In the town where I grew up, the 4th of July was a big deal. The morning kicked off with a parade including everybody possible: military veterans, Boy & Girl Scouts, Little League, volunteer firefighters, you name it.
Next came the barbecues. The Calvanos always invited our family and a bunch of others to their place for a potluck and a dip in the pool. Mr. Calvano was a WWII veteran who humbly hid his many medals earned in battle against German forces.
The holiday was capped off that night at the local high school football field when, as the band struck up the national anthem, a spotlight shone on the American flag being raised from our fire department’s 5-storey extension ladder truck. We stood and sang with pride, united around the blessings we enjoy as Americans.
This Independence Day weekend, in a time marked by pandemic, racial tension, and deeply divided politics, it’s time to recommit ourselves to singing a new song, one that unites us around a higher loyalty to one another.
It’s a tune that has gotten overshadowed by other tunes in recent times. Yet it’s the anthem that lifted early Christians’ eyes above the tensions of their day, which were many. It’s a melody that shaped our spiritual forebearers into something markedly different from the sharp divisions of their time. It’s a chorus we do well to recover and begin singing anew.
There’s tremendous power in music. You know this. Right off the bat, I’ll bet you can name the bands and songs you sang along with in high school and college. Those tunes stay with you.
I lead a chaplain team at an assisted living facility in Carmel, where we find that even among residents who have largely lost the ability to speak, when we sing the worship songs of their era, the words come back from their long-term memory, and lift them up. It’s amazing to see. Music is powerful. The songs we sing shape us.
The Power of Songs
We see the power of songs all throughout the Bible as well. For example, the oldest book in the Bible, the book of Job, describes creation as “the morning stars singing together, and all the angels shouting for joy” (Job 38:7). You intuitively understand the poetic language there: when you head to Brown County State Park or one of our national parks like Yellowstone or Zion or the Grand Canyon—the beauty makes you want to either sing in hushed reverence or sing at the top of your lungs!
In the book of Exodus, the spontaneous and heartfelt response to the Lord rescuing his people from generations of slavery is a song, a new song found in Exodus chapter 15. Read the lyrics, and I guarantee it was a rousing tune, a dance song!
When the Lord gives instructions for the Tabernacle and later the Temple, choirs are put in place to unite God’s people around their set apart identity, reminding them that they’re to be different from the nations surrounding them.
In the middle of your Bible we have the Psalms, an entire songbook that our Jewish forebearers and all the early Christians were familiar with. They sang of their Redeemer in their homes, they sang of their set apart identity on Jewish holidays, and they sang of the power and love of God in church. Those songs shaped the early Christians into a new mindset that bridged across ethnic and political and economic divisions. The Bible’s music united people who historically stayed apart. Among Christians in the first few centuries A.D., they rejected all the common approaches to nationalism and politics, as their songs began to reshape how they viewed everything.
For example: Christians invited Jewish Zealots to join them—one of the apostles named Simon came in as a Zealot, committed to the violent overthrow of government. Zealots were invited and welcomed into the church, but the church didn’t become a bunch of Zealots. They sang a different tune altogether.
The early Christians also invited Sadducees to join them, but they didn’t become Sadducees. Sadducees were the religious folks who bought into political power. They sold their souls to get political backing and wealth—so much so that as archaeologists have uncovered ancient Sadducee homes, they describe them as “the most opulent discovered to date in Jerusalem.” Not so the early church. Changed by the songs they sang, early generations of Christians rejected using Christianity as a way to get wealth or political power. You could join the church if that’s where you were coming from, but the church wasn’t going to head that direction. They were singing an altogether different tune.
Early Christians also invited Pharisees to join them. Mentioned almost a hundred times in the gospels, the Pharisees distanced themselves from the political power plays of the Sadducees. They separated themselves from the moral compromise of Jews who were adopting Greek culture. The apostle Paul started out as a Pharisee. So did Nicodemus. They were invited into the church as Pharisees, but the church didn’t become Pharisaical. They sang a different tune altogether.
So early Christians confounded all of the major divisions in society by following a new way that was inspired by a new song, one that united people across all kinds of differences, and motivated them to work for the good of each group.
I recommend Gerald Sittser’s studies on this to you. His most recent book, titled “Resilient Faith,” shows how at its truest and best, Christians have always held to a third way. Check this out, this is really helpful for getting a sense of where we are today, and where we need to go from here.
The idea that Christians follow a third way first appears in a 2nd-century letter to a Roman official named Diognetus. The letter-writer describes the peculiar nature of Christianity to this member of the Roman elite. He commends Diognetus’ curiosity and assures him that he will do his best to answer questions about Christianity. He refers to the Christian movement as a “new race” or “third race.” They just didn’t fit into the “normal” divisions in Roman society, and Diognetus couldn’t figure that out. He tried but couldn’t slot Christians into one of the known categories.
