History can be boring, but what is boring can be critically important because we can learn from the past, and apply those lessons today. You’ve heard me say more than once that the hardest thing is for us to tell the truth about ourselves to ourselves. What is true for us as individuals is also true for us as families, faith communities, and nations. As Jesus said, it is so much easier to see the speck in our neighbor’s eye and ignore the log in our own. (Matthew 7:3 Why, then, do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye?) History provides a lens through which I can look to the past as a way of seeing the present in a different way.
Seeing life and faith through a different culture and context can do the same thing. Whenever I have traveled to Romania or El Salvador, I have always returned with an appreciation of the incredible benefits of living where I do, but also a more critical sense of the discrepancy between the gospel Jesus preached and the life I live.
The Belhar confession was written by members of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa and adopted by that denomination in 1986. The South African government had institutionalized the racism, along with all the accompanying social and economic inequities in 1948. Momentum began to develop in the early 1960’s for the world community to boycott South Africa, resulting in South Africa being barred from athletic competition and economic sanctions being imposed. But apartheid did not collapse until 1994. While there was an initial euphoria and amazing examples of reconciliation under the leadership of Nelson Mandala and Bishop Desmond Tutu, the nation and churches still struggle to reconcile and put their divisive past behind them.
What is easier for me to see in the South African situation is harder to see in my own context. Truly, Jesus got it right: Matthew 7:3-5: Why, then, do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye? How dare you say to your brother, ‘Please, let me take that speck out of your eye,’ when you have a log in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will be able to see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
I will be introducing the Belhar Confession as the basis for the next three messages. Then I’ve picked movies for our Popcorn Parable series based on their message of reconciliation. Patterned after the 1934 Barmen Declaration, created by the German Confessing Church in 1934, both documents sought to respond to their historical context by reaching into Scripture for guidance. Like Barmen, Belhar sought clarity of thought and expression by not making an affirmative statement, “We believe…”, but then the equally important, “therefore we reject…”
I believe the kingdom of God is wherever the Spirit of God rules, and where the Spirit rules there is the righteousness of love and justice forming. Wherever the spirit of darkness rules, there is separation, conflict, and disharmony. It is in our religious institutions where the spirit of darkness loves to pass as the Spirit of God, as we confuse our will for the will of God. Racism, sexism, homophobia and economic injustice usually find their most fertile soil in the institutions which purportedly seek to represent God’s interests and point of view. In fact, they are allied with what, at times, is nothing less than outright evil.
I can easily see what Jesus confronted in the Pharisees, and why they had to kill him. I can see the evil of apartheid being a way of life for white Afrikaners who claimed to love Jesus. But can I see where my life, attitudes, and behaviors are out of line with God’s rule and will? Using our graphic of the arrows and the cross, am I aware which direction my life is headed: toward the cross as I follow Jesus or away from the cross as I substitute my will and fears for the will and love of God?
Jesus prayed in John 17:11 for unity and harmony among his followers: I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. Holy Father! Keep them safe by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one just as you and I are one.
Paul picked up on that —these two passages representing the consistent message Paul preached:
You were baptized into union with Christ, and now you are clothed, so to speak, with the life of Christ himself. So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus.
You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own. So then, you must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with one another and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else. You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you. And to all these qualities add love, which binds all things together in perfect unity. The peace that Christ gives is to guide you in the decisions you make; for it is to this peace that God has called you together in the one body. And be thankful. Christ’s message in all its richness must live in your hearts. Teach and instruct one another with all wisdom. Sing psalms, hymns, and sacred songs; sing to God with thanksgiving in your hearts. Everything you do or say, then, should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, as you give thanks through him to God the Father.
Unless our horizontal relationships are consistent with our vertical relationship with God we are living an incomplete gospel.