As I stand up here to preach a sermon on Christian Unity I reflect on the manner in which I feel unqualified in this context today to preach on unity. My mind fills with thoughts of how a Caucasian man preaching in an African American church has little ground to preach about what it truly means to be unified in Christ especially along racial boundaries which have been a more than a divisive issue since the founding of America. Unfortunately, I cannot categorically say that I have never had a racist notion through my thoughts or actions. I am sure like many Caucasian people in America I am just as guilty as the next person of not fully living up to the Kingdom that Christ calls us to embody where all the Children of God are actually treated like God’s children, but I can say that as I have become more aware of my calling in Christ that I have taken more awareness as to how I am presenting myself towards and standing against injustices that have been created by the evil that is racism.
Therefore, this morning we gather together to talk about Christian unity, especially across racial lines. And Pastor Marcus has asked me to deliver the message. Why? Because as we can see in our current social and political climate racism is still a very big issue. Despite heroes of the civil rights movement fighting to ensure equality and justice for minorities of our society, we seem to always sink back into categorically pressing entire sections of our society based on the color of their skin. Even more dangerous now is the manner in which it is done with such malice and discontent or care towards the human nature of said people.
Christ calls us to look past race, to look past the color of our skin, to look past our beliefs and live together in harmony as the body of Christ.
As I was preparing to write this message my mind continued to draw to this Pauline passage, and especially to verse 11. “In that renewal, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Colossians 3:11) This is not the only time Paul uses this sort of statement in his writing, but it is the words that he uses around this statement that ring around this statement in my mind as I prepared to talk about this topic this morning.
You see in this passage Paul, or rather Paul through a scribe most likely Timothy, is trying to convey what it means to have one’s life changed by Jesus. This is why he writes that Christ is all and in all because to truly have Christ within us makes us part of the body of Christ. This is no easy matter that is taken lightly, but it is a life-changing experience. Unfortunately, the church has not done a very good job at the transformation. Our contemporary church does a good job of saying that Jesus is at the center of the church, but do a very bad job at actually living that way.
We would do well to be reminded of Paul’s words here to the Colossians as we consider what it means to embody, not just racial reconciliation, but also to move beyond injustices that seek to ravage the Kingdom of God.
Paul gives pretty clear instructions here. Writing, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:2-3)
Paul even goes so far to give a couple of lists as to what we should be ridding our lives of in this quest for our lives with Christ. I want to focus on the second list he gives, not because it is more important but because if you look at the two lists the first deals with moralities of the self, which is not a bad thing but today I want to focus on how we interact with others. We are talking about Christian Unity after all.
Paul writes, “But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.” (3:8)
Paul makes it clear as to what our language is to look like. We are given this list because of the role that speech plays in our lives. With speech, we can build empires and with it, we can tear a person down to the point where they feel that death is a better option than life. It is terrible when we use speech to hurt others. It is terrible when to use one of the greatest gifts God gave us to create such harm and terror.
Ralph Martin, a professor at Fuller Seminary in California writes, “Among the species, the human being stands alone in commanding the power to use words communicate ideas, to express personality, and to enter into dialogue. The power of the tongue is a distinctive feature of the human race and carries with it all manner of effects, good and ill alike, as James 3:6-12 well exemplifies.” (Interpretation Commentary: Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon. Martin, Ralph. p. 123)
With Christ, we are called to use our speech for the lifting up of the Kingdom of God and it is made abundantly clear that the opposite is counter to the Kingdom we are called to live.
Paul uses this language because he knows that language can divide people and we are called to unite. This leads to his statement that in Christ there is no division, no separate principalities, nothing to divide us. However, in our contemporary society, and unfortunately even more so in our churches, we have allowed divisions to overcome us.
Paul begins to wrap up his comments on this topic saying, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (3:12-14)
Examine that list of qualities of the Kingdom of God. Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and most of all love. Now those sound like the qualities of a Christian I am called to be. As I have mentioned it is unfortunate that I look out on a faith and see more of those first words that Paul tells us we should rid ourselves of. I see Christians who not only condone hate speech, but participate in it themselves. Who demean factions of society just because of the color of their skin. Who lift up ideals meant to tear others down, meant to press those who are different than them.
I truly believe and I hope you see as well that this is fundamentally against the Gospel that Jesus calls us to live by. The reason I love what we are doing here is that we are living the Gospel in this instance. The gathering together of our two congregations this day shows that we are not allowing the failings of our society to define us as a church.
We are in a time where this is a highly relevant topic with events like Charleston, SC, Charlottesville, Va, and police shootings too numerous to count, we as the church need to admit the shortcomings of our society and do work to move past racism. The Bishop of the Virginia Annual Conference, Sharma Lewis, wrote in response to the events in Charlottesville, “While our physical presence is important to our roles as witnesses and advocates at rallies, we have work to do beyond these rallies in our Conference and in our local churches. I have found in my ministry that racism is rooted in ignorance. In addressing racism, we must be intentional in getting to know our brothers and sisters and address the sin of racism, hate, and violence. This is important work for our local churches.” (http://www.vaumc.org/ncfilerepository/BishopLewis/ReflectiononCharlottesville.pdf)
That is what today is about. How do we move past the oppressive injustice that is racism? We fellowship with the brothers and sisters whom we may have oppressed, we fellowship with those who may have oppressed us, we come together and tell people that racism will not define our culture. We become the beacon for others. Essentially we overcome hate with love. The thing that I love about the way this verse is written in the New Revised Standard Version is that at the end of verse 14 we read, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (3:14)
Harmony…harmony is a wonderful musical term that denotes different notes working together to make a sound. Being bound together in perfect harmony acknowledges that we are different, but can still work together as part of the Kingdom of God. Some of us are C’s, some of us are E’s, and some of us might even be G’s, but together we create a harmonic note of music.
Paul closes to remind us, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (3:17)
That is our true nature. If we are not doing everything in the name of Jesus the way Jesus calls us to live then are we truly doing everything in Jesus name? If we are not treating our brothers and sisters across creation as though they are created by God then are we really living in the name of the one who offers us salvation?
I would say no, but when we do we show that we have a Savior who does not see hate, who does note see violence and does not see oppression we live into the salvation we are promised, and that sounds like an amazing world to live in. Does it not?