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Posts Tagged ‘reconciliation’

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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“Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph 6:11).

Ephesians is about God’s mission of reconciliation, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post. Chapters 1-3 lay out a theology of the church’s role in that mission, and chapters 4-6 give practical ways to live it out. There we find guidelines for life together in the church, in the home, and even in the workplace, depending on how you interpret 6:5-9. Then we come to the section about spiritual warfare and the “armor of God.”

Evil opposes the mission of unity, and the text gives us ways to victory in that battle. To defeat “the devil’s schemes” to thwart this mission, we need truth, righteousness, the good news of peace, faith, salvation, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,” and prayer (6:14-18).

(Day 343: Ephesians 4-6)

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God’s people should participate in God’s will (or mission), but what is it? Ephesians tells us it’s “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (1:9-10). It’s a mission of reconciliation, of fixing broken relationships between God and people, between people, and between all members, human and nonhuman, of God’s creation.

Jesus has already accomplished this mission; he is “our peace” who has “destroyed… the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14). While this applies to all creation, it especially pertains to people groups. Although Jesus has accomplished it, his followers participate in bringing it to its fullness.

How can we participate in that mission of unity? Love is key (3:14-19).

(Day 342: Ephesians 1-3)

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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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While Peter’s praying, he falls into a trance and has a vision (or daydream) from God. The message shocks this devout and prayerful man of faith. Peter learns that God welcomes all people into the way of Christ. Beginning with this story, the church is no longer just a sect of Jews; it’s a movement of the Spirit that embraces people of diverse cultural backgrounds.

The theme of diversity appears throughout the rest of the New Testament, and it’s a core element of the church’s purpose as a primary agent of God’s uniting mission. It’s a theme we should remember in our own era, especially in areas (like the one in which I live) that still suffer various levels of racism.

I pray that the church will accept its responsibility to initiate reconciliation in the name of Christ. Peter’s vision must still shape our identity as Jesus-followers.

(Day 319: Acts 9-10)

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This Sunday Ernie Thigpen of Central Church of Christ in Spartanburg, SC, preached a sermon titled “God-Empowered Acceptance,” the fourth part of his series called “1 Spirit: How God the Holy Spirit Shapes and Strengthens Us.” The sermon presented a biblical view of various forms of prejudice in light of the Christian imperative of unity.

His main text was Acts 10. Peter was a law-abiding citizen who knew not to associate with non-Jews, but God opened Peter’s eyes to a new reality in which God welcomes all people into the body of Christ (i.e., the church).

Replaying the sermon in my mind, I think of Ephesians 1, which identifies God’s mysterious will as one of reconciliation in Christ (verses 9-10). The next chapter extends the idea, stating that Jesus Christ is our “peace” who has broken down “the diving wall of hostility” (2:14). We can see from the context surrounding that verse that “the dividing wall of hostility” is one of racism between Jews and Gentiles in early Christianity and the society in which it existed.

Although Christ abolished that “dividing wall,” communities of faith have not always lived out that reality. We have sometimes acted like we’ve forgotten these words of scripture: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, ESV).

I don’t need to remind you of horrific horrors of history performed in the name of Christ against people because of ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, and other forms of prejudice. I also don’t need to detail the countless ways in which “the dividing wall of hostility” still plagues our culture(s) and the church.

What I can emphasize here is that Christ calls us to a higher standard than what we see in cultural trends around us. The mission of the people of God is to live out the mission of God, and God’s mission is reconciliation in, through, and because of Jesus Christ.

However, Christians can experience difficulty in accepting that blessing of reconciliation. Sunday night Tamara and I joined a few other Christians for a small group discussion about this topic. I was pleased that such a group in the South, where we still see personal and systemic continuances of historic racism, could openly talk and listen to each other in such a potentially volatile conversation.

Even with this openness and willingness to discuss the challenge of prejudice and the blessing of reconciliation, we still struggle to implement the unity of Christ in practical ways. I perceive at least two reasons for that struggle. First, we live in a culture that suffers from generations of deeply ingrained racism and other prejudices.

My response is that we can arise above the human tendency to let the culture lead the church. We followers of Christ in his communities of faith must step up and lead the culture in embodying the reconciliation at the heart of the gospel. In the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we can grow beyond the status quo in which Sunday morning remains even more segregated than other times in occupational, residential, recreational, and educational settings. Not only can we work for peace and unity across cultural boundaries in the church, we can act as the body of Christ in ways that penetrate our surrounding culture and that invite God to work through us in transforming societal systems of injustice.

A second reason for our difficulty in living out biblical reconciliation is that change happens slowly. I know this fact from my experience in studying and teaching organizational communication. Healthy organizations, including churches, have leaders who implement changes carefully and, usually, slowly. Quick changes that occur in the absence of prayer, study, and careful planning often lead to unnecessary divisions in the body of Christ.

My response to this second reason is that, while church leaders should be prayerful and careful in implementing changes, we also must be faithful and responsible in living out the church’s mission (i.e., God’s mission of reconciliation) in the midst of contrary influences coming from the culture in which we live. While we are wise to introduce organizational changes slowly, we must not act so slowly that we allow the culture to lead the church in matters of prejudice and reconciliation. We must pray for God to give us compassion, guidance, wisdom, and courage in our efforts to participate in God’s great mission.

As you can probably guess, in our group last night, I was a young whippersnapper dreaming of an ideal. I appreciate and respect the views of all the other group members, and I’m still pondering a question that one member asked me: “What can we do?”

What we can do as individuals depends on where we live, work, and interact with people in various ways. I cannot answer the question for every person, but I encourage each of us to look for opportunities, both in interpersonal relationships and in social engagement, where we can serve as instruments of God’s peace.

What we can do as congregations of Christ’s followers also depends largely on our contexts. Again, we can pray for opportunities to enact God’s reconciliation and search for our location-specific roles to let that mission transform the church and the culture.

A debate has engaged many thoughtful church leaders and scholars in recent decades. Should the church seek to integrate ethnic and other groups of people in worship and service, as recommended in Loventrice Farrow’s insightful article in the December issue of The Christian Chronicle (p. 35)? Or should congregations operate in culturally comfortable means of segregation, allowing various people groups to worship and serve in ways most natural to them?

I minister in South Carolina, and I’ve discussed church segregation with people of two ethic groups in my city. People in both groups prefer homogeneous congregations, but I’m hearing a biblical call in the other direction.

Let me end with three questions soliciting your input.

First, what do you think about this?

Second, what do you think I should do?

Third, what will you do?

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