I ended the last post by stating that the church’s life should be God’s blessing to all. What does that mean? What does that look like?
The other day I heard Bishop Todd Hunter describe followers of Jesus as “God’s cosmic first-responders.” I really like that image. Those who follow Jesus are being formed in his virtues and trained in his vocation so that they can rush into the places of the world’s pain in order to bring God’s comfort, restoration and healing. This is what it means to be God’s blessing.
This is also a great image of Romans 8, which we have explored in previous posts. Like a set of Russian stacking dolls, God’s Spirit is in us and we are in the world. In this “middle position” suspended between heaven and earth (remember that Romans 8 is an image of the cross), we echo the world’s anguished groans with our own travail. And God’s Spirit groans within us with intercession. We become the place where heaven and earth meet. We become the place where the world’s anguished cries are shaped and transformed by the Spirit’s anguished intercession into real human prayer through us.
So what does this look like? I believe Paul’s imagery in Romans 8 finds real-world expression in his short letter to Philemon. Paul writes to Philemon, a partner in Paul’s ministry, about Onesimus. Onesimus is a slave who ran away from Philemon’s household. After his escape, he somehow meets Paul and is ultimately converted to follow Christ.
Paul stands between these two men, embodying God’s gospel of reconciliation. He brings together two men — master and slave — and offers his own livelihood to cover any loss so that they might be reconciled and restored.
“So, anyway, if you reckon me a partner in your work, receive him as though he was me. And if he’s wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, put that down on my account. This is me, Paul, writing with my own hand: I’ll pay you back (and far be it from me to remind you that you owe me your own very self!).” -Philemon 17-19
This is Romans 8 in action — self-sacrifice in order to bring about healing, restoration and unity.
In fact, I would venture to say that unity among Christ’s followers is perhaps Paul’s greatest real-world expression of the Gospel. Unity is “proof” that the Gospel is real. Think about how much Paul talks about unity throughout his letters. It’s both a central theological and practical theme in all of his writings.
For example, Paul states in Colossians 1:27, “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” I believe the popular reading of this verse is misleading — Christ in me is the hope of my glory. Rather, the “you” is plural. And glory is God’s restorative reign on the earth, through his human image-bearers. So Colossians 1:27 is more likely to mean, “Christ in all of you in unified community is the hope of God’s full restorative and healing reign upon the creation, which will be through his unified image-bearers.” Simply put, Christ-indwelt unity among Jesus’ apprentices is the sign and hope of God’s fulfilled New Creation, which will ultimately be implemented through Jesus’ apprentices.
If that’s the case, then the Church’s role of being God’s blessing means to embed ourselves in the pain and anguish of disunity and division in an effort of embodying God’s love and reconciliation. Like an EMT specifically equipped to intervene in tragedy with life-giving care and skill, Jesus’ followers must be formed in theological imagination, character, and skills in order to help birth God’s New Creation from the pain of the old through love and reconciliation.
We’re not talking about a mushy “Can’t we all just get along?” bandaid approach. That won’t bring healing in the midst of abuse, racism, poverty, suspicion, entitlement, narcissism, consumerism and the many other forms of injustice that divide and enslave.
And if Paul’s example to Philemon provides any indication, the primary character and skill needed is sacrificial love — love for both parties that lays down one’s life and livelihood to help them reconcile.
I’m astounded at Paul’s approach with these men. He reminds them to follow Christ. He reminds them of his love for both of them. He reminds them of their value to each other. He reminds them that their relationship in Abraham’s family supersedes any societal relationships. And he offers himself as the bridge between both to make reconciliation impossible to ignore.
Sometimes Paul is critiqued by modern readers for not confronting societal injustice such as slavery or women’s rights. But in this letter, he is doing just that in a very subversive way. By encouraging Philemon to reconcile and receive Onesimus back as a brother rather than a slave, Paul is undermining the master-slave structure so central to Roman society. That’s because true unity and love in people’s lives have more Gospel power and transformation than shouting at a structural juggernaut.
So we need to ask ourselves, what is needed to bring understanding, love, care, compassion and unity to divided people and relationships? What is needed between those of different values, sexual orientation, political ideologies, religious beliefs, cultures and other polarizing factors?
Just from personal observations, our society seems more polarized than ever. Social media has become the monkey cage at the zoo, each person zealously flinging their own verbal poo at each other in an attempt to out-shout and out-shame those who disagree. Very few are willing to talk, listen and understand those who hold different values and beliefs.
But Jesus’ followers must be different. We must embed ourselves into real relationships. And with formed character and trained skill, we must work at bringing unity and reconciliation, whether between two people or two groups or two countries depending on one’s level of influence.
This is dirty and painful work. Remember, we’re embedded in a world that is groaning in travail. The world’s pain will be our pain and we will echo their groaning with our own. That’s part of the redemptive transformative work of the New Creation. Like Jesus’ New Creation work on the cross, we too will bear the world’s pain, anguish and wounds. The work of the cross will always bear the wounds of the cross. There’s no avoiding it.