Jean’s Gospel:You Are One in Christ
I am mildly anxious this Tuesday afternoon as I begin writing this article. The midterm elections are today and many of the contests I am following are considered “toss ups” or “leaning.” Politics has always divided people to a certain extent, but I have noticed a trend towards greater political polarization in our national and local discourse.
I am particularly concerned that our political polarization could further invade the sacred spaces that Christians share in our churches, which are formed not in politics, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When we speak of “one holy Christian and apostolic Church,” my tradition, for good and biblical reasons, often places the accent on the unity of doctrine. I do not here wish to minimize the importance of the unity of doctrine in the Church. However, I want to reflect in this article on a different aspect of unity, which is also fully emphasized in the apostolic writings: the unity of the fellowship of believers, created from the disunity of our fallen world.
The first few generations of Christians dealt with arguably more political polarization than we do, yet they did not have the luxury or convenience of planting culturally homogenous enclaves for Christian worship. Instead, what we find are the apostles striving mightily to bring Christians from diverse backgrounds together in culturally heterogenous congregations.
Both Paul and James addressed problems arising from wealthy and poor Christians worshiping together. Paul dealt with the reconciliation of a Christian slave and his Christian master. He dealt with the roles of men and women in worship. Paul also dealt with unity among Christians who came from different food traditions and religious backgrounds. In the early churches there were Roman citizens, freed slaves, slaves, Christians of Jewish ancestry whose traditional homeland was at that time under Roman occupation, and a mix of racial, ethnic and socio-economic classes.
The only thing that brought together the early Christians was their shared confession of faith in Jesus Christ. They had received the promise: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27) This promise delivered in Baptism united them to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which not only reconciled them with the Father in heaven, but it recreated them as Christians in a new single reconstituted family of God with Jesus as their head.
It is difficult for me as an American citizen who has grown up a free, white, male citizen of the wealthiest country in the history of the world to imagine the challenges of integrating the churches in Asia Minor during the first couple centuries after Christ’s ascension. What might have gone through Peter’s mind when he witnessed a Roman Centurion receive the Holy Spirit? How much Jewish blood was spilt at the hand or command of Cornelius?
The epistles certainly testify to the challenges of uniting the early churches. Yet the apostles never gave up, and the Word of the Lord spread like wildfire through the pagan world until Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire during the fourth century. The Word is trustworthy: “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)
I do not think our divisions in America come anywhere close to the divisions that existed outside the early Christian churches. Yet, I acknowledge that we do have our cultural and political divisions and, regrettably, our churches have not been as vigilant as they should be about proclaiming not our temporal identities but our eternal and greater identities as one people of God, all bearing the same image of God, all baptized into the same Savior, all forgiven sinners, and all destined to dine at the same wedding feast of the Lamb.
For as long as the Lord gives us breath in this fallen world, it is not too late for any of us to embrace our identity in Christ and make it primary in our lives. It is, after all, the only identity that our Father in heaven blesses and is the only identity of imperishable worth. There is freedom in Christ.
With eternity in the horizon, faith in Christ frees us from having to engage the world by its fears, anger, tactics, despair, cynicism, etc. Christ frees us to be instruments of His love and mercy in and for the world. I believe this is what Peter had in mind when he described the Church as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
We do not know what our God has in immediate store for this world or for America, but we know both what our eternal future is and how we should live, both with one another in the Body of Christ and as part of our larger temporal communities. We are all God’s royal priests. Therefore, may we abhor what is evil, and hold fast to what is good. May we bless those who persecute us; we bless and do not curse. Let us rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. “Live in harmony with one another….” (Rom. 12:16)
So, regardless of how the elections this midterm turn out, let us not be anxious, fearful, depressed or angry. Christ has risen! Christ has set us free! Christ will come again! Moreover, may our churches proclaim Christ crucified and welcome people from every walk of life and background into our fellowships. “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7) Amen.
Our Father in heaven: preserve us in the one true faith; keep us in Your Word; strengthen us in faith towards you and in fervent love towards one another; frustrate, hinder and destroy the evil works of darkness in our world; and come again soon. Amen.