Sunday’s Sermon: Grace in a Time of Polarization

I find American history fascinating to study. As you likely can guess, one of my favorite topics to examine is how presidential elections have been contested.

For instance, did you know that the 1796 election was the first to feature political parties? John Adams, a Federalist, defeated Thomas Jefferson, who was a Democratic-Republican. The outcome contributed to a difficult administration for Adams, because, with the rules in place at that time, both the president and vice-president represented opposing political parties.

Today, we believe our elections are the “dirtiest” ever. That all the campaign ads, rhetoric, and talking points are worst now than ever before. However, when we look at history we see that earlier elections make our modern campaigns seem quite tame. The elections of 1824 and 1828 were the nastiest campaigns contested, and featured the same two individuals, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. These two men did not like each other and stopped at nothing to win the presidency.

Another interesting fact about elections, and truly American history, is that the church has played an important role in many of our most important elections and debates. In the book A City Upon a Hill, author Larry Witham details how preachers and ministries have influenced the course of American history. This was especially true during the period before and during the Civil War. Preachers on both sides of the conflict interpreted Scripture based on their political affiliations. Sadly, this has been a common theme throughout much of the American church’s history.

As we approach the stretch run of the current election season, I believe we are experiencing a moment of opportunity where the church has a unique opportunity to take on the challenge of healing the divisions and discord that exists in our country. Followers of Christ are uniquely positioned to speak above the partisanship that exists in our country, and speak to the deeper truth of what it means to live with grace and show grace to others.

There is no better time than now for each of us to take on this calling. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center indicates that the country is defined by a state of polarization based on partisan politics. The study also said that polarization has been on the rise for nearly a decade and is at its highest point in 25 years. Polarization occurs when two different ideas or groups compete for the same space. This causes supporters to align themselves with “their side.” It also creates distance and distrust among various groups and people.

We can feel this and, perhaps, have experienced this. Republicans refuse to support Democrats. Democrats dislike Republicans. Someone who considers themselves “independent” or “moderate” is lost in the shuffle of the two extremes. It is a vicious cycle, which brings disunity to every element of society. Unfortunately, partisan polarization can also find its way into the church. Too many churches are defined by their affiliation with political “conservatives” or “liberals,” instead of desiring to be a community that lovingly proclaims the message and hope of Jesus Christ through their words, actions, and deeds.

As followers of Jesus Christ, how can we rise above partisanship and speak grace in loving ways? How can we do this in a culture where grace is seldom recognized? Paul’s words from Titus 2:11-14 gives us an answer. Paul says we can by living in response to the grace shown to us through Jesus Christ.

In this pastoral letter, Paul is giving words of encouragement and commissioning to Titus. He is a  young servant who was set to join Zeans and Apollos in their mission in Crete. This was likely going to be a difficult appointment, so Paul’s letter focused on the most important things for ministry in that situation. This included instructions for ordination, right teaching, and even what it means to submit to leaders in government.

Paul’s discussion about grace comes within the context of discussing “the kind of living that reflects wholesome teaching.” In verse 11, Paul writes that “the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people.” According to Paul, God’s grace has broken into the world through the loving presence of Jesus Christ. The presence of Christ breaks into the darkness caused by our disobedience to God’s desires. We call this darkness sin. Christ’s grace offers us a way out of our sin, through the freedom and peace that comes from faith in Christ. Grace is the unmerited, undeserved, unwarranted, mercy offered by God to all people through faith in Jesus Christ. Everyone can experience this grace. It is not for a few, but freely available to all. God’s grace transforms us and calls us to live obediently to the desires God has for us.

Grace serves as our great teacher. It teaches each of us what it means to leave the ways of the world and to live for Christ, even in polarizing times. We think that these times are the only time that Christians have faced difficulties in being the witnesses of Jesus Christ. When we look at church history, this certainly isn’t the case. At several points in our history, the church has   struggled with what it means to live grace-filled lives in deeply divided or secular times. The church has always been called to share the message of Christ with a world that struggles to understand the message of Jesus Christ and his righteousness.

