As readers of this blog know, Jonathan Storment and his buddies have a slot on Wednesdays. This week I’m honored that Jonathan has chosen to do some reflections on A Fellowship of Differents.
One of the top five books over the past few years is, hands down, Scot McKnight’s A Fellowship of Differents. It is the new perspective on Paul written for the people in the church. It is deeply hopeful, convicting, and relevant. Here is how Scot says it:
Paul is uber-relevant to us today because his ambition – breaking down ethnic barriers by expanding who is in the People of God – is the preeminent 21st Century church problem.
So in light of Charleston, Baltimore, Ferguson, and cities to be named later in the series, I would like to spend the next few weeks in conversation with Scot’s book, talking about how I see it working out in a local church, and why it matters. And I would like to start with a challenge for us to be a confessing church.
In his book, Enemies of the Heart, Andy Stanley talks about how confession in the Bible was never intended for people to just do privately between themselves and God. It was something we were supposed to do with each other.
Confession was always tied with repentance and even restitution, which means that part of God’s idea is to confess our sins to the people against whom we have actually sinned. But that is a lot harder isn’t it?
When I was in college, I cheated on a Freshman English quiz. It wasn’t quite intentional; it was my first semester in an actual school setting (I was homeschooled K-12, a real hardcore homeschooler). Right after class, I went up to Dr. Jewell, and confessed to cheating on the quiz.
I had been stewing in guilt for 30 minutes and couldn’t stand it any longer. I expected that once I had confessed my wrong-doing she would respond graciously and say something like, “For your honesty, here’s an A+ on the quiz. In fact, here’s an A+ for the rest of the semester, you don’t even need to come back to class. Why, a boy with as fine of character as you, doesn’t need to know English.”
That’s not how it went. Mrs. Jewell, frowned, gave me a zero, and said, “It better not happen again.” It didn’t.
One of the things that stands out to me about how Christians talk about the work of forgiveness Jesus accomplished on the Cross is how abstract we make it. When we talk about substitionary atonement, or Christus Victor (or any of the ideas about the Cross), we so easily make sin into an idea. But real sin, at least the kind that I struggle with, is anything but abstract.
Real sin is the harm we wished upon…or caused to others; it is the crumpled sheets on a bed shared with someone else’s spouse; the story we laughed at that was mean; it is the stolen money, or the self-righteous sanctimony. That is the sin that we must learn to confess.
And in light of the fractured, violent, racist, world we live in, I would like to suggest that the best thing the church could do for the world, is to take the lead, by being a confessing community of reconciled sinners. I believe that was always the plan.
It takes real chutzpah to post on a New Testament scholar’s blog something textual on Romans. But here goes:
The book of Romans was written to a church of Romans….profound I know…except that it is not entirely right. Back in 49 A.D. there was something called the Edict of Claudius, where the Emperor had kicked all of the Jewish people out of Rome, (because of the growing Jewish/Christian tensions) and assuming that Christianity was Jewish, Cladius thought that meant that he had kicked out all of the Christians.
But by this time, there was a growing population of Gentile Christians, and when the Jewish Christians had to leave, all the goys stayed in Rome and kept the church going. And then five years later the Jewish Christians came back.
Now before you jump to thinking about Romans, think about what you would do here. You leave your home church, with customs that you have been honoring and celebrating for hundreds or thousands of years, and you come back to a church that is being led by people who don’t know anything about them.
You have memorized the Torah, but they think Habakkuk is something that can give you cancer. Over the past few years while you have been away, they have thrown away so many of the customs that you are used to and have grown up with: The holy days, the festivals, the feasts, and now they want to just worship with Darlene Zscech music.
This is the church that Paul is writing to in Romans. And so it is interesting to me that Paul starts off his letter by critiquing the very things that the Jewish people were eager to point out. Those Gentiles are sexually depraved, they gossip, they hate God, they disobey their parents, they invent ways of doing evil (at least it is original sin). At the end of this first section, the Jewish Christians would be thinking how wise and astute Paul was.
Then he turns to them. He starts talking to the Gentile Christians saying, but have you noticed how bad these Jewish/religious people are? They have the law, they preach against stealing…yet they steal. They think just because they go to some church and do some ritual that they are some kind of “squeaky clean, good person” but they are not. They are self-righteous, self-important, stubborn, and hard-hearted. And then Paul makes the turn that captures the book of Romans. We all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.
Paul’s labeling of sin here isn’t so much a condemnation as it is an invitation. This is the group we belong to, a group that has come to recognize the worst about ourselves, and therefore able to see even the worst of people as relatives…even as family.
G.K. Chesterton once said that the Doctrine of Original Sin could also be described as the doctrine of the equality of all people.
Recently I had some Social Psychologist friends tell me that the way most of us try to build our identity is through violence; maybe not literal violence, but the kind that involves building an identity on the back of someone else. In short, we all want to be better than someone else. And if we are better at something, if we excel in some field, we will gravitate toward trying to be known, named, and famed, for that.
But Romans is a snapshot into what Paul thought the Gospel had to say to people very much like us. Despite all our rhetoric and image management, we are not better than anyone, which is a move only the Gospel can make, I think.
Since Cain and Abel, we have killed each other over how we sacrifice to God. Today we replace the names but we still function the same way. We sacrifice/serve/work for our gods/idols/jobs/causes, and if anyone gets in our way we will do violence to them.
It is interesting that the Bible mentions sin for the first time in the story of Cain and Abel. Because that is what sin does, sin divides. Sin divides, but Paul, through the lens of the Gospel sees sin as a way to unite. It is the one thing everyone has in common.
And once we confess our sin together and to each other, in the words of Scot, we find Grace:
Grace forgives and grace heals and grace transforms and grace ennobles and grace empowers. Grace makes people…comfortable with another. Only grace can do that.
But grace can do that.
Jonathan is the co-author of the recently released book Bringing Heaven to Earth. You can follow him @Stormented