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Conflicts between groups of people plague us. Nations wage war. Neighboring cities compete. Allegiances to political and religious institutions divide.

I’m already beginning to see the havoc in the first weeks of a history class about early and medieval Christianity. Of course Christianity is not the only religion to experience conflicts. Just glance through a good introduction to the major religions (something like Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World), and you’ll see what I’m saying. And of course we see intergroup conflict between other kinds of establishments.

Group of People Standing Holding Culture

Christianity isn’t the only conflicted religion, but its story certainly has its fair share of the mess. And I get to learn about it this semester.

(Although I haven’t always appreciated church history, I’m enjoying this course. Over the last 15 years, as I’ve seen history explain contemporary experiences and even provide some possible responses, I’ve grown to value it. For example, why do Churches of Christ typically worship with voices unaccompanied by other musical instruments? How should church leadership be done? What do I pray when my life is falling apart? Church history addresses all of these and more.)

There’s a lot of positive in the story of this religion. There’s also plenty of negative. But I want us all to understand that the negative doesn’t discredit Christianity in relation to alternative worldviews. All the options have imperfections.

Questions of Culture

One of the imperfections in Christianity (but not just here) is conflict between cultural groups. In the early church, we see this between Jews and non-Jews. (Nothing against Jews here! Jesus is a Jew.) There also was conflict in the church between Jews who wanted to welcome non-Jews and Jews who weren’t so open to that. (Remember that this kind of thing happens everywhere. If the church had started in my home state of Texas instead of Israel, I’m sure there would have been cultural conflicts between the Mexicans and the white folk and between people open to intergroup relations and those preferring monoculturalism.)

This is a struggle in the early life of the church. How can we worship and work together if we’re so different from each other in our talking and thinking and eating and other cultural practices? We still ask similar questions today. What worship songs can connect with all the cultural groups represented in our communities? Where can we find preaching styles that connect cross-culturally? How can we get past the excessive whiteness of our traditional worship styles? (Not to ignore churches that deal with other cultural limitations or have learned to worship and minister in more diverse ways.)

In response to all these questions, we need to hear two answers. One is beautiful but theoretical, and the other is more practical but not as easy as you might want.

Answer One: Jesus

The first answer is that Jesus is our peace and has broken down the dividing wall of cultural hostility (Ephesians 2:14). Some people joke that, when you’re asked in a church Bible class a question to which you don’t know the answer, the answer probably is Jesus. In a sense Jesus is the answer, but in many cases other answers might better respond to the questions. Here, however, the answer is Jesus, who has destroyed the dividing wall between people groups. The people addressed in Ephesians 2 are cultural groups. In the struggle to worship and work together as members of Jesus’ church, we should remember that Jesus “is our peace,” a peace that we are to embody and enact.

Answer Two: Ministry

The second answer responds to questions of how we live out that peace. Should we worship and work in separate communities of Jesus followers, with people of one culture in one congregation and people of another culture in another congregation? Should we strive to incorporate people of diverse cultures in the same congregation? If so, how should we navigate cultural differences? The answer is neither singular nor simple. Church leaders must wrestle with these questions, praying for divine direction, in their respective cultural contexts. What works in Memphis, where I live, might or might not work in Los Angeles or Singapore.

A Needed Conversation

Congregations of Jesus’ followers must proceed through these issues prayerfully and carefully but intentionally and actively. Choosing not to wrestle with matters of cultural reconciliation is choosing not to participate in the peace that is Jesus. When we move forward, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, in efforts to bring diverse cultural groups together in the church, we live out God’s mission of reconciliation (Ephesians 1:9-10).

This was not easy in the early church, and it’s not easy today. Not all cultural groups connect well with all styles of preaching, music, and leadership. One cultural group might benefit from sitting on pews and listening to a lecture, while another might worship more meaningfully when sitting in a circle and engaging in a conversation. One group might experience God through slow, meditative hymns. Another group might more likely encounter the Divine through energetic praise songs. A group might function well with hierarchical leadership, and another might function better with more egalitarian leadership.

And these differences exist not only along cultural lines but also along lines of age, sex, economics, education, and other demographics. There is no single answer that fits every context. I encourage church leaders to study their respective cultural contexts as they study scripture and theology. The best course of action in any situation arises from a conversation between these voices. The point here is to have the conversation, to pray about what needs to be done, and to take action in partnership with God who is reconciling the world through Jesus, our peace who has knocked down the wall.

Churches need such conversations in every generation. If a church had this kind of conversation decades ago, that’s great; but the church needs to regularly ask the questions in order to faithfully and responsibly embrace changing cultures with God’s love.

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Kid holding little World Globe on her HandsI grew up near the Texas-Mexico border. My mom was a Spanish teacher, and I played with Mexican American friends and didn’t notice any differences between us.

