Some of you may be familiar with the Holderness family’s latest YouTube parody video “Welcome to my Couch.” It begins with a family and neighbors gathered around a table loaded with traditional Thanksgiving fare. Dinner conversation begins well enough, but quickly derails into political commentary and bickering that gets physical and ruins the meal. To restore peace, the football game is turned on and the angry guests are plied with so much alcohol that they become best of friends. At the end of the video, clips of children hugging it out and animals at peace with each other are played. Refrains of “Let’s all be friends now” and “Let’s love each other” are heard. Penn, the father and narrator asks the question: “If dogs and cats can get along, then we should be able to get along at least for one day, right?”
Funny? Yes. Quite possibly prophetic reality for many this week? Perhaps.
Surely there must be a better way to deal with our conflicts than the “bandage” of alcohol, entertainment and photo montage of cute children and puppies? Surely Christian unity depends on something other than a fake it till you make it mentality? The election results have been most revealing and troubling, particularly when the so-called Christian vote is considered. Clearly, the church in America is seriously divided, and I’m sure we’ve all noticed how vitriolic that divide is becoming on social media and in the news. It’s heartbreaking really. Anyone who loves Jesus should also love their spiritual brothers and sisters, and so this divide feels like the pain of a divorce in many ways. A family is being torn asunder, and how is the watching world supposed to know us for our love when we’re all too busy tearing each other apart?
It was at another table for a different celebration when Jesus gave his disciples these instructions:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.
We can all read. We all see these instructions, but sometimes I wonder if we think that the love Jesus refers to is no different than the love that Penn Holderness spoke of in his parody video. A “love” that can keep the peace for one day, and then turns into backstabbing each other the rest of the year. I recognize, because of my own sin, that actual obedience to Christ’s commands is not easy. Things get really confusing when our pride, politics, possessions and passion for our version of the truth come into play.
Before giving his disciples these words, Jesus revealed that Judas would betray him and he had already left the table and the room. Hadn’t the group’s unity already been disrupted? Despite Jesus warning his disciples of his upcoming death, they didn’t fully understand, and when his arrest and crucifixion came, many scattered in fear and doubt. It took them years of faithful practice to actually live out Jesus’ words, and in their practiced obedience, we have accounts of their failures as well. And yet the command still stands. So how do we obey it?
The Old Testament presents an interesting account in the Book of Joshua that gives some timeless principles to help us figure out what biblical love for our spiritual family actually looks like when disagreements arise. Joshua has obeyed all that the Lord asked him to do in taking possession of the Promised Land and distributing the land among the tribes of Israel. The first tribes to get their land under Moses were the Reubenites, Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh on the eastern shore of the Jordan River. The fighting men of those tribes then cross the Jordan River to help possess the land for their brethren. After seven years of fighting, Joshua releases the men to return to their land with many thanks, material rewards and words of warning. They are to be careful “to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.”
Before crossing back over the Jordan River on their way home, these tribes, oddly and seemingly somewhat randomly, decide to build “an altar of imposing size.”
When all the rest of Israel heard of it, “the people of Israel gathered at Shiloh to make war against them.” I read this and think, Wow! Major overreaction! How and why did they so quickly go from thanking their brothers to being prepared to kill them?
The answer comes when Israel decides to send a delegation of wise men led by Phinehas to try to reason with these tribes before sending the army to kill them. The majority tribes had jumped to an immediate conclusion about their brethren that proved false upon closer examination. The western tribes viewed the “altar of imposing size” and assumed that the eastern tribes were breaking God’s commandment and engaging in idolatry. Their righteous zeal drove them to fear divine judgment, and for everyone’s sake, they were willing to even kill their idolatrous brothers to spare the rest of Israel from God’s judgment.
It becomes clear that the eastern tribes had intentionally built the altar to provoke and garner attention, but in no way were engaging in idolatry. This was not an altar to be used for worship purposes, but an altar to stand as a reminder for all of Israel and their descendants that no geographical divide like the River Jordan, or even no tribal and family loyalty, would separate the bond all the peoples of Israel shared. Their unity was because of and found in the “The Mighty One, God, the Lord!”
The altar of imposing size is called Witness, “For it is a witness between us that the Lord is God.” The western tribal delegation returns to Shiloh, “and the people of Israel blessed God and spoke no more of making war against them.”
Such a fascinating story! Here are some observations that might be relevant to our situation today as we deal with a divided church.
1. All of Israel cared for God’s holiness and were righteously zealous on his behalf. At least at this point they understood that sin had far-reaching consequences. One person’s sin could destroy them all. They weren’t taking any chances.
2. Their zeal caused them to make a false assumption, but they were wise enough to use reason first before declaring war. Wise leaders show restraint but also take sin so seriously that action is taken. Wise words and listening ears will always be stronger than any sword.
3. The eastern tribes were also wise. They knew that humans put up barriers and are prone to forgetfulness. We need constant reminders of whose we are and who we are supposed to worship in order to maintain proper fellowship. We can’t let geography, tradition, skin color, grudges, personal preferences, tribal (read denominational) and political differences divide true brothers. The source of our unity transcends our human preferences and natural loyalties.
4. We must be willing to help each other to the point of great sacrifice. When the western tribes feared the eastern tribes had fallen into idolatry because of where they lived, they offered to make space for them in their own land. This type of generosity is wonderful, but it would have been so costly. But they were willing to do it! Our sin is a matter of life and death. Our temporal reality is just that, temporal. We all face eternity and what God cares about should be our top priority.
5. Worship of God demands obedience to his commands. Out of proper worship comes proper love for each other, and then proper unity will follow.
“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”
Our altar or “Witness” that unites disciples of Christ together around the world is the Table of the Lord’s Supper. We all gather around it on a regular basis and remember Christ’s body and blood shed for us. True Christians have been washed clean by his blood, and therefore, we can indeed reason together around this most holy of all tables.
Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. One day the church will rejoice to be seated in perfect unity and fellowship around the Table of the Lamb. Until that day, let us try to love each other as Jesus commanded us, knowing we will stumble and sometimes fail, even perhaps as we gather together with friends and family this Thanksgiving. But let us still try! It’s an effort worth everything.
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.