“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. AND be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:15-17 NIV)
As we work our way slowly through the book of Colossians, it could be tempting to take each section as a separate thought, but to do that is to miss the entirety of the letter. Right before Paul wrote the above section, the last two words of verse 14 are “perfect unity”. Backing up to verse 11 Paul reminds us that in Christ there are no labels, no ethnic or social barriers, and he is wise enough to realize that different cultures coming together can lead to tension and conflict, so in verse 12-14 he reminds us that we are ALL chosen, ALL loved so we each need to work to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bear with each other, forgive each other (as we’ve been forgiven), and above all put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. THEN he writes the above words.
I am struck by the phrase “as members of one body you were called to peace”.
God has had me on quite a journey over the last few years, and He has taken me to a new level on that journey this summer. Those of you who know me well know that for about five years God has been pounding the phrase “your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10) into my heart, my mind, my soul. He’s been showing me in scripture that Jesus’ primary message was about preaching the Kingdom of God. His primary teaching was about the Kingdom of God. In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) he teaches us what it looks like to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven right here on earth. And in John 17 he prays his beautiful prayer, again reminding us what Kingdom living looks like and the effect it will have on the world. He, himself models it in the way he cares for everyone, especially those who have been invisible, oppressed, outcast, despised, judged, criticized and ultimately he lays his life down for us all–and he asks us to do the same–to love as he loves. Impossible without the filling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, so there is a tremendous individual element in keeping self connected to God, keeping the heart soft, repenting quickly, not having personal agendas, staying connected to the heart and message of Christ, asking the Holy Spirit to fill us– but the body of Christ is not about the individual.
So this summer, with the help of The Justice Conference in Chicago, God is teaching me and challenging me in new areas. It has been eye opening, it has been hard and it has been beautiful. I have been convicted in some areas and on my face in repentance before the Lord, and I have been stretched in beautiful ways. I won’t even begin to pretend like the journey is coming to an end any time soon, but I’ll share with you a few of the things I’m seeing, and some of the things I’m doing differently.
I was challenged to look back across my life and see what voices have primarily shaped my theology. Were they people who primarily look like me? The answer was yes. Almost everyone that I’ve learned from in my Christian walk is white, most of them American, a few white Europeans in the mix. I’ve learned wonderful things from many of them, gone deeper with the Lord, so I am not in anyway saying that I am not grateful for their teaching, or that their teaching is wrong. However, I am now aware that I have not brought other voices into the mix. So, this summer I am beginning to read and listen to Christian authors and teachers who are not white. I am getting a new theological perspective based on their experience in life, and their experience with Christ. I am seeing a tremendous community element, the heart for the entire body of Christ to get beyond barriers and get about the business of loving one another. I’m seeing how individualistic the emphasis in the white American church has been, and how different that is from the vast majority of believers from other ethnic groups, both in the United States and around the world.
I’ve been challenged to see past “issues” and look at the humanity of people, and then minister to that humanity. One voice I heard this summer brought up a political issue that had been divisive. He shared that Hollywood voices were there standing with people, hippies were there, but where was the church? He was frustrated as he said to us–“You don’t have to agree politically to minister to the humanity in others.” He’s right. We are the church of Jesus, the only ones with the message of hope– of salvation. If we stay separate, how will the world ever see Him?
I’ve been challenged to read scripture in a new way, and let me tell you–it’s been exciting and it has changed–it is changing everything! Christena Cleveland, a very wise professor at Duke Divinity School, spoke to us about paying attention in scripture, especially in the life of Jesus (but it’s all over scripture) to how “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt. 20:16). She encouraged us to pay attention to who the privileged are in each story, who the underprivileged are in each story, and watch how Jesus turns it all on its head. Easy example–Jesus first miracle at the wedding in Cana. (John 2) Jesus performs the miracle in front of the servants. The privileged have to learn about it by talking to the servants. The privileged have to humble themselves… It’s all over scripture. And the challenge is real–those of us who are privileged by our citizenship, the color of our skin, our education, whatever…have the awesome honor to humble ourselves, to listen well to others who have a different experience, to learn from new voices, find our commonality in Christ, and get about His mission of bringing His Kingdom to earth together.
In the spring of 2010, my husband and I went to a conference in Queens, New York. We were in a church whose congregation consisted of people groups from at least 60 different countries. The pastor said that it was messy at times, but that they were all learning to truly evaluate what was family culture, ethnic culture, and Jesus culture. They had to be willing to lay down the things that didn’t line up with the culture of the Kingdom of God in order to be a unified body of Christ.
