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.

Fringe Benefits (Day Nineteen)

Welcome to day nineteen in the ninety days of reading through the New Testament. Today’s reading is from Luke 7 through Luke 9.

And again, Jesus’ acceptance of those on the fringes of society takes center stage.

Luke, in trying to construct an incredible factual account of Jesus, and continuing this story in his companion book, constantly insists upon placing the story of Jesus at the intersection of non-Jewish people, and those on the fringe of society.

  • He heals the child of a centurion (not a Jew), and resurrects the son of a widow (a woman, in a male-dominated world), both in Luke 7. And, again, both stories concern children.
  • Jesus is anointed by a “sinful woman” in Luke 7 (again, a woman in a male-dominated world).
  • Jesus performs an exorcism in Luke 8, of a man no longer allowed into the city because of his demon-possession (he was ostracized from the Jewish community).
  • In Luke 8, he again resurrects a young girl (a girl, in a male-dominated Jewish world).
  • Jesus also heals a woman in Luke 8, simply when she touched his clothing (again, a woman in a man’s world).
  • In Luke 9 Jesus heals a young boy (a child, in a man’s world).

In the New Testament book of Acts, Luke spends much time defending Paul’s ministry to the very same people. Paul traveled into the Roman world, to bring the message of freedom to Gentiles. Luke is, after all, making sure we all understand this, and he does so by placing Jesus in the lives of the outcasts in his first volume, so the second volume of his works will make more sense.

There is a change in story in today’s reading though. Luke sets the stage for Jesus’ passion with a statement in Luke 9:51 that Jesus “resolutely” sets out for Jerusalem.

But before everything in this story becomes focused on the climax of human history, Luke records one final statement about Jesus’ very public and controversial life. Here it is:

Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. (Luke 9:48)

Luke ends Jesus’ time with the outcasts with this very powerful idea.

Matthew may use this very same story in Matthew 18 to highlight a simple faith, but Luke uses it to highlight Jesus’ acceptance, and protection, for the weakest.

This good news of freedom will be available to the most vulnerable in society.

And while these interactions show us the depth of Jesus’ compassion, we also see the flattening of his expanding kingdom.

Everyone is welcomed.

We should see Jesus defending and empowering those who have lost everything, and who had no more to lose.

It’s a stark contrast to our idea of community, though. We build community based upon similarities. Church attendance is held together by those with similar interests. We’ve assumed that the community of our gatherings is God’s extreme intention.

But our non-involvement, and our silent non-acceptance of those on the fringes of our own society, speak greatly to our own depravity. We’ve built ivory castles, and asked people to come to us.

We’ve built strange structures of silent leadership in these gatherings. We protect our stately buildings. We hold high the public presentations of worship and teaching. But we teach truth, and become content at what we present, by saying that those who do not join us have turned a cold shoulder to God.

Jesus, though, in a startling way, never spent much time teaching these people he healed, and his acceptance of these outcasts was never based upon how much they learned first.

There were no bible studies. No worship leading. No bible classes. No board meetings. And no baptisms.

They were healed. They were accepted. They were loved. And they worshiped.