What was happening—and I strongly believe this hints at the new song Christians need to start singing in America—is that the Christians were becoming a new community, practicing new ways of engaging one another and society. So the author warns Diognetus that he’s going to be surprised by what he learns.
Let’s unpack the two ways in Roman society and see if you can connect the dots to our day.
The Roman Way
The first way was the Roman way, which was all about allegiance to the empire. What mattered most was preserving the status quo. Don’t rock the boat. Allegiance to the Emperor was required and peer pressured. Roman government didn’t really care what you believed religiously so long as you swore allegiance to the emperor. So, in the end, Rome’s functional “religion” was that nationalism is what should unite us, patriotism. But you need to know that the early Christians soundly rejected that, instead rallying around a new song.
The Jewish Way
The second way back then was the Jewish way. Jews set themselves apart from Roman society worshiping one God, by prescribing religious rituals that were different from Rome’s, and by refusing to participate in pagan rites and festivals. Jews ate differently. Jews dressed differently. Jews married differently, marrying only fellow Jews. And because they were so visibly different, it was easy for Rome to keep an eye on Jews and thus keep them from becoming any kind of threat to “the way we’ve always done things.” Our early Christian forebearers soundly rejected that second way, instead rallying around a new song.
The Third Way of the early Christians simply didn’t fit the mold of any known categories. Christians appeared to live like everyone else. They spoke the local language, lived in local neighborhoods, wore local styles of clothing, ate local food, shopped in local markets, and followed local customs.
But they were different, embodying not simply a different religion but a new way of living. The letter to Diognetus says of the early Christians, “They [Christians] live in their own countries, but only as aliens.” Do you think that way, that I’m in America not as a citizen, but as an alien? A proud citizen writing to another proud citizen had to point out that Christians were living for a different place altogether.
The letter to Diognetus continues, saying of the early Christians, “They have a share in everything as citizens, [yet] endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.”
That confused Diognetus and his ruling elite peers! The early Christians functioned almost as though they were a distinct nation within the nation. They were cultural insiders, yet at the same time they were distinct, couldn’t be slotted into a known category. The letter to Diognetus continues, “Although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.” The early Christians seemed to have their own constitution and their own commonwealth.
What does that mean? Here’s what he’s saying: Christians were fully in society and fully hands-on involved for the good of society, yet at the same time their primary loyalty was to one another and to a different ruler, who is an altogether different kind of leader.
The early Christians sang of a King who is seated over this entire world, vastly superior to all political rulers and all political parties.
They sang of a King who is working for this world’s redemption and lift, both to save and improve the lives of its citizens. Both-and, not either-or.
They sang of a Kingdom that is in this world as a force for immediate and ultimate good, like a lamp put on a nightstand to shine with good deeds, driving back the darkness.
They prayed for the emperor but refused to pledge loyalty to him.
The early Christians “Third Way” turned out to be at once both peaceful and subversive.
They rescued infants abandoned to die of exposure.
They cared for the sick and dying.
They restored dignity to slaves, as we see in the New Testament letter to Philemon.
And far more.
And all of it flowed from the new song they sang.
It’s time we as Christians in America start singing the new song.
Twenty-five years from now, the majority population in America will be Hispanic, not white. Samuel Rodriguez, who is a Pastor and President of The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference in America, urges that we Christians in America sing the right song, the new song that finds its impetus not from the politics of division, but from Christ’s revelation given to the aging apostle John. Revelation chapter 5 gives us the new song that inspired the early Christians to work on becoming that Third Way. Here’s the song being sung in heaven…
And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:9-10
The new song is that Jesus Christ, by his incarnation, teachings, miracles, death & resurrection, present reign, and soon return, has made and declared Christians to be a new kingdom, all of us now with new roles in this new kingdom: our Lord now declares we are priests.
Priests are mediators.
Priests are the ones who go between parties who are at war.
Priests are the ones who bring about reconciliation and justice.
All of this and more is wrapped up in the biblical understanding of what it means that Christ has made us to be a new kingdom, with new roles—as priests.
But for us to make this new song our song, we must first admit that the old songs have been played out. For us to live into our new identity, we need to reject the two political factions and begin working out and walking out the third way in our day.
- We’ve heard too much of the old song—of hatred, sin, racism, fear, division, strife, and brokenness.