Then in college and grad school I studied missions and intercultural communication and was blessed with several international mission trips, so those kinds of cultural differences haven’t been big problems for me.

But in college I had a roommate who was a member of a group that my culture had taught me to despise. Because of where I had grown up, that was my Nineveh experience.

That was when I had to choose to participate in the reconciliation that God is working out in the world. I had to get over myself, my own assumptions and preferences and comforts, and embrace a person who was noticeably different from me and was a child of God, created in the divine image.

Intergroup conflicts plague humanity – conflicts along lines of ethnicity, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and other demographic distinctions.

These conflicts have challenged the universal reconciling work of God.

We see that sad truth in our own day. Maybe you see it where you live. I see it here in Memphis.

We see it in church history, and we see it in the Bible.

One place where we see it in the Bible is the book of Jonah.

God tells Jonah to go minister to the Ninevites, a group of people that Jonah despises. Jonah travels by ship in the opposite direction because he can’t stand the idea of preaching in Nineveh.

God sends a great storm. The sailors do what they know to do to save a ship in such a storm, but nothing works.

Jonah sleeps, careless about what happens. The sailors cry out to their gods, and the captain wakes up Jonah and tells him to call on his god.

The sailors cast lots, and the lot falls to Jonah. The sailors question Jonah, who toss him overboard. The storm is targeting him.

They don’t want to throw Jonah into the sea. They try other options to no avail. They pray to God and toss Jonah. The storm calms, and the sailors worship God.

God send a big fish to swallow Jonah, who is in the fish for three days and three nights. There Jonah prays, and at God’s command the fish vomits Jonah onto land.

Jonah receives his mission from God again and goes to Nineveh, announcing coming calamity. The people of Nineveh fast and repent, and God relents.

Jonah gets mad. He says that he knew that God was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (ESV). That was why Jonah had resists the call to Nineveh. He hated the Ninevites and wanted them to suffer God’s wrath.

God’s mercy on Nineveh makes Jonah want to die. (He says so three times!)

In great disgust, Jonah goes outside the city, sets up a shade tent, sits under it, and waits to watch the city’s destruction.

God provides a shade plant for Jonah and then sends a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah gets a sunburn and feels sorry for himself.

God wants to redeem a group of people that Jonah despises, and Jonah lets his prejudice limit his involvement in God’s mission. Jonah gets so upset that he wants to die!

Place yourself in the Jonah story.

See yourself in the character of Jonah. God tells you to go minister to ______; and you think, “No way! Those people are evil. They’re disgusting. They probably won’t even listen to God’s message. And even if they do listen, they don’t deserve God’s mercy. And if I minister to them, my people will despise me for it.”

Now ask yourself, “Who’s in the blank? Who are the people I can’t stand? Who are the ones I’m so uncomfortable with that I would rather die than share God’s mercy with them?” When you answer that, when you fill in the blank, you can get a sense of what Jonah experiences when God tells him to preach to the Ninevites. He chooses to go in the opposite direction. And when God extends mercy to Nineveh, Jonah is angry.

A major turn happens near the end of the story. In chapter 4 God questions Jonah about his anger, and we see that God is right in extending mercy to a people group that Jonah despises.

This story of intergroup conflict reminds us that God is working out a mission of reconciliation.

As we see in the New Testament, God is bringing all people groups together under Christ. When we live in that mission of reconciliation, we participate in the life of Jesus, who crossed cultural boundaries. He talked with people despised by his own group. He even empowered a Samaritan woman to be a missionary. In Christ we find and live out peace, unity, reconciliation, and love that transcend and transform cultural differences.

In that mission we can rejoice instead of being angry.

The “new creation” is coming. God is working it out in the world. One day all cultural conflicts will be transformed into a beautiful peace in which diverse people groups live and worship together in Christ. In the meantime we get to participate in that reconciliation that God is producing.

This can be hard for us, but I see a glimpse of hope when I watch children, still innocent of the hatred that pervades our world. My white son plays with black children and Jewish children without even knowing that they come from different cultures. That day is coming for all, and God calls us to participate here and now in its coming.

 

What’s your Nineveh experience?

 

Who’s in your blank?

 

Whatever our answers, God wants to empower us to reach diverse groups of people, even people we’re uncomfortable around, especially people we’re uncomfortable around. God calls us to join the mission of universal reconciliation in Christ. How will you participate?

God of mercy, God of reconciliation, we praise you for your love that reaches far beyond our own groups. We thank you for giving us opportunities to proclaim your mercy and to participate in your reconciliation. We pray for strength. We pray for boldness. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Amen.

This blog post is a slightly modified version of a chapel sermon I preached at Harding School of Theology on Monday, June 16, 2014.

