be yourself in the Lord

…what is that to you? You must follow me.

John 21:22b

There’s only one “straight (small) and narrow” (Matthew 7:13-14) for sure, just as there’s only one Lord, Jesus. We all are on level ground at the foot of the cross. God loves us all, and had shown that through God’s self-sacrificial death in the Son, Jesus. We’re all the same that way.

But we’re all also different. Contemporary worship music might be your choice, medieval or renaissance chants someone else’s, classical music another’s. Some of us might prefer a get away in the beauty of nature, while others enjoy the activity of a bustling city.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t be challenged by someone else in ways that can be helpful to us for change. We should always be open to whatever the Lord might want to tell us through someone else. This is part of the essential beauty of being church together. But we also need our space to simply be ourselves, the person we are and are becoming in the Lord.

This means we not only accept this freedom ourselves, but grant it to others, wherever they might be in their spiritual journey and development. God is the judge in the end. We are witnesses who want to share the difference the Lord and the gospel is making in our own lives. But each of us is as different as the endless number of snowflakes, or clouds in the sky. There’s a beauty in that, because God will reveal himself through my sister or brother in Jesus, in a way different than he will reveal himself through my life.

It is easy to believe this when we think of some people, gregarious and outgoing, maybe life of the party types. But what about those who are quiet, reserved, maybe reclusive? That’s me, actually. Yes, I can appear to be outgoing when need be. But I prefer quiet, well– with classical music in the background, being thoughtful in the word (Scripture) or in a good book.

We just need to be ourselves in Jesus. That is where God meets us. Not to make us to be like everyone or anyone else, but to help us become who he created us uniquely to be. In and through Jesus.

living with our differences

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.

Colossians 3:15a

In the real world there are stark differences of opinion, and that includes the church. When we say church, we should include the entire church also, and not only our local assembly. How do we learn to live together with our differences?

The word translated “peace” hearkens back, when considering Scripture, to the shalom of God’s kingdom. It’s not just an absence of strife, though often that’s where we need to begin. It’s the presence of a love that includes everyone, and therefore accepts each person, regardless of their view on anything. And it’s a gospel kind of love, intent in all of us finding our way in Jesus. Together yes, but as individuals. We each have to find that for ourselves. But we live it out together as members of one body in Christ, the church.

I think that means that we need to side step what might harm that. And a large part of understanding what that might be would be to consider what Christ would be about in the world. We after all are members of Christ.

When it comes to issues on which we disagree, it’s best to err on the side of love. Drop whatever violates love. If there’s something important enough to work through, do so, but also agree to disagree, so that we’re willing to drop it. There’s actually more strength in not having the last word, than having it. But our heart should not be in winning an argument, but love: God’s love in Christ by the Spirit. We are taking the way of the cross, the way of Christ, if we are willing to look like the losers. And acknowledge when we are wrong. And pray.

“Let the peace of Christ rule.” That’s a watchword for us as individuals, especially important in our relationships with each other, in the church. In and through Jesus.

 

Christians should lead the way in showing unity in the midst of differences

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.

1 Peter 3

This passage in 1 Peter and elsewhere which says Christians are to be of one and the same mind, certainly doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything that’s important. What it does mean is that we’re in full agreement, and in lock step with what is most important of all, nothing else being on the same level: the gospel, the good news of God in Jesus.

To be like-minded, or of one mind means nothing less than that. I see Christians divide over their consideration of the politics of this world. And that can be a distraction, even worse, a departure from what actually does unite us in and through Jesus by the one Spirit. It is nothing less and nothing more than the faith of the gospel. To put anything else in that category is plain and simply idolatry. When I refer to the gospel here, I’m referring to God’s message about Christ, which leads us to God and our lives of worshipping him. Nothing else should be on the radar with that.

