Realistic Expectations

As election dust settles, let the truth speak either to your exuberance, or to your disappointment.

Recently I heard about a man conducting a seminar.  He told his attendants to shut their eyes, and visualize peace.  After ten seconds, he asked them to open their eyes and then share with everyone what they had visualized.  There were a lot of trout streams and forest meadows and little log cabins mentioned.  But one thing was consistent between the visualizations.  There were no people in any of them.  It’s as though in order to reach that place of peace, the first thing we need to do is eliminate people.  

We all understand that as soon as you start adding folks to any picture, noise and drama increase.  We know this, yet we sincerely believe that the same human beings who generate such trouble, and unrest, can then turn around and fix it. 

I’m thinking in particular of our national election.  

 I don’t want to minimize our process by suggesting it’s all meaningless, or that it doesn’t matter who you vote for.  No, my concern is that we might expect some kind of ultimate fix to happen.  Some of us by the end of the week will be mindlessly jubilant, and others angry, depressed, and disgusted.  I want to talk to you, therefore, not as Americans, but as fellow citizens of the saints, and members of the household of God.  I want to call you back for a moment to a place of sobriety, of more realistic expectations.  

All of us are right to desire peace and unity, but we have to remember to look for it in the right place.  

Consider the background of the first century church.  Most of those early congregations were predominantly Jewish.  There was a uniformity of opinion, not only on primary, essential matters (like chiefly, Jesus Christ being the Messiah), but on a number of secondary issues, as well.

For instance, the rhythm of life was largely uncontested.  Believers all knew toward the end of the week that they would be getting ready for sabbath.  They knew what would and would not be on the menu.  They also knew on feast days that they’d be attending temple.  A sameness of life pervaded.  When differences did erupt, they were usually pedestrian in nature, trifling things and squabbles, mainly.  

But over the course of years, Gentiles began to believe in Jesus and repent of their sins.  Both Jew and Gentile frequently found themselves at close-quarters. Differences of opinion would collide in living color, right there in houses of worship.  For instance, gentile men were uncircumcised.  Could an uncircumcised man even be saved?  We look at this and laugh about it today, but circumcision was a mosaic command for all males above a certain age. 

And then there were other things, like diet.  Jews had a strict Levitical code regulating what they’re allowed to eat and not to eat.  Gentiles didn’t.  Imagine a home meeting full of Jewish believers, and along comes a gentile who just caught an octopus in a canal, and cooked it.  He wants to bring it to the church dinner and share it with everybody.  The outrage over an event like this could have easily sent shockwaves through a small church.  

Obviously these early Christians weren’t running into political disputes, but their problems were no less challenging–tinderbox issues, hugely triggering.  

Being acutely aware of this friction, the Apostle Paul frequently referred to it when he wrote his letters.  One such mention came in his epistle to the Ephesians.  The church in Ephesus had a number of Greeks in it, as well as Jews.  He wrote, 

“but now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). We usually associate the blood of Christ with the cleansing away of personal sin, but in this context, Paul is talking about the blood of Christ bringing us near, not only near to God, but near to other people who have different opinions about a lot of things.    

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (v. 14).  In Christ, two became one and what was separating them, that is, different ways of living, was broken down.  It is a oneness not of compromise, nor of negotiation, treaties, or even of tolerance. 

Church unity didn’t come about by believers sitting down together and saying, “Tell you what…I’ll reduce my feeling about this by fifty percent, if you’ll decrease yours by fifty percent.  We’ll meet in the middle.”  Nor is it through the cultivation of echo chambers, where we already agree.  These are all human attempts to produce unity.   

But when Paul speaks of peace and unity, that is, when the gospel speaks of it, how did Jesus establish it?  It is something that happened in His flesh, and by His blood.  It was created as He hung on the cross with nails through His hands, beaten, judged by God for hours on end, and then stabbed through the heart with a Roman spear.   That is what it took to bring people together, and establish real and actual peace.  

Verse 15 says He did this “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.”  This does not mean God abolished moral commandments like murder, theft, and sexual license,  but commandments of ordinances that controlled ceremonial lifestyles.  Furthermore, He did not abolish those commandments by saying, “Okay, everyone, whatever God told you to do in the Old Testament, you don’t have to do any more.” 

No, he actually abolished these commandments by fulfilling them.   He did it by bringing it all together in Himself.  Everything is about Christ, now.  When we speak of the sabbath, the real rest is in Christ.  When we speak of the holy diet, the real food is Christ.  When we talk about circumcision, the cutting off of the flesh, the true, effective cutting off of the flesh occurs in Christ.  Thus, on the cross, God made it all about Christ.  

You may wonder how this is supposed to work in the political forum.  When Paul wrote these verses, though, he wasn’t trying to forge a blueprint to improve the Roman Empire.  Ephesians 2 doesn’t present a plan to overhaul the political systems of unregenerate humanity.  Paul was simply making known a reality that exists in Christ.  

Verse 16 continues, “and he might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”  It is through the cross that hostility toward one another dies, the hatred felt toward those who disagree with you.   Only Calvary could accomplish this.  

