Christ is All in All

Mosaic of Jesus Christ at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, photographed by Edal Lefterov

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles below.

As I noted in the previous essay, there are two major sources of discord between Christians. The first, doctrinal issues, we have already addressed and noted that in the case of a person who forsakes the gospel, there may be little we can do but to stand firm upon the Word of God, in all humility and with hearts full of love and compassion. The second major source of discord is what I will call political/personality issues, and here there may be more we can do. Yet, that does not imply that there is anything easy about it, for here we find not the nice black and white of some doctrinal debates, but the infinite grays of human emotion.

By “political” issues, I do not mean debates about secular politics, but rather the politics that exist within the Church. Essentially, this is all about who has the power, who is in charge, or who gets their own way. Personality issues are closely linked, and can usually be boiled down to phrases like, “I don’t like so and so because…”, “It really annoys me when they…”, “I just hate it when they do…”, “Why can they not see how selfish, ridiculous, etc…”, or “They really get on my nerves!”

Now, I have never conducted a scientific study on this topic, but from my own personal experience and the numerous anecdotes I have heard from others, I would have to say that it is political/personality issues and not doctrinal issues that cause more discord within the Church. In fact, many of the apparent doctrinal issues begin as political/personality issues or have such things at their heart. Therefore, it will not do to focus on doctrine alone. We must get down to the root of our malaise: the ugliness of our hearts.

The real cause of any political/personality issue is a lack of love. I do not provide that as some simple explanation, for it has no simple solution. In my very first essay on this topic, I quoted the 20th century theologian Reinhold Neibuhr. He stated that the Church of his day “has insisted that the law of love is a simple possibility, when every experience proves that the real problem of our existence lies in the fact that we ought to love one another, but do not.”[1] That is the hard thing about it, for true Christian love – the sacrificing of one’s self on behalf of another, regardless of what that person does in return, and with an endless denial of one’s own pride – is the most difficult thing that God has ever asked of man.

Most Christians believe that they do love one another, but they have some very odd ideas about what that means, and this plays out in their actions. Have you ever heard someone say something along the lines of, “I love them, but I don’t have to like them”? There is a hint of truth in this phrase in that love is not tied to temporary emotions, but must have its foundation in long-term commitment. However, my sense is that it often lets us off the hook. It allows us to imagine that unloving feelings are not incompatible with a loving heart. It suggests that I can be annoyed, bitter, or dismissive while still displaying Christian love.

“Head of Christ” by Rembrandt van Rijn, circa 1648

Jesus Christ commanded us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) When he was asked by someone who our neighbor is, he told the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the neighbor was proven to be the kind of person that the Jews despised: an enemy of sorts. Christ also taught, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:44) Could that not be clear enough? Our love for others is not dependent on their actions toward us. Rather, it is the natural outpouring that comes when we realize how great is the love the Father has given to us. As the Apostle John wrote, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:1-3) He went on to say later in that same chapter, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (verse 20)

Love of the brethren is not an option: it is incumbent upon us. It will not do to water it down, explain it away, or create in our minds some kind of false dynamic where we can love while hating. The first reason is because we cannot truly love God without loving others. That is why when Christ was asked about the most important commandment, He recited the Shema Yisrael, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” then said, “The second is like it,” reciting the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. (Matthew 22:36-39) Now, the second is “like it” because they are intrinsically connected. As John noted, how can we love God whom we have not seen if we do not love the person right in front of our face? You say your brother frustrates you? If God has never frustrated you, you do not know Him well enough! Yet, you must love God, and you must love your brother and sister.

There is another reason why we ought to love the brethren, namely that we can have no unity without it. Consider that the only way someone can become a Christian is by acknowledging their sinfulness. In essence, we won’t even let people “in the door” (figuratively, not literally) unless they admit that they are a sinner! The Apostle Peter wrote, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint.” (1 Peter 4:8-9) This was his recognition of the fact that a lack of love lies at the heart of so many of our problems. There will always be sin in the Church, and the only way to overcome that is through love. Sinners cannot expect to receive a purely conditional love. They need us to grant them unconditional love.

