Many times I have found myself repeating the Serenity Prayer originally penned by the twentieth century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Perhaps we should add another sentence to that prayer: “God, help me recognize and embrace change when directed by Your Holy Spirit.”
Change isn’t easy, even when initiated by God. Facilitating and accepting change can be challenging. Our church family worldwide is currently involved in a lively discussion about the theology of ordination, asking questions such as, What does ordination mean? Who is eligible for ordination? How did current church practices develop? Which practices are biblical and which ones have been inherited based on customs or long-standing traditions? How do we learn to communicate and work together in love even while holding differing views? These are vital questions requiring careful reflection and prayer.
As I think about the days ahead, I am reminded of the wise counsel of James, the brother of our Lord: “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19, 20).* Unfortunately, we have already heard too many angry voices. We need to listen to each other with respect. We all have much to learn, and God can teach us as we come together under His direction in a spirit of humility and love.
The lead article in this issue of Ministry is part 1 of a series by Paul Ratsara and Richard Davidson, designed to help us navigate these choppy waters. Early Christians had to address the traditional divide between Jews and Gentiles. How should Jews relate to Gentiles who became followers of Jesus? The thought of experiencing koinonia with Gentiles was a major challenge for Jews. Even the apostle Peter struggled with this radical change. Paul testified to the Galatians, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong” (Gal. 2:11). What wrong had Peter committed? He was resisting change that was directed by the Holy Spirit. “Before certain men came from James, he [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they [Jews from Jerusalem] arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid” (v. 12).
Peter had struggled with fear earlier in his walk with Jesus. This fear drove him to deny Jesus and declare, “I don’t know the man!” Why would Peter make such a dreadful declaration? He was afraid. Fear can cause us to say foolish things and resist change, even when directed by the Holy Spirit.
Philemon had to face the challenge of change after receiving a letter from the apostle Paul.
Philemon’s transformed runaway slave, Onesimus, was being sent back to him by the imprisoned apostle with the following instructions, “welcome him as you would welcome me” (Philem. 17). View your former slave as a brother in the Lord! This drastic change was clearly directed by the Holy Spirit, but this change was only possible if Philemon embraced the truth of Paul’s closing words: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philem. 25). Unity with Christ enables us to experience the miracle of unity in Christ. Fellowship with Christ enables us to embrace change that is directed by the Holy Spirit. Independent people with divergent opinions and convictions can be brought together in a loving, transformed community by the ministry of the Spirit of God.
I long to see our community of faith reflect more and more fully the beautiful character of our loving Savior. “ ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ ” (John 13:35). We will speak the truth in love. We will engage in vigorous discussions with a spirit of love. We will lay aside our preconceived ideas and cherished views and seek the truth of God’s Word in love.
* All Scripture references are from the New International Version. Please join with me in prayer for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven and for His love to be more fully revealed in us and through us. And remember the inspired counsel of James: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”