Several years ago I was talking with a church about serving with them as a minister. During a congregational question and answer session, one elderly man raised his hand and asked what seemed like a controversial question.
“Liberal or conservative,” he asked.
Without showing any disgust on my face, I didn’t like the question because I thought he was trying to trap me into what surely would be a contentious matter. Instead, I quickly answered his question with the best reply I knew and with what I truly believed (and still do).
“Gospel and Bible, sir! I just want to be a minister of the gospel and teach according to the scriptures,” I said.
He smiled and didn’t say another word. I wasn’t sure what he thought. Did he like my answer? Did he think I was just trying to evade his question? Did he…
I ended up serving with that church as a minister and had the privilege of getting to know this elderly man. He was in his nineties, a widower, and one who spent most of his adult life serving as a church planter and minister of the gospel. On one occasion I asked him more about that question he asked and he told me that he asked the question because he wanted the church to have a minister focused on preaching the gospel and teaching the Bible rather than getting caught up in trying to be liberal or conservative.
The Gospel in Scripture
Ideally it would seem that this should be the focus of all Christians whether or not they stand before the church preaching on Sunday’s. If we take the scriptures seriously, they call us into a creative-redemptive story in which people of every nation, tongue, and tribe are reconciled to God and each other.
When we look at the scriptures, reconciliation doesn’t appear as a difficult issue until the apostles began preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. That’s when trouble arose because reconciliation meant that both the Jewish and Gentile believers had to learn how to practice this fellowship they now shared in together, embodying the gospel as the church.
As we read about these challenges the early Christians faced, it’s easy to see how ethnicity creates conflict. Yet, the problems that caused division were as much political as they were ethnic. That is, the division was rooted in ethnicity but played out in political ways.
Being aware of the politics here is important as we think about living as practitioners of reconciliation. Before we get to that, we shouldn’t miss how the apostle Paul responds to this issue. Rather than siding with Jewish nationalism or taking up the cause of the Pax Romana (peace of Rome), Paul remains thoroughly committed to the gospel because he knows that it is Jesus alone through whom reconciliation becomes real. As Paul says, “For he himself is our peace…” (Eph 2:14, NIV). Neither the Torah nor Caesar can offer peace, only Jesus!
A Question For Us
Fast forward to the twenty-first century here in the United States of America, the context I write from and the context I assume you are likely reading from. Half way through the year of 2015, nearly a year removed from the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, we have seen similar unrest in the city of Baltimore and most recently have been saddened by the recent mass-shootings in Charleston and Chattanooga.
What should be obvious is that racism remains a big issue but just like the first-century, racial division also plays out in political ways. The polarization experienced today is palpable and it will likely only increase as the nation approaches another major political election.
How should Christians respond? I’ve already demonstrated how Paul responded and how expected the churches he served to respond. I also think we should remember that part of the reason Jesus was crucified was the fact that the message he proclaimed was a subversive kingdom not of this world but one that is meant to replace the kingdoms of this world. So how should we respond as people who follow Jesus, who are called to embody the gospel as his church?
The Gospel As Our Cause
The simple answer is that we must live as the church we are called to be. That is, we must live as participants in the mission of God and that means our cause is the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we really believe that it is Jesus alone is our peace who makes reconciliation possible then it is the gospel that should be our cause and nothing else. Remember, just as Jesus says that we cannot serve two masters (cf. Matt 6:24), that very likely includes trying to serve two kingdoms or two causes. So I want to suggest two ways in which we prioritize the gospel as our cause.
First, our local churches must be intentional about practicing reconciliation amongst themselves. This is where the later half of Paul’s letters, as well as other writings from scripture, are instructive because they teach us how to live, loving and serving one another even where there are differences and even when there are disagreements. Practicing reconciliation must happen as we assemble in our church buildings but it must also go beyond the building as we extend hospitality to one another. This not only gives the gospel we proclaim credibility but it models among our local cultures an alternative community where reconciliation is happening. What a beautiful image that is!
Second, we must become intentional about speaking gospel among the different contexts we inhabit. This means speaking as ambassadors of Jesus Christ. That also means refusing to sound like echo-chambers of the partisan politics in America and that includes our social-media presence which, like it or not, has an influential role in culture. Repeating partisan platitudes, sharing clickbait political memes, liking inflammatory photos, and so on only further division and polarization. Our society already has plenty of people doing that. Whether they recognize it or not, what our society needs is people who speak of that which bring peace and reconciliation — the gospel of Jesus Christ. And when we do that, we speaking the one subversive gospel that invites our neighbors, in all of their diversity, into the new world where reconciliation happens.
May God, our Father, by the power of his Spirit, animate us to embody the gospel of his Son, Jesus Christ, in word and deed for his praise, honor, and glory!