This is a picture of my dad and I with Pastor Fred Faradays in Kenya in 2014. I’m the one on the left without a wife or beard or job at a church.
Fred is an incredible man who has dedicated his life to living and serving in Kibera Slum in Nairobi. And his job is not easy. Apart from all the poverty and disease and hopelessness in that place, he also has to deal with tribalism.
Pastor Fred’s church is made up of Kikuyus and Luos and Kambas and people from many other tribes.
Most of the time everybody gets along and they worship together, etc. But there come these moments when his congregants choose to have a tribal witch doctor perform a funeral for them instead of their pastor (because that’s what you do in your tribe).
Or when there’s violence along tribal lines, people quickly turn on their neighbor.
This is so discouraging for Fred because it’s clear that in those moments, these Christians are putting tribal identity over their identity in Christ. Their faith takes a back seat to their tribe.
I tell you all this because back in 2014, I couldn’t relate to Pastor Fred’s discouragement. But as a pastor in 2021, I think I know how he feels.
For most of the 20th Century in America we didn’t have tribes like that. I mean, sure there’s IU vs. Purdue. PC vs. Mac. Twizzlers vs. Red Vines. (And that can get pretty intense…)
But over the last 20 years, especially, something has begun to change. Tribalism has come to America in a real way. Two big tribes, in particular, have arisen and they are ripping our community apart.
They’re like two big whirlpools circling each other, sucking everybody in. You’ve got to pick a side. It’s hard to be shaped by anything else these days.
So much so that I think, if you told me your thoughts on some hot button cultural issue, I could probably also guess with a high degree of accuracy your opinions on politics, vaccines, immigration, race, same-sex marriage, and a bunch of other stuff.
These tribes are starting to dominate our lives. To dominate our emotions.
I mean you feel it, don’t you? Tension, anxiety, anger…
Real question here, raise your hand if you’ve had a shorter temper over the last two years than you did before the pandemic.
Now don’t respond to this one, but how much of that anger is because of those other guys?
I mean, it’s Christmas this week. The hap- happiest season of all. And it feels like we’re wrapping presents behind a barricade! We’ve chosen our sides and we’re ready for battle.
The biggest problem I can see with this modern-day tribalism is not the anger, it’s not the potential for violence. It’s the fact that it looks no different within the Church.
And just like Pastor Fred in Kenya, it’s discouraging to me as a pastor. We are supposed to be better than this. Set apart. In the world, not of the world. A city on a hill.
We are supposed to represent God’s peace on earth. A return to Eden. How can we do this if our tribal identity takes precedence over our identity in Christ?
That is what we’re going to talk about today.
And I know that sounds awfully intense for Christmas week. (Can’t we just talk about mangers or something?)
It’s intense. But we’re going to go there because there is hope. And I believe that within the birth of Jesus himself lies the possibility of a whole new way to live.
It might just show us the path out of this divided time.
And isn’t that what we truly want for our community this Christmas? “Peace on earth and good will toward men…”
I know I want that. So let’s talk about how to experience it.
BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS
So far in this series we’ve been talking about how the birth of Jesus brings peace on earth. God’s peace - peace that goes beyond our ability to understand.
And we’ve talked about the fact that biblical peace is way more than an absence of warfare. It’s wholeness, completeness, abundance, life… It’s a return to Eden.
We can experience that peace in our hearts because God entered our world. It’s what we celebrate every Christmas. The Lord is near!
We can experience peace in our families by learning to love like Jesus loved. Setting ourselves aside like he did by becoming a helpless baby. By dying on our behalf. By loving his enemies. Self-giving love leads to peace.
Today we’re going to talk about peace in our community. How does the message of Christ change things outside these walls? Especially in this tribalistic time?
LIVE IN PEACE
Let’s get into it.
I want us to look at Paul’s letter to the Romans.