I am glad that I’m among Christians who think very differently than I do on the politics of this world, and yet with whom I can have just as close of fellowship and enjoy their company just as much as if we did think alike on that issue. Does that mean that the politics of this world doesn’t matter? Of course it does. But in actuality, regardless of how that shakes out, we find that our unity is fully and completely never in that, but only in the one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Jesus is our Lord and Messiah, our one hope both in this present life, as well as in the life to come. And this reality should help us negotiate well, and even influence how we look at the lesser things. So that we can learn to work toward a common goal, and even compromise to see it achieved. Not that we can arrive to perfection in that, or even always in our faith and understanding be able to do so.

Again, the appeal to having the same mind given to Christians numerous times in the New/Final Testament is in terms of God’s revelation in Jesus and the gospel. We are going to disagree on a whole lot of other things. We bring different perspectives and insights to the table, and therefore need to listen to each other well. But we must not let anything be in the category of first importance besides the gospel itself. And since that is the case, it will help us know how to negotiate what differences we have. Of paramount importance among other things will be peacemaking, first between ourselves over differences, and for those of this world. And first in that will be the peace that only the gospel brings in the midst of it all. In the truth and love which are in Jesus.

the unity the gospel brings with reference to challenges of our day

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:27

One of the most powerful arguments for the truth, power and reality of the gospel is the unity it brings to people who otherwise would not be united, and in fact might not get along at all, and even worse. This is because our unity is in Jesus Christ, through whom we are brought together into the unity of the Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

We are created with differences, and the new creation, as we can see from the passage above (clicking the link shows the immediate context) is just as rich in diversity. Those differences are a good thing. What is challenging for us in this present existence in which we “see through a glass darkly,” and “know in part,” (1 Corinthians 13; KJV) are the many differences we have which we may hold to be nearly first order truths (like the gospel, which is definitely first order), or which we consider important enough to be nonnegotiable. Sexual ethics is a prime example today. Some hold to the orthodox, traditional view of marriage, while others believe in covenant faithfulness in marriage, but believe scripture does not exclude opening up the door to same sex marriage.

First of all, truth is important across the board. I don’t believe in “eternal security,” though many people I know, do. It is important in its place, but as long as we know we have security through faith in Christ, and that we are dependent on God’s gift to us in Christ, and that we are not to live careless lives in this life of grace given to us by God in Jesus, then the question of whether or not one can lose their salvation is rather beside the point to me anyhow. The whole issue becomes just where we draw the lines.

Back to the question on sexual ethics. That’s probably in large part the issue: where we draw the lines and why. The fact of the matter is everyone does so. Not just anything goes for anyone, even if on sexual ethics, it might. We need to make room for some differences, agree to disagree on some things, but somehow still be united in and through Christ and the gospel.

Back to what I consider, more or less gray areas. We can and therefore should live together well with differences of thought concerning the politics of this world. Partly I think, and I would argue that this ought to be the weightiest reason: Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. The government of this world still has its place, and is even ordained as well as judged by God. But how that is to be worked out in a given society and era is not something I would consider black and white, even while many issues such as the life of the unborn, and medical care for all, are.

This unity that is ours in Jesus is something we’re to keep working at in this life (Ephesians 4:3). Otherwise, we may well lose it, at least in our witness and testimony to the world. To break away in denial of this unity is a sign that possibly the division is exposing a faith which isn’t genuine. At least it’s an indicator that someone, perhaps both parties in the division, are somehow off track in their following of Christ.

The unity that the gospel brings is not some cookie cutter agreement, but rather a healthy unity which includes differences. But remains steadfast in the oneness of God in Christ, awaiting the time when all that divides us will be gone. And looking for more ways we can agree to live with the differences we have now, while also looking for a unity that is based on a faith which is committed to truth in and through the Truth himself, Jesus (John 14:6).

toward the complete unity of the church which only God can give

I used to think that Jesus’ prayer that all believers would be one as he and the Father are one (John 17) is answered solely in terms of the Holy Spirit who is given to all believers so that they have a common life or reality by the Spirit in and through Christ. While that is true, I believe Jesus would have meant more, a unity which overcomes differences. But I know, given all that has transpired since, that there is sadly much to overcome.

