Missing The Point (Sept 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Sean Palmer

Too many of us have forgotten a major facet of Christianity that set the 1st-Century religious world on fire: Reconciliation. If you were a woman and wanted to speak freely, a slave who wanted to be treated equally or a Gentile and desired to be regarded as someone who could actually love and be loved by God, then the swelling church worshiping Jesus was the group to be in.

Or at least it was supposed to be.

If you cranked up your flux capacitor and landed in the first century, it wouldn’t take too long to notice that the burning issue of the day was who is “in” and who is “out” in the church. The “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15 (and more than a few words from the pen of the Apostle Paul) emerged as a result of the percolating debate regarding who could rightly claim the name of Jesus and what they had to do to claim it.

It seems that a number of Jews, being men and women of their time, place, and culture imagined the burgeoning Jesus movement as Reformed Judaism. Jews were still Jews, Gentiles were still Gentiles, and all the rules that applied before still applied – including the need for men to undergo a certain kind of surgery. For many of those early believers, the only difference between old school Judaism and the post-resurrection version was that Jesus was God’s Anointed. Outside of that, it was same song, different verse.

Samaritans were still dogs, Romans were still oppressors and occupiers, Gentiles were unclean, women were still property, slaves were slaves.

A Funny Thing Happened on The Way To Damascus

Then something strange happened. The leader of the Jerusalem Gestapo, a man named Saul, had an unusual encounter while expanding the Sanhedrin’s religious persecution to Damascus. Saul became a follower of The Way. What’s more, a believer named Ananias carried a message to Saul from God. The message from God? Saul was to be God’s messenger to “the Gentiles.”

The who?

And that’s where the problem began. Judaism 2.0 was difficult enough with the Sanhedrin bearing down and the Romans heating up, but at least those first responders to the gospel knew who was who. Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus made a hard religious life even harder…and confusing. If Saul were successful, would God expect Jews and Gentiles to drink from the same religious water fountain? It was bad enough to have the Romans in residence in Promised Land, but now Gentiles are going to have a seat at the table too – filthy pig-eaters.

My father grew up in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1950’s and 60’s. He was a high school and college student during the Civil Rights Movement. His lived experience was riding in the rear of buses, being hosed down by police, and experiencing daily mistreatments. Even as a Generation Xer, I’ve been called “nigger” in the streets, had resumes handed back to me during interviews, been followed around department stores by suspicious managers; I’ve been spit on and left out. Racial detestation is nothing new, it’s always been counter to the will and purposes of God, and its never led to a better world.

Many people remember those days in America. The Jew/Gentile issue of the early church was like that, probably worse. Early church leaders knew the destination of this kind of enmity. They wanted no part of it. Plus, separate and unequal just didn’t sound like Jesus.

They thought the church should be an all-skate.

The Apostle Paul, when describing the purpose of the Jesus event, wrote,

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (<a href=”http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians%202:14-16&version=NIV” target=”_blank”>Ephesians 2:14-16)

One New Humanity

Radical hospitality (openness to the Other) and inclusion is the core of what it means to be Christian. This impulse has been lost and found time and again throughout the centuries. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said,

“But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of aesthetic or romantic love; not philea, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization – (from “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” 1957).”

Yet everywhere I look, Christians are not simply a part of division, we’re near the heart of it. Each time I turn on “Christian” television or radio, my brothers and sisters on the political right treat me to a litany of enemies – the GLBTQ community, Democrats, judges, elites, socialists, Muslims, MSNBC and anyone-who-thinks-Muslims,-Democrats,-gays-and-lesbians,-judges,-elites,-and socialites-aren’t-unAmerican-at-best-and-inherently-evil-at-worst.

The lack of reconciliation streams in from the Christian Left too. My liberal kinfolk disdain the 1%, corporations, Evangelicals, Sarah Palin, the NRA, FOXNews, and anyone demonstrating the least bit of understanding and affinity for them. And sadly, there remains the tried-and-true divisions of old – black/white, rich/poor, city/country, educated/plain-spoken. It seems we spend an awful lot of time figuring out ways to bisect and carve up one another.

The very people proclaiming a gospel of reconciliation may be the most artful and articulate dividers.

This lack of reconciliation has very real results. I’ve ministered in churches where certain members refused to speak to others sitting on the same pew because they voted for a different presidential candidate. Young committed Democrats have shared with me that once they leave home they will never go to church again, “Because church isn’t safe for people like us.” A young gay man told me that “the church hates gays so I’ll never go back.” I have others friends who won’t darken the door of the church because, “Everyone in church is backward, ignorant, and regressive.” At the same time, other people claiming Christ have told me they couldn’t worship at any church that didn’t routinely support, discuss, and encourage congregational participation in what he called, “The Conservative Agenda.”

Is it any wonder so many younger people chose to opt-out of church? In a world struggling with terrorism, genocide, protests, uprisings, and inner-personal conflict, why would anyone opt-in for more partitioning of lives? I’m not sure about you, but I’ve got enough enmity in my life without having to sign up for the new set of enemies at church.

For that reason, the church must embrace the ministry of reconciliation, “the beloved community.” Church was intended to be a place of gathering, a location where varied people joined together and allied under the proclamation that Jesus is Lord. This confession, laying aside our personal histories, political preferences, cultural impulses, and the other opportunities for opposition must hold center. God actually seems to believe that there is something for us to discover about ourselves as we sit at table with others. Perhaps the church exists to give us glimpses of the inexhaustible vastness and complexity of God. Maybe those “others” that otherwise annoy us are hints of the holy whether we like it or not. Perhaps Paul, the one time oppressor of the church, knew from both experience and revelation that God’s intent is for us to “regard no one from a human point of view (<a href=”http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2%20Corinthians%205:16&version=NIV” target=”_blank”>2 Corinthians 5:16</a> NRSV).”

So What?

If the Scriptures are to be believed, Jesus’ cross is a collective punishment serving a collective purpose. Christ died because “God so loved the world (John 3:16).” That means all of us. Simply put: We cannot be “one humanity” without one another. Reconciliation, then, is not an agenda item. It’s not something we can save until next year’s budget like renovations to the fellowship hall. It must be more than another serving on the buffet of conversations at the next conference or workshop.

Reconciliation is the physical demonstration that God is at work in the world.

Any fool can put people at odds. Only God – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all – can bring those opposed to one another together as sisters and brother. When we lose reconciliation, we lose the purposes of Jesus. If your church is all one thing – white, black, Hispanic, gay, straight, Democrat, Republican, whatever – then you may have failed at joining God in loving the world.

Jesus, who is Other (holy), came to earth to reconcile people who are not like Him to Himself. The gospel was, is, and has always been about reconciliation, the “ministry of reconciliation” as Paul calls it. We then do as Jesus has done. We love, we serve, and we suffer for those who are least like us.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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