I believe we are at the beginning of a major reformation of the Christian faith—a Reconciliation of believers across many boundaries that had once separated us and put us at swords with one another. It would be easier for any of us to remain cocooned, but the Lord is afoot and calling us to common cause: His.
Our denominationalism, our religious wars, our vitriolic doctrinal disputes, and the holy isolation we use to keep ourselves separate and untainted by each other’s patterns of worship and belief, belie any claim we make to all be Christ’s own. We each act like He is our private possession, formed according to our image of Him, blessing just our worship, and approving only our doctrine and our orders of ministry. We imagine that at best He tolerates the worship, doctrine, and polity of those who are not like us. What amazing pride we have.
Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The Pharisee is certain that he knows it all, and it seems he has it all correct—doctrine, behavior, tithing, isolation from the sinful—but none of it counts before God. Yet the prayer of the sinner, seeking mercy, counts for everything.
The pattern for us is in heaven: All the angels and tribes around the throne aren’t arguing about who is most right, nor jostling to see who gets to sit at Jesus' right hand. They are not identical, but they are side-by-side, adjacent, in awe and ministering together to the Lamb.
The earthly incarnation of this heavenly scene is just how we should work together. It is the heart of Jesus, and it should be our heart as well. It should be your heart.
It should reflect this common desire: We respect each other’s tribe. We work and minister together, yoked to each other and to Him. We love each other as one.
Jesus makes this blazingly clear in His prayer for His disciples and for us:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23, NIV)
We have failed miserably to do this in our past. Perhaps now we can at last begin to do as Jesus commands.
THE KEY TO THE FUTURE
So to restate the point: We have taken the narrative telling of Life With God, written down as Scripture, and (in a process that owes its methods to Greek philosophy) drawn from it multitudes of religious Concepts, and from them multitudes of ideas about doctrine, worship, polity, hermeneutics, behavior, dress, ordination and much more, and then we have separated into religious tribes, each idolizing and worshiping its own Concepts, and fighting the tribes that idolize and worship other Concepts.
The Concepts can have usefulness in drawing and introducing people to God, and in helping them understand what He desires of them. But as often as not, they grow instead into idols, and are worshiped in place of the God that they were developed to help explain.
Some may be more helpful than others, and some may well be quite wrong, but this difference provides no justification for the scorn and often violence we have shown toward each other. Worse, the way we have behaved is radically contrary to what Jesus has told us to do, and it is Him who we all claim as Lord!
For a true Reconciliation of the faith to occur, there must be a reconciliation of the faithful, and a coming together to embody the unity for which Jesus prayed. We do not have to surrender our favorite Concepts, or patterns of worship, polity, ordination, or even doctrine, to be reconciled. We can even continue to wrestle with each other about these, but we cannot do so without first acknowledging our own idolatry, confessing our lovelessness toward each other, repenting of it, stopping it, forgiving each other, and taking action to bless and protect each other—that is, we have to incarnate the love Jesus called us to do toward others.
He desires that unity from us—honoring, safeguarding, and building each other up—not just when we reach heaven, but now. But we each have to confess, forgive, and then live with reconciling love for the faithful, refusing any longer to scorn or harm each other in defense of ourselves and our religious Concepts.
Remind the people to respect the government and be law-abiding, always ready to lend a helping hand. No insults, no fights. God’s people should be bighearted and courteous.
It wasn’t so long ago that we ourselves were stupid and stubborn, dupes of sin, ordered every which way by our glands, going around with a chip on our shoulder, hated and hating back. But when God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in, he saved us from all that. It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously.
God’s gift has restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives. And there’s more life to come—an eternity of life! You can count on this.
I want you to put your foot down. Take a firm stand on these matters so that those who have put their trust in God will concentrate on the essentials that are good for everyone. Stay away from mindless, pointless quarreling over genealogies and fine print in the law code. That gets you nowhere. Warn a quarrelsome person once or twice, but then be done with him. It’s obvious that such a person is out of line, rebellious against God. By persisting in divisiveness he cuts himself off. (Titus 3:1-11, The message.)