There are significant differences in how matters of salvation are understood between Roman Catholics and Protestants. There are even some striking dfferences between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. Add to that the differences within churches that came out of the Protestant Reformation, and the thought of unity on some tangible, physical level beyond that of what true believers have in the unity of the Spirit would seem hopeless naive to many, to be sure. Certainly daunting to anyone to the point of humanly impossible.

Jesus’ prayer was to the Father, asking that the Father would make all who believed in him one. So that the world might believe that the Father had sent him. That seems to suggest to me that the spiritual unity needs to be ecclesiastical as well. I am reminded of Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

What do we do with differences in our understanding of practices like baptism or the Lord’s Table? This passage doesn’t spell that out. And frankly I’m not so sure what we sometimes have made basically clearcut is all that clear at all. Take for example infant versus believer’s baptism. Or the mode of water baptism, whether immersion, pouring, sprinkling. I have my views on that, but I would think that instead of God wanting us to get all of the details right, he wants us to be faithful in the main, so that the church is attempting to be obedient across the board, and accept what differences there are in various churches. Churches are often quite accommodating nowadays. The Evangelical Covenant Church is a good example of this. They require pastors to know what they believe on water baptism and why- from scripture, but they also require pastors to be willing to dedicate or baptize infants, deferring in the former to believer’s baptism later in accordance with the parents’ wishes. I think that’s a good practice, one that is seeking to be faithful to God’s revealed will, but is helping believers remain united even with differences in those areas.

Even in Paul’s day there were serious divisions, indeed there seems to have been a propensity for such. Take for example the Corinthian church which was divided over what leader they followed (1 Corinthians 3). We can see from that letter and the rest of the New Testament that such division is a sign of spiritual immaturity; after all, this was a young church. Of course some differences might well be justified, at least in the early church. There was the part of the church which was still very Jewish in its orientation and that which was not. The point in the latter for this post might be that such churches do not have to, or maybe even shouldn’t (particularly in a missional, cultural context) give up their differences. But they should be essentially united in the one Lord, in the gospel, the good news of God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus. There needs to be a priority toward unity, but as was said yesterday, a unity that accepts differences.

It is surely impossible to think that all believers will end up united under one church. There will always be some who want to splinter off for this and that reason and start another church. What might be desirable is to work toward the goal of one church in which the truth can be expressed in a way that people of different persuasions can live with. Perhaps such a gift could help break down things which don’t matter while holding on to things that do.

One matter which so divides us, but in the end might help unite us is the practice of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Table, Holy Communion. I think we need to take scripture and tradition together to help us toward the unity Jesus is praying for, the early church fathers (and mothers) and what they say as well as how the church understood these matters should have considerable weight. It makes no sense to say all those who have faith (and are baptized) are one in Jesus, and yet withhold Holy Communion and the Lord’s body and blood in the bread and the cup, from those who differ in their understanding of this. If they share in the one Lord, and the one Spirit. This is where, again, we need to work on how to express the truth so as to be true to scripture which includes living out the unity that is ours in Christ.

In the end, as Jesus’ prayer suggests, while we want to be faithful and do the part God has called us to do, it is God himself who will have to bring this unity about. In the meantime, we can keep praying toward that unity, and that by God’s grace that the world might begin to catch a glimpse through us of the reality that is in Jesus.

unity doesn’t exclude diversity

In pointing toward the desired unity of the church, we must not fall into the idea that our differences have to be muted or neutered into something in which we’re all uniform. Even in the Roman Catholic tradition there is some great variety in the different orders: Franciscan, Benedictine, Dominican, etc. And for all the criticism Protestants receive for their divisions, some of it surely just, there is some wonderful variety: Quakers, Pentecostals, Methodists, etc.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he makes it clear that though the Body of Christ is one, it is made up of many parts. But to be a full body each of the parts with all of their differences need to be in place (1 Corinthians 12). Something similar should be said, I think, for the institutional church, or if you prefer, the local church/parish and churches at large. We want to work toward the complete unity Christ was praying for. We don’t in the process want to lose the rich diversity, but somehow bring all of it together into a melodious harmony.

