It has been a remarkably difficult and challenging week. A week ago, the conversation was completely dominated by COVID-19. And it has been that way for the past few months. Yes, believe it or not, COVID-19 gave up it’s reign and stranglehold for another story. The story of race, cultural tensions, marches, protests, justice, demonstrations. The events of the past week have sparked emotions in all corners of our nation and political spectrum. The results have been both ugly and have birthed conversation.
I am not so much interested in engaging the debate or picking a public stance. And I am even less interested in the political discussions. It is my simple hope is to encourage our church and God’s people everywhere and remind us of who we are. I am striving to see race, culture, and ethnicity through the eyes of Jesus.
This past Sunday, May 31st we spent time looking at the story of Pentecost here at Paradise Church. There are so many dynamics to Pentecost, it was hard to cover them all in one message. The arrival of the Holy Spirit, the empowering and birth of the church, the maturing and changing of Peter right before our eyes. He goes from shrinking away and denying Jesus altogether to the Apostle Peter; all in about 50 days. And the connection between the Old Testament Festival of Pentecost and the Day of Pentecost in the book of Acts. That’s a lot of ground to cover. If you missed the message from last Sunday click here to watch it.
But Pentecost, as it is recorded in the book of Acts continues a paradigm shift that builds on the ministry of Jesus and the gospels, making an important statement: In the eyes of Jesus, there is one race, the human race (Acts 17:26). There is a division between the old and new in terms of covenant, grace, forgiveness… and how we view those around us.
All four gospels describe Jesus in confrontation and conversation with the racial tension in the first century. Everyone was divided by race and culture at the time of Jesus. John frequently recounts how Jesus confronts these divides. And Luke, both in his gospel and the book of Acts puts racial issues on center stage and showed how Jesus and the early church approached them, adopted them and lived into them.
The first century was full of racism and oppression. In the mind of a first-century Jew, Gentiles (Africans, Romans, Greeks, Syrians, Asians, etc.) were created to fuel the fires of hell. When a Jewish person called a Gentile “uncircumcised,” they made a face and literally spit out the words. If a Jewish person married a Gentile, the Jewish parents held a funeral service for their child. In their eyes, their child was dead. There we even ancient prayers that read, “Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who has not made me a Gentile.”
On the flip side, Gentiles regarded Jews to be subhuman. From the pages of the Old Testament through the birth of the church, the Jews were an oppressed people, living under the hand of one Gentile nation after another (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome). The kingdom of Israel hit its highpoint with David and Solomon. But after the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC to the Assyrians and the Southern Kingdom in 586 BC to the Babylonians, there was no independent nation of Israel until modern times.
It could be said that in all of history, there has never been so much animosity, hatred and violence between two groups of people as there has been between the Jews and the Gentiles. Present culture included.
Besides the Gentiles, The Jews and Samaritans were also groups that had animosity towards each other. In 722 BC, when the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. 10 whole tribes of Israel were crushed, those left alive were hauled off into captivity. While in exile the beliefs and practices of these lost 10 tribes combined with those in Assyria. This created a changed or modified version of Judaism. Eventually the Samaritans arose , and they claimed their beliefs to be correct, while the Jews discounted them and said their version was the right version. And further, because they had become “contaminated” as a people, they were no longer seen as true Jews.
In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus is asked perhaps the keystone question that we all wonder. It is the question about life after death. The religious lawyer asks in verse 25, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” All pastors, priests and rabbis get this question frequently in their ministry. What is the bottom line? Jesus gives with the 2-fold answer of Loving God and Loving our Neighbor. In the Old Testament, it was clear who your neighbor was. It was your fellow Jewish countryman. You were charged to treat the foreigner with care and respect (Leviticus 19:33-34), but neighbor was seen as treating your fellow Jew with love (Leviticus 19:17-18). But the lawyer presses Jesus and wonders if that is in fact Jesus’s definition of neighbor. It is not. Jesus has a much bigger answer. Jesus combines the two, or in fact elevates the foreigner or sojourner to the same level as neighbor. Jesus recounts the story of the Good Samaritan. A (Jewish) man is attacked by robbers and left for dead on the road. Two Jewish religious leaders pass him by. But a Samaritan stops to help. Most often when I have heard messages about this passage, there are two ways to go in application. One is to focus on the religious people passing him by. The religious people (the pastor or the priest) passed him, but the common person stops. But the more shocking idea, for the first century and for us today, is the racial component. If the third person to stop was a common Jewish person, the story would lose it’s punch. But the fact that it was a Samaritan, that makes the crowd and the lawyer squirm.
The Samaritan does not just help, he goes overboard. He does more than anyone Jew or Samaritan would have done. And when Jesus swings back at the end of the story asking the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (10:36), the lawyer could not even say the word. He responds, “The one who showed him mercy” (10:37). Jesus then tells him to “go and do likewise.” That story, that command is for us as well. “Go and do likewise!”