A lot of Romans is about tribalism - finding peace between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. But in Romans 12, Paul turns his perspective outwards, about how the church in Rome should interact with its broader community.
(And by the way, this is lost in English, but all the commands he gives here are plural. This is not addressed to you as an individual. It’s addressed to y’all.)
Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!
Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.
That sounds a lot like what we read last week in 1 Peter. Yet again, peace and self-giving love seem to go hand in hand.
Bless those who persecute you. Practice empathy for others.
Set yourself aside and hang out with ordinary people. Get over yourself! Don’t think you know it all.
And look at that last line. Verse 18. “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.”
I’m positive Paul is echoing the teaching of Jesus in his sermon on the mount:
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.
Church in Rome: do all that you can to be peacemakers.
More literally in v.18, Paul is saying, “if it’s possible, so far as it depends on you, live in peace with everyone.”
In other words, you can’t control other people’s actions. The world around you might spread violence and hatred and division.
But you can control yourself.
And remember, this is all plural. Y’all live in peace with everyone. You can’t control the tribalism of your community. But you can help shape what your church is known for. Loving your enemies, empathy, humility, peacemaking…
Verse 16. “Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable.”
That’s how you establish peace in your community. You love like Jesus even if the community around you doesn’t. They will notice. And they’ll be changed. Put simply,
The church can bring peace to its community when it is known for self-giving love.
Which sounds great. There’s only one problem with that. Self-giving love is really hard. I mean, it’s completely unnatural to us.
We are born and raised in a world of self-serving pride. A world of strength and success and winning.
How are we supposed to imitate the love of Jesus and be known for peace if everything in the world around us is drawing us in another direction?
Well, skip back up to verse 1 of this passage.
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
Well, there’s our answer: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world.” Yes, we’re all coming out of a culture that idolizes self. That pulls us into to tribalism, but we can “let God transform us into new people by changing the way we think.”
This word, transform, in Greek is metamorphoō - to change one's form
It’s where we get our word metamorphosis.
This is not just behavior modification. Not just trying harder. It’s a complete overhaul of our minds. Changing our default settings.
We allow God to turn us into new people who think differently.
That’s what the Holy Spirit does. The Spirit of Christ is within us, transforming us to be like him. That’s how self-giving love is possible. When it’s Christ’s love flowing through us – not our own.
But here’s the deal. If we want this transformation, Paul says, we have to give our bodies to God as a living sacrifice. This is whole-life surrender. It doesn’t just happen.
Here’s what this tells me. If we are deep in the whirlpools of tribalism and we just want to slap a Christian bumper sticker on it, we’re just going to be Christian tribalists.
Like what Pastor Fred deals with in Nairobi. When the pressure’s on, what the tribe demands comes first.
If we want Grace Church to bring peace to our divided community, then we can’t just copy their behaviors and customs of our tribes. This takes transformation. This takes surrender.
Peace in this tribalistic time is possible, but we must be transformed into the image of Christ.
New People. Not just hating and judging and isolating ourselves like everyone else and calling it Christian.
Our savior came to us that first Christmas morning in humility and helplessness and surrender. And that is when peace on earth began. We must have the same attitude as him if we want that peace to continue.
You want to talk about mangers? The Son of God was placed in a food trough. Jesus set himself aside, and he calls us to do the same.
Our community can start to find peace when we start to look like him.
So how do we do that? Well, it goes way beyond just a couple of bullet points. This is a whole-life journey here.
But I can give you a few things to remember this Christmas season if you share my desire to bring peace to our community. If we want Grace Church to be transformed. The first reminder is this:
You’ve got to do the work.
About 10 years ago, Andy Stanley (a pastor in North Carolina) had this brilliant advice for single people: if you want love that will last, instead of running around desperately trying to find your perfect match, focus on becoming the kind of person the person you’re looking for is looking for.
If my ideal spouse is looking for a committed, godly, generous man, but I’m none of those things… then I shouldn’t be disappointed when she doesn’t come my way.