Here I refer to a classic of Christian devotion, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, which is full of practical wisdom for living the Christian life. Brother Thomas writes, “If you cannot make yourself what you would like to be, how can you expect to have anyone else exactly as you would like them? We would willingly make others perfect, and yet we do not amend our own faults.”[2] He goes on to add, “You know very well how to excuse and explain your own deeds, but you are not willing to accept the excuses of others. It would be better to accuse yourself and excuse your neighbor. If you want to have others bear with you, you should also bear with others.”[3]

Painting of Thomas à Kempis, circa 1460 (unknown artist)

Brother Thomas has hit upon a fundamental truth about the way human beings operate. We see very easily the speck in another’s eye, but not the plank in our own. We want them to come the whole way to us rather than going the extra mile for them. That is our flesh – the sinful nature still holding us down. The Spirit would have us love beyond reason, the way that God loves us. Yet, we daily deny the urging of the Spirit. We revert to the way of the flesh. “My way, my right, my need, my desire!” That is the flesh talking. If we are to ever have fellowship with another human, even one who has been justified in Christ, we are going to have to accept some things and choose to forgive.

Brother Thomas has also written, “Nevertheless, all our peace in this miserable life lies in humble endurance rather than in not feeling what is against us. Those who know best how to suffer will enjoy the most peace. Such persons are conquerors of themselves, lords of the world, friends of Christ, and heirs of heaven.”[4] There are two words we like not! Endurance? We have no patience for that. We expect life to make us happy. Suffering? We imagine freedom in Christ to be free of suffering, and anyone for whom we are expected to suffer must not be worth the time, for our needs should come first. Yet, true love always requires us to suffer, to sacrifice, and to empty ourselves on behalf of one another.

Therefore is there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:1-8

Statue of the Apostle Paul at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome (author photo)

Here the Apostle Paul speaks of Christian unity that is empowered by love, and that love is empowered by a Christ-like humility: a willingness to “empty” ourselves. I ask you, what could be more unfair than the death that Jesus Christ suffered? What could be more humbling than for God Himself to be made incarnate as a human being? What sacrifice could ever equal that made by our Savior? That is the kind of love we need to be showing for one another, and it is centered upon the cross.

Consider something else that the Apostle Paul said, this time to the Corinthians. “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2?) Paul understood that when we relate to one another, it must be through the cross of Christ, which made possible our reconciliation. I need a mediator, not only between myself and God, but between myself and others. This idea was described quite eloquently by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Without Christ there is discord between God and man and between man and man. Christ became the Mediator and made peace with God and among men. Without Christ we should not know God, we could not call upon Him, nor come to Him. But without Christ we also would not know our brother, nor could we come to him. The way is blocked by our own ego. Christ opened up the way to God and to our brother. Now Christians can live with one another in peace; they can love and serve one another; they can become one. But they can continue to do so only by way of Jesus Christ. Only in Jesus Christ are we one, only through him are we bound together. To eternity he remains the one Mediator.[5]

This is very much in line with what the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy. “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.” (1 Timothy 2:5-6) We can devote as much time as we like to human answers for spiritual problems and human means of achieving spiritual fellowship, but at the end of the day, there is only one true mediator between my fellow Christians and I: Jesus Christ.

“Ecce homo” by Antonio Ciseri, circa 1860-1880

It is my firm belief that discord between Christians begins when we abandon the cross of Christ and begin focusing on other things – lesser things, human things.  If we were to make Christ our focus day in and day out, and treat everything else as a means to the end of increasing His glory, then we would find ourselves far less divided, for we would be joined in one common, holy purpose. Not only that, but His example of humility would inspire us to lay aside our weak pretensions and seek to become the servant of all.

At one of the churches I attended, they used a model that was probably not an original creation but is nevertheless helpful. They would draw a triangle on a whiteboard, placing the word “Christ” at the apex and the words “you” and some other person at the bottom. They would then point out that the closer you both came to Christ, the closer you were to each other. This is a very simple illustration, but one that is full of theological truth.

I wrote in an earlier essay that the cross of Christ not only serves as a rallying cry for reconciliation, but it actually made reconciliation possible. That is why, if we ever hope to become close to our brothers and sisters, we must all draw near to Christ. Paul writes that, “He Himself is our peace,” (Ephesians 2:14) and this is undoubtedly true, as foreseen by the prophet Isaiah. “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5 ESV)

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has totally transformed the way we relate to others. It has opened up the possibility for true fellowship, even as it opened the door to fellowship with God. We ourselves are made new, and we do not even view others the same way, as the Apostle Paul teaches.

For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.

2 Corinthians 5:14-17

Crucifix by José Rafael Aragón, photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

The cross of Christ provokes a radical change in the heart of those who believe. As Paul writes, His love now “controls us”, we “no longer live for [ourselves]”, we “recognize no one according to the flesh”, and above all, we are “a new creature”. The cross is at the center of all we do. Christ Himself not only commands, but empowers us to love the brethren. We must not allow ourselves to become the object of our own devotion. We must allow Christ to be all in all, as scripture teaches.

Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him— a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.  Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.

