So, a new year has begun. It’s about time. I suspect that, by 11:59pm on December 31st, most of us were glad to see the back of 2016. It was a tough year, in a lot of ways, especially here in Charlotte. I arrived here just in time for the tragic shooting of Keith Scott and the peaceful demonstrations—and then angry riots—that followed. I remember wondering: “What does this mean?” I know I wasn’t the only one asking that question. There are, of course, several hundred thousand answers, depending on who’s talking at any given moment. Everyone has an opinion. What’s beyond question, though, is the fact that we live in a city divided in so many ways along so many lines.
If you didn’t notice that in 2016, then you clearly weren’t paying attention. Last year forced us to look at these painful divisions—in some cases, for some of us, for the first time. This year, God gives us a chance to begin the hard, but holy, kingdom work of pursuing peace in our city. Paul tells us that Jesus has already done the hardest—and holiest—part of the job. “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ,” he writes in Ephesians 2:13 -14. “For He is our peace; in His flesh He has made both groups into one and broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Through the sacrificial love of Jesus, God brought Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians together into one, blessed family, something before nobody imagined possible. Through the sacrificial love of Christ’s body, the church, God is able to accomplish similar miracles in this time and in this place.
I truly believe that. Race, gender, class, ideology, nationality, religion: The list of dividing lines goes on. For us, though, as Christians, our ministry to our city begins—and ends—with Jesus. He is our peace. He is the one who can do what, in our despair or cynicism or fear, we are convinced cannot be done. It’s not just a matter of proclaiming the love of Jesus in hopes that those who don’t know him now as Lord and Savior will turn to Him. That’s part of it, but everyone knows that we Christians aren’t always the kindest, gentlest, easiest people to get along with. Churches are no stranger to dividing lines. For us to begin with Jesus, then, means more than simply sharing the good news. It means letting the life and teachings and promise and power of Jesus become both our starting point and our destination, moving from what we know of Him toward what we know of Him in the way we treat others, order our priorities, and take risks on behalf of God’s kingdom. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Even things that seem really, really hard, if not impossible.
And then, every so often, we’re blessed with a glimpse of what can happen when we try and be obedient to Jesus in this way. Hebrews 13:2 tells us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” As you may recall, Providence hosted the 41st Annual Citywide Interfaith Thanksgiving Service back on November 22nd. Our Sanctuary was packed with people who were, well, about as diverse as you can imagine. The day after the event, I got an email from Mary Thomas, a Cantor at Temple Beth El, expressing her thanks for our hospitality. She graciously agreed to let me share her words with you: “I drive by your church nearly every day. I drop my little guy at preschool on Shalom Park and then drive up to Cotswold for Starbucks. Day in and day out, today included. Now, I drive by and your campus is alive with each of you and the kindness and graciousness that you’ve shown to our community. It is a truly incredible thing for a place on my daily landscape to move from being a facade to a vibrant and sacred space filled with talent and spirit and openness. Thank you.”
Small steps forward, maybe. But that’s how real, lasting community gets built. It’s a long haul commitment. Jesus knows what that sort of commitment looks like and feels like. And this year, I believe He’s inviting us to catch up with Him, so we can join Him in doing what He’s already doing: Loving others generously and sacrificially for the sake of pursuing peace in our troubled, but hopeful, world. May the peace of Christ be with you!