When I planned, several months ago, to preach a sermon series about the Belhar Confession’s witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a way of introducing to my congregation this important addition to our denomination’s constitution, I had no way of knowing how timely such a sermon series would be. I simply thought, “Gosh, it’s been on the books for a year already, and most people don’t know anything about it. And here I am, unsure about what to do with six summer Sundays in the pulpit.” So I picked Belhar, in part, because I figured it would be a convenient source of sermon material for several weeks. I never imaged that, as the sermon series wore on, it would become more and more relevant to our daily lives and thoughts.
We have learned about the history of racism in South Africa and the imperfect but still important work of reconciliation there. We have remembered the value of confession—both as a practice of penitence and as a declarative statement in opposition to errant theology that threatens the integrity of the Gospel and leads to social sins. We have been reminded of Paul’s analogy of the Body of Christ, and that, each of us being part of the same body, we are not at liberty to cast one another off. We have dug deep into the heresies of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa’s sacramental theology which allowed apartheid to become both church and social policy. And we have examined the liturgies of the world and compared them to the liturgies of the Church, seeking the transformation wrought by the renewing of our minds and the rehearsal of the Gospel’s narrative.
One final time this summer, we considered yesterday how the Belhar Confession reflects what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ in a world of division and tribalism.
In preparing for that sermon, I read once again the “Accompanying Letter” that the Dutch Reformed Mission Church published as their rationale for writing the confession. While it is technically not part of the confession, it is included in our Book of Confessions because it so eloquently explains the church’s motivation for its confessional action. The first paragraph explains how the social climate compelled the Church to speak:
We are deeply conscious that moments of such seriousness can arise in the life of the Church that it may feel the need to confess its faith anew in the light of a specific situation. We are aware that such an act of confession is not lightly undertaken, but only if it is considered that the heart of the gospel is so threatened as to be at stake. In our judgment, the present church and political situation in our country… [and particularly within the Dutch Reformed church family] calls for such a decision. Accordingly, we make this confession not as a contribution to a theological debate nor as a new summary of our beliefs, but as a cry from the heart, as something we are obliged to do for the sake of the gospel in view of the times in which we stand. Along with many, we confess our guilt, in that we have not always witnessed clearly enough in our situation and so are jointly responsible for the way in which those things which were experienced as sin and confessed to be sin have grown in time to seem self-evidently right and to be ideologies foreign to the Scriptures. As a result, many have been given the impression that the gospel was not really at stake. We make this confession because we are convinced that all sorts of theological arguments have contributed to so disproportionate an emphasis on some aspects of the truth that it has in effect become a lie.
The author of Ephesians, traditionally presumed to be the Apostle Paul, speaks out of—and into—a context that, as I noted previously, was divided over questions about requirements for membership in the Body of Christ. They weren’t merely questions along theological lines; they were questions along racial and ethnic lines. “These people aren’t Jews,” some said. “Can non-Jews be members of the Jesus movement?” In their wisdom, the Apostles and elders discerned that if God was welcoming Gentiles into the community of believers, church leaders were in no position to argue or to make entry into the community more onerous for Gentiles than it was for Jews.
Now Paul, writing to a Gentile congregation in Ephesus, says, “Back in the day, you were without Christ. You were to us as aliens and strangers. You were hopeless and godless. But now, thanks to Christ Jesus, you who once were so far away have been brought near. Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us.”
That language is actually almost jarring to read—if not on the face of it, then when one sits back to consider it. Here, Paul is confessing prior hatred for strangers; and while he may not mean hatred of the “I wish you and everyone like you were dead” variety that is being peddled by neo-Nazis and White Supremacists in our own time, at the very least it seems to connote a socio-religious revulsion that would have resulted in as much segregation as humanly possible. In another of his letters, the one to the Galatians, Paul said he was forced to call Peter out on the carpet for equivocating about such hatred, saying, “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong. He had been eating with the Gentiles… before certain people came from James. But when they came, he began to back out and separate himself, because he was afraid of the people who promoted circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also joined him in this hypocrisy so that even Barnabas got carried away with them in their hypocrisy” (Gal. 2:11-13). What was painful was that Peter already knew the truth: that God was welcoming Gentiles into the community of faith and giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit—he had witnessed this himself! And yet, when other Jewish Christians were around, he distanced himself from his Gentile fellow believers, when he should have been defending their place in the community and his relationship with them in Christ. Peter was the Christian who heard his coworkers making racist or sexist jokes around the office, and either laughing nervously or, at the very least, saying nothing to correct them. Peter wanted to go along to get along. Paul had no patience for such hypocrisy.
