Last year, the pastoral team and I went away to plan our preaching calendar for this year. One of the topics we thought we should cover was the issue of racial reconciliation.
A couple of months before our meeting, we had seen the reporting of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Images flashed across the television of the response of the people in the community and in the nation.
We knew this would be an important topic to tackle.
Little did we know when we put this on the calendar one year ago, that this issue would not get any better, but in fact, the issues surrounding race relations would have an even brighter spotlight on it as the year unfolded.
Growing up in the south, you would think that I would have a unique perspective on this subject. But to be honest, I don’t feel like I do. Many of my closest friends in elementary school and junior high were black. Mark Carthron was an African American kid I met in 2nd grade when we moved to Texarkana. We were in the same classes for many years and we were close friends.
I believe my parents did a good job of raising me and my siblings to not see color.
When we moved to Little Rock, though, things were different. The school district was still under a court desegregation order that dated back to 1957. This order meant students from around the city were bussed to various schools to ensure the schools were racially diverse. That order wasn’t lifted until 2007.
Race in the News
In my lifetime, I do not remember seeing the multitude of stories like we now see on the news. I was in high school when Rodney King was viciously beaten by four cops in LA while others stood around and watched it happen. I remember seeing that video on the news. I also remember the response of the community when these cops were acquitted of the charges of assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force.
The community was outraged and Los Angeles erupted into riots and looting. 53 people were killed and 2,000 were injured. I remember Rodney King making a television appearance and with his voice trembling, uttering the famous line, “Can we all get along?”
When I was in college, the nation watched the murder trial of OJ Simpson and the incredible racial divide every night on TV. A black man was charged with killing two white people. Outside the courtroom were the white people with signs declaring his guilt and black people with signs declaring his innocence.
In 2008, the United States elected our first black president and everything was good. The era of racial tension in our nation was over. It magically disappeared and everyone of all races and every skin color automatically got along. Don’t we wish.
As much as we would like to believe everything is okay, as much as we would like to think that everything is hunky-dory, it is obvious that it is not.
When we sat down last year to plan this out, we knew of two major stories in the news that had dealt with race. Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner who was choked to death in New York. But in the last year, we have seen Freddie Gray killed in Baltimore, a church shooting in South Carolina that killed 9 black people as they prayed, and an intense debate over the flying of the Confederate flag. In August we saw the anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown and with it more unrest, arrests, and violence.
In October, a young black man was killed as his car was broken down on the side of the road and he was waiting for a ride.
And just this week, we all saw the video of the black female student being violently ripped from her desk by a white police officer.
These are just the stories that easily come to mind. If I did any bit of research, I am sure I could come up with 20 more just as easily, in order to remind us that we have a race problem in this country. As Christians, I think many of us look at it and feel bad about it, but really don’t know what to do about it.
Now, I know that this is not a comfortable topic to be talking about. I must admit, even I get nervous. With our politically correct culture, and knowing that this is being recorded makes me especially conscious of what will be said here today.
But those who follow Jesus cannot sit on the sidelines in blissful ignorance and assume everything is okay. It is not.
In the book of Acts, we find the story of the early church. The narrative of Acts follows several people as events unfold after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and his ascension back to heaven. The disciples, those who had followed Jesus for three years, were boldly preaching about Jesus to the Jewish crowds. Opposition was starting to rise against them and some were even beginning to be killed for their faith.
But the early Christians knew they had to tell others about Jesus and how he came to forgive their sin, bring them freedom, and transform their lives. Thousands upon thousands were hearing and believing the message. The church was rapidly growing.
In Acts 10, we find a story that I think will be very insightful in our discussion of racial reconciliation. The story begins by introducing us to a man named Cornelius. Cornelius was a centurion, an officer in the Roman army who was responsible for 100 men. As a Roman, Cornelius was a Gentile, or in other words, not a Jew.
Cornelius was a good man; he was God-fearing, generous, and one who prayed. One day, Cornelius had a vision. In this vision, an angel of God spoke to him, which was kind of alarming. We are even told in verse 4 that when God called his name, “Cornelius stared at him in fear.” A man that usually struck fear in the hearts of his men was talking to God’s messenger and he was afraid.