- We’ve heard too much of the old song—of George Floyd and Emmet Till and Chaney, Goodman, & Schwerner, of Ahmaud Arbery and Eric Garner and Medgar Evers and Walter Scott and Martin Luther King, Jr., on and on the old tune drones into our day.
- We’ve heard too much of the old tune—the lie, the insistence that you have to choose between two political parties, and you have to reject those who vote for the other party. Nonsense. The new song calls us to follow our spiritual forebearers in walking out a Third Way, together, under our common Lord.
This year, with all its chaos, is the right time for us as Christ-followers to break from being beholden to the old song. It’s time we lift our voices together to sing the new song. Pastor Rodriguez points out that the new song is comprised of a multi-ethnic kingdom choir washed by the blood of the Lamb. Let’s be done with the song of the donkey and the song of the elephant. We need to sing the new song, the song of the Lamb.
We need to refuse to sing the old song of political powers using Christians to advance their agenda.
We need to stand together and sing out our higher loyalty.
We need to stand and sing alongside Christians of every era who worked for justice despite the risk of being misunderstood and maligned.
The new song sung in heaven empowers us to be the light of the world today—letting our light shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven.
Heart and Mind
Here at yChurch, our unshakable commitment is “engaging heart and mind.”
That means we reject simplistic answers to complex problems.
It means we empathize, not merely theorize.
It means we welcome the challenges our era brings.
It means we transcend America’s present enemy-making political machine, instead speaking truth independent of wanting approval or fearing rejection.
Engaging heart and mind means the song of the Lamb unites us across political persuasions. Our loyalty to the Lamb supersedes the enemy’s attempts to split us from one another in Christ’s Church.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy or natural. It’s supernatural!
Choosing the Third Way is harder but far better than settling for your preferred camp or choosing between the lesser of two evils. The song of the Lamb beckons us to aim higher.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” has much to sing into today’s unrest. It was prompted by a group of white Christian pastors opposing the civil rights movement. Dr. King, having been unjustly arrested on Good Friday in 1963, penned a lengthy plea to white Christians, pleading that we speak up and act toward justice for black Americans. More than 50 years on, it still speaks to us, Dr. King writing…
“Justice too long delayed is justice denied…I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is…the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods…In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”
To that Dr. King responds…
There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment…By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Our church stands in the stream of Christianity represented by evangelist Billy Graham not long ago. We all know of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. You learned about it in school.
What we didn’t know was that Billy Graham refused to attend. He opposed the civil rights movement and was critical of that speech. In his speech, Dr. King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Billy Graham rebutted that with his own statement, and I quote, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.”
Billy Graham meant well. But he was wrong. He got stuck singing the old song. It was the song that had sung for around him for so long that it snuck inside his heart and mind unawares. Billy Graham lived long enough change and admit he regretted his opposition.
It’s time for us as Christians in America to hold out one hand with Billy Graham’s message of salvation through Jesus alone, and the other hand with Martin Luther King Jr.’s work for justice. Our new song, the song of the Lamb, is big enough for us to do both, to proclaim the gospel and help the hurting.
It’s all about what song we sing.
So let’s sing the new song declaring us to be a new kingdom, a kingdom of priests. Let’s unleash the unity among Christians that Satan fears, supernatural unity.
Let’s sing like Abraham, who went on a journey not knowing the outcome, but trusting the Lord to lead.
Let’s sing like Moses, who dared to declare to the powers, “This is what the Lord says.”
Let’s sing and dance like David, who delighted in the Lord so much that others’ criticisms couldn’t hold him back.
Let’s sing like Daniel, who stood tall when pressured to bow to a ruler who confused loyalty with worship.
Let’s sing and let our light shine!
Would you pray with me? Let’s pray that the Lamb who reigns will empower us to be the new kingdom and priests here on earth, singing his song for all who have ears to hear. Pray with me now.
Our Father in heaven, we praise you that you’ve put a new song in our mouths, a hymn of praise to our God!
We praise you that evil will not and does not get the final word.
We praise you for those who have come before us singing the new song in their day.
Fill our mouths, we pray, with the song of the Lamb who unites across divisions.
In our day, show yourself strong, we pray.
We ask you for a miracle of unity among Christians. We ask you to disarm evil powers that fracture us from one another and that ruin our witness regarding Jesus.
Give us ears to hear what your Spirit is saying to your church today. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, grant us compassion.
With thanks for the freedoms we already enjoy, we commit ourselves to a greater pursuit of justice for all, including for our black neighbors and brothers and sisters. Lead us forward, Lamb of God, toward the day when people from every culture will reign on the earth in the fullness of being the new kingdom and priests, singing the new song, the song of the Lamb.
Toward that end we pray and give you our praise. Amen!