Birds of a Feather

If we’ve learned anything about Romans in recent years from the New Perspective folks, it is that Romans is not just about me and God. It’s also about me and you. Paul, in fact, leverages many of the familiar soteriological truths that we typically associate with the book of Romans in the service of what I take to be an overarching ecclesiological agenda. The church at Rome was apparently divided along ethnic lines. Paul’s letter to the Romans represents (among other things) the apostle’s concerted effort to address the issue, in order to restore some inter-racial harmony in the congregation.

You cannot read very far in Paul’s letters without coming to grips with the fact that the trans-ethnic nature of the people of God under the New Covenant is very near and dear to the great apostle’s heart. As Paul expressed it in Galatians, ‘in Christ’ (and by that Paul surely also meant in Christ’s church) ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek.’

Just last week I was struck, once again, by just how unnatural—or, perhaps better, supernatural—Paul’s vision for the church as a trans-ethnic, surrogate family really is. I was jogging on the sand near the ocean, and I came across a flock of birds sitting on the beach. This is a common sight in Hermosa Beach, but these ‘bird parties,’ as my kids used to call them, usually consist of a single type of bird, the familiar seagulls we see throughout our beach communities here in Southern California.

This time, instead of a single flock of gulls, however, four kinds of birds had invited themselves to the party. Along with two distinct kinds of seagulls, there was also a group of gorgeous terns sitting just a few feet away from a collection of cool-looking sandpipers. But the different species didn’t mix with one another. Nope. They sat on the beach, in close proximity to one another, closely bunched together into their respective ‘ethnic groups,’ aggressively defending their borders whenever a member of one species dared to encroach upon the territory of another.

How natural! We even have a saying for it. Birds of a feather flock together. The sad thing is that we humans, like those birds, tend strongly to gravitate toward ‘people like us.’ And (also like those birds) we snip and snap at people who are not like us, when we think they are encroaching upon our territory. Indeed, history, past and present, is littered with the tragic fallout of what seems to be a natural tendency on the part of fallen human beings to fight to the death, in order to preserve blood and race, nation and homeland, that is, to protect ‘people like us’ from ‘people like them.’

This is what makes Paul’s vision for the church such a radical, world-changing project. As Paul saw it, in the death of Jesus, God had utterly defeated the demonic powers and principalities that divide us one against another. At the cross Jesus had once and for all destroyed the dividing wall of enmity between Jew and Gentile. God did this, Paul tells us, in order to make the two ethnic groups into ‘one new man’ (Ephesians 2), a ‘new humanity,’ as recent writers have expressed it.

Now here is what I find astounding. Paul claims that God wants to make this miracle—the miracle that everyone is now welcome at God’s banquet table—known to ‘the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.’ And God wants to do so ‘through the church’ (Ephesians 3)!

Wow! It’s like Paul is saying to us, Proclaim to the demonic powers that they have been defeated! Live together in community as a multi-ethnic family of brothers and sisters in Christ! Show the whole universe—yes, even Satan and his demons—that our God reigns!

Now that, I submit to you, is something to live for. But let’s not be naïve about the challenges facing such a project. No one says it’s gonna be easy. In our flesh we much too naturally continue to gravitate toward people like us. But real Christian community—world-changing community—demands that we draw upon the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to share life together in our local churches with people who are not like us.

But wait. Maybe we’re missing Paul’s point here. As it turns out, those people in our churches who are not like us are actually more like us than anyone else in the world. For they—like us—name the name of Jesus. And because of that, they are our brothers and sisters in this supernatural entity we call the family of God.

C’mon! Get with The Program! Let’s let those powers and principalities know that they’re done, they’re over, they’re history, they’re kaput. Let’s let ‘em know that Jesus has won. Let’s be the church that God intends us to be.

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3 Comments on “Birds of a Feather”

  1. TIm Curran Says:

    The “Bird Party” illustration is great. I believe that The uncorrupted creation has a supernatural tendency toward harmony and the “Bird Party” is a powerful example of how complete the corruption of all of creation is after the Fall.

    The Family of God toiling together against that corruption and finding ways to live in harmony with others “not like us” is one of if not the most powerful corporate testimonies of the Church in the present day just as it was for the early Church. The Roman Empire was transformed by that testimony through the power of the Holy Spirit.

    That miraculous corporate testimony is an assemblage of personal decisions to reach out to people “not like us.”…People not like me.

    Thank you for a vivid picture of this problem.
    I will use it as a reminder that when I see people as “not like me” I am not seeing them through God’s eyes.

    When I look at them through God’s eyes i will see them as He does and I will try to be His eyes, His ears, His hands.

  2. Andrew Faris Says:

    Joe,

    I was going to say something or other about how Reformed people tend to downplay just how amazing horizontal reconciliation is and how that probably contributes to the New Perspective skepticism (that and a lot of the bad, older New Perspective exegesis from the past). But I can’t remember exactly what I was going to say.

    So I’ll leave it at this: I’m enjoying the blog updates a lot. Helpful, thoughtful, pastoral, encouraging stuff. So keep it up. At least one guy reads every one of them!

    Andrew Faris
    Someone Tell Me the Story

    • hellerman Says:

      Hey, Andrew, good to hear from you. I think you younger guys are gonna bring to the church a lot of balance between the vertical-plus-horizontal aspects of reconciliation, among conservative evangelicals. For some reason, God has particularly blessed your generation with a special sensitivity to the horizontal side of the faith, and (unlike some of the ‘emerging’ folks) guys like you, Andrew, who are also deeply marked by the more traditional approach (via Grudem, Thoennes, et al), will likely end up with the pendulum smack dab in the middle, where it belongs! That’s my prayer for you, at any rate!

      I will always remember you as the only guy I have ever had in any class who knows that ‘v’ is Latin is pronounced like a ‘w’ in English. And that was a Greek class! :)


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