I’ve got to work on myself, be the person she’s looking for, and she’ll find me.
The same thing is true for our outward expressions of Christlikeness. If we expect to love our enemies and have empathy for others and avoid the whirlpool of tribalism but we never do the work to become the kind of person who does that, then we don’t have a chance!
You think you’re just going to go about your daily life and someone slaps you on the cheek and you immediately respond, “I love you, enemy! Here’s my other cheek!” No! You’re going to karate chop them in the neck!
You don’t love your enemies by default. You’ve work to become the kind of person who loves their enemies.
If you’ve never done the work with God’s Spirit to be transformed in your normal, daily life, then what makes you think you’ll act like Jesus when the pressure’s on?
In his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines [image: Willard] (which I highly recommend), Dallas Willard suggests that if we want to act like Jesus when we’re ‘on the spot,’ then we’ve got to act like him when we’re not.
This isn’t a passive thing. We allow God to transform us by doing the work of communing with Him in prayer, searching for truth in the Scriptures, practicing self-denial, worshipping our creator, practicing solitude and silence, and so on. We do the work of discipleship.
In the book he says, “True Christlikeness, true companionship with Christ, comes at the point where it is hard not to respond as he would." -Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines
That takes transformation.
If we want Grace to be a church that demonstrates the self-giving love of Jesus to our tribalistic community, then you and I have got to do the work to become the kinds of people who look and act like Christ.
Like the son of God who gave up his divine privileges to be born as a helpless child…
He showed us the way of peace. We’ve got to do the work and walk it…
My second reminder from this passage is this:
Garbage in, garbage out.
This is a computer science expression. Basically, if you put garbage inputs into a computer program, you’re going to get garbage results.
We are the same way when it comes to tribalism. If what we are putting into our minds and hearts is garbage, then that’s what is going to flow out of us.
If the stuff you consume on social media or YouTube is full of hate for those on the other side, guess what’s going to flow out of you? Hate!
If the news networks you watch are force-feeding you fear and outrage and anger, guess how you’ll respond to those from the other tribe?
If all of your conversations are with people who think exactly like you (and you’re just piling on), guess how much nuance and compassion you’ll have when you encounter someone a different opinion?
Garbage in, garbage out.
There are billions of dollars to be made by whipping you into a tribalistic frenzy of outrage and fear. It’s how our world works now.
But guys, verse 2, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world…”
Pay attention to your influences. Pay attention to who is shaping your worldview. If it’s not Christlike, shut it off. Do the work.
If we ever want Grace Church to be different than the world around us, we must focus on, as Paul says, “learning to know God’s will for us, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” And not the will of our tribe.
That’s the only way we’ll experience peace. Finally, I want to remind you that,
Our community is watching.
In verse 17, Paul tells the church in Rome, “Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable.”
Our community is watching. The credibility gap is wide. I’m not trying to be melodramatic here, but our ability to share the good news of Jesus depends on our reputation.
Do we love like Christ? Or are we just drawing battle lines like everyone else?
In the early church Jews and Gentiles were at odds with one another, but Paul would have none of it.
Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us… Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death.
We will not put up new dividing walls of hostility in the church. Not here. Not now. Not while our community is watching.
In this tribalistic time, Grace Church will be different. We will shine with the self-giving love of Jesus. Verse 18. We will do “all that we can to live in peace.”
There will come times for us to talk about difficult issues that arise in this broken world. Issues that one tribe or the other would probably like us to avoid.
But we are not obeying the orders of a cultural tribe. We are seeking to be transformed by the wisdom of our Father, in the unity of Christ, by the power of the Spirit.
When we go there, we go there in self-giving love. Because our community is watching.
So Grace Church, in these divided times let us show them that another way is possible. Let’s show them self-giving love this Christmas. Let’s show them peace. Let’s show them Emmanuel.
God with us.
A savior born to transform us all.