“Exchanging Tribalism for Catholicity”
The Prayer Book Epistle readings for Advent are intended to help us prepare for the two comings of Christ. This opening season of the Church Year focuses on both Christ’s first advent as Savior as well as His second advent of Judge. God delights in salvation and not in judgment, so He has made provision through Christ’s first coming for us to repent and believe so that we will not perish in the final Judgment. We sinners have a choice as to whether or not to prepare for Judgment Day: Advent presents us with the opportunity to receive our Savior and coming Judge as Lord of our lives so that we will be ready for His return.
The Epistle for the Second Sunday in Advent is from the 15th chapter of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, verses 4 through 13. In order for us to appreciate the context of this passage, let us look at the context of Romans. The Roman converts to Christianity were mostly from a Gentile, or non-Jewish background. The central theme of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is how sinners can become righteous before God; that is, how can what is sinful be made right in the sight of the pure and holy God. In the first part of the Epistle, Paul makes it clear that all people- whether Jew or Gentile- are sinners who have failed to love God and others as we should, and therefore are deserving of God’s judgment. Although the Jews were historically God’s chosen people, they had failed to live up to the requirements of God’s holy Law; and the Gentiles have failed to respond as they should to God’s revelation in creation. Therefore all have sinned and fallen short of God’s righteous expectations; which leaves us in a perilous predicament. Our works cannot atone for our sins because we owe God total loving obedience 24/7, and therefore there’s no overtime to undo the evil of our sins. But God, who is rich in mercy, sent Jesus to die on His cross for our sins so that we could rise to a new righteous life through His resurrection. As Romans 11:32 states, “For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.” Mercy is always the undeserved favor shown to the guilty. Thus, only God through faith in Christ can make us righteous.
For us who believe and are baptized, a new pattern of righteous behavior emerges out of gratitude for our salvation. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we seek to follow Jesus and do what is right. The last part of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans explains the character of righteous living. Filled with God’s love, we don’t just live for our own gratification, but rather to care for and serve others. As Paul wrote in the beginning of Romans 15:
We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” (15:1-3)
Jesus therefore is the primary example of righteous living. If we are going to have a righteous lifestyle pleasing to God, we’re going to have to get serious about following Jesus’s teaching and example every day of our life.
All throughout his Epistle, Paul did what Jesus also did- quoted Sacred Scriptures a lot. That’s because the written Word of God gives us instructions about righteous behavior in the Old Testament, and contains the teachings and examples of Jesus in the New. Therefore Saint Paul turned to the value of God’s written Word in today’s Epistle lesson: “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.”
Paul especially wanted these Gentile converts to have full assurance that God loved them just as much as He did the Jews- in spite of the fact that the Gentiles were not historically the Old Covenant people of God. In Christ, that old sense of tribal differences disappears, since God loves and saves all people equally. Paul wants the Roman converts to embrace that hope of God’s saving love by pointing out how the Old Testament prophesied the future unification of Jews and Gentiles into the One Church of Jesus Christ. So therefore Paul went on to quote passages of how God would bring salvation to the Gentiles through the Jesus, the Jewish Messiah:
Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God. Now I say that Jesus Christ has become a servant to the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, as it is written: “For this reason I will confess to You among the Gentiles, and sing to Your name.” And again he says: “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people!” And again: “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles! Laud Him, all you peoples!” And again, Isaiah says: “There shall be a root of Jesse; and He who shall rise to reign over the Gentiles, in Him the Gentiles shall hope.” Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Paul thereby made it abundantly clear that the Gentiles have been grafted into the true Israel of God by their faith in Christ Jesus; and as such, they on equal footing with all the redeemed. This whole concept is, of course, merely an expansion of the Great Commission given by the risen Jesus Himself in Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (28:19-20).
Of what particular value can this truth of all nations being incorporated into Christ’s Church have for us regarding our Advent preparation for Christ’s coming? It gets down to this: if we are to exchange sin’s darkness for Christ’s light, we are also going to have to exchange our own tribalism for the true catholicity of the Gospel.
What do I mean by “true catholicity”? The 1928 version of the traditional Book of Common Prayer defines the Church as “Catholic; because it is universal, holding earnestly the Faith for all time, in all countries, and for all people; and is sent to preach the Gospel to the whole world” (2nd Office of Instruction). Therefore to be truly catholic means to believe and engage in the work of Christ’s Great Commission.
What, then, is tribalism? Tribalism is having a sense of primary identity and loyalty to a group with distinctive beliefs and/or cultural practices. Tribalism tends to segregate people into groups wherein they don’t care for or socialize as much with others outside the group. Tribalism protects the tribe by erecting and maintaining barriers between people. But when we are baptized into the Church of which the Savior of all people is the Head, tribal barriers are removed- like the one between Jew and Gentile. In Revelation chapter 5, Jesus is praised by the heavenly host for having “redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (v. 9).
So then we have to ask ourselves: is our primary identity and loyalty to a group, or to the Lord Jesus Christ? Are we willing to reach beyond our larger tribal identity with the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Many of us belong to clubs, organizations, political parties, and the like: how does our membership in those groups affect our availability and willingness to reach out to non-members? Robert Frost’s early 20th century poem, “Mending Wall,” contains the penetrating challenge: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out.” Every time we think about people in this world, Christ wants us to think redemptively. He wants us to forgive as we have been forgiven, and to love as we have been loved. He wants us to see all others with compassion, and to join with Jesus in seeking and saving that which is lost. He wants us to exchange our familiar and comfortable tribalism for the true catholicity of the Church.
If we are to be prepared for our Lord’s second Advent, let us pray for the heart of Jesus to see and love others as He does. Let us have our primary identity and loyalty to Christ as members of His Church. And if we are to have truly righteous lives, let us do what we can do break down all barriers that keep us from loving one another, just as Christ loves us. Amen.