Why Unity Isn’t Out of Our Reach

We aren’t learning lessons from the past. In fact, we are repeating the same tragedies.

History speaks volumes of racial and ethnic discrimination. These are the common stuff of life across the minutia of human civilization. For believers alone, we need to look no further than the first family in Genesis to find hatred, envy, and murder.

Yet human civilization has always resorted to bootstrap methods to end such discrimination, particularly in modern times. With further regulations and laws, humanity has attempted to modify human behavior, enforcing tolerance even if the heart would betray itself.

And yet, in spite of such forced behavior, discrimination and division still exist. And many among us continue to demand more regulations for forced behavior, ignoring that, for the greater part of world history, forced behavior has proved unsuccessful.

We have reached what many to believe to be the pinnacle of world civilization, and the best we can still offer is forcing behavior, that still won’t stop hatred, terrorism, discrimination, war, and genocide.

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A Multicultural Experience

Be aware of disputable matters. Because they will be part of a multicultural church experience.

But let’s not make these verses preach something that isn’t there, so let’s forego that temptation today. The disputable matters referenced here are concerned with only two things: food and holidays. Nothing else.

With food, there is some pretty stout language for this multicultural church. Each different group, Jews and Gentiles, will have various dietary preferences. When the table of fellowship is shared, these two groups were to be careful to not offend others by what they served.

It stands to reason that the chiefest experience in a believer’s life is the table of fellowship they share with other believers. It is the kingdom meal. It is the presence of celebration and salvation. It is a table filled with food and communion. At that moment, these two groups were to not offend someone who has different dietary preferences. If there was an offense, the purpose of the kingdom meal would be completely defeated.

These were no small dietary preferences, though. Jewish people were afraid of the meat sold in Roman markets, because it wasn’t kosher, and was probably used in various pagan temples. It was also entirely possible, and probable, that Jewish butchers wouldn’t serve Jewish believers. And meat was generally only afforded by the wealthier people in Rome.

Abstaining from meat, then, was a social point. And insisting on meat would only be done at the expense of unity in the Roman house churches.

But even then, the guiding principle of unity is even larger:

For those who can afford meat — do not isolate and offend those who can’t.

And for those who can’t afford meat — do not isolate and offend those who can. 

The Roman church should be both multicultural and economically diverse.

The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. (Romans 14:3; NIV84)

Now that’s interesting.

Because I’ve always been taught that this passage is about much more frivolous things. Like what should and shouldn’t happen in Sunday morning American church gatherings.

This passage isn’t about such pettiness. It has something bigger for us to consider. It’s an appeal for churches to become multicultural. It’s a way to stem the messiness of bringing together two volatile cultural groups into one setting.

Remember, too. These churches met in homes, not multi-million dollar buildings. There were no elaborate stages or HD screens or playgrounds for the kids. These believers were meeting in intimate settings, sharing meals together. Those small, intimate settings would be shattered if anyone insisted that the communion and fellowship meal serve foods that some couldn’t, or wouldn’t, eat.

But why does all of this really matter?

Here’s why:

But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. (Romans 15:23, 24; NIV84)

It matters because Paul wants to continue west, to Spain, to bring the gospel of grace to the barbarians of the Roman Empire — to groups of people who care little about Roman culture and Jewish culture.

The culture of Spain was almost impenetrable, by the way. Augustus Caesar once remarked that the Roman soldiers who trained there became hispanicized, and even regarded themselves as Spanish.

The Hispanicus cared little about Roman etiquette or Roman politics or Roman meals. But if they were to be convinced that the gospel of grace also affords the miracle of unity, then the Roman church has to get it right, to become the example for all Paul intends to share with those on the western most parts of the Empire.

And the same is true for us. Our own cities suffer because of our lack of being counter-culturally multicultural.

The overlooked and despised neighborhoods of our own cities don’t need a church plant. They need proof of transformation. They need proof that at least one thing in the world is different from everything else — that church is the place where various groups of people, from different cultures and different wealth, can share in the communion of Christ together.

That is what the letter to the Romans is about.

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This post is part of ninety different posts through my ninety day reading of the New Testament.

Crossing the Racial Divide

Romans 10 through Romans 12 is quite clear about one thing. Harmony.

Different notes. Chords. Beauty because of the differences, not in spite of them.

Which is never, ever easy. And it is much easier to write, than to live.

It is right, though. Let’s not forget that.

The New Testament letter to the Romans, through a long and deep argument, eventually explains this with clarity. These three chapters are powerful. Here is but a part:

There was a time not so long ago when you were on the outs with God. But then the Jews slammed the door on him and things opened up for you. Now they are on the outs. But with the door held wide open for you, they have a way back in. In one way or another, God makes sure that we all experience what it means to be outside so that he can personally open the door and welcome us back in. (Romans 11:30-32; The Message)

Everyone — every believer — has been on the outside at one time. Everyone.

But before we make this preach something it isn’t, understand this. There was an ethnical obstacle in Rome that was preventing the harmony God wants for his believers.

It was — dare I say it? — a racial divide.

Their division was based on skin color, ethnic heritage, political rulings and cultural preferences. And those things kept the church divided. Jewish people were expelled from Rome, which left the Gentile church to grow in a different direction. Now, the Jewish believers were coming back to town, and weren’t finding the welcome they anticipated. So Paul appealed to them on a much deeper level.

Behind and underneath all this there is a holy, God-planted, God-tended root. If the primary root of the tree is holy, there’s bound to be some holy fruit. Some of the tree’s branches were pruned and you wild olive shoots were grafted in. Yet the fact that you are now fed by that rich and holy root gives you no cause to crow over the pruned branches. Remember, you aren’t feeding the root; the root is feeding you. (Romans 11:16-18; The Message)

God is the tree. Everyone grows from that holy tree as branches. Some fall away. Some are pruned. And some are grafted back.