Which brings me back to our passage from this week…as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you…”
Peace means one. As members of one body, we were called to oneness. That means we must be willing to be humble, to learn from others, to have hard conversations with kindness, compassion, gentleness, patience, a forgiving heart, a willingness to hang in there, and most of all–love, in order to have unity in the body. We must be filled with grace. We must be filled with thanksgiving. We must be a people of worship, of singing with gratitude in our hearts to God, who has called us to this beautiful, diverse, body–and we must let the message of Christ, the word of Christ, Christ himself dwell in and among us.
I’m learning, I’m growing. Sometimes I do it well, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t. But I’m committed to this journey. I want to partner with Jesus in His mission on earth. I want to get rid of anything that is based on church tradition or my cultural understanding of Jesus and really do this his way. Will you join me? It’s not easy, but it will be so worth it!
Luanne wrote about an extremely diverse church body that she visited in New York. She wrote:
“The pastor said that it was messy at times, but that they were all learning to truly evaluate what was family culture, ethnic culture, and Jesus culture. They had to be willing to lay down the things that didn’t line up with the culture of the Kingdom of God in order to be a unified body of Christ.”
“They had to be willing…”
So much of my personal journey with Christ, especially in recent years, has been a journey toward willingness. God has used the word ‘willing’ so many times in the last three years, it has almost become laughable. But I know that when He makes something so obviously clear, it’s important that I pay attention. Because it matters. It’s key. And so, when I read this paragraph that Luanne wrote, it immediately grabbed my attention.
I believe that we could see the Kingdom of heaven come so quickly–if we would simply be willing…
Willing to lay down our privilege, as Luanne wrote about.
Willing to lay down our expectations and notions of “fairness”.
Willing to let go of control, of our ideas of how it “should” be.
Willing to let God reshape our thoughts and theologies with a more accurate, more full picture of His heart for all of the people He created in His image.
Willing to go–and love… willing to stay–and love.
Willing to repent from and lament our complicity in the individualization of the Gospel of Jesus.
Willing to repent from and lament our implicit biases, our own prejudices.
Willing to embrace the “other” who doesn’t look, act or think like us.
Willing to take the first, shaky step toward authentic community.
Willing to give and receive grace as we all fumble around, trying to find our way.
Willing to forgive-and be forgiven.
Willing to let the peace–the oneness, wholeness, unity—of Christ rule–assume the role of umpire—in our hearts.
John said in his sermon that what is actually responsible for conflicts around us are the conflicts raging within us. The places where we can’t find common ground? They are actually places where we’re unwilling to let Christ rule in our hearts, places where we have taken an immovable stance–hardened places unwilling to yield. Where Christ rules, unity is found. It is proof of the love of Jesus in us-individually and in community-when we can be unified despite our differences, and it also bears witness to the truth of who Jesus is. Luanne mentioned Jesus’s prayer in John 17. Verses 20-23 from that prayer, out of the New Living Translation, read like this:
“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”
I believe it is the unresolved conflicts-some that we may not yet be aware of-raging in our hearts that shut off our willingness valve. When we become unwilling, we become hard, and our world becomes all about us. Living in this place, it’s impossible to embrace the thriving, diverse community of the Kingdom. This place is an isolated island under the rule of individualism, independence and a “me first” mindset. I have lived on this island. Some days, I travel back there. While “alone” can be lonely, it can also feel safe. Isolation can feel safer because, with no one else around, there won’t be conflict, right?
Wrong. Conflict rages in isolation, it just rages within us instead of around us. It is only within community that we can come together around a common core and work through the conflict. That core is the rule of Jesus Christ. He is our head. We-the collective, colorful, multi-cultural, diverse “we”-are His body. The beautiful manifestation of all of His Glory on display. It is through this unified body that the Kingdom will come on earth as it is in Heaven. Jesus makes it so clear, and Paul reiterates the importance of this unity throughout his letters. Letting the peace of Christ rule doesn’t mean we agree about everything. In fact, it is through admitting and addressing our disagreements that we learn how to love and grow the most. When we can disagree and remain united under the rule of Christ is when His glory and power are on full display.
Can we be a body that is willing to let the peace, the oneness of Christ, rule in each of our hearts so that there is then no question that He rules in our churches and in the greater, collective Church that bears His name? Can we be willing to embrace the messy, the awkward, the uncomfortable in our journey toward representing Jesus accurately? Willing to let go of everything that doesn’t line up with His Kingdom and willing to grab hold of everything that does? I pray that we can all answer yes to these questions. And I trust and know that in the areas we’re not yet willing, there is grace to get us there. Together. In community. His way. Will you join us?