Colossians 3:9-15

At this point, I must ask the question: is there any grudge that is truly worth harboring against a brother or sister in Christ? If the love of Christ is controlling us, and if the cross is both the means and the end, then our heart should look like what Paul describes: compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient. Did you notice what he said? “…forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.” This seems to suggest that there is no truly legitimate complaint, for we ought to be following the model of forgiveness laid down by the Lord Jesus Christ.

Yes, there will be many times in your life when other Christians will behave badly. They will fall short of the standard set by God. They will fail to put the cross of Christ first. We must not allow such things to provide justification for our own bad behavior. Recall the principle we covered earlier: We do not have good reason to be angry. Our anger is never as holy as that of Christ. He calls us to love and forgive, not to be angry. We must leave the judgment to Him, as James writes, “Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.” (James 5:9)

We must rely less on our own spirit and more on the Spirit of God, which leads us into all righteousness. If you find it difficult to forgive, pray that the Spirit will make it possible. If you find it difficult to love that which is unlovely, pray that the Spirit will make it possible, and contemplate also the words of Martin Luther: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.” (1518 Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 28, Lutheran Book of Concord) That divine love is the kind we need to have for one another. We must allow that love of Christ to control us. We must let Him be all in all.

Illuminated manuscript in the collection of the Morgan Library in New York City (author photo)

If you are struggling to discern how to act in a certain situation or how to approach a difficult person, place your trust in the Spirit of God and listen to that still, small voice. Remember that James wrote, “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5) This is not the wisdom of the world, but a spiritual wisdom that has God at its center and leads us to Him.

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.

1 Corinthians 2:14-16

The mind of Christ: that is what we have access to as believers. We must focus on Christ, pursue Christ, love Christ, and preach Christ. We must let Him be all in all that we may be all in all.

He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also the head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

Colossians 1:17-20

Now, forgive me, for I am about to go on a diatribe, the purpose of which is to attempt to break through any last line of defense. I beg your pardon in advance.

Why do you shun the image of God in your brother, your sister? (Genesis 1:27) Why would you rank your will above theirs, or worse yet, above that of God? (Philippians 2:3) Why would you assume that you alone have entered the secret knowledge – that you alone have God’s truth? For the Spirit speaks to us not only by the words on the page, but through those words as spoken by our brothers and sisters. (1 Corinthians 12:8; Philemon 1:6) Do you not know that your brother is the chosen instrument of your sanctification (Proverbs 27:17), and that when you love him beyond reason, the Lord Himself is glorified in you? (Romans 15:7) Do you not know that it is the entirety of your calling to love God and love others (Matthew 22:36-40), a calling that was placed upon you by the Creator of the universe before you were even born? (Ephesians 1:4-12)

Our sacrifice is our sanctification. (Romans 12:1-2) Our love is the only true law. (Galatians 5:14) We are not our own – we are members of one body. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) The very blood of Christ was not too precious to shed for your brother, your sister. Yet what would you give for them? The Lord Himself has placed upon them an indelible mark and called them out of darkness to the glory of His light, even as He has you. (1 Peter 2:9) How can you despise what the Lord has claimed for His own? (Ephesians 1:13)

What do you gain if you triumph over a brother in some petty matter? (1 Corinthians 6:7) What are the things of this world in comparison with the sanctity of the soul? Why do you pay so dearly for what is not true bread, when the very bread of heaven is offered to you? (Isaiah 55:2; John 6:32-33) Because you know that bread will cost you your pride, your dignity, your plans, your desires! And so you will seek reconciliation without sacrifice, where the expense falls instead on your brothers and sisters in Christ. Is your human opinion a matter of gospel truth? Are you not fallible? (1 Corinthians 8:11, 13:12) Has God not given the same Spirit to your brother? (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

Perhaps you believe that you have a duty to speak the truth to your brother or sister – to hold them accountable. But I ask you now, who is holding you accountable? With the measure you use, it will be measured unto you. (Matthew 7:2) You cannot by your own power move your brother a single inch. The Lord alone can shape the human heart. (1 Thessalonians 3:13; 2 Thessalonians 3:5) Therefore, honor your first duty to love, and love, and love…and then having done that, to love. (Colossians 3:14) If you must rebuke them, do so in all humility, taking first the plank from your own eye. (Matthew 7:3-5) Confess your sins one to another (James 5:16) – do not attempt to extract a confession, refusing to return it in kind.