We need to stop trashing each other! It doesn’t matter how many religious words we use, how many Scriptures we quote, how much we disagree with the religious Concepts, doctrines, or practices of other believers—we do not have the right to treat them with lovelessness. In truth, we are required to treat them with love—action to bless them. And let’s be clear: Pretending to “love” someone by “enlightening” them with sarcasm, shame, or cruel words is not love. It is sin.
WHAT JESUS TAUGHT
With any text as large and content-rich as the New Testament is, one could probably pick any of a hundred themes and construct a Concept out of it and proclaim it to be the central message of Jesus. Even knowing this, and being aware of all that I’ve just cautioned against, I’ll dare to suggest that Jesus’ key teaching is just exactly what has been addressed above—reconciliation—the reconciliation of people to God, and to each other. This is salvation, and the beginning of the covenant He offered.
This reconciliation unfolds through love, repentance, and forgiveness, but it begins with love. The character of love is embodied in how Jesus lived and opened the way to God for others. Though He made it clear that He had come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), He quickly recast the understanding of God’s intentions. God was not a rule-giver who required rule-following in order for anyone to have approval or access; rather, He offered openness to all, even those desperately lost in sin. He did not approve of sin, but He did invite sinners to come close to Him. When they came close, they fell in love, their hearts turned, forgiveness was granted, and they were reconciled with God. This was and is salvation, the initiation of Life in Christ, covenant with God.
The many stories of Jesus eating with and encountering sinners, which rankled the self-righteous religious people around Him, gives testimony to this open presence of love in Him. But perhaps one of the most compelling testimonies is also the shortest:
Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! (Luke 15:1-2)
The second sentence shows how the religious people responded to what Jesus did with sinners, but dwell just a moment on the first sentence: “Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.”
What a revealing insight: The despised agents of the Romans, and notorious sinners, somehow feel safe with Jesus. You know it wasn’t because He was saying their sins were of no concern. But does anyone suppose for a moment that they flocked to be near and learn from the self-righteous religious people who looked down on them and condemned them? Of course not.
Look at Jesus’ stunning encounter with the woman caught in adultery. The self-righteous said she should be stoned for her sin, to which He replied that the one without sin should cast the first stone. After they all fled, having been convicted by His words,
He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (John 8:10b-11, NKJV)
Jesus doesn’t tell her the sin was not sin, but He implicitly forgives her for it, and then tells her not to do it again. Certainly the love she experienced in this encounter filled her and strengthened her not to fall so easily again.
She is treated as one beloved, who has been lost—not as one despised who must be publicly shamed and harmed.
All the way back in Chapter 2 I talked about salvation. This is it. It is being reconciled to God, and it comes not through our efforts to be good, or right, but by the love of God. When we realize our distance from Him, how we have wasted what we have received, and realized—at last—that life with the Father even in its most humble forms is better than life with the pigs, then He willingly restores us—joyfully, with abundance, with sonship! That is salvation; that is what the name Jesus means, in His very name, and in His teachings, life, love and sacrifice. He is the author and finisher of reconciliation, because our faith in Him brings all of us before Him, together. He is the foundation we all can stand upon together. He is the One who can bring unity to all believers.
All who know this love can stand adjacent together before the throne, fully reconciled though they differ in religious Concepts, doctrine, worship, polity and all the rest.
They honor each other’s tribe, and even honor what is important to that tribe, even when it is not essential to Salvation, or Sanctification, or Glorification.
They watch out for and protect each other, rather than themselves.
They do not fight over the pedigree of the other’s fellowship.
They cling to the essential, which is the reconciling love of God that Jesus offers, and the Life in Christ that it initiates.
They enter into covenant.
They listen and do simply as Jesus said:
Love God, neighbor and even enemy.
Treat others the way you want to be treated.
People matter. Things don’t.
There is no “yes, but…” There is confession, repentance, stopping, forgiveness, love and unity in the One who came to reconcile all of us to God, and to keep us in His covenant.
This truly is good news. Let’s choose to live it, beginning now.