Tag Archives: Matthew 16.24

In search of Christian community: What happened to our life together?

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This is not what I had in mind.  When I became a Christian, I though that I joined a family, that we all loved each other.  Have you ever tried to get all the Christians in a room?  I thought we were a body.  But, not just any body– Christ’s.  Far from his truth, we talk as if reconciliation is the hardest part of the Christian life.  I beg to differ.

Death, dying to self, is the most difficult thing we will ever have to do.  Here are the instructions Jesus left for us: “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16.24).  Jesus says that if we are traveling with him, then the only thing we need is the means by which we will die.  “Pick up a cross and let’s get going.”

Because we have some dying to do.  There should be little grave markers along the way.  “Here lies pride.”  “Arrogance, 1970-2018.”  “Jealousy, never satisfied.”

Coming to terms with who we are is the real “come to Jesus meeting.”  Two enter, one leaves.  “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3.30).

Still, there doesn’t seem to be much room for Jesus or his cross.  Sunday services become pageants and the building is another money- making machine.  I can’t wave and smile while being crushed.  Tonight, I am questioning Christian community.  Surely, this is not what Jesus had in mind.  Christ did not die for our divisions.

While each ministry context is different, with its own interests and challenges, our goal as believers is to create authentic community, to emphasize our commonality in Christ. But, we do not create commonality around our cultural traditions, our socially constructed identities and affinity groups.  Instead, we create community around the body of Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.  No Christian community is more or less than this. … Christian community is only this.  We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”

For Bonhoeffer, membership and belonging are found in Christ.  And there is no Christian community apart from him.  His body is what brings us together.  There are no cultural middle-persons, no priestly barterers that can provide or prevent passage into Christ’s presence.   While multicultural/ intercultural churches are not the norm, it should be expected that persons from all walks of life can and do walk through the doors of the church.  And if they don’t, why not?

I thought that we were a Christian community.  When did we stop going from house to house?  Why don’t we share all things in common?   What happened to our life together?

Christian discipleship: Pledging allegiance in America

During my junior year of high school, I couldn’t bring myself to say the Pledge of Allegiance.  I had been following the footnotes on African American history for awhile now as the history unit only addressed slavery and a few key leaders from the Civil Rights Movement.  The end read more like “to be continued” because there was no happily ever after.  African Americans were still fighting for liberty and justice for themselves and oftentimes, by themselves.

Because the Pledge of Allegiance really meant “with liberty and justice for all socially colored white people.”

So, while persons where rebelling against their parents, I had decided to rebel against the American government.  More important than covering up pimples, the integrity of my witness would be compromised if I put my hand over my heart.  At the same time, I was growing closer to God and increasing my personal commitment to the faith.  A year later, I would hear the call of God to preach.  At seventeen years old, I would pledge allegiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So, this just didn’t feel right or like the right thing to do as a Christian.  Though the pledge was written by Francis Bellamy, an ordained Baptist minister, I found his words to be hypocritical: “and to the republic for which it stands.”  All power belonging to the people was in direct contradiction with the Scriptures.  While for a different reason, Jehovah’s Witnesses felt the same, believing the flag represented a graven image and was in direct conflict with their faith.  In 1943, the Supreme Court agreed.

It seemed like I was putting my faith in nationalism but America had never believed in me.  Indivisible?  We had always been divided.  Certainly, this was the case in 1892 when it was published.  While Ellis Island became a welcome center for immigrants, the rights of African Americans had only recently been included in the Constitution with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.  The American flag was no welcome mat, no sign of hospitality for them.

Described as “restive” in an article by the Smithsonian, Bellamy had left the ministry to work for a magazine, Youth’s Companion.  It was during this time that he advocated to make Columbus Day a holiday; today, there is a growing list of states that celebrate Native American Day or Indigenous People Day instead.  Bellamy said that he had written the pledge in response to the Civil War and felt a need for loyalty.  With the recent uproar over Confederate statues and the loyalty of America to some of its citizens being questioned, it seems that the Pledge of Allegiance has not done what he had hoped.

And neither did my principal after the teacher sent me to her office for refusing to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance.  Before Kaepernick took a knee, I decided to sit down.  When I returned to my classroom, I returned to my seat.  I was allowed to sit down during my junior and senior year.