This begins by looking within our own heart. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, grace shows us how our actions might be counter to God’s desires. Ungodliness, to Paul, is living a life that is counter to what God has planned for us. It places our own needs and desires first. It is a life that lives in the ways of the world, and not in a deeply committed relationship with Jesus Christ.

When we are defined by things that are counter to the will of God, it can impact the very things that we care so much about. It damages the very things God has given us to enjoy. In terms of today’s time of polarization, living in ways counter to God’s desires limits our ability to see the goodness in someone who does not support the same things we do. When we are defined by division, we are unable to see honesty in someone else’s word or opinions.

This has some implications for the church. As followers of Christ, when we are defined by animosity, distrust, negativity, or resentment we are not unified under the common banner of making disciples for Jesus Christ. This is an example of a church that has forgotten its purpose to being the ongoing mission of Jesus Christ to a lost word.

No group of people, especially followers of Christ, should be defined by attitudes that are counter to God’s desires. No church should be defined by division or attitudes that seek to create separation between one group or the other.

We need grace to see us through this time and help us to live in ways that, on our own, we cannot. Grace helps us to turn away from actions that would seek to divide. Grace shows us how worldly living is counter to the message and desires of Christ, who came to show us the way of the Father and calls us to be holy as the Father is holy.

Indeed, grace shows us a deeper way to live. As followers of Christ, we should be people who are in the practice of building bridges across the vast differences that separate so many people. We do this by being people who live grace-filled lives and who desire to share that love with others.

Paul continues in Titus 2:12 that a grace-filled life, one that is guided by the Holy Spirit, is defined by the wisdom of God’s truth, righteousness that comes from seeking holiness, and a devotion to God in love. This time of life allows the presence of God to be our guide in every thing we do, whether it is how we live, how we work, how we discuss issues, or even how we vote.

God’s grace helps us to take on actions that reflect the presence of Christ working in us and through us. These actions are based on our common desire to love others, to share peace with one another, and to build community in times of disharmony. These actions helps us to speak love, hope, and grace to all people in all times and allows us to be aligned with Christ’s mission and purpose.

Grace also gives us the strength to live by love in difficult times. A community that is defined by people who honor truth, who seek to uphold holiness, and who love others as God has loved us are best suited to build bridges across division by pointing all people to love of Christ.

When we are a people of God’s wisdom and righteousness, and who devoted to showing love through the grace of Christ, it changes our perspectives. As Richard Mouw writes, it allows us to be a people who display “uncommon decency” in this world.

Decency through grace is missing today. It doesn’t mean we are always nice. There are times when we must show holy frustrations, like Jesus at the Temple, and stand firm for truth and justice. What it means is that we “are called to be agents of God’s righteousness” who have a “gentle and reverent concern for public righteousness” by imitating the “divine character” of God in our relationships with others. We treat all people as Christ would treat them, because of the grace of Christ that lives in us and, also, in them. We share a common hope with each other, because of our great hope in Christ’s living presence and ultimately Christ’s return.

Let me say it again: As followers of Christ we are uniquely positioned to be bridge builders in these polarizing times. We cannot build these bridges on our own. It is only through the presence of Christ living in us and working through us that we can take on this needed challenge.

Friends, today we can be bridge builders simply by following in Christ’s footsteps. Jesus routinely interacted with the people who were cast aside by religious leaders. Jesus called all people to live in accordance with a greater reality and hope. We can share this love of Christ, the grace of Christ, by walking with people on all sides and not being defined by partisanship and polarization. More importantly, we can do so by being defined by the love of Christ, the hope of Christ, and the truth of Christ’s love.

In the coming months, each of us will have an opportunity to be bridge builders.  We will interact with people who want to separate us based on political lines. How will we rise above the partisanship and live by something greater? How will we be people who build bridges built on grace in the upcoming fall general election and beyond? How will we always live by God’s love, wisdom and righteousness, because we are recipients of God’s grace?

My hope is that we will do so by sharing the grace of Christ with all people.

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