Preaching the Gospel When Cities Burn

Reading Time: 10 mins

You are the baptized, for in Christ we are all wet. The demographic dividers are washed away.

American communities are burning, again. Racism, classism, elitism, identity politics — the usual suspects — headline the news, again. Death, destruction, injustice, revenge, rebellion flicker on screens of every kind, again. The kingdoms of this world have failed to bring peace, again. In fact, they cannot bring peace; not the peace God can bring, because they offer nothing but law: law unequally applied or enforced. Simply put, the kingdoms of this world — governments, institutions, ideologies — offer nothing that can change human nature. And so, the cycle of human hate, abuse of power, injustice, rebellion, and rioting continues unabated.

The Kingdom of Christ must be different. It must always be different if the Kingdom of our Lord is to truly offer an alternative way to be human; redeemed, regenerated, reconciled.

Nothing new exists under the sun. The same issues rending the United States and other countries apart, the usual suspects delineated above, were extant in the days of Saint Paul. He dealt with racism, classism, elitism, and identity politics. This is how he did it: Paul preached one of the major themes of Romans and Galatians, union in Christ, as the solution to demographic divisions which unequally applied and enforced laws only exacerbate.

Paul preached one of the major themes of Romans and Galatians, union in Christ, as the solution to demographic divisions which unequally applied and enforced laws only exacerbate.

In Galatians, the Apostle realizes there are so many interlocking issues on the table related to party politics, identity politics, elitism, and ancient religio-racism, that it is time to sort out the mess by telling the fragmented parties at Galatia a picture story to make clear the implications of the Gospel. He does this in chapter 4 by hijacking the same identity defining story his opponents have been peddling in Galatia and turning it on their heads. Put differently, he turns their “isms” upside down and inside out by reiterating the implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They have used the Hagar/Sarah story as an analogy to alienate Christians who do not fall in line with their hybrid-religion that demands Jewish law-keeping, the hallmark of which was circumcision. ‘Don’t do it our way,’ they were saying, ‘and God says to you “No way. You don’t belong.”’ It was a classic “us versus them” situation. The gentiles were, “they, them, those people,” while the Judaizers were, “us, our, we.” The Law did not and could not fix their divisions. This is because law has no power to change hearts or perspectives. It only possesses the power to accuse. The law establishes lines, boundaries, borders, distinctions, points of transgression and failure. It does nothing to unite.

The opponents have claimed they have the Jewish law on their side, in the same way parties at variance today would claim justification for their attitudes, words, and behaviors toward, “them and those people.” The Judaizers thought they were in the right by way of their perspective on law. Paul, they said, has carefully avoided telling the Galatians the full story about what God wants and the things that really distinguish and define the true people of God, you know, like themselves! They were self-justified by virtue of their relationship to the Law. These troublemakers said if the Gentile Christians want to become proper children of Abraham, part of God’s true people, they must follow the Jewish laws that separated them from the uncircumcised gentiles. Hardly could a difference be discerned today, as divided groups justify their attitudes, words, and behaviors in relationship to laws, be it the injustice of the law applied and enforced or the (special interest groups) lobbying and (partisan) making of laws.

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul responds to this divisive non-sense by saying:

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard     Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away and the new has come.” (vv. 16-17)

Read this divinely revealed text in view of skin pigmentations or so-called “gender” related issues or simply classism by way of material classification (what one wears or possess, comforts and possessions of the flesh). The issues are the same. Human nature, unaltered by the Gospel of divine grace that justifies the ungodly and regenerates the dead-in-tresspasses-and-sins-spirit of human persons, defaults toward self-justification over and against the other in relationship to law. The baptized, however, cannot think this way. This cannot be their attitude, their conversation, their behavior toward, first and foremost, the baptized but also their yet-to-be-baptized neighbor. Christians have a new spirit driven by the dictum, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and nothing makes peace quite like loving your neighbor.

Christians have a new spirit driven by the dictum, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and nothing makes peace quite like loving your neighbor.

