We live in a broken world filled with division. We know that; we feel it. Right now, the United Methodist Church is gearing up for a special conference where they will be voting on how they can – or can’t – stay united in the midst of their passionate disagreements about human sexuality. Many Methodists are questioning whether it’s possible to find reconciliation out of the rubble of their current fractured relationships.
And that’s just one example of the division in our world. We see brokenness in our politics – when we talk about immigration, and climate change, and national security, and healthcare. We see it in the lines that literally function as racial divides in our cities, and in the glass ceilings that suppress the flourishing of women and other minorities in our workplaces. We live in a broken world, and we are broken people.
In one of my classes last fall, I examined the concept of reconciliation in Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth, and I came away from this study with what was, for me, a radically new understanding of the gospel. You see, Paul was writing to a group of Christians who were deeply divided within their community, and his message to them was that the heart of the gospel – the core message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – was the reconciliation of the world. If you take both of his letters to the Christians in Corinth and look for the single thread that runs through them and connects them, you find this idea that the gospel is encapsulated in the mission of finding broken relationships – and mending them. Paul called the Corinthians to be “ambassadors of reconciliation” as they embodied the gospel in their broken society.
Take 1 Corinthians, for example. Paul says very upfront, right at the beginning of the letter, why he’s writing to them. He says in chapter 1, verse 10: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” He’s writing for their unity, because he has heard that they have let the divisiveness of their culture seep into their Christ-centered community. Throughout the letter, he urges them to respect one another and appreciate one another, illustrating the members of the community as different parts of a body – and this is important – not compelling them to uniformity of belief, but to unity in purpose. Paul didn’t erase their differences; he encouraged them, because they were bound together in the reconciling mission of God. He told them that the shared identity of Christians was to be found in something that the world considered foolish: our posture of cruciformity, our participation in the cross of Christ. Here’s what that means: New life, he said, could only ever come through death – and this pattern of death and regeneration was demonstrated for us in the death and resurrection of Christ. So for Paul, the gospel of reconciliation meant giving up our sense of individual or corporate pride – crucifying it, as it were – and pursuing peace and reconciliation with one another.
Today, we live in a time of polemics, and this is seen nowhere better than on social media. We seem to be intent on dividing the people around us into an “us-versus-them” binary – every person we encounter must either be with us or against us. Either they are caricatured clones of ourselves or they are caricatured opposites of us. But when we reduce people to this kind of binary, we strip them of their dignity, of the uniqueness that actually makes them human. This division, which comes so naturally, is a sinful act of dehumanization. No matter whether we consider them “one of us” or “one of them,” the caricatures that we create in their place is not respectful of the image of God that they embody, and it keeps us from being able to listen to their own voices, their stories. We can’t hear God speaking through them because we’ve already decided what they are going to say.
When we are drawing lines between people rather than drawing people together, we are doing the work of the world rather than the work of the kingdom of God. To live the gospel of Christ as Paul described it is to set aside our pride (and along with it, our need to be “right”), and take up the cross of Christ in healing broken relationships. We can disagree on our politics and our perspectives… as long as we are bound together in a posture of cruciformity. But when we are driven by division, by pride, by fear, or by our tendency to dehumanize others, we are operating in opposition to the work of God.
So this is how I’m praying today: As we engage with people who look, think, or behave differently than we do, I pray that we see those people as individuals made and redeemed by God. I pray that we listen for where God is speaking in and through their lives. And I pray that we lay aside our pride and seek to reconcile damaged relationships as we pursue the kingdom and mission of God in a broken world.
Grace and peace, friends.