At the Border
Jesus told this parable.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Less than thirty kilometres from this church lies the border with Russia. It is the longest eastern border separating a European country from Russia, stretching for 1,340 kilometres from south to north. In the course of history this border has run through various places, making the difference between east and west visible.
The present border has existed for seventy-four years. After Finnish independence in 1917 large areas beyond it belonged to Finland. Especially for those who had to leave their homes when the province of Karelia came under new rulers after the war in 1945, the eastern border has symbolised an obstructive wall, with so many memories and so much that was loved beyond reach. Yet the Finnish eastern border has also been a threshold, the crossing of which has been – and still is – necessary to promote dialogue and understanding.
It is of the utmost importance that we understand borders more broadly than as merely lines of exclusion. Borders should always invite us to cross them and seek dialogue. This is the lesson we learn in today’s gospel, in which we encounter several borders. In Jesus’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus we see the divide between those who have more than enough and those who have nothing. It is clear that borders can be used to serve unjust aims. Various demarcation lines separate those who succeed from those who do not, and those who are accepted from those who are not. A feature of injustice is that crossing such borders is sometimes extremely difficult – and impossible for many.
Another border runs between this world and the world beyond. In Jesus’s teaching these worlds make a single unity. This world influences what happens in the world beyond, and the world beyond has a bearing on this world. Every attempt to separate these worlds is counter-productive.
But Jesus describes still a third border. As a preacher who attempts to emphasise the importance of crossing borders of every kind, I find this quite a challenging detail. The gospel tells us Abraham has a stern message for the rich man who entered the world beyond a little while after poor Lazarus. Abraham says: “Son, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” We are told there is a border which cannot be crossed.
There is no need here to reflect more deeply on the theological implications of what Jesus means in this detail of his message. The nature and scope of eternal salvation need not concern us now. What matters is this: whatever borders there are for you to cross, do it now, in this world. If there is something valuable and important on the other side of a border, let it affect you now, in this world. Do not wait for it in the world beyond, because borders are meant to be crossed now, in this world.
Along the whole length of the Finnish eastern border there is a special area called the border zone. Its purpose is to maintain order and security at the border. The border zone extends to a maximum of three kilometres on land and four kilometres at sea. Special rules apply in the zone, based on the realisation that what lies beyond the border has a bearing on this side.
In the light of today’s gospel I want to make the claim that the Christian church forms a border zone between this world and the world beyond. The church is called to live exactly on the border of time and eternity – of what we experience now and what we can expect in the world beyond. The church is the sphere where these two worlds meet and interact. The joys and difficulties we encounter in the church today stem in one way or another from this role of the church as the border zone. Motivation and strength in living and working in this border zone is possible only if we remember our double commitment: we are here not only for this world but for the world beyond. Our concern is not only for the world beyond but for this world now.
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, bishops and spouses, and assistants and other co-workers: we believe that God has called us to serve the church in our positions, that God has brought us together and that God’s Holy Spirit will abide with us. It is such a great joy to see you all here and share experiences, thoughts and ideas about our churches’ life and work, and our personal lives as servants of God. In the coming days, as we cross the borders between our countries, we seek fresh insights for meeting the challenges of our time and finding new ways to testify to Jesus Christ our Lord, in whom the world here and now and the world beyond are united. Here we find ourselves in that border zone in God’s loving presence. Here we are in the safe hands of God.