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Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.
I’ve learned a lot about myself and how society works by watching my children play. I see them trying out labels- she’s a girl, he’s a boy- forming and rejecting alliances- he’s my best friend, she’s not my friend – and creating groups.
The favorite in our household right now is “Team Elsa.” Elsa’s the main character in Disney’s Frozen, a movie that continues to capture the hearts of some young girls in my family. L* will run up to her friends and shout, “Team Elsa!” and they’ll all respond “Team Elsa!” This battle cry unites them as it strengthens their identity- “we’re together, against the bad guys!”
As a parent who’s trying to form my children to play nicely with others and get along, I question her when she talks about people who aren’t part of her team. What do you do when someone wants to play with you, but doesn’t want to play Elsa? How can you make sure no one is left out? How do you feel when others don’t let you play with them?
Parenting has forced me to recognize some realities about the way humans function in groups- and given me hope that I might have some limited power and responsibility to make the future better.
I don’t like the way I see communities forming themselves into battle lines.
In this season, we’ve seen it at the cinema. Batman vs. Superman. Iron Man vs. Captain America. We’ve seen it in our politics. Republican vs. Democrat. Progressive vs. NeoLiberal. Conservative vs. Tea Party.
We’ve let it happen in the church. We do it on the big stage: Protestant vs. Catholic, Evangelical vs. Mainline. We do it within our tradition: WELS vs. ELCA. We’ve done it, as much as we may have not wanted to, here at Cross, as discernment begins about our experience, expectation, and identity around issues of welcome, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
When the hope, “can’t we all get along” is trite and naive, what’s left for us?
Is the world left the way it is? Is this the inevitable entropy- all things declining into disorder and division? Are splits the only way new churches are born? An argument over the true preaching of the gospel was, after all, the birthing of Cross.
Or, might God have the power to move us into a new future? Could this very moment in our lives be precisely the moment into which God’s powerful promise speaks? Could there be reason to hope, not in our own ability to get it all together, but in the God who works reconciliation, bringing together far off groups and making them one? Certainly the God who raised Jesus from the dead can work miracles.
The New Testament is a witness to the power of this life-restoring, relationship-restoring God. As the good news about what God has done through Jesus moved through and outside of the Jewish people, God’s chosen people, and became embraced by those who weren’t part of the chosen community, the wideness of God’s plan of salvation for all people became known.
We trace this initial spread of the gospel through the book of Acts. Today, we hear the story of a disciple who has died. This disciple has built up a community through her acts of charity, caring for those who were on their own. We learn that she has two names, Tabitha and Dorcas. Tabitha is an Aramaic name, the language the Jewish people would have spoken. Dorcas is a Greek name, the language of the wider culture, written by the educated, especially spoken by people beyond the Jewish communities. Through the community that gathers around her deathbed, variously lamenting their friend called Tabitha, their friend called Dorcas, we see that she is the first of many to bridge cultures in her witness. God has worked through her to bring together within diversity a community unified by the Spirit.
In the book of Revelation, John records a vision of hope for a community uncertain if God has the power to work good for them in their difficult situation. The part of the vision we read jumps in after an image of the 144,000 who have been sealed as servants of God, a specific, finite number from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. After this finite number, out of tribes that often were fractured factions of what was meant to be one people, we hear that John sees a multitude beyond numbering. He writes, “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Can you imagine- all tribes, all nations, all peoples and languages- being brought together by God?
Tribe’s a word that’s growing in usage today, to refer to one’s own group. It’s about focusing in on my people- pushing towards groups that share similar experiences- age, gender, socioeconomic status, education level, and political leanings. Tribes are a reflection of our whittling down our potential social sphere until we are surrounded only with people who look and think like us, who validate each other’s beliefs and strengthen our position. We learn to only feel safe around the familiar.
There are plenty of destructive jokes that get at our typical attitude of tribalism’s exclusion. It didn’t take me long on the internet find one: The story is told of some Christians who have just arrived in heaven and are being given a grand tour. Everywhere they go they see happy people, rejoicing and celebrating with loud songs of praise. But then, their guide leads them down a long hallway and tells them to keep very quiet. “Why?”, the people ask. That’s when the tour guide answers, “We have to be very quiet down this hallway, because all of those other Lutherans are in that room, and they think they are the only ones up here.”
It’s a joke meant to demean one group – the other Lutherans- while making the group telling it – maybe us- feel better about themselves. But it also gets at a destructive mindset- a sense that our tribe is the right one, the only one who has gotten this faith thing right. It’s a pointed satire that hits each one of us who may have ever assured ourselves that we’re on the right side while others are in the wrong.
The vision of God, recorded in Revelation, is that all the tribes who spent their life’s energy defining and strengthening their positions over and against the other- are finally brought together, into one, around the Lamb- Jesus- the God who died to achieve their unity.
When we are gathered around Jesus on that great day will there be surprise? Disbelief? Joy? as we recognize among those brought together people we spent our lives feeling so very distant from? God’s purpose is to bring us all together to experience the love and life God so freely gives us through God’s own work in Jesus. We are meant to join together as the beloved community who worship the one God.
This is the community into which M* is baptized today. God is placing her firmly among the varied people who are made into one in Christ. This is the promise that is for her as it is for all of us- that God will bring us to a day when we will be gathered up together by Jesus in love and unity:
“(we will be) before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter (us). 16 (we) will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike (us), nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be (our) shepherd, and he will guide (us) to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from (our) eyes.” (Revelation 7: 15-17, pronouns shifted)
For us who live in the present reality- as we celebrate that God has already been victorious in Jesus’ death and resurrection even while we are not yet at the new creation in which our unity is made complete- for us who live in the already but not yet- we continue to live in hope and trust that God will fulfill this great promise. When Jesus declares, “No one will snatch them out of my hand,” he is including you as one to whom he holds on so tightly that you will never be removed from his community. Not your beliefs, not your anxieties, not your tribe, not your faithfulness- nothing will pull you out of Jesus’ grip on you. Jesus will never lose you.
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