Common Denominators

You have likely quite often heard some version of the phrase that “what we have in common is much more than that which divides us.”  Often it has been uttered in political dialogue, for example in the 1952 concession speech of Adlai Stevenson in his loss to Dwight Eisenhower… “That which unites us as American citizens is far greater than that which divides us as political parties.”

But if ever this phrase had any meaning it is in the realm of theology, especially as it regards the human condition of imputed sin.

Many social commentators of our day bemoan the ethnic and racial divides that continue to plague the American landscape. Here now 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, one would expect the country to be further down the road of racial reconciliation. Surely there have been multiple gains and successes that can be delineated, yet at the same time the old wounds continue to fester and feelings of disenfranchisement remain raw in many segments of our society. The immigration debate looms large in national discourse; and Christian people rightly find themselves conflicted by national security concerns on one hand, while having a heart of compassion for the plight of people who are risking everything to find some way toward a safe, sustainable and productive life for their families.

In 1971 John Lennon released the popular song “Imagine” … striking a chord upon the hearts of people who would like to imagine a world of peace and tranquility, where all the varied peoples of the world would live in brotherhood and harmony. Sadly, his prescription involved the denial of heaven, hell, God or religion. If answers for true brotherhood could be found in irreligious harmony, surely that would have been discovered by now! But the natural condition of man apart from spiritual renewal in Christ tends very heavily toward self-centeredness, not brotherly affection. Remember Cain and Abel?

What we need is a common denominator that is bigger than the uncommon numerators that divide us. And in fact, we all begin with and possess a common denominator – the issue of inherited and imputed sin that comes down to us, landing in our personal account as a debt at the moment of our conception. It does not matter if we are white, black, green or purple, we all are born with a debt of sin. That is common denominator #1.  And it expresses itself in all sorts of divides between people and people groups.

But the wonderful truth is that Jesus came and took upon himself our common denominator, yet did so in a way that he did not inherit the debt of sin. Paying that debt by his death on the cross, he offers to us a new common denominator of a family relationship with him through faith in what he has done. If you are white, black, green or purple, it does not matter. Trust in him and you now possess a common denominator that is indeed bigger than that which divides and is massively and categorically superior to any “alleged” denominator the world can ever provide, no matter how well-intentioned and altruistic it is.

And having that second denominator also guarantees a third for those of faith in Christ, and that is the assurance of eternal life together with the Son in heaven, forever … with peoples of every tribe and nation. That is pretty amazing! And just as we should rightly realize that, as the Scriptures say, “Now we are the children of God,” indeed we even now possess eternal life. Death is a comma, not a period. We then move on to a new dimension of eternal life in God’s presence.

So, why should we only live in community with the different tribes and nations over there? If we have life both there AND here, why don’t we choose to also live in the here and now with those who are ethnically different than us? Again, why do we have to wait for eternity to see this transpire? Why don’t we do it here? Why don’t we model for the world what the world claims it wants to see?  If we did that, they wouldn’t have to “imagine” what it would be like, all they’d have to do is look at the church of Jesus Christ. Come on! Let’s do that at TSF!

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To the Central Point of Difficulty

It was about 11-12 years ago that I invested some time in research and writing of a Civil War biography that featured the life of Abner Doubleday. Varied life circumstances caused me to put it aside, even though it is about 90% finished. Someday (maybe) I’m going to pull it out and finish it (maybe).

In the process of that research I came across a writer who could put words together as well as most anyone I’ve ever read. His name was George Freeman Noyes, a lawyer from Maine who served on the staff of Abner Doubleday that included the time of the Battle of Antietam. As a lawyer and highly educated man, his writing is always colorful – filled as well with abolitionist fervor and emotional Unionist sentiments. After his time of service in the Army of the Potomac was finished, he published a book in 1863 (so during the middle of the entire war) entitled The Bivouac and the Battlefield: Campaign Sketches in Virginia and Maryland.

The Union Army remained here in Washington County for about six weeks after the Battle. Noyes wrote about how he would get on his horse and ride around the fields and woods of the recent conflict. Here is a quote from these experiences …

One thing quite impressed me, and that was the rapidity with which the more marked traces of the battle disappeared. The roar of the last cannon had not ceased to reverberate among her leafy aisles before Nature, silent but ever active, had commenced to purify herself from the soil and stain of battle, and cover up the bloody footprints of War. In two weeks’ time, only the broken-down fences, the shattered and ruined buildings, the torn-up cornfields, and the frequent clusters of graves reminded the traveler of the late struggle. A year or two, and even these evidences will disappear. These bullet-marks in the trees will be overgrown with fresh bark. Fences, fields, and farmhouses will resume their wonted appearance, and over the graves and trenches, where lie the buried thousands, will once more wave a thick green mantle of bearded grain. Would that thus might disappear from every Northern and Southern home the sad memories of this battle; that Time the Comforter might thus heal the wounded hearts and dry up the bitter tears in every Northern and Southern family! Would that thus speedily every reminder of this rebellion might disappear from the national memory, every rankle from the national consciousness; that our present national wound might be healed to the central point of difficulty, never to break forth afresh, and leaving no ineffaceable scar!

What was the “present national wound” that he speaks of?  Though the reasons and causes of the Civil War are many, the slavery issue was surely near the top. And certainly it remains essentially at the top in the memory of that conflict and era of our history. And like an internal infection that only seems to be gone, this internal national wound has never been truly healed to the central point of difficulty. And the reason is that it cannot be healed apart from a divine healer, where the perspective is that we are truly all of the same descent, possessing the same spiritual problem. Finding that there is one spiritual answer, one medication that heals the problem (by His stripes we are healed), we have the opportunity to be one new people together. The divisions are all gone, and we can celebrate this healing grace in communion with one another in the new family of the church of Jesus Christ.

As a church we are going to need to intentionally own this effort. It is unlikely to ever just happen naturally. We are commanded to love one another, serve one another, prefer one another … all the “one anothers” of Scripture. How many of those things happen naturally?  It takes intentional effort to live out these admonitions.

This vision of church life is too big to be accomplished quickly and easily. We planted the first contemporary church in this region. We modelled small groups and grace ministries in ground-breaking fashion in this church community. We intentionally became a multi-generational fellowship, fulfilling that vision. Over two decades we partnered to make a multi-cultural church thrive halfway around the world! Here is another vision – to display the healing Christ provides for even the most difficult subject we have seen in modern times, causing the tracks that divide to become obsolete.

But I cannot be here with you long enough to see this vision entirely fulfilled – there’s not enough time for that. Will you capture this vision as a people and intentionally move it forward over time – a multi-year, multi-generational, multi-cultural church that begins to look like the composition of heaven?