He then said, “I am a Doctor in Nablus on the occupied West Bank. I can’t walk one length of a city block in my home town without being challenged by an Israeli soldier and asked to show my pass. He smiled and then added “This is our land too and we need to live together”.

I never forgot that moment . It is deeply etched in my memory and it encapsulated in one kindly encounter the issues that have dogged the MIddle East for years. Most of the NT letters include the radical Christian teaching that in Christ there is no distancing and no divisions. Paul writes “We are all one in Christ Jesus” The inclusion of Gentiles in the early church was a flash point in history which was resolved by the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, a message reinforced in the rest of the New Testament. Jesus, own ministry broke all the rules of social distancing.

The Bible also talks about the spiritual distance that exists between ourselves and God. The Easter story portrays graphically how Jesus died to break down the barrier of sin and give us access to God. One of the significant events of that first Easter weekend was the tearing down of the curtain in the Temple that had always symbolised the separation between God and mankind- only bridgeable in that OT context by the use of a representative priesthood. Jesus as our great High Priest has abolished the need for that kind of priestly function The Bible affirms the priesthood of all believers and the right of access into God’s presence for everyone of us. It means that for every Christian there is no spiritual distance between us and our heavenly Father and I trust no distance either between our brothers and sisters!

Remember that one of the Bible’s injunctions is to “draw near”!