Now after Jesus had died, and resurrected, according to verse 17, “He came and preached.”  How?  He came through the Holy Spirit, through many small evangelists.  And what got  preached?  “He preached peace to you who were far off, and peace to those who were near.”  All these little mouths through which Christ spoke, brought the news of His finished work–peace not only between us and God, but between us and others.  

Today we think we can do the same thing, by sitting down and talking about what divides us.  Yet it seems the deeper we dig into it, the more offense is unearthed and goes unsolved.  Instead, we need to spend our time talking about the One who unites us, and how He did it.  “For through him, we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (v. 18).  

As a result of this hard won peace, and joint access, verse 19-22 continues, 

“so then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the Cornerstone, in whom the whole structure being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”   

I’ve lived or labored with diverse people groups, seamlessly entering European, African, Asian, and Mexican fellowships.  The gospel of peace works, wherever there is a conscious abiding in it.  However, it doesn’t work so well when people coach us to look at other things, and other solutions, ultimately ignoring Christ. 

Unfortunately, Christians can be the worst culprits when it comes to this, because we often busy ourselves trying to fix things “for God.”  Enamored with our own efforts, and terrified someone might accuse us of spiritual idleness, we can begin to act as though Jesus has not accomplished much of anything on the cross.   

Christians often respond by saying, “Well, I’m just trying to apply the word of Ephesians chapter two to my community.”  But if so, why not align with what’s going on in verse 17, preaching the finished work of Christ?  Discipline yourself to stay in your own lane, the lane assigned to you by God.  These days I’ve seen articles written by celebrity pastors, high-level ministries, and Christian magazines.  Most of them skew toward one candidate or the other, and a few nuke all of them.  When ambassadors of Christ, who have been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation, demote themselves to political analysts, no one gets help.  

Christians are often not so much interested in the New Jerusalem as they are in some kind of New Rome.  There is a world outside of Christ, and we have not been called to fix it.  We need to lead people to the work already accomplished, because they don’t know the accomplishment even exists.  

Years ago I went to visit my dad in Phoenix.  After arriving, we took a side trip to Havasu City, on the western border of Arizona.  It was 117 degrees out there.  The heat was palpable, like a thing alive.  The shops were interesting.  One of them sold nothing but jerky, which was ironic, because in that kind of heat, if an animal died on the sidewalk and laid there for fifteen minutes, it would basically turn into jerky.  

As I looked out over the horizon, it was a picture of desolation.  But then somewhere beyond my sight, a place existed called Havasu Falls.  This location sits tucked away, as though awaiting discovery.  Someone hiking along in the blast furnace of the desert, and cresting a hilltop, could unexpectedly happen upon it.  And there, suddenly, trees, and bright blue water with rainbow trout would appear–in the middle of the desert.  You wouldn’t know it was there unless somebody told you about it in advance.  

I look at this picture like the work Christ situated here in the midst of the world.  The idea is not to stretch a water hose from the oasis to the middle of the desert, or ladle out twenty million buckets of water one by one to make the desert a better place (the Lord reserves this total transformation for His work in the next age c.f. Isaiah 35:1-2), but to bring people to this place of Christ’s finished work, and encourage them to drink from it.  

Having said all of this, I realize we not only occupy the reality of what Christ has done on the cross, but we also jointly occupy the blast furnace, so to speak.  We are also earthly citizens of a country, having rights, and responsibilities.  Therefore, allow me to extend a bit of blunt, practical guidance here:  Now that you’ve voted, get over it.  Namely, don’t taunt, and don’t pout.  

If your candidate happens to win, don’t taunt.  In the sports world there is something called excessive celebration–like when players get in the end zone, and stage skits to humiliate their opponents.  It is supposed to rub someone’s face in defeat, and it’s considered bad form.  We don’t have “opponents” in the church.  Such attitudes are downright ungracious.  Besides, it also suggests that deep in our hearts we believe what happened on Election Day was bigger even than the cross of Christ.  That kind of attitude brings shame into our fellowship, and eclipses the peace and unity Christ secured for us.  

If your candidate does not win, don’t pout.  That is, hopping on the internet and writing bitter posts, rebuking all the rest of the church, or the nation for not voting the way you did.  Christians who do this often fancy themselves “the angry prophet,” but come off as only being angry, not a prophet.  Again, in the world of sports there’s this thing called a “poor sport,” when an athlete throws a bat, or curses out the fans, or threatens a referee.  When we do this kind of thing in the wake of a worldly election, we’re showing that since we didn’t get our way, all Is lost, regardless of what Jesus did on the cross.  

Actually, in some places, the church suffered in the aftermath of the 2016 elections due to a lot of taunting and pouting.  A lot of us ended up feeling anything but reconciled in one body.  I’m not going to pretend I am politically ambivalent.  I voted according to a biblically informed conscience, as I trust you did.  Let’s move on now.  Continue celebrating and trusting in the fact that Jesus has done more than anybody else could ever possibly do in terms of establishing peace and unity.  

After all, the place to abide is not Capitol Hill.  It’s Calvary.

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