There is that old familiar phrase, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” which to my ear, sounds a good deal like, “We’ll do it by faith.” This seems far preferable to someone telling me to simply, “Have faith.” I find that incredibly annoying and a bit patronizing when people respond to my concerns with, “Have faith.” It’s too prescriptive. It feels like someone telling you, “Ok, you’re worried? No problem just take a dose of faith and a pinch of stop worrying and a smudge of God-has-the-plan-that-will-work-out-for-you,” and voila! I’ve baked you a don’t bother me with your worries pie! That doesn’t encapsulate the mystery of living by faith for me.
Now the crossing a river metaphor, this is more helpful. I think crossing a river is so powerful for the same reasons that it meant so much to the early Israelites as they crossed the Red Sea, as our writer from the letter of Hebrews opens the passage we read today. It is helpful not the least of which because it taps into that daunting feeling of forging across that which seems insurmountable. Indeed, I succumb to feeling daunted quite a bit. What about this and that factor? What are the challenges lying beyond the current one to prepare for? What adversity will have to be faced next? And I think that living by faith, as the Hebrews invites us, reminds us to cross the bridge when we get to it. Herein, I think lies the difference between being told to have faith, and being reminded that we live by faith together.
And when we speak of Christian unity, I believe we are speaking to this belief that we live by faith together. We cross the water together as it comes. We wait for each other on the other side and reach out or shout out help. Now you may be thinking, how did we get to Christian unity when we just heard Jesus talking about bringing division?! Good question. We know division well, we think. We bemoan the division that wreaks havoc on our country, and it does. Now I could take you down a rabbit hole of apologetics for Christ being the opposite of what we think of generally in this passage, but instead, I’m going to let it sit and invite us to think if there’s a kind of division Christ brings that has value, perhaps one that opens up the possibility for unity. Division that show shows us the signs of how we share pain together, of how we need to live by faith together.
We've all got some great care and concern, and we find them by accessing the pain we share - more so than the ways we are similar. I know that sounds strange, but let me elaborate. Families fight. Christ mentions this specifically in our passage today. Sometimes, we avoid the fight, we don’t want to encounter the division. So, everything just bubbles under the surface. Sometimes we fight and the division comes about that we see today in our world, a division that still remains on the surface and doesn’t bring us to our real divisions, because then it would be too daunting. So instead we scream at each other about how dumb or selfish the other person is without talking about what is making us so sad and upset. If we did share that, we’d see all the work that is to be done. All the bridges that need to be crossed.
The division Christ brings is one that gets us to do the painful deep down work of really facing our differences together, so that we can find that we are all tied up in each other’s struggles and pain. And yes, we have a lot of work to do as a result, but we can work and live together by faith. We will work and live together knowing that we can cross the next bridge when we get there, we can know others await us to help us along. We can live by the confidence that we are not alone in our struggles, and that every single person, especially those with whom we have a real fight with, know pain in a way that is connected to our pain. If we can find it and acknowledge it, we can come to each bridge better able to cross it.
This is where God’s grace comes in, because we can’t face that pain on our own. We can't open ourselves to the wounds of others without confronting our own, and vice versa. James Baldwin said famously in The Fire Next Time, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” This is where Christ steps in, to remind us that even if there seems to be no other person on the other side of the bridge to help you, if it seems no one else will face your pain with you, Christ is always there.
Herein lies my suggested exercise for the week. When the temptation arises to condemn another, recognize the shared pain you both hold instead. You are not alone in facing it, in persevering. This race you run with God’s grace sets others up to cross bridges as they come, as we get to them. For by faith and grace, we can cross all bridges as we come to them, together.