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What is Essential?

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)

We’re living in a time of human history when things we thought were essential are being examined: are they really essential? What is essential for this time? The changes are not small, from the mundane to the profound. For example, do we need physical money or will digital money suffice? More profoundly, what is gender? We thought these were eternal, settled questions only to discover they are temporary and contested!

For Christians, Phyllis Tickle calls it an “every 500-year rummage sale” (The Great Emergence¸ Baker, 2008) in which we are looking at ideas and practices, throwing away some that aren’t useful anymore and discovering old gems in the attic that are helpful now. Tickle and others have said historic creeds (like the Apostles’ and Nicene) should be set out for trash pickup while lectio divina(the practice of slow, rhythmic repetition of scripture to better know God) should be dusted off and put to use.

What is your list of essential Christian ideas and practices? (Here's one Christian's list.) Is Christianity still Christianity if one of them is removed from your list? What is maybe not essential but an obstacle or an unnecessary burden for doing God’s work in this time and place? What is not essential but helpful to St John’s specific mission of celebrating God’s love, proclaiming the Good News of Jesus, and serving our neighbors?

In April, we met for Civil Dialogues about gun safety, immigration, and Christian nationalism. Thank you to everyone who participated! We had people from 13 to 92 years old present and willing to listen to each other. Listening to each other deeply around contested issues is critical to this “rummage sale” time and to St. John’s vision of deepening relationships.

What we have learned is that we can discuss issues that we become passionate and upset about and it doesn’t break our relationships. Too often, people think, “Oh, if they don’t agree with me, I can’t have a relationship with them.” We have learned that isn’t true. Our relationships are more than our agreements, even on issues that we feel very passionate about.

I suggest that for Christians, our relationships are definitely NOT based on our agreement on issues. Our relationships are based SOLELY on our relationship through Christ. If you’ve never read it, I urge you to consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, who writes, “Christian community is only this: We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ” (p. 21). The desire to agree on social issues is a dream, “[b]ut God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams” (p. 26). Human efforts and human agreements will ultimately shatter, and Bonhoeffer encourages them to shatter quickly so we can be grasped by the radical grace of God in Christ. It is by grace alone we are saved (Eph 2:8-9), not our agreement on the issues of the day, no matter how emotionally powerful or urgent.

We should not and must not break off Christian relationships because we disagree, for example, on gun safety or immigration. We should argue, listen, even get upset with each other and have to go cool off for awhile, but not break off our fundamental relationship with each other through Christ. The living Christ is the only true basis for our relationships.

Christian nationalism, however, is a different problem because it claims importance above our common identity in Christ. By “Christian nationalism,” I mean “a cultural framework that blurs distinctions between Christian identity and American identity, viewing the two as closely related and seeking to enhance and preserve their union” (see A. Whitehead and S. L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, Oxford, 2020). By blurring Christian identity with American identity, Christian nationalists demand agreement on a set of social issues in order to be considered “Christian.” This puts, for example, an idea about guns above the Gospel, and says that we can’t have a Christian relationship with someone unless they agree on guns. Insisting that agreement on any social issue is necessary for Christian relationship pushes Christ out of the center and makes our relationship about something other than Christ.

In the midst of the “500-year rummage sale,” I suspect we will be tempted many times to move something else into the central place of Christ, claiming some kind of agreement is essential. My prayer is that we will reject anything but Christ as the only sufficient and essential basis of our unity, life, and hope as Christian community.

Grateful to be rummaging with you,

Pastor Peter


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