In John 4, Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well. The whole encounter is intriguing. Jesus speaking to a woman, to a Samaritan woman, and to a woman who has such a checkered past and questionable current situation. After Jesus shares that he knows her story already, she quickly moved the story into the debate of whether the Samaritans or the Jews are correct in their beliefs. He corrects her ideas, but He wants to make clear to her that someday the place where you worship does not matter. That the whole things that keeps us divided will face away. “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.
And just before the climax of Jesus ministry happens, there is a turning point. It’s is brief, we glance over it moving towards the last supper. But it is huge. Just after Jesus enters the city on Palm Sunday, John tells us that some Greeks (Gentiles) wanted to see Jesus (John 12:20). We don’t know who they were, or how they learned about him. Somehow the story of Jesus had spilled over into the wider Roman empire. Most scholars believe they were Greeks who had converted to Judaism. But now they were seeking Jesus. They come to Philip and Andrew asking to see Jesus. How did Philip and Andrew feel about these folks wanting to see Jesus? We do not know. But Jesus knows that in addition to all that will be accomplished when the “hour” comes for the “Son of Man” to be glorified (12:23), one of those accomplishments will be bringing this message beyond the confines of Judaism and into the whole world.
The purpose statement of John 3:16 was about to be fulfilled and the idea that God so loved the world really did mean that God loved the world.
Following the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the stage was set to see if these powerful ideas of loving the world and breaking down racial and cultural barriers could be lived out in real time. The reality is that we needed exactly what Jesus promised. The comforter, the Spirit of God dwelling in us. And with that the story begins to move. This first century group of followers began to transcend race.
In Acts 2, when the Spirit comes, Luke tells us that when the Spirit filled these believers, they began to speak in other tongues, other languages. They leave the house (or the Temple) and begin to speak the good news to the world.
The festival of Pentecost was the next big festival following Passover. People from all over the known world would be in the city. And Luke tells us that in fact Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Judeans…Egyptians, Cretans, Arabians. The entire world met these disciples after they encountered the Holy Spirit. The world waits for each of us as well the moment we leave our church buildings.
Later in chapter 2, the picture unfolds even more:
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
This early church spent time together, shared belongings, had all things in common. They praised God and found favor with ‘all the people” (2:47). They really saw themselves as members of the same family … a people made up of Jews, Gentiles, slaves, free, rich, poor, male and female.
These were the early Christians. And it was this love that kept the church alive through the Roman empire and into entire world. It was this love that survived Roman persecution and lives and breathes today. The early church only addressed each other by their first names, because they did not want the standing of their family name, whether poor or wealthy to be a wall between their brothers and sisters. When these believers gathered on Sundays to share communion and sing hymns (Acts 20:7).
Paul takes the message and the love of Jesus from Jerusalem to the world. Everywhere he stopped, he spoke to the Jews and the Gentiles. The growth of the church from the beginning was a combination of the two.
Now, before we think it was this overnight magic, that the Holy Spirit arrives and like the end of a Disney movie everything is set right, no, it took time. The church had growing pains. And much of their growth was about culture, religion and race. It was something that always came up and always needed to be addressed.
In Acts 6, the believers began shrinking back to their cultural corners and arguments arose. While united in chapters 2-4, old habits began creeping back in. Peter in Acts 10 has to address the fact that he believed the things that God was saying about taking the message to the world, but in reality he did not really act on it. God purposely sends him to the home of a Gentile and sees God’s spirit move and bring a response from the Gentiles. Going in would have been a huge cultural boundary. For Peter’s growth, he has to enter. He has to encounter Cornelius the Gentile. And after all of this, Peter says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality.” Even then Paul, in Galatians has to actually confront Peter when he has slipped back into old patterns and racial mindsets.
So it is not something that changes overnight, but it is a continual process to remind ourselves, to remember, to check our own biases and prejudices. Once we get it, we need to keep getting it. Over and over. As soon as we think this does not need to be addressed in our own lives anymore, the spotlight of the Spirit needs to continue it’s work.
Over and over the message of Jesus is reaffirmed and relearned. We know the truth of it, and have to keep owning it. We preach it and forget it very quickly. But it is a week like this where we need to remember who we are. And like Peter, we need to be forced to reexamine one more time who our biases lie.
At the end of the Good Samaritan story. Jesus tells the lawyer to Go likewise and do the same. The command of Jesus to go is powerful. It literally means to “Depart and you yourself perform the same.” The Greek verb translated as “go” isn’t the most common or used verb, it does not mean to just depart. This version of go uniquely means both “to pursue a course” and “to depart from life” or “take yourselves.” It really means go and change or go and do something about what I have said. Don’t just listen and nod your head, but make and active conscious choice to go and do something different.
May we all “go and do likewise.”