In the wake of the attack on the Capitol building and in light of the unrest, division, and turmoil that continues to wreak havoc on our nation, you, we, the church, have a choice to make. You can choose to allow all of it to eat away at your emotional core; pretending you are o.k. and pressing on, all the while it devours you from the inside out turning you into a vessel of bitterness, pain, and apathy. You can choose to let it fester within you, feeding it the energy fueled by propaganda and media hype until it spews out of you like poison or accelerant on a fire. You can choose the path of least resistance, buy your time, lay low, and hope not too much of the filth and mess touches your life or stains your mental and emotional clothing. You can choose to retaliate, throw judgement and hatred around, and seek vengeance in the name of justice. OR you can choose to be gracious.
On the one hand it should be the easiest choice in the world. On the other hand, we know in reality, it is often far more complicated and takes far more courage.
In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul addresses the need for the believers there to remember who they are and what they are to be about. The Phillippian church was perhaps Paul’s favorite church. They were a people he had come to love; a people who loved and encouraged him and made him proud. They were a community of believers who were about doing ministry. They were an active church. They were known in their community for their actions and outreach. You might say they were a church that left the building.
So what was the problem? The problem was they allowed disagreements, opinions, ideas, and issues to come between them that could potentially fracture what they were about and who they were to be. Paul calls them back to center. From his own prison cell he tells them it is the grace of God that brought him and them this far, the grace that forgives and empowers believers to carry on in unity. It is the grace of God that meets us in our own darkness, trials, and grief and brings us together into the light of Christ - the light of mercy, forgiveness, and unity. It is that grace that allows us to then have the courage to be gracious to others. We can’t do it of our own accord - maybe you can, I can’t.
I admit, I don’t always want to be gracious. I grow weary of watching our world self destruct and denominations self-implode. I am tired of people hurting other people without seeking to listen or even try to understand the issues; tired of people thinking that canceling out each other’s ideas, beliefs, experiences, insights, and thoughts is how to live in community. I told the staff the other day I felt like the flag outside the church, flying at half staff. I mourn what has happened in this country - in the past and in the last couple weeks. I mourn all the pain and loss I have seen over the years and sat through with people I come to love, all of which seems magnified right now. My heart hurts for those who feel isolated and forgotten in their own homes. I feel for those who haven’t been with family. It can be difficult to show grace.
I can see how it would have been easy for Paul to become bitter. To withdraw into his cell, come to hate those who imprisoned him, and perhaps even come to resent the day God’s grace changed his life. It would have been easy for him to come to the conclusion that he deserved his punishment. Afterall, before his own change of heart, he punished and persecuted Christians, even ordered them to death. It would have been easy for Paul to quit, to give up.
But it's not about Paul is it? It's not about me. It’s about Jesus and this incredible mystery of divine and holy love-filled grace that we can never fully understand or grasp. A grace that is incomprehensible; a love that is unconditional, and a hope that is everlasting.
What will our choice be? As followers of Jesus, will we give up? Will we turn away? Will we allow emotionally charged issues, political differences, hot topics, systemic injustice, fear of the other, or racial tension to divide us? Like the church in Phillippi, we must remember who we are in Christ. We must remember it is by grace, God’s grace, we are here to begin with. It is by God’s grace that we are loved and can give love. It is how and why we do what we do. It is God’s grace that can do far more than we can. We must remember it is because of that grace, and not anything we do in and of ourselves, that we can have the courage to be gracious; to live a gracious life; to love and love well inside and outside the walls of this building.
Dear Jesus, may it be so.
Pastor Jenothy Irvine