I’d like to introduce this message by reflecting on the power of a Psalm that many of you may remember hearing, (and singing) as we have gathered for worship together:
Psa 133:1 Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! 2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! 3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore. (ESV)
This picture of unity, joy, and peace is an ideal we strive for as Christ followers led by the Holy Spirit. Flawed as we are, we still crave that ideal, and seek to pursue it even in our fallen world. We believe in a just God. We believe this as Christians because we see his justice revealed to us in his written word and through Christ our living Word. Humanity falls on its own privatized concepts of justice, at times influenced by an understanding of God’s nature and will, and at other times far removed from it. Governing authorities from every nation on earth mete out justice as they see fit within the parameters of their law code systems. In non-democratic countries, the outcome is often more heavily influenced by totalitarian regimes and personal agenda. We aren’t exempt from this in America even though we are a democratic society, but our cultural and historic precedents play a large role in what is considered just or unjust about our everyday life together.
Without the justice of God, we would have no cross. Without the justice of God, we might as well tear every page of the Prophets out of our Bibles. Without the justice of God we miss part of Jesus first gospel proclamation as he stood up and read publicly from the scrolls in Luke chapter 4. Here he announces good news to the poor and freedom for the prisoners (captives). God sees and knows the history of oppression by one people group toward another. The misuse of power, privilege, and preeminence resonates in the throne room and reaches down to earth even as our triune God hears the plea of a single widow. Note that in Jesus’ opening salvo there’s not a word spoken about going to heaven and the reward of the saved. As he lifts the prophet Isaiah’s words from the scroll, his focus is on proclaiming freedom (spiritual and physical) to a people held captive. Without the justice of God, we can’t understand the words of Jesus nor the work of Jesus. Without a just God, human nature propagates survival of the fittest on earth.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, the savage racial inequities of the deep South are narrated through the eyes of 5 year old Scout. Scout is the precocious white daughter of Atticus Finch, a crusading local lawyer who risks everything to defend an unjustly accused black man in the 1930’s.
Young Scout says, “I think there’s just one group of folks.” But Harper Lee did not intend her readers to see the world only through the eyes of this five year old. So she puts words in the mouth of her older brother Jim which rattled Scout’s cage as it still rattles ours. Jim replies, “If there’s only one group of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise one another?”
Right now our nation is in the throws of racial tension. We are bombarded with TV, blogsites, books, talking heads, opinionated op-eds, and the rhetoric of discussion and debate on every news channel. Waves of quotable Facebook and twitter posts, movie star and professional athlete interviews, grandstanding politicians and even GoFundMe pleas wash over our social consciousness. More people have digested more information about racism in the past two weeks than they have in a long, long time. But who or what is informing our ideology? It’s no surprise that ideology outpaces good theology in the secular world, but what informs Christians of every skin tone? What content are we consuming and does it have a biblical basis in the word of God? And so I want to be very careful as a Christian, and as a (white) pastor, that I don’t fall into superficial tribal loyalties. Because in light of the gospel, in light of eternity, these allegiances will become a house of cards.
In the days and weeks ahead you may hear a lot about White Fragility – Black Power – Critical Race Theory – and multiple spectrums of sociological analysis. It is difficult to say anything about racism in the moment because the heat around the discussion is so intense that there’s little thought-soil left that isn’t already scorched earth. Part of the discussion on race assumes that it is impossible to get ourselves out of the way when we view anyone different from ourselves. And so we address the subject with our own ingrained tendencies to believe that we have a ‘balanced’ view point, and perhaps even a few answers that would be helpful to the discussion, if we can get our empirical self out of the way – which we should strive to do by God’s grace.
John Piper, author of Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian writes, “Christians are people who move toward need and truth and justice, not toward comfort and security. Life is hard. But God is good. And Christ is strong to help.”
