Written for the Women of the ELCA Spring Cluster meeting, March 12, 2016, hosted by St. Andrew Lutheran Church
“I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God. Then you will have minds confident and at rest, focused on Christ, God’s great mystery.” –Colossians 2:2, The Message
If someone asked you, “What is the story of the New Testament?” what would you say?
The obvious answer is that it is the story of Jesus Christ and his first followers. The gospels tell versions of the story of who Jesus was and what he did. The Acts of the Apostles and the letters tell the story of how his followers told the story of Jesus to others, how they built the church, and struggled to figure out how to be the church.
But as I thought about our theme for this retreat — “Weave Us Together” — I began to realize that that phrase could be another way of describing the New Testament. Throughout the New Testament we see God working to weave us together. We see Christians coming to grips with the reality that they are woven together – whether they like it or not.
In Jesus Christ himself, God weaves humanity and divinity together. And Jesus tried to get us to see that we are woven together with God: that God draws close to us.
Jesus also tried to get people to see that humans are all woven together. He ate with outsiders and sinners that everyone else rejected. He healed lepers and weaved them back into the community. He told people that even those who hated them or hurt them were woven together with them, and they ought to live out that truth: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). In the Gospel of John especially we see that Jesus promoted radical togetherness among his disciples: “Love one another as I have loved you,” he said over and over at his last supper with them (Jn 13:34; 15:12).
In the book of Acts we can see how the early Church struggled with just who is woven together in the name of Jesus Christ. One of the main struggles was about whether non-Jewish people (whom the Jews called Gentiles) could join the church without first becoming Jews. Did they have to obey Jewish laws? Did they have to take on Jewish customs? And the most talked-about question was: Did the men have to get circumcised — the sign of being part of God’s covenant (Gen. 17:1-14)?
The church was still a very Jewish movement in the time of the New Testament, but the Holy Spirit came to Gentiles, too. For many early Christians the thought of Jewish people being woven together with non-Jews was unbearable. The Jews had struggled for centuries to maintain their identity, separate from the other cultures that moved in on them. So when Gentiles started being baptized and eating with Jewish believers, many controversies ensued (see for example Acts 10-11 & 15).
But for many early Christians, the argument boiled down to the fact that God was already welcoming Gentiles into the Body of Christ. Simon Peter saw that the Holy Spirit had come on the Gentiles; they were speaking in tongues and praising God – even before they’d been baptized (Acts 10:44-48)! So he said to the critics, “If then God gave them [the gift of the Holy Spirit], the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (11:17). Peter, and many others, accepted the Gentiles not because they wanted to, but because they saw that God had already woven them together with the Jewish believers.
Most of the rest of the New Testament is made up of letters written to early Christian communities. These letters encouraged the communities in their faith, taught them, helped set them on the right path. And many of these letters include reminders that Christians are woven together in a radical new way, even across the usual social boundaries of religion and class and gender.
Paul was especially passionate about the unity of the church. He waxed poetic about it; he made persuasive arguments; sometimes he even seems like he’s yelling through the words on the page. For Paul, unity and equality were some of the most important parts of life in the church.
Almost all his letters contain some kind of exhortation to greater unity; over and over he tried to get people to recognize that God had woven them together, and to live like it. Often he tackled the old conundrum about welcoming in the Gentiles (see Galatians, for example). Other times he tackled class issues, like when he came down hard on the Corinthian Christians for leaving out the poor among them (1 Cor. 11:17-34). In his letter to the Colossians — which our verse of the day comes from — he stood against people who claimed they were closer to Christ because they have had visions and special knowledge and because they kept special religious practices (Col. 2:16-19). That’s not right, Paul said. Christ died; Christ was raised. All Christians were baptized into that death and resurrection, and we are all woven together with Christ in our baptism. Period. End of discussion.
The way he stated that message transgressed all social boundaries: religious, ethnic, behavior differences, social class. “There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, [savage], slave and free; but Christ is all in all!” (Col. 3:11).
One of the main stories shared by the entire New Testament is the story of God weaving more and more people together into the family of God. God weaves people together despite all the things of the world that try to separate them: social norms, personal preferences, culture, even the law.
It was not easy for those early Christians. There was conflict. Many people were offended. Many were uncomfortable. Many were resentful. A lot of the time the church continued to fail at living out its God-given unity. But when the church people showed how God had woven them together: when women were seen as equal with men, when slaves were seen as equal with their masters; when Gentiles and Jews fellowshipped with one another; when the poor were given a seat at the table of the rich; then the church became a radical sign of God’s love.
Two-thousand years later, it’s still not easy for Christians to acknowledge how we are woven together. We still like to imagine that our boundaries are also God’s boundaries, that God works within our system. We like to think that we know and understand what God wants…even when the Holy Spirit seems to be working in new and even transgressive ways…as it always has.
Since this is an election year, our divisions are cut extra-deep. We are encouraged with every news clip to see that group as stupid; that group as immoral; that group as dangerous; that group as second-class citizens. But the politicians and pundits never stop to invite us to ask how God sees all those people, and that is what should matter most to Christians. How does God see Republicans? How does God see Democrats? How does God see Black protestors and Mexican immigrants and Syrian refugees? How does God see each of us?
As Lutherans, our answer has to be: God sees us all with grace. As believers in the Bible, our answer has to be: God’s desire is to weave all of us together.
The message “Weave Us Together,” sounds so simple at first, like something everybody can get behind. (“Yay, unity!”) But when we turn from the news coverage and the talking heads to the message of the New Testament, we can see just how radical that message still is. We see that to profess our faith that God weaves us together across all of society’s boundaries is to take a powerful stand against the ways of the world; it is a rebellion.
It is a calling from God that can be hard to bear. Do we dare take a stand for unity in a world that thinks division is necessary for survival?
But imagine it with me: A community where all different kinds of people are woven together. People from different parts of the country and different parts of the world, people with different skin tones, people with different accents and dialects, people with no money and people with lots of money, people with different political views, people with disabilities, people with scars (inside and out) — all joined together in Christ, worshiping with one another, praying together, visiting one another in the hospital, gathering around the table together.
That is the radical sign that God calls the church to be. That is how God desires to weave us together.
Let us pray: Holy God, creator of all people and all the world, Weave us together into a tapestry of love. Help us to see one another as you see us and to love one another as you love us. Make us into a visible sign of your amazing grace for all the world to see. Amen.