By, Isam Itson III
We know we need to come together. But how do we get past the language and mindset of “you people” and “those people”, to honestly and sacrificially identify with God’s love for all people in Jesus Christ as members of the church? For starters, we have to be honest. There are real hostilities between us. Across the globe we see the images of protestors, counter protestors, and government troops clashing on the streets of our cities. We are all outraged, and we all want it to stop. But we all want it to stop in a way that demands very little of “us”.
We have all harmed and been harmed by those whom we identify as other, or “not us”, through direct action or neglect. We draw tight circles around ourselves and those with whom we closely identify. Everyone outside of our circle is on their own. They are none of our concern. We have nothing against them personally, but we have to look out for our own. Our lack of meaningful identification with others is the heart of our strife and conflict with members of different social classes, ethnic groups, and nations.
God faced our conflict with him and each other head on and dealt with it all by himself. He sacrificed his Only Son, Jesus Christ, to restore, or reconcile, our essential relationship with himself and each other. Through Jesus Christ, God has made provision for all of us to come back together, under his just and righteous covering.
God brings people together in Jesus Christ, under his heavenly authority, to pursue his purpose for creating humans in the first place. Paul gives us a more detailed description of how people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds find common ground in God, through faith in Jesus Christ.
In his letter to the church at Ephesus Paul expresses our union with each other as non-Jews being made citizens of Israel.
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, …12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
– Ephesians 2:11-13
When Paul uses the terms Jews and Gentiles, it is another way of saying, every ethnic and linguistic group on earth. Through faith in Christ, Jews and non-Jews, whom Paul also calls Gentiles, have been reunited. Through Jesus Christ, God has made Jews and Gentiles his distinct people. Our new identity in Jesus Christ is presented by Paul in the language of tribal, ethnic, religious, and political identity. Jew or non -Jew, our individual, family, group, and national identities apart from God in Jesus Christ, become secondary at best, to our new identity and allegiance with God and each other grounded in our faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
This essential union with God and each other is pictured by Paul as reconciliation.
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
– Ephesians 2:14-16.
To reconcile we have to be willing to give up our previous way of seeing ourselves before we placed our faith in Jesus Christ. Paul wrote about “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” as being essential to our union with God and each other. That cost the Jewish people who placed their faith in Jesus Christ a defining element of their previous relationship with God, and their identity as a distinct group of people. They had to die to their former way of seeing themselves. They had to give up their previous way of living in the world in order to stay true to their relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
It is no different for us today. I am a well educated, black, American, male. I am a husband, father, son, and brother. I am a traveller and lover of fine food and drink. I prefer life in a coastal large city, and a mediterranean or tropical climate. Offenses against any of the components of my personal, family, or social identity markers or affiliations, is a real threat to my sense of myself. I have to be willing to let go and submit my view of myself, my personal preferences, my preconceptions, my family honor, and my desires, to pursue the fulfillment of my ultimate obligation to God for the benefit of others.
Letting go of how we identify or see ourselves for the sake of our deeper identification with God in Jesus Christ is excruciating. It is a real loss. A true sacrifice. A real death that demands real grief, if our ongoing life with God is going to be whole, authentic, and beneficial to God for others. Paul wrote of this same truth to the church at Philippi,
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
– Philippians 3:4-11.
Jesus Christ became like us, so that we could become like him. Living in light of him and living like him, is the key to being God’s agents of peace and reconciliation in our churches and communities. But we have to count the potential cost with our eyes wide open. The significance and necessity of embracing this high calling is the subject of next Thursday’s article.
1. Apart from being a Christian, how do you see yourself?
2. What parts of how you see yourself or how you want other people to see you, would be difficult for you to set aside, or count as loss, for the sake of loving God or honoring his love for others?