Did you know that as a Christian, you can, at one and the same moment, be pro racial-reconciliation, AND pro law and order? It doesn’t have to be an either/or. You can be deeply saddened and angry when watching the video of George Floyd’s murder. (full stop…) And, you can also be deeply saddened and angered by the destructive looting, burning, and lawlessness. There are actually many things that are possible to agree on in Western society, but you already know this. In all the divisiveness of this cultural moment where do we go for answers that both challenge us as well as comfort us? God’s word does comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable for every child of God. There is still good news in the word of God!
God’s Purpose – Making Two People Groups One
Please turn to Ephesians chapter 2. Most of us have memorized parts of the powerful first few verses, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.” (:8-9) When we get to verse 11, Paul addresses the precarious position that the gentiles are in. He moves from the foundation of our salvation into the application of salvation and the reconciliation now available in Christ. Gentiles as a people group have been separated from Christ, alienated from the promises given to Israel, and without hope and without God in the world. (:12) Can the picture get any bleaker for them/us? People on death row have more hope than they did! And yet this division, this distinction between Jew and gentile, was God ordained for generations under the Old Covenant. He established it, not because Israel was more intelligent, more gifted or more deserving than any other people, but purely for his own glory and purpose. (That no flesh should glory in his sight…) What could possibly overcome this deep division between Jew and Gentile? Sociological analysis? Reparations? Affirmative Action? Jewish Guilt? (In the first century A.D., the Jews were actually the subjugated race.) Gentile Power? (That has been the general state of power among the nations over the course of history, and when the church did have the power of state, things went really bad!) Paul goes further than human effort in his solution, “But now… in Christ Jesus” (:13). This division has now been removed through the blood bought sacrifice of Christ.
”For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”
Why would God wait so long into human history to do this? Does this sound like a just God? It is here that theologians offer various theories on the mystery of God’s election and call. It’s not my purpose to address that discussion here, but let’s pause for the moment and look at a “first come first serve” reality of scripture from the elementary perspective of family.
Biblical history reveals that families and then tribes of people dispersed in geographical territories over the surface of the earth post-flood, and archeological history takes it back much farther than that. Some were more nomadic, others more home-steading, but God’s hand was involved from Adam and Eve up through all of Israel’s history – good times and bad – for His purposes. If we reduce the entire question of the timing of the Gentiles inclusion (you and I) down to the building block of a single family, it might look like this: Why did your parents only have one child at a time? Huh? Unless your parents had twins, (or triplets!), it’s a foolish question, right? Because people living in time and space can only do so many things at once in a temporal setting. You can’t have your entire family all at once, and your infant child won’t be graduating from college still in diapers. (At least you hope!)
In the similar way, the ordinances of the Old Covenant showed great favor to the first born males as well as placing great responsibility upon them. This wasn’t because later children were just chopped liver, but rather so that God’s purpose for the preservation and order of the family and the estate might be kept intact over the long trajectory of a fallen humanity. Much of Old Testament history would be different if hearts had not been hardened. Most importantly, the first born of many brethren was typed by this earlier model as he now fulfills that calling in spiritual realities both present and yet to come. All of Israel’s life and experience was a pointer to Christ, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1, Matt 2:15). I digress for this reason: If God, for His good and perfect purposes, tore down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile that he himself had established by now coming in the person of Christ and by his torn flesh and crucified body has made one new people out of the two, how much less should our man-made divisions of race and skin color affect our behavior as believers and citizens of his Kingdom? If God can rescind a division of people groups that he established, how much more should the blood of Christ bring down the self-centered walls which we have constructed both knowingly and unwittingly?
Overcoming our Own Likeness
Ever heard of The Slave Bible? The Slave Bible was a missionary book published in London in 1807 on behalf of the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves. The organization was dedicated to improving the lives of enslaved Africans toiling in Britain’s lucrative Caribbean colonies. But the slave Bible was missing some important chapters… like the entire book of Exodus! (You surely don’t want slaves to be inspired with the hope of liberation from their captors.) Also missing was Paul’s treatise from Galatians chapter 3, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (:28) Excluded in the weeding out references to freeing the oppressed, liberation to the captives, and all nations and tribes standing before the throne of God was also the book of Revelation. The slave bible was whittled down from our bible’s 1,189 chapters to only 232 chapters!