What happened in Galatia was Paul’s opponents had been using the story of Abraham’s wife and concubine to reinforce their point. They affirmed that, though the Galatians might in a sense have come into God’s people through believing the Gospel and being baptized, it looked as if there were now two families (‘us’ and ‘them’), both claiming to be Abraham’s legitimate children. These opponents were saying they, the circumcised, Hebrew, law-observing, Jewish, Christians, must be the true, free children, the descendants of Isaac. Uncircumcised, pork-eating Gentile Christians must be the children of Ishmael, the outsiders, the cast-outs, the foreigners, the illegitimate children of Arabia as opposed to the blessed legitimate citizens of Israel; of which they supposedly were sterling examples.

Paul takes their story and stands it on its head. His motivation for doing so lies in the struggle to get the Galatian Christians to see themselves as free people, children of promise, needing no rite like circumcision to help them relate to God, much less using it as leverage against others. That rite divides Jews and gentiles, and even men from women, and we are free from this kind of division-making. We have all passed through the waters of holy baptism into the Promise Land of God’s Kingdom. This makes us all the same. We are the children of the promise because we have received faith in the promise-making, promise-keeping God. There is only one color, one class of people within the Kingdom of Christ: The baptized. Everyone is wet and those who are not are loved so they may be as we have become. This is all by the grace of God through Jesus Christ.

“Christ has set us free,” is Paul’s grand conclusion. This means God’s decisive salvation has been accomplished with the promised child, Jesus the Son, fulfilling the Law we never could and gaining for us the righteousness it demands but also taking the penalty of treason for our perpetual rebellion against the Sovereign King and one another. In baptism, therefore, we experience a great exodus, a complete change of allegiances. We all are freed from slavery. Our bondage to the Law that we used to self-justify, alienate others, and by which we ourselves were condemned, is over.

Now our identity derives from union with Christ, a union in Christ, who is the heir of all things, the upshot of which is a communion with one another. We are no longer bound to taskmasters like sin, the Law, and death. We are bound to Christ. This is the truth and it is this truth that sets us free, demographic denominators notwithstanding. The Law does not have the power to tell us how to appraise one another, much less move the will to do so; but the Gospel does. We are free from the laws of men and the condemning laws of God because we live under a law of grace and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. We are of a different Spirit. Therefore, the ancient Church called holy baptism the enlightening. We see people differently now, or at least we should since such freedom comes with its own profound and obligating ethic, through the ethic of the divine love.

We are no longer bound to taskmasters like sin, the Law, and death. We are bound to Christ. This is the truth and it is this truth that sets us free, demographic denominators notwithstanding.

The Formula of Concord encapsulates this ethic in remarks about conversion and the Christian life, that is, the pursuit of godliness:

"Likewise, when Dr. Luther wrote that the human will conducts itself purely passive (that is, that it does absolutely nothing at all), that must be understood in respect to divine grace in the creation of new movements, that is, insofar as God’s Spirit takes hold of the human will through the Word that is heard or through he use of the holy sacraments and effects new birth and conversion. For when the Holy Spirit has effected and accomplished the new birth and conversion and has altered and renewed the human will solely through his divine power and activity, then the new human will is an instrument and tool of God the Holy Spirit, in that the will not only accepts grace but also cooperates with the Holy Spirit in the works that proceed from it."[1]

An instrument and tool of what? Love. Divine love. This is exactly what Paul pursues for his readers (and your auditors) in Romans 12. The entire chapter bears pertinently upon our contemporary milieu.

"I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

"For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

"Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

"Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. "(Romans 12:1-21)

Paul’s language, indeed, the words of the Holy Spirit here are not suggestive. Rather, they alert all the baptized to be metamorphosized through one’s devotion to the Word and Sacraments of Christ within the new creation community: The communion of the saints. Simply put, the Apostle calls on all Christians to consciously participate in their being transformed from the inside out by the love of God so we may live in love toward God and with one another. Love your enemies. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said that. Jesus exemplified it. Jesus empowers this. You are united to the same Jesus who said, exemplified, and empowers love for the other.

