The Beautiful Community of the Church
As we conclude our series on racial injustice and the church, we’ve looked a lot at the ways this complex web of sin and brokenness is reflected in each of the five causes of poverty (false gods and erroneous stories of change, broken and destructive formative practices, broken systems, broken people, and demonic forces). Our desire has been to help churches grow in their courage and desire to fight against it as they live out the kingdom of God in their communities. We want to close with a resounding affirmation of the church as the place where all five causes are addressed in the kingdom community of Jesus. There is more to say, and much more to do, than we can cover here, but our prayer is that the church will heed the call of Christ to live out His love, justice, and mercy here and now. The following is excerpted from Pastor Ince’s book The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best.
With her poem “Wreck this Journal,” spoken-word poet Mazaré seeks to capture the essence of racial reconciliation, both what it is, and what it isn’t. In one stanza she says,
This work is more hug than curtsy,
more embrace than hat tip.
But start there.
Toast to the truth that I am different and dazzling.
She is encouraging a celebratory and hopeful tone to the work of reconciliation. As image-bearers all people have inherent dignity. It is the church’s responsibility to find ways to affirm the full humanity—the royal dignity—of all people, especially those whom others are inclined to despise.1 The impact of racial hierarchy, privilege, and class in society has a substantial impact on the way people interact with one another and value themselves. The church is not immune to this dynamic. It cannot simply be said, “Just believe in Jesus, and those cross-racial social challenges will disappear.”2 You don’t overcome the dignity dynamic simply by believing in Jesus together. When we devote to the doctrine, probe the preferences, and count the cost of pursuing this kingdom vision it will seem daunting—even depressing. However, there is joy in the pursuit as we toast to the truth of the beautiful diverse community that God desires to create.
In Scripture, God’s people are often referred to as saints or holy ones. With the exception of Jesus, the holy and righteous one, that identity marker doesn’t describe sinlessness in the here and now. It describes our identity as those covered by the blood of Jesus. This is the identity of the diverse churches we find addressed in the new Testament epistles. Look at the earth-shattering and identity-defining description of the diverse Colossian church as, “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Colossians 3:12). This community of Greek, Jew, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and free was chosen, made holy, and loved by God together. The chord I want to strike in the cultivation of beautiful community is the joy inherent in being a grateful people. As we pursue beautiful community, gratitude is the attitude that God wants to cultivate in us. Theologians and philosophers have described three facets of beauty: perfection, proportion, and pleasure. We find this trifecta of gratitude and beauty in Colossians 3:15-17. Let’s take a look at how those facets of beauty and the pursuit of beautiful community are portrayed for us in those three verses.
When we say that proportion is an aspect of beauty, we are saying that harmony matters. The mystery of proportion is the presence of unity in diversity, meaning it points to shalom, peace as a facet of beautiful community. So, when it comes to us, life is not simply about us as individuals. Again, God isn’t just making a new me, he’s making a new we.
Jesus Christ is our peace. He is our only hope for peace with God. What that means is that in Jesus Christ we are restored to wholeness and flourishing in our relationship with God. So, Paul says to this new we, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful” (Colossians 3:15). The command indicates that something must rule and the subject of that command is not “you all,” but the “peace of Christ.” The terms translated rule here has the sense of an arbitrator or umpire, like in baseball. When tension and difficulty arise, what is the determining factor in how you respond? What makes the call between balls and strikes in your decisions? What is it that tells you, “Do this, not that.” “Say this, not that”? Is it your feelings? Are you driven by how you feel in the moment? Is it your preferences?
Notice that the peace of Christ is something that the Colossians are told to “let” happen, not “make” happen. Paul doesn’t write, “Make the peace of Christ rule.” Rather, he instructs them to let the fact that they have been reconciled to peace with God reign as the ruling factor in their decision making.
You didn’t call yourself into this life. God called you. God placed you in this one body. It’s not even your body. It’s the body of Christ. You’ve been called into peaceful existence in this body that God placed you in. Were it not for the blood of Jesus, you would have remained at a distance because of your differences and divisions. The pursuit that creates peace only happens when we live in a position of gratitude for that peace. When Paul writes, “And be thankful,” it’s not a throwaway line! He means, “Keep on being thankful.” Continue expressing gratitude for the peace that Jesus Christ has made for you with God by the blood of his cross. When our differences manifest themselves in difficulty and tension, our attitude of gratitude is grounded in the peace we have with God and one another through Jesus Christ.
In Colossians 3:14, the apostle points to love as the binding glue of perfections for this diverse church. Recall that when it comes to beauty, its perfection can still accommodate scars. In fact, it’s a perfection that must accommodate scars. Paul says in verse 16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” He means, “Let the word of Christ live in your hearts.” Notice how he instructs them to do this—teaching and admonishing each other, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude to God. The word of Christ is God’s declaration of who Jesus is, what he is doing, and why he is doing it. This is the word the Colossians are instructed to have living richly among them as they teach and warn each other. The community in Colossae, like ours today, faced the challenge of striving together in faithfulness to Jesus Christ, a difficult task because the stratifications in society do not tend toward unity and reconciliation for Greeks and Jews, slaves and free people. They bring their wounds with them into the community of Christ.
That’s why Paul writes with intention here. Look at what he said to the Colossians in 1:28-29: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me,” Paul is talking about himself as an apostle, working hard to proclaim Christ, warning and teaching with all wisdom. His goal is their maturity in Christ. But when he gets to chapter 3, he says this isn’t only his responsibility to his readers; it is also for the Colossians to do with and for one another. He uses the same words, “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (3:16). In other words, he is telling them to not only look to him as an apostle, but also to trust that as the peace of Christ rules in their hearts, as the word of Christ lives lavishly among them, God will grant wisdom so that they can grow in maturity together.