Despite this personal history of championing the full inclusion of Gentiles in the life of the Christian community, however, Paul still included himself in his confession of the early church’s history of exclusion and segregation. “With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us,” he wrote. The Accompanying Letter to the Belhar Confession, likewise, states,
We plead for reconciliation, that true reconciliation which follows on conversion and change of attitudes and structures. And while we do so we are aware that an act of confession is a two-edged sword, that none of us can throw the first stone, and none is without a beam in his own eye. We know that the attitudes and conduct which work against the gospel are present in all of us and will continue to be so. Therefore, this confession must be seen as a call to a continuous process of soul-searching together, a joint wrestling with the issues, and a readiness to repent in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in a broken world.
Paul returns, once again, to his old analogy of the church as a body, with Christ as its head. The entire letter to the Ephesians serves as an explanation of what Paul elsewhere calls Christ’s “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:16-21). Belhar instructs the church concerning its participation in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation by pointing out that the Church does not exist for its own sake.
When I visited Malawi, I never went anywhere that I didn’t see mango trees.
Mango trees are a source of much-needed shade. Some mangoes grow so large an entire village can gather together under the shade of its branches, and it is common to see gatherings of people socializing under these trees. I once saw a class of some 300 third-grade students sitting beneath the shade of a mango tree in their schoolyard to take their lessons, because there wasn’t a room in the school big enough for so many students.
In addition to providing shade, Mango trees provide, of course, mangoes! And I mean there were mangoes everywhere. Every marketplace, up and down the highway in front of people’s houses, and I often saw children snacking on them, even though they weren’t ripe yet.
One of my traveling companions told the story of a group of pastors she was walking with while we were in Malawi. On the side of a nearby hill, far distant from any village, two men were busily cutting down a mango tree. The pastors with Nancy frowned and shook their heads in disgust. She asked them why they were so upset. Were they stealing a mango tree that belonged to someone? They answered by saying, “That mango tree belongs to everyone. We understand that these men are probably looking for firewood. But if the rains fail again this year, that mango tree would have given fruit to whole families of poor people who might have no other reliable source of food. By cutting it down, they are taking food out of the mouths of the poor.”
That was when my eyes were opened to how fruit trees speak to the Church about its mission. Jesus used the analogy of his disciples being branches united into a single plant by being attached to Christ as the central vine (John 15:1-8). Anyone who has ever read the Gospel of John probably understands this to mean that we are only able to bear good fruit by being connected to Christ. What Jesus also meant was that the various branches are not, in and of themselves, plants in their own right. They are parts of a body—just as Paul would suggested years later.
But even more striking was the realization that I had while in Malawi, which came in the form of this phrase, whispered to my spirit: the mango tree does not eat the mango. Fruit trees do not consume their own fruit. Biologically speaking, of course, they produce fruit for the propagation of their species. But agriculturally speaking, fruit trees produce fruit and shade not for themselves, but for others. With this sudden realization—the quiet whisper in my ear that “the mango tree does not eat the mango,” the Holy Spirit showed me the truth about the Church’s purpose in the world.
We don’t gather in order to indulge ourselves in improving the world according to our own whims or criteria. We, as the body of Christ, exist only because Christ has called us into community (Christ is the trunk, we are the branches). Unity is our mission. The tree stands in the middle of the human village—one integral organism with outstretched branches—providing shade and good fruit for all, and especially for those who are not a part of the tree!
The “notes of the church,” those descriptors of the true church listed in the ancient Nicene Creed, state that the church of Jesus Christ is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” Or, amplified, it is united in Christ, set apart through Christ, open to all by Christ, and sent into the world as Christ.
If we do not find and live out our unity in Christ, then we are not the Church.
If we do not offer a Godly alternative narrative from the liturgies of the world, then we are not the Church. I
f we are not universally welcoming of all whom Christ calls into community with us, then we are not the Church.
If we do not go where we are sent, participating in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in the world, then we are not the Church. And no part of being the Church is possible if Christ is not our trunk, if we are not united in him.
In Christ, God has, as Paul put it, torn down the dividing walls of hostility with which we divide ourselves. If Christians can’t live that way—if we can’t be seen living that way—then why should the world listen? How are we any different? What moral authority can we possibly have? In the public, community life of the people of God, we interpret, by our actions, what it means that Christ has bound us together across our differences.
Or we don’t.
The Church cannot call the whole human family toward a more just and loving moral vision for the world unless the Church both exemplifies a more just and loving moral vision and repents of its own complicity in histories of violence, social division, and injustice.
I submit to you the Belhar Confession and its Accompanying Letter. Read them. Use them as devotional materials. Compare what they teach—and the model they offer—to the rhetoric you hear in the news.
And be chastened. Search your own hearts as you talk to someone who does not look like you, who has not had your experience. As the authors of Belhar state, “We know that such an act of confession and process of reconciliation will necessarily involve much pain and sadness. It demands the pain of repentance, remorse, and confession; the pain of individual and collective renewal and a changed way of life.” But as Paul reminds us, “by speaking the truth with love” we can “grow in every way into Christ, who is the head” (Eph. 4:15-16a). Let us be “no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, [let us be] fellow citizens with God’s people, [belonging] to God’s household” (Eph. 2:19).