This divine love flowing from Christ is the strongest force in the world. It is stronger than racism, classism, elitism, and partisanism. It is even stronger than death itself. Paul, in the same epistle, states it emphatically: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

There is a new standard for human interactions if you are a Christian. It is not business dealings with each other, or socio-economic comparisons and classifications. That is the old way. Political correctness, where we perceive each other as androgynous consuming units, is not how we see renewed humanity. And it is not fashionable identity politics and its reverse-discrimination ideology that functions as a conversation defeater within all communities. We have been enlightened through baptism to see each other in Christ as Kingdom citizens, every one of us as brothers and sisters.

We have been enlightened through baptism to see each other in Christ as Kingdom citizens, every one of us as brothers and sisters.

Enlightened by the Holy Spirit and empowered by Christ, we have a new standard by which we see each other. The standard is the Gospel of God’s Kingdom come. In this holy spirit, not a spirit of envy or elitism or superiority, we are capable and even motivated to see each Latino, Black, Asian, White, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, male, female, old, young, Democrat, and Republican as the baptized. See it that way. Live it that way. It is the new reality. For the Christian, this has been the standard of the “new normal” since the day Christ granted forgiveness to Jew and Gentile alike at the foot of the holy cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).

In Christ a deliverance has happened to every one of us, so graphically actuated and illustrated in holy baptism. By its very nature we undergo a transference from one dominion to another, with the remarkable result that the new bondage to Christ is perfect freedom to love one another. Can you do that? Can you love one another? Because I am going to tell you it starts with an apology for you, of you. Animosity against a fellow Christian brother or sister is not of the Spirit. Even if you are in the “right” (whatever that means), harboring ill puts you in the wrong. We are compelled by the love of Christ and motivated by the spirit of forgiveness to reconcile, always.

The waters of Holy Baptism washed your demographics away. You have been cleansed from being Caucasian or Black, middle-class, or poor, East-Coaster or West-Coaster, as your fundamental human identity. You are the baptized, for in Christ we are all wet. The demographic dividers are washed away. The world uses them to segregate, judge, privilege, divide, and demean.

The waters of Holy Baptism washed your demographics away.

We rear our children in this new kingdom way of life. The people drinking from the chalice, they are our people. These people in the pews front and back, they are our people. All the baptized, yeah, they are our family. This is the way of the new creation.

Think about this the next time you grit your teeth at someone while driving, curse the person who takes a parking space before you or provides poor service at the restaurant or checkout counter. You may be spewing forth your malice upon the baptized, your brother, your sister for whom Christ spilled His blood to make atonement so we can be reconciled with one another. It cannot be that way. Christians are bonded together in love. Default to love.

Christ sets us free from it all with a truly and deeply meaningful reordering of the world. Nothing more graphically actuates our equality and human identity in Christ quite like baptism. It is our collective privilege to make the sign of the cross because we have all been adopted as children of God, none above the other in Christ’s Kingdom. If it is the Law or how we are living the Christian life (the same problem in Galatia) which asserts our basic identity, then everyone is going to have their own pietistic standard, everyone will self-justify over against the other and there will be no equality. Baptism, on the other hand, is the only thing in this world that truly levels the field and makes peace possible; peace the world cannot give.

But we must go back daily, as Paul constantly admonishes, and be reminded how we are the baptized. This is why Luther said the first thing you do when you wake up is make the sign of the Cross, reminding yourself God adopted you in baptism. Let that be your framework by which you conduct your day. But not only baptism, so too with Holy Communion. Fifty years ago, Whites did not eat with Latinos or Blacks except at this Table of the Lord. From time to time in our past the Church has gotten this dead wrong, just like the Judaizers who corrupted the fellowship in Galatia. But Christ has always intended His dining hall to be for His family, all His family. This is the peace which transcends all understanding that guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. His peace of divine love has the power to extinguish our burning cities.

[1] Book of Concord, Formula of Concord, II.18.