The image of God in your brother or sister is a most sacred thing. You must not deny it, refuse it, neglect it, dismiss it, or trample upon it. For what did Christ build this Church, which is most assuredly His and His alone? (Ephesians 5:25-30) For your own exaltation? For your own enjoyment? Certainly not! He built it for His glory, therefore let Him be glorified in you: love your brother, your sister. (2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 1:14; Philippians 1:11)

Every human on earth will fail you. Every human on earth is a producer of sin, a worshipper of idols, a work in progress at best. (Psalm 14:1; Romans 3:23; Colossians 3:5) Choose instead to see how those around you are very much better, very much more redeemed, and very much more sanctified since encountering the grace of God. We know that grace is not without effect (1 Corinthians 15:10), so choose to see the good: the gifts given them by God (1 Corinthians 12:7), the heart that is learning to love (1 Thessalonians 3:12), the diamond still roughly hewn but shining dimly, with the promise of more to come. (1 John 3:2) Pray to God that He might grant you eyes to see as He sees and not as man sees (1 Samuel 16:7), for your brothers and sisters are beautiful if you would only see it. They are being made ready for the wedding feast of the Lamb, at which you will sit together in harmony (Ephesians 5:27; Revelation 21:1-9) – yes, you will sit together in harmony. If all else fails, imagine that, and long for the restoration of that communion.

There are no lost causes in the Church of God. There are no sheep too far gone, beyond the power of the Spirit to work. (1 Peter 2:25) Or do you doubt God and spit upon His promises? He will work His will in them, even as He will work it in you. Therefore, continue on in fear and trembling, but know for certain that He works in us all for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13) We are members of the Church. We are the Lord’s elect. He is jealous for us (Exodus 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24), and He will have His way in us. What do you hope to gain by opposing His will? (Romans 9:19-24) You must love beyond reason, for what reason did Christ have for loving you? (Romans 5:8) Let us speak not of rights, fairness, or justice. We humans are owed nothing and deserve every curse. (Romans 6:23) Yet, the Lord has given you this consolation: to experience communion with His Church. (1 Peter 3:8-9) Short of salvation, that is His best gift to you. Would you throw it back in His face? The gift of the Lord is wholly good and ought not be denied.

I speak for us all now: we have not made Christ the center. We have not made Him our sole aim. We have not loved our neighbor as our self. We are miserable offenders (to go all Book of Common Prayer on you…). Forgive us, Lord, when we fail to love and fail to bring it all to You in prayer! Forgive us when we seek to impose our will, and in doing so forsake compassion. Forgive us when we cannot see the forest for the trees. Forgive us our crimes against your body, your image, your command.

My brother, my sister is an absolute good, a treasure beyond all compare. Though they assail me, I must hope in God, for the grace by which He saved me from death is strong enough to save them too. I must go to the cross for the brethren, even as Christ did. (1 John 3:16) I must go to Abraham’s altar. I must put my pride to death and be crucified with Christ, that the life I live might be no longer for myself (Galatians 2:20), but my brother and sister…for when I do it to the least of these, I do it for Christ Himself.

All else is fleeting. All else is dust. When I lay upon my deathbed, what will it matter what I have achieved if I lie there alone? If I prophesied but had not love, will God reward me for that? If I exhorted and rebuked but had not love, will I hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant”? (1 Corinthians 13:1-3) I think not. I know not. Therefore, learn to love first, and the rest of the virtues will flow out of that. Learn first to surrender pride, and then you will become the instrument of God – the welcoming vessel of the Spirit. (Romans 6:12-13) The love of the brethren is incumbent upon us.

Reconciliation is a pearl of great price for which we ought to sacrifice whatever we can. (Matthew 13:45-46) I speak not of cost to the gospel, but of cost to self. There is nothing of self that we ought not surrender for the sake of our brother and sisters. Let the love of Christ compel us! Let it consume us! Let the Spirit light our hearts aflame! Let us love as we have never loved before! Let Christ be all in all!

Unless otherwise stated, all scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

[1] Neibuhr, Reinhold. “The Christian Witness in the Social and National Order” in The Essential Rehinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses. Edited by Robert McAfee Brown (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), page 96.

[2] À Kempis, Thomas. The Imitation of Christ, Translated and Edited by Hal M. Helms and Robert J. Edmonson (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2008), page 51.

[3] À Kempis, page 90

[4] À Kempis, page 91

[5] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together, Translated by John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: Harper One, 2009), pages 23-24.

Other articles in this series:

#1 – Wars and Rumors of Wars

#2 – Discord

#3 – A Scriptural Imperative

#4 – The Cross of Hate

#5 – The Age of Sacrifice

#6 – The First Step

#7 – Impossible Questions

#8 – True Love

#9 – A New (Old) Commandment

#10 – Truth with a Capital ‘T’

#12 – Awaken!

#13 – Another Path to Reconciliation?

#14 – Humble Rebellion

#15 – Those Who Live by Faith are Just