This doesn’t mean that just anything goes. And yet within a certain framework there can be an openness to fresh movings of the Spirit in living out and being a witness to the gospel. All of that does need to be sufficiently grounded in scripture and tradition with good reasoning and a testing of the spirits as in experience, following.

In fact this unity does not only preclude divesity, but welcomes and embraces it. And in fact is committed to it. The different cultural expressions of the faith come into play here, the various ethnicities and their expression of the faith among the many gifts that Christ gives to the church. And at its heart gives witness to the full reconciliation the gospel brings to those who in normal life are divided. The Spirit’s work in the church is not about making us comfortable. We  worship and are a part of one body that in the big picture is as large and diverse as the world.

The gospel is central as given in the word, the sacraments, fellowship, and care for each other, all spilling out into a witness into the world first in terms of the microcsosm of God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus seen in the church, and in terms of the life that is lived out in following Christ in this world. See Scot McKnight’s book, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. The point here is that in this diversity there does need to be a unity that in terrms of priorities, givens which should characterize every church in its own unique expression.

Differences again are not to divide us, but to help us toward unity paradoxically, as we see the gift from Christ that they bring.

a beef I have (on the fullness of the faith)

There is something I like (well, a number of things, actually, without me personally entertaining the thought of converting to it) about Roman Catholicism in theory, and that’s how it includes diversity. Of course within the core commitment to scripture and tradition. Something of the same can be said for the Anglican Church or Communion, which is a large tent indeed. And this is true in significant measure I think of our church, the Evangelical Covenant.

I am amazed and perplexed at how narrow other churches can be as to what is allowed in the church. If you think differently at all, you’re walking on thin ice, or maybe on no ice at all. I think of such matters as faith and science, perhaps accepting evolution and not creationism. Or American politics in which one might not rubber stamp the Republican Party or be libertarian. Even matters like the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy of scripture. How about hell as eternal conscious torment being replaced by something else which actually might end up closer to what scripture says? While we’re at it, we might as well mention the charismatic side, which one prominent evangelical has cast aside as practically heretical.

There is the great need for wisdom in all of this. We don’t do anyone any favors by emphasizing the differences we may have with them. In fact the emphasis needs to be in the opposite direction, on what unites us in Jesus Christ and God’s good news of grace and the kingdom in him.

For those who think out loud and try to work through difficult areas, who are willing to think outside the box within the commitment to the orthodox Christian faith, there needs to be a safe place. That safe place is not on a Sunday morning in the pew or in teaching or even in sharing later, certainly not as a rule. But space is needed. If one is belittled for suggesting something which on later thought they may well reject, the danger is that they will become defensive and driven to defend a position which rather ought to be refined or even disposed of. Even if we strongly disagree with what is said, we need to listen well and ask questions, as well as respecting the other person. One such issue today is gay marriage and gay affirmation including ordination in churches. That is a fault line, maybe not breaking communion among Christians (I don’t think it does), but making it much harder for churches to be united. I studied that issue some time back, willing to change if I thought scripture warranted it. But I concluded that the traditional understanding is solid. Even if other matters surrounding the issue are not, like the reality that there are gay Christians, those who experience same sex attraction, etc. Simply for entertaining such questions or deviating from any norm makes one a “liberal” to many, or at least not one to take seriously.

As I get older I want all the more to concentrate on the gospel along with the Jesus Creed of loving God and neighbor. But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep on asking questions. Of course we need wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom might be nearly synonymous in wisdom literature, but not so in our culture. We might “know” something and yet not love, even getting a big head. No, we need wisdom both for ourselves and for others. But we also need a wideness, to be able to take in diversity and accept differences within the faith which we hold together in Jesus.