What power enables us to overcome the distinctions we make that continue to favor our own likeness? Too often discussions of race are set in binary thinking… Either/or, All/nothing. You are/You aren’t. When given the binary choice of racist or non-racist, I don’t know anyone who puts their hand in the air and says, “I’m a racist.” That’s a label we don’t want, and most (if not all) of the time some believe they don’t deserve. So that ends the discussion – prematurely. It might be helpful to know the difference between the terms implicit bias and racism in these days. If we begin with where we are before God, sinners (forgiven), and saints (being formed by the Spirit to conform to Christ), and realize this status is true of us in all areas of life, then the discussion is no longer binary. We are now on a continuum… learning, growing, and changing as the Spirit leads, convicts, and empowers. We are all flawed in many ways, and often we do not see our own bias because it is not in our best interest. As Christ followers we are also all gifted and empowered to be fruit bearing, justice seeking, peacemakers by the grace of God.
There have been times in history when the Church has been so concerned with keeping its status quo with the state that she became complicit in acts of injustice. (Ex: WWII Germany and atrocities against the Jews). Of course there have been other times in church history where she has been an agent of change in bringing down walls that divide. Where would America be today if God had not moved the church to see her unjust ways and lead her to repentance in our history with slavery? Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church and the underground railroad of the early 1800’ is not a fabricated tale. When the Rev. Beecher gave his first introductory sermon in Plymouth’s pulpit he stated his abolitionist views clearly and strongly and the congregation heard their call! T.J. Ellinwood, quotes the Minister as claiming, “I opened Plymouth Church, though you did not know it, to hide fugitives. I took them into my own home and fed them. I piloted them, and sent them toward the North Star, which to them was the Star of Bethlehem.” And just as this sensitivity to long held inhumanity to an entire race by a race came about during the Great Awakening, so to every move of the Spirit which leads us to reconciliation with God and each other is an awakening of sorts.
Isn’t it amazing how Paul, called when he was a Jew among all Jews, became by God’s purpose the Apostle to the gentiles? That he would write, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.” (2 Cor 5:16) Note again in Ephesians chapter 2 that four times in this section of scripture Paul speaks of the peace that only Christ can bring… (:14 ‘he himself is our peace, :15 ‘so making peace’, :17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.) Christ not only builds the bridge, he is the bridge! Jesus is the final end to ethnocentricity! Our world needs this savior, and Christians need to understand the kind of savior we worship… the depth of the reconciliation he has grasped for us and is lifting us to! As you think about your own life, your personal comfort or discomfort with America’s plight and the racial tension in the air right now, let me share three practical take-a-ways that may be helpful:
- Think beyond binary discussion. (Racist or non-racist). Rather, see yourself as a learner, a disciple, one who has not yet fully arrived as to loving and respecting your brother of any color. Be willing to ask yourself uncomfortable questions and move in the right direction. Notice Harper Lee’s insight again, this time from the mouth of Atticus Finch: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
- Who sits at my table? The Jewish/Gentile reconciliation could not make real headway until they had table fellowship together! Who do I invite into my home to sit at my table? This is true not only across the races, but also across age and economic distinctions. (Peter’s vision from heaven was useful in getting the ball rolling on table fellowship – Acts 10)
- Find Your Voice – As the one who reconciles us with God and each other, Jesus serves us as Prophet, Priest, and King. Some of you have a prophetic voice. God has uniquely gifted you to confront others in the name of justice with truth and grace. To others, God has given you a priestly voice, to listen and to comfort others. And God has also gifted some with Kingly voices which will offer practical solutions within the structures of society around us. Sitting on boards, making decisions for our communities, acting administratively on behalf of the best interests of others.
May justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream… Amos 5:24