the sin of racism and the gospel

February is Black History Month. I met an African American lady who is past 100 years of age at the nursing home I visit on Sundays. I would like to visit her and listen to what she might want to say about her own experience. And as a young girl, she certainly would have known a few who actually were slaves in the Old South.

Of course the ending of slavery, as great as that was, was not at all the end of racism as is all too known by history. The Jim Crow laws were experienced by many who are still alive (I was around 9 years of age, when they ended). Strict segregation from the large things, including churches and schools, down to the smallest things like restrooms and drinking fountains was strictly enforced in the South. And blacks who fleed to the north, if anything found just as strict a segregation in practice, if not overtly, still definitely in place in private and community practice and I think government policy. The most segregated places in recent decades have been in the north.

I’m sure this next part would be criticized by some, and labeled liberal or whatever, but the United States is far from being a Christian nation when one considers that humans were stolen and made slaves, looked at as less than the whites who enslaved them. Of course I’m sure there were examples of slave owners who mistakenly saw the practice as parallel to the practice of slavery in the Bible, which actually was indentured and temporary, or at least was quite different as a rule, in Bible times. The idea that we have to get back to some utopian idea of early Christian America is pure fiction in my opinion, and at best is not without problems.

The gospel is the one solution that helps everyone overcome the sin of racism. Of course there is a tendency in the best within humanity made in the image of God to see through the wrong of racism, and call it what it is. But to think that most of us haven’t struggled with prejudice toward each other in some way, is surely to live in denial of the truth.

In Jesus, there is neither slave nor free, male nor female, we can say neither black nor white: we indeed are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). And yet our rich diversity is not lost, as we see in the last book of the Bible, Revelation. In the end, all cultures of humanity worship together, and are enriched by each other. We worship the God who through the Cross brings forgiveness and healing, and indeed has broken down the hatred existing between various peoples. Through the cross there is complete reconciliation to God and to each other. All in and through Jesus.

And so let us endeavor in some seemingly small way as a first step, if we haven’t done so already, to reach out in listening and learning from a black sister or brother. Let’s be open to the reality that racism is still very much alive even in the least expected places, sadly including Christian institutions. Most all of us need to repent. Let’s pray that an essential part of our witness of the gospel, needed just as much as any other part, will be fulfilled: how in Christ not only do the old divisions end, but how we’re one family in him. We should at least pray that this will be seen in the demographics of our churches, including the leadership.

The needed change comes through the grace and kingdom of God which is present with us now in and through Jesus, and the good news in him.

“you made me, you bought me, I’m yours”

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleasedto have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

Colossians 1:15-23

Jeff Manion at the church where we’re taking our granddaughter for the children’s program there gave what would probably be as close to an altar call as you would ever get at that church, summing up this pericope of Colossians, 1:15-23, entitled in the NIV, “The Supremacy of the Son of God,” with these words: “You made me. You bought me. I’m yours.” I think that is pretty apt, and certainly spoke powerfully into a culture in which the designations given to Christ in this letter, were given to the Emperor in that culture, to Caesar.

This passage teaches that God created all things in and through Christ, and for him. That God reconciled all of that creation to himself, including each one of us who by faith receive that reconciliation, through his physical body in his death on the cross. And that therefore, Christ as head of the church is to have the supremacy in all things. So that, as Jeff Manion put it, everything in our lives is to revolve around him. That he is to be the big thing in our lives. Of course Jesus bringing us to God, into relationship with the Triune God.

Without legalistically having to come up with something, I have to ask myself, just what do I need to give to God through Christ today. What might be the big thing to me, other than him, for my own self-interest, rather than Christ’s? Christ made me, he bought me, I’m his. Or maybe I would prefer to put it: God made me through Christ, and reconciled me through the redemption of Christ, and therefore I am God’s in and through Christ, which certainly includes Christ himself. But Jeff’s way of putting it is pithy, poetic, and therefore brings home a powerful point.

Right now there is something which stands out to me, which I would do well to address in my heart and thoughts and actions. It is something I perceive that God might be working on in my life, and wants me to totally surrender, and grow in that surrender. And I’m sure that there will be many other such things that will come up which will need addressed in my life along the way.