Mark McMinn helpfully posits that the goal is not just to enable close relationships, but healing relationships. Relationships outside of a relationship with God “sometimes disappoint and devastate and evoke our self-sufficiency and sinfulness in ways that are far from healthy. Many close relationships do more damage than good.”3 He explains that it is necessary to consider the interaction between self, brokenness, and healing relationships for a comprehensive perspective on psychological and spiritual health. Authentic friendships are akin to healing relationships that allow people to experience grace and hope in the middle of life’s trials.4
Finally, we rejoice because beauty delights. Paul expands the attitude of gratitude to the entirety of our lives. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). In practice, the attitude of gratitude in practice is meant to spill out of Sunday worship into a joyful everyday living. There is a delight in daily practice of gratitude to God for the fact that we are dazzling and different. I have not at any point in this book glossed over the difficulty of living into beautiful community. And I will not do so now, even as I talk about delight. Remember that God wants us to know him and this knowledge of him is for our delight! The delight of beauty is a de-centered delight in another—God himself.
We can give thanks to God in everything at all times by believing that he wastes nothing. In Revelation 21:4 the apostle John hears a loud voice from heaven tell him that God will wipe away every tear and remove death, mourning, crying, and pain. Those things will one day pass away, but please know that today’s tears, deaths, mourning, crying, and pains are not wasted. In the context of Revelation, John is focused on persecution, tribulation, and suffering that Chirstians must persevere through. He’s setting before them a vision of their glorious future, straining for adequate language to describe the beauty of Jesus’ bride once she is fully healed from her ghettoized and painful existence (Revelation 22:2). At the same time, the pain in our pursuit of beautiful community will be healed as well! This promise allows us to delight in the here and now. Our tears and pain are not wanted, but they’re not wasted either!
What John sees in Revelation 21:2 is the holy city descending out of heaven from God after being prepared and adorned for her husband. These are passive verbs. The emphasis is on God who prepares and adorns his bride. He selects the wedding dress, styles the makeup and hair—he even drives the limo because the text tells us that his bride came down from God! How did he prepare her for the wedding day? Through tears, mourning, crying, and pain. He equipped her to endure by faith as part of her beautifications.
Food, Glorious Food
I want to end with pleasure, the third part of beauty’s triplet, because the tone is set at the table. Toasting to the truth paints a picture in our mind’s eye of raising a glass at the dinner table. It never ceases to amaze me how replete the Bible is with food from beginning to end. Food is a good gift from God, and eating is not only nourishing, it’s also delightful. Just like things are more beautiful than they need to be, food is more pleasurable than it needs to be. We have to eat to live, but God is so wonderful that he blesses food for our enjoyment. That enjoyment. That enjoyment, in turn, should move us to bless God. Paul writes, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
The picture of God’s covenant commitment to his people regularly involves food. When the Lord confirms his covenant with his people, calling Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel up to Mount Sinai, Exodus 24 tells us, “They saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank” (vv. 10-11). When the Lord promises the redemption that will put death to death and wipe away tears from all faces, he wants us to picture a wonderful feast. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isaiah 25:6). John envisions the blessings of the new heavens and earth as a wedding reception: “And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the true words of God’” (Revelation 19:9). We could go on and on about the provision of abundant grain in the Old Testament, Jesus turning water into wine, the saints of the New Testament churches providing resources for famine relief of the church in Jerusalem but it’s clear that food is inseparable from beautiful community.
Who do you invite to your table? There is a reason Christians use the phrase table fellowship to describe eating together. Do you want to rejoice in the pursuit of beautiful community? Come to the table and eat, the one that belongs to the Lord. What do we experience at the Lord’s Supper? How do you think about communion? Do you see it as merely a personal, individual act, grateful for the fact that you get to participate because of Jesus? That’s true, but are you able to see that it’s much more than that? I want to invite you to experience the Lord’s Supper as a multinational, diverse, ethnicity-affirming meal that is preparing us for the international wedding supper of the Lamb. The table keeps getting longer and more diverse as the Lord continues to add seats by redeeming people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.
Can you picture the nations coming to the feast with joy? Some approaching with moccasins on their feet, others dressed in Kente, or sarees, or overalls, still others with turbans on their heads! And the one raising the glass for the toast is the bridegroom! He speaks and reminds us of how he told the disciples at the Last Supper that he would not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when he drank it new with them in his Father’s kingdom (Matthew 26:29). That new day has fully arrived! And as he raises the glass he’s not looking up in the sky. Rather he’s looking everyone in the eye with a loving gaze that communicates, “I see you. I made you. I redeemed you. You’re welcomed at my table as queens and kings, a kingdom of priests.”
Following Jesus’ lead enables us to keep our eyes open and live for beauty right now. Doing so enables us to actively resist the pernicious polarization that has been present in the church in America from the beginning. We celebrate the fact that the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who exists in eternal beauty and glory, refused to turn his eyes away from the darkness of the world. So the Son left his beautiful communion to take on our fragility, weakness, and vulnerability so that he could restore us to communion with God and each other. And our great joy is that in our pursuit of beautiful community we are participating in the beautiful plan and purpose of our beautiful God.
Adapted from The Beautiful Community by Irwyn L. Ince Jr. Copyright (c) 2020 by Irwyn L. Ince Jr. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
- Nonna Verna Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation, 2010 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group), 106.
- Brad Christerson, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson, Against All Odds: the Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations, 2005 (New York: NYU Press), 156.
- Mark R. McMinn, Psychology, Theology, and Spirituality in Christian Counseling, rev. ed., 2011 (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House), 48.
- Ibid., 51.
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