 

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God calls us to participate in God’s mission, and we should respond in worship and obedience. However, we can get distracted by concerns that hinder our right responses to God.

In Jonah 1:1-16, God comissions Jonah to carry a message to a city called Nineveh. Jonah travels by ship in the opposite direction because he doesn’t want to preach to people he doesn’t like. God responds, and people on the ship respond, but Jonah ignores. The people on the ship cast lots and question Jonah, who admits his identity and responsibility and tells them to throw him into the sea. They try to avoid that by taking other actions. After praying to God, they reluctantly toss him. Then they fear, worship, and vow to God. (Note that the sailors are not members of Jonah’s religious community.)

God wants us to worship. When we lose focus on God and worship our own desires instead, God is not without worship. Others can worship God. Our preferences for our own groups and our prejudices against other groups can blind us to that beautiful truth, which calls us to embrace diverse people who worship God.

Instead of focusing on our own desires or worrying about who is or is not worthy to worship God, let’s just worship and obey God! Worship and obedience lead us to recognize and live out God’s love for all people groups in the spirit of Jesus, who died for the whole world.

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Books, videos, and conversations blare an apparent dichotomy between Jesus and religion. The proclaimers assume that Jesus and organized religion are mutually exclusive. The separation of Jesus and religion puzzled me when I first read They Like Jesus but Not the Church, and it really bothered me recently when I clicked a Facebook advertisement and watched the trailer of the documentary Beware of Christians.

Religion is humanity’s attempts to know (and please) God; that’s my definition. Huston Smith in his The World’s Religions defines religion in two ways: “in its widest sense, as a way of life woven around a people’s ultimate concerns” and “in a narrower sense, as a concern to align humanity with the transcendental ground of its existence” (1991 edition, p. 183).

Jesus was religious. He participated in organized religion. When he disagreed with the leaders of his religious tradition, he didn’t abandon that community or presume to believe without belonging. He was born into Judaism and stayed there until he died. His teachings never negated the value of religion. His actions affirmed it, and his words called for its renewal (Matthew 23:1-39; Luke 11:37-54).

Humble and sensitive efforts toward religious reform can be noble, as long as they come from committed members. If you get frustrated and leave your religious community, you forsake your right to speak for change in that heritage. If you stay, you can have a voice. Following Jesus happens in religion.

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When we come together to follow Jesus despite our cultural differences about things like political parties and body piercings, we prepare ourselves for Christ to be formed in us. Jesus will touch and transform our lives, but in different ways.

Those words came out of my mouth this Sunday in a sermon from Galatians 4:8-20. In that text we find a community of people who follow Jesus, and some Christians are telling other Christians that they have to do certain cultural behaviors to be real Christians. My main point Sunday morning was that no cultural group should define how Christian spirituality is to be lived, that there is no authoritative Christian stereotype.

My point was NOT that we should all get our eyebrows and lips pierced. Such actions don’t disqualify us from being Christians, but we should be sensitive to the people in our lives. If piercings, tattoos, and so forth are disobedient or disrespectful to your parents or harmful instead of helpful in living the gospel in your community, you might want to abstain. When considering these and other cultural practices, ask yourself, “Will this help me live as God’s representative among the people in my life?”

That being said, let me add that we welcome everyone. Park is and wants to be a family where you can belong no matter who you are. Jesus calls all people, even ones who aren’t like me.

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“If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints” (Rev 13:10).

From Professor Oster’s reflection:

There were a lot of attributes of primitive Christianity that produced consternation and dismay among its onlookers.  This includes the early church’s insistence upon kindness, gentleness, and tenderheartedness.  Those early followers of Christ recognized that these virtues were incontrovertibly part of the message of God’s kingdom, to a degree that has been forgotten in the modern western church.  We modern western Christians, at our very best, would be uncertain if and why they should choose tenderheart over Braveheart.  In our workaday existence we would often prefer the excitement and adventures of a brutal, concupiscent, and deceitful gigolo rather than a tale that promotes kindness or tenderheartedness….

Take a survey of your own life and values and those in the culture surrounding you.  When given the opportunity [and it will be given to you daily] , do you take your stand with the kingdom values of kindness, gentleness, and tenderheartedness or do you prefer their antonyms?

(Day 360: Revelation 9-13)

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Two cultural groups are in conflict. They don’t like each other. They see life differently. They even eat differently. In the Way of Christ, however, those groups experience peace through God’s righteousness.

This righteousness [of] God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood…. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God…

Notice that, according to Romans 3, the answer to inter-group conflict is not any human effort. The solution is God’s righteousness, not our own. Of course God invites us to participate in that work of reconciliation. We have roles to play, but true peace is the result only of God’s work through people.

(Day 327: Romans 1-3)

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