But, the thought of permission to refuse had not crossed my mind.  I didn’t know that pledging one’s allegiance to the American flag was required for belonging and membership, that it was against some social rule, that I would need a “get of the saying the Pledge of Allegiance pass” before I could return to class.  I didn’t know that America seemingly has a kind of cult following.

And I would not have considered telling this story if not for the one I heard about a sixth grader named Stone Chaney who was physically removed from his seat by his teacher after he refused to pledge allegiance to the American flag.  He’s an eleven year old.  Like me, he had his reasons.  He pledges allegiance to God and family– not a flag.  He had stopped pledging allegiance to the flag in second grade!

More than a pinky swear, this allegiance asks for loyalty.  This is problematic because the United States of America does not have a history of commitment to African Americans.  In fact, America still has a poor record of fidelity to the African American community, its needs and values.  It asks for an inequitable devotion as America does not have the potential to produce, the power to provide or will to pursue liberty and justice for all.  Our legal system is one glaring example of betrayal.

Worse still, it competes with my pledge to Jesus Christ who asks that I take up his cross– not America’s flag– and follow him (Matthew 16.24).  And yes, I still sit down during the Pledge of Allegiance and ironically, it has included a pew.

Race is a ‘different gospel’

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel– not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaim to you, let that one be accursed!  As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!”

~ Galatians 1.6-9, NRSV

Paul writes to the churches of Galatia and to us to remind us of the freedom that we have in Jesus the Christ.  The churches in Galatia had been converted to this new faith and were walking in its liberating life and love.  Paul had removed the shackles of regulations only to return and find them restored.  And it happened rather quickly!

Why?  Because it was familiar and it was what they knew.  They knew the law but were not yet familiar with God’s grace, that is God’s unmerited favor not based on works or in our case, the social coloring of skin.

This response is similar to that of today’s Christians.  We have experienced an emancipatory conversion through our relationship with Jesus and now live in the Spirit, liberated from the laws of the flesh.  But, it does not take long before we, too, turn our ears to those familiar voices and experiences.  Afraid of the newness of life that Christ provided, we will arrest ourselves and detain ourselves.  We will sentence ourselves and walk back into the cages of the socially constructed identities of race and the legality of the social coloring of skin.  This is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.  This is a different gospel.

What is the gospel, the good new of Jesus the Christ for the 21st century?  It the same message that was given in the first century: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (First Timothy 1.15).  Those are the only persons that he came for and it is the only category that all of humanity fits into.  We post- modern Christians want to do as Christians have before us.  We want to make the gospel new and even popular.  Well, referring to humanity as sinners is not new and it certainly isn’t popular.

What do race and sin have to do with each other?  What sin does the belief in race produce?  Race is pride in appearance, the external salvation of the self and the belief in the supremacy of humanity– even above God.  Race says that our salvation is found in the social coloring of skin not the salvific work of Christ on the cross.

It is an old sin draped in new words.  But, the worst of its kind, the creature attempting to be like the Creator in ability and knowledge.  Race offers the same deal that the serpent in the Genesis narrative offered to Eve (Genesis 3.1-7).  And the Church’s response imitates that of Adam: silent acceptance and subordination to race.

Frankly, the American Church is but a tool, a part of the machinery of capitalism as it was for slavery and Naziism.  Today, the Church is commercialized, a brand that wants to sell a new product.  We want to have the “latest and the greatest,” the shiny new toy.  But, the message of Jesus Christ is more than two thousand years old and it has not changed.  We have changed but Jesus has not.  He is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13.8).

We have allowed race to translate the gospel instead of the gospel translating race to us.  Race tells us who Jesus is and not vice versa.  Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon write in Resident Aliens, “By the very act of our modern theological attempts at translation, we have unconsciously distorted the gospel and transformed it into something it never claimed to be… (We have) transformed the gospel rather than ourselves” (22-23).

We can change the methodology but what it means to be Christian today is the same as it was when Jesus walked the earth: “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16.24).  The cost of discipleship remains unchanged: follow Jesus, deny yourself and die.

Race is a perversion of the gospel.  It says, “Follow socially colored white people.  Deny yourself in order to become like them (i.e. “act white”) and die to the true, authentic and new self that God has called and created you to be.  It is the good news of the flesh, the celebration of the social coloring of skin and that skin is ‘white’ (but not really).  This is not the gospel of Jesus Christ but different gospel and I join in Paul’s repetition, “As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!”  Race is another gospel.