The sober truth of this passage is that if today, in modern America, we choose to not bridge cultural and racial and political divides, then we look more like culture than heaven.

Our churches, for the most part, mimic our own preferences. We build buildings on the outskirts of town, away from the dirtiness of our cities, because our membership has “moved.” Maybe we’ve believed we’ve led our membership in capital campaigns to build bigger structures. We feel good about what we’ve built. But it could also be true that leadership — or the lack of it — has led our churches to believe personal preferences for location can override the mission of God.

Or, we refuse to go to the “better” part of town for fear of acceptance. We’ve been told, politically, that we should receive the graces of social justice at the expense of those with more, and we’ve been taught that our “have not” should be satisfied by those who “have.” So we believe that, and hold tight to that, refusing to take the bigger step of faith.

Or, we “plant” churches on the other side of town, or just a mile or two away, because we fear what would happen if we begin to combine all of the cultures.

But those actions do not make us look like believers. They make us look like skeptics.

We don’t trust God to bridge the differences.

Would it be messy if wealthy churches stayed in the middle of our cities, and in the middle of impoverished neighborhoods?

Would it be messy if we actually invited, and accepted people of a difference cultural lifestyle into our sanctuaries?

Absolutely. It would be messy. There would be all sorts of issues, and most of them wouldn’t be easy to bear.

But it would be harmony. And miraculous. We would be asking God to do something we obviously can’t do, and obviously don’t want to do. Here are Paul’s words:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12:1, 2; The Message)

Our lack of mutual acceptance tells our world we don’t believe God can do the unthinkable, in our own hearts and against our own spoken or non-spoken prejudices.

Here is the miracle, as described in another translation:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is —his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1, 2; NIV84)

We need a transformation, so our churches will not look like the world — or the neighborhoods — around us.

Churches, and church gatherings can prove God is alive by our diversity alone.

Because only God can walk us across racial divides.

Blessed

“Dear Parents:  I must, on this the 4th day of April, 1918, die.  Please pray for me, my dear parents.”

And those were the last written words of Robert Paul Prager.

Prager, a German, lived in Collinsville, Illinois, and was an outspoken supporter of socialism, a very difficult subject to broach in 1918, during the time of what was then known as the Great War.  His views led him to be severely persecuted by a population already roused to defend America against any German influences.  Newspapers and pamphlets and demonstrations in various cities were warnings to those who were deemed to be disloyal to the American effort, or, more specifically, those of German descent. 

Prager was followed home after expressing his opinions in Maryville, Illinois, a small mining camp, and, in the city of Collinsville, Prager was stripped and then covered with an American flag, and made to march through the streets.

He was secured and rescued by a local policeman, who took him to shelter in the city jail, but Prager was later removed from the basement of the building by 300 of the men in town, who arrived at the building in anger. 

This is the description of his death, from a column written in The New York Times on June 2, 1918:

All reports indicate that at this time there was no intention to hang Prager.  It was planned to tar and feather him, but tar and feathers were not to be obtained, and a passing automobile in which was a rope suggested hanging.  The rope was knotted around the man’s neck and he was escorted a mile down the road.

The mob stopped at a large tree.  A small boy, boosted up the tree, adjusted the rope.  Prager was drawn into the air, but was lowered to bind his hands and feet.  He fell to his knees and for three minutes prayed in German.  He then wrote a short note to his aged parents, who live in Dreseden, Germany.  This done, the knot was tightened around his neck and dozens of hands grasped the rope that swung him ten feet into the air to his death.

Eleven men were put on trial for the lynching, and, against the urging of the judge, were tried on the basis of an assumed homefront warning that the war, now called World War 1, should have no bearing on the decision of the jurors.  He urged them to consider the basic fact of the trial, which was the murder of one man.  

The jury only took 45 minutes to reach a decision of not guilty, and when it was announced, the courtroom erupted in applause.  The eleven men who stood trial were congratulated amidst the singing of American patriotic songs.

Perhaps the most poignant part of this event, though, was the burial of Prager.  Buried in St. Louis by members of an organization in which he participated, they fulfilled the last request of the dying man, made on behalf of his burial — an American flag was draped over his coffin. 

Prager, a man in his twenties who sought to serve in the American Navy, a man whose views on government were controversial, was persecuted and killed because he was different.  And though a subplot in the American involvement of World War 1, it speaks to the nature of humanity to always intimidate and oppress those with unique differences, from the world stage to small rural communities. 
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Christianity is no stranger to persecution, positioning itself as counter to human nature, and even counter to any culture.  Early in its formation, Christianity bestowed blessings on those who endured persecution. 

But persecution for Christianity has not ended.  I want you to visit the website of the organization Voice of the Martyrs.  VOM is dedicated to assisting and encouraging persecuted Christians throughout the world.  On this site, you will read of Li Mei, arrested in China for singing Christian hymns to villagers, and praying for the healing of an elderly man.  Her sentence was up to 18 months of reeducation, and she spent a portion of her incarceration chained to her bed, and according to the site, was beaten so severely that she required surgery.  She is fulfilling the remainder of her sentence under house arrest.

Members of churches endlessly debate meanings of passages and visions of our churches.  And while we engage in such conversations, there are those of the Christian faith who are being beaten and chained and killed just because they believe.  We spend our spare time discussing and arguing, while underground Christians offer Jesus to those whose acceptance of Christ could condemn them to death.  Our time is spent with coffee and commentaries, while Christians in oppressive regions always bless the food of what may be their last meal.  We worry about styles and songs, while Li Mei is chained and beaten for a prayer of healing.

And those are the people called blessed

Please visit this site.  Your life, your faith, and your purpose, will change in a matter of moments.