The angel said to Cornelius,
“Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” —Acts 10:4-6
Cornelius obeyed and dispatched his men to find this Peter.
The story moves forward and we find Peter, on a roof, doing his daily prayers. It was around noon and like most of us at noon, Peter was getting hungry. Peter fell into a trance and also had a vision. In his vision, he saw a large sheet being lowered from heaven. In this sheet were all kinds of animals, birds, and reptiles.
As he saw this sheet, a voice told him,
“Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
Now for most of us, especially you who like to hunt, we’d have been like, “Okay, it’s steak and bacon for lunch!” But, for Peter, this was different.
In the Jewish community, there were dietary restrictions on what they could and could not eat. The dietary laws had been passed down for thousands of years. And they weren’t like some of the people we encounter today. You know them. “I’m a vegetarian, but a little bacon won’t hurt!”
Peter’s dietary restrictions had been drilled into his head since birth. They weren’t just because he was a picky eater. They were a part of his identity and he had not and would not go against them.
And so, he responded,
“Surely not, Lord!…I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
And the voice said to him, “Do not call anything impure that God had made clean.” —Acts 10:14
This happened three times to Peter. Three times he saw the sheet. Three times he said he would never eat it. And three times God said to him, “Don’t call anything impure that God has made clean.”
All of this left Peter a little dazed and confused. But while he was thinking about it, Cornelius’ men arrived and asked for Peter. They shared why they were there, and the next day Peter and his entourage and these men traveled back to the house of Cornelius.
It was a two day journey, but on the day they arrived, they found Cornelius was there waiting for them. But not just Cornelius. He had invited a large group of people to be there to hear what Peter had to say.
Peter began by saying,
“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?” —Acts 10:28-29
What an opening, right?
Cornelius explained his vision and told Peter,
“We are all here to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” —Acts 10:33
This was an eager audience.
Peter realized that this entire event was orchestrated by God. He was not there by accident. And even though everything in his past told him that he shouldn’t be there, that these people were not the right kind of people, evidently God had something else in mind.
And he said,
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” —Acts 10:34-35
He then proceeded to preach to them a message he had told before. It was the story of Jesus, how he taught, and did miracles, how he was crucified and buried, how he rose on the third day, and that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” —Acts 10:43
Before Peter could even get to his conclusion, something amazing happened. The Spirit of God came upon the people. These unclean, impure Gentiles had received the Spirit of God. And just like when the Sprit of God came upon the Jewish people on the day of Pentecost, these people started speaking in other languages and praising God.
Peter looked at this situation, I’m sure still a little stunned by the events of the last few days, and he said, “I guess this really is of God. You’ve received the same Spirit from God that we have. There is nothing that prevents you from being baptized and being welcomed into the people of God.”
The Point of the Story
Often when we look at this story, we see the heading in our Bible that says something like this: “The Gospel Comes to the Gentiles,” and we think, “Isn’t that nice? God’s plan is just unfolding and the good news of Jesus is reaching new people.” Yes, that is part of what is happening, but we need to understand the underlying emotions and prejudices in this story.
It is difficult for us to understand the incredible gulf that existed between the Jews and Gentiles at the time. The Jews looked down on everyone who wasn’t Jewish. They considered them less than human.
What we might jump to think is that this was the way it was meant to be. After all, the Jews were chosen by God as his people, but on the contrary, the Old Testament never supported this thinking.
Yes, God called the Israelites to fight against hostile nations. Yes, God told Abraham and the Israelites they were his chosen people, but we can’t forget why they were chosen.
They were chosen to bless all the nations of the earth, to reveal the one true God to everyone else.
But instead of revealing God they twisted this doctrine of election into a doctrine of favoritism and became filled with racial pride and hatred. Gentiles were dogs. Samaritans were half-breeds that weren’t worth spitting on. And the Jewish people developed traditions to keep themselves separated from everyone else.
Does this sound familiar? Yes, it may not be you and me today actively creating a divide, but a legal divide existed in this country no less than 50 years ago. And if we are honest, we have to admit there is still a divide that exists today.
In 1968, Martin Luther King stood in the National Cathedral and preached these words, “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ There is No East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.”
Now, a little caveat here, as I look across this room, and I think about the people who call Ashworth Road home, one of the things I am most grateful for