I have a friend with this habit of thrusting me into awkward situations. I never know when I’ll have a surprise meeting with a stranger, meet five random people at dinner or be swept along to some exclusive event I may or may not be on the guest list for.
She genuinely loves life and loves people and I love her for it.
At the Christian Alliance for Orphans summit last week we were walking along together when she nonchalantly mentioned we were going to eat at a lunch meeting with a group of pastors from the African American Church Initiative. This was news to me. But I wasn’t surprised.
I asked her what that the meeting was about and if I was invited. But she’d already begun a conversation with an acquaintance she’d bumped into on the sidewalk. So all I got was a shoulder shrug, a mischievous wink and flip of her hand.
I wasn’t sure if that meant I was or was not invited.
I hate inviting myself to things. Especially shindigs where head counts and food are involved. But I was hungry so I acquiesced and lamely traipsed beside her, unable to get another question in edgewise as she chattered on with yet another friend on the way.
As we approached the meeting space I had this sudden awareness of my … otherness.
I envisioned a room full of African-American pastors, all men in my imagination, visiting congenially in fellowship and camaraderie. I wondered what they would think about this stranger – a woman who is clearly neither African-American nor a pastor – barging in and crashing their party.
I entered the room and scanned the crowd. I internally sighed in relief when I saw that men and women of multiple ages and ethnicities filled the space. Several people smiled warmly and beckoned me to a table. No one noticed or cared that I was a stranger. And I immediately felt welcomed by the group.
In my friend’s defense, it turns out you were supposed to bring guests. But she could have mentioned that.
As the meeting began, everyone went around the room and shared who they were and what ministry they represented. It was mesmerizing to be among so many different pastors, ministry leaders, lay-leaders and professionals all advocating for the orphan.
I learned that the initiative seeks to inspire, equip and engage the African-American church in the work of orphan care. The leaders shared their vision to be a community where we were united in Christ to be His hands and feet to vulnerable children. They reminded the group that we are neither Jew nor Greek – we are all one under Christ and working together in this mission.
Though we were different ethnicities and championing many different facets of orphan care – differences that might naturally compete at best and cause tension at worst – there was a spirit of unity in the room that took my breath away.
I was struck with the openness, the humility, the honesty and grace the attendees showed one another. It was an atmosphere of encouragement and admiration. Of humor and kindness to one another. Of welcome and friendship.
I’ll admit I found myself a little awestruck.
But then it hit me, this was the church behaving like the church. A group of people who had set aside any differences for the sake of the gospel. And it was every bit as life-giving as God promises.
Scripture is rife with exhortation to pursue unity within the church. I have written on the topic here and here and could find so much more to discuss.
But I want to focus on a passage in Colossians 3 where Paul is once again calling the Church to pursue unity:
Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. ~ Colossians 3:11-14
The function of clothing is to cover up, protect, and express ourselves. In the Greek the word for clothe is endyō, which implies sinking into a garment. When I sink into a garment it means I am looking forward to it. It fits just right and I am relaxed in it. In my case, said article of clothing would likely be yoga pants.
Our identities are closely tied to the way we dress because our style says something about who we are and who we want to be. Our status, our purpose and even our comfort are expressed by the outfit we choose on any given day.
As followers of Christ, any expression of ourselves should be a reflection of Christ in us. So Paul instructs believers to clothe ourselves in virtues that reflect our identity as God’s chosen people.
Look closely at how Merriam-Webster defines of each virtue:
- compassion: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress – with a desire to alleviate it
- kindness: the quality or state of being kind (having or showing a gentle nature and a desire to help others : wanting and liking to do good things and to bring happiness to others)
- humility: the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people
- gentleness: the quality or state of being gentle (having or showing a kind and quiet nature : not harsh or violent)
- patience: the capacity or habit of being able to remain calm and not become annoyed when waiting for a long time or when dealing with problems or difficult people
- forbearance: a refraining from the enforcement of something (as a debt, right, or obligation) that is due
- forgiveness: the ability to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong) : to stop blaming (someone)
Layers upon layers upon layers of grace. This is what scripture teaches us to robe ourselves with. And over all of that? The final layer?
Love. Because love is what binds all of these virtues together in perfect unity.
What I witnessed in the room at the conference was a group of people doing this. They had clothed themselves in the virtues of unity then covered it all with love.
It got me thinking about what would happen if the church truly committed to unity like this.
Can we put on love over layers of peace and work together for sake of the Gospel? Can we set aside our differences and instead show the world what divinely commissioned unity looks like?
Oh how I hope so.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. ~ Colossians 3:15
Here are two other posts on the topic of unity:
How the Oneness of God Points us to Unity
With One Voice: Choosing Unity over Dissonance