|It seems like some of us are more Republican than Christian. More Democrat than Christian. Even more American than Christian.|
Forgive me if that sounds too harsh. I could be overreacting.
But I say that because I’ve listened to a lot of Christians. And as much as I try to stay away from the comments section, I do get sucked in from time to time.
It might be too much to say we’ve lost our identity in Christ. But why does it feel like “Christian” is only another label? Christian music. Christian books. Christian t-shirts. Christian movies. Christian breath mints?
I’ve reflected on Acts 11:26 before. This is where Barnabas and Paul meet and spend a year teaching the church. “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians.'”
It could be they came up with that name themselves. Chances are, it was a sarcastic way others identified them. I take that to mean those early disciples committed themselves to their collective walk with Jesus. Acts even said many Christians devoted themselves to their spiritual growth. So much so that other people now needed a nickname for them. Their life centered so much on what they were learning about Christ that it was the dominant quality other people saw in them.
Now, all those jokes about getting out of church by noon come from somewhere. If the outside world were to see our devotion to all things Jesus, would they come up with a name like Christian?
There’s a particular feature of our discourse that leads me to believe we’re less Christian and more everything else. It’s the way we talk about “those” people. We tend to blame a lot of things on those people. Of course, those people are those people whose voting record is different than ours. It’s too obvious they are the ones who are less faithful and God-fearing than us. They have ruined our country. They have done so much harm. Poor us for having to put up with them.
Let me offer you a biblical example of the short sightedness of that kind of thinking. It’s Nehemiah. Before he rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, his heart ached for his people. From his place in the Persian capital, he prayed for those left in the ruins of Jerusalem. Notice how he prays.
He asked God to hear his prayer day and night. This wasn’t a one-time prayer. And what filled his prayers? He confessed their sins “which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned.”
Nehemiah was a faithful person. His humble prayer is a powerful witness for us to consider. He accepts blame for their condition. He didn’t shame his people. He joined in prayer with them. And he wasn’t pinpointing another group’s faults. It was his people, himself included, that needed forgiveness from God.
If we’re going to be more Christian than say American, this is a great lesson to learn. Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t disagree with each other. It certainly doesn’t mean we can’t hold one another accountable to our shared values. But it does mean we are sharing our burdens together. And we can do so in a way that reflects our Christian name and convictions. May God forgive us if we’re more willing to live in disunity than in Christ.
It’s another day. I’m another john. and this is another note.
I wrote a worship song that entails several lessons I’ve shared from the book of Ephesians recently. I had fun writing it, and it was a blessing to lead it during worship this weekend. The chorus says:
God has saved us and raised us.
We are one in the Lord.
Now, our glory is only
when we live as one.
There’s one part I struggled with for a bit. What is our glory?
What are we most proud of in our local congregations? Each of the seven churches I’ve served had a glory. For some, the glory was their history and tradition. For another, it was their fundraiser. I can hear committee meetings in one church that boasted of their various ministries.
And so on.
I understand being proud of such things, mostly.
But I’ve never had a church say they were proud of their unity. Now, that could be because it was an assumed quality. Maybe no one thought it was that big a deal. Perhaps they didn’t want to boast.
Pastoral ministry has taught me much about the church. One glaring lesson is that church unity has eternal implications. That makes it worth pursuing. More than we realize or appreciate. And I don’t mean we-get-along-and-most-people-like-each-other niceness. That’s great, but it can be, and most times is, superficial.
The unity I’m referring to has to do with the will of God and the connection we have as believers. How much does the will of God guide and direct what we do as a local congregation? In other words, how much do we glory in God’s will? And even people who despise each other can be nice. So, what distinguishes our attitudes and relationships with others in our churches?
The opening line of Psalm 125 is powerful: Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. It’s affirming for a child of God to consider themselves to be that mountain. I like to think my faith strengthens me. But what of the whole people of God? What does that say about us?
Following that verse, the psalmist says, “the Lord surrounds his people.” Our unity with God, then, is what strengthens us as God’s church. When we collectively submit to God’s power and grace we become like Mount Zion. Nothing moves our foundation as we trust in God’s provision and promise. We stand tall as God’s own, following God’s way.
When we live into that unity, we show God’s glory.
But there’s also the unity we share as the body of Christ: one body and one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:5-6). When we learn to live into the unity God desires for the church, that’s our glory. That’s what we can be proud of. Even then, it’s not that we’re so great at what we do. It’s that God’s grace has finally transformed our hearts and minds. When that happens, our glory is only when we live as one with God and each other.
There’s an idea that Paul’s ending to the Roman epistle is an afterthought.
Many people consider Romans to be Paul’s great theological discourse. There are portions that certainly read that way. But I appreciate the idea that the letter is more pastoral than it is doctrinal. As such, the unity of the Roman congregation wasn’t an afterthought. It was the whole point of writing the letter in the first place.
Read it in that light to gain a different perspective of what Paul says.
So, all that to say, the unity of the church is paramount to Paul.
This is kind of a tricky subject. In Romans 16, Paul says to keep an eye on people who create division in the church. Ultimately, we are to “avoid them.” Exactly what does that mean?
Are we to ignore what they do and what they teach? Do we let them spread their division? Does letting their selfish ambition take root fall on us if we let it go? What about the incident in Galatians 2? This is when Paul says he confronted Peter for his hypocrisy, which could be divisive. Paul stood up to Peter “to his face.”
So, where’s the line between “avoid them” and stand up to their face?
Wherever it is, we’ll most likely find it if we pursue what Paul wanted for the Romans. In Romans 16:19, he said he wanted them “to be wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil.”
I remember I asked a congregation one time if they noticed something I observed. That we want to make sure we teach our children the way of the world. But we don’t put nearly as much effort or attention into teaching them the way of the Lord. We shouldn’t wonder too much, then, where shallow faith comes from.
To be wise in what is good, in part, is to learn God’s goodness. From there, what you learn about God guides how you live your life. Obedience to God’s goodness must guide our learning. It’s this life-long pursuit that will lead us to know when we should avoid those who seek to serve themselves or confront them.
Still, for today, I want to reflect more on what it means and what it looks like to avoid those who seek division. This was a way Paul thought to galvanize the church’s unity.
Confession: I’m more of a rip-the-band-aid-off kind of person. I’d be more prone to address something this important head-on. The unity of the church is at stake! So, someone like me needs to pray extra for godly wisdom and patience.
What about you?