Jesus is to have the supremacy in our lives. As Jeff said, he already is the center, yet we also need to make him the center, as in submitting to that supremacy, to Jesus as Lord. As one who is a member of his body, the church: God’s unique place and entity in flesh and blood through the Spirit, in and through Christ, in the world.

taking pains to be (and remain) reconciled

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

Matthew 5

There are times which try people’s souls. And events as in what people do and fail to do, including the words said. Most of the time we can look past the errors of others, even as we hope they look past our own mistakes and missteps. There are times when for a number of reasons we should hold someone accountable. Jesus said that if a brother or sister sins against you, but repents, we should forgive them, not just the seven times spoken by Peter in his question, but seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven), a hyperbole meaning always. Jesus did say that if our brother or sister sins, we should rebuke them, and if they repent, we should forgive them. So there is an accountability needed which isn’t easy on either side. It’s so much easier to let a lot of things go which actually ought to be addressed. On the other hand, love does cover over a multitude of sins, so there are plenty of things we can let go of, and simply pray about, or not take personally, perhaps seeing past the words to what is really going on in a person’s heart, their struggle. Of course we need wisdom and plenty of it. I get into trouble if I act too much on my own instead of seeking the wisdom from God that I need.

We need to learn to be supersensitive in the right way, by the Spirit toward the other in the way of Jesus in discerning what we should and should not do. And that would include what thoughts we should entertain, and what other thoughts we should summarily dismiss. If we can learn to do that, or to the extent that we can, we’ll avoid major headaches and heartaches, since the Lord won’t let us off the hook over broken or damaged relationships. Of course the peace we’re told to pursue in scripture does not necessarily mean a reconciliation with an offending or offended party, who themselves want no part of a healthy and full reconciliation. In some cases that will be completely impossible. We need discernment in wisdom in these cases, to know what lines to draw, and where to draw them. But by and large there are matters we’ll need to address in regard to others who are offended (or have offended). We do well to do so in a manner which is not about justifying ourselves, but about getting at both the truth and love, together. As we prayerfully attempt to do so, the Lord can honor and bless even our stumbling, halting, yet sincere effort and follow through to address a matter of actual high importance to him, which therefore should be highly important to us. While seeking to avoid such problems in the future when possible. In our life together, the common life in Jesus.

friendship

A friend loves at all times,
    and a brother is born for a time of adversity.

Proverbs 17:17

A friend is someone you spend time with, sharing an affinity somehow, having a connection. One’s best friend I think ought to be one’s spouse or significant other. But one can have other friends as well, one of whom may be a friend in a way a spouse can’t. Actually every friendship is surely unique as the different people who are friends.

In a general sense we might have a good number of friends, any number of people you might feel comfortable with at a party or some kind of gathering. But real, true blue friends are rare, or much less in number. And actually we can be friends like that with only so many. Jesus himself spent a good share of his time, especially what private time he had, with the Twelve. And Peter, James and John shared the most intimate, closest times with him, John perhaps being the closest of all, calling himself in the gospel with his name, “the one Jesus loved.” Though perhaps that ascription was simply because of his own awareness of Jesus’ love for him.

Being friendly is important, and certainly a prerequisite to being a friend (Proverbs). But being friendly is not the same as being a friend. Friendship requires a commitment to be present with each other through thick and thin. It is two way, not one way. So that it’s different than a mentoring kind of friendship. And yet true friends are present for each other in ways that are not only comforting and consoling through the battering life often brings, but also to sharpen each other, as in iron sharpening iron (Proverbs). A good friend will love at all times, and that love will not let their friend off easily from what might be harmful, or less than desirable for their good.

I have come to think that true, deep friendship is rare. There will have to be a commitment to each other in which a multitude of shortcomings as in limitations and even sins are forgiven. True friendship isn’t easy. Sometimes between two people it’s impossible because one simply drains the other. None of us can be God to another. People need to be helped out of a “codependency” which is as harmful to themselves, probably more so, than to the one they unhealthily depend on. “Friendships” like that should be broken. Such people need friends, but it needs to be in a give and take relationship in which there is something of partnership and equality.

A good place to start in this is friendship with God, yes with God in and through Jesus. Through God’s reconciling work in Jesus, we can be friends again with God, and friends anew with each other. Jesus is the pattern in himself and by his example. So that friendship is to be edifying, in God through Jesus the most edifying and ennobling of all, beginning the restoring of the brokenness of our humanity into the full humanity that is in Christ.

the failure of the incomplete, distorted gospel in the face of racism

Chaplain Mike on Internet Monk has a compelling post on the failure of the American church to proclaim and witness to a complete gospel: We’ve Missed the Gospel. That point is exactly what I was thinking in the aftermath of the brutal killing of two African American men by police officers, and then the killing of at least five police officers by a sniper at the end of a peaceful demonstration by African Americans.

Our gospel, the one we proclaim and witness to is not big enough and it’s distorted through our cultural lens. We have emphasized the good news of God’s saving grace in Jesus to us as individuals, in reconciling us to God. That is good and true, but just as important as that is the gospel truth that we are reconciled to each other, across racial and ethnic divides, and that this good news is proclaimed to those who are enemies, to bring them into the circle of God’s grace and love in and through Jesus.

If we fail to speak against the racism of our day, we fail to represent the Christ whose name we bear, and our proclamation and witness to the good news in him is tragically incomplete. We need to go out of our way to address the evils of our day, all of them, not just one or two we might see as the worst. Racism is as degrading and dehumanizing as any of the rest of sins we may decry. The grace of God in Jesus through Jesus’s death and resurrection is what is needed to bring reconciliation through forgiveness of sins, and new life lived out in communities of love, the kind of love that is committed to the hard work which is involved in that. And as one friend reminded me yesterday, addressing what is endemic in all of us. If any of us think we’re entirely free of racism at least in terms of some sort of prejudice, then we need to think again.

Meanwhile we grieve and mourn with the families of the black men, and with the families of the police officers. We pray for healing, and for a new day when in and through Jesus our differences will not only not divide us, but will be celebrated. As we learn to live out more and more what has been given to us through the gospel, and what we are in him: one family united forever in the love of the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit.

new legalisms: where is grace?

There is plenty of strife and division in the air nowadays, and we who profess to follow and be in Christ ought to be showing a different way. Instead we all too often fall right in with the spirit of the age we live in. But the way of Jesus always contradicts and runs at cross purposes, one might say, with the spirit of the age.

The problem is on every side, and I hear that actual war or armed conflict is in the air, that there could be something of that sort right here in the United States. I imagine that most people who engage in this kind of strife would pooh pooh that notion. And I myself seriously doubt it; let’s hope and pray not. But what we harbor in our hearts sooner or later will spill out into action. It is grieving to see some of the extremes that are out there, though thankfully they seem to be few and far between.

What the world needs, what we need is more and more grace, not to merely look past what we believe is wrong, but to receive the wrongdoer as one to befriend, and bring to Christ, yes, to preemptively forgive whatever might need to be forgiven, even as we’ve been forgiven and continue to be forgiven for our wrongdoing, and what is wrong in us.

The new legalisms that we need to be aware of as Christians is anything outside of the gospel of Christ. We need that very gospel to make judgments on this, and in actuality to judge those things, itself.

What we will begin to find when we begin to see those legalisms for what they are is the grace can come in through the gospel, and begin to make the difference toward what is needed. Not overnight, and there can be fits and starts, and setbacks. But we need to be committed to this first in our own lives within the community of the church, and then also in the lives for each other, for our neighbors, and somehow for the enemy.

We need nothing short of the radical grace of God in the radical good news of God, instead of the new legalisms in which we cut others off because “they” are either “this” or “that” or “something else,” without question a legal mindset, rather than the mindset and life, indeed the faith that comes from the grace-filled, life changing, reconciling gospel/good news of God found in Christ Jesus.

forgiving others

At our Ash Wednesday service we read prescribed passages, Father Michael including the verses in between the sections of Matthew 6. In keeping with one major theme of Ash Wednesday, forgiveness of sins and reconcilation, Father Michael impressed upon us our need to forgive others. He noted that having been raised in the evangelical tradition (true of all of us present, with himself), we were strong on the reconcilation of the world, or more prescisely in our theology, individual sinners to God, but we weren’t as good at applying the theology of reconcilation to each other. The passage he emphasized here is our Lord’s words after the Lord’s Prayer:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 6:14-15

Father Michael challenged us this Lent to focus on forgiving someone we might still be holding something against. Our Lord’s words here certainly are not in keeping with some of the popular theology present. We think we’re forgiven period, as long as we are reconciled to God. But that very reconciliation means that we’re reconciled to each other in Christ as well, that is to our brothers and sisters in him. And that we live as those who would be reconciled even to our enemies.

I am aware of what I consider a situation in one relationship which is not entirely closed, though the other person might think so. For me a key to forgiveness is living insofar as that’s possible, in the reconcilation of God in Christ which means a reconciliation with each other. Another key word on this from the same Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew 5:23-24 (and see the immediate context, including in the link):

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

This is not easy, and we struggle with it at times. But the same grace which forgave our sins is the grace by which we are to forgive each other’s sins. We may need to work through a process of acknowledging our guilt, because forgiveness of real sins is what’s being talked about here. Oftentimes we simply choose to ignore something, since “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter). But other things may well need to be talked through. While we all have work to do on our character in and through God’s grace in Jesus, full reconciliation to each other should be immediate. I am referring to normal situations. There are those relationships with which we must proceed with wisdom, for example one who may still fall into patterns of abusing others. But insofar as it depends on us, we should be fully given to forgiveness and reconcilation with them in and through our reconcilation with God in Christ.

Not always easy. Something I want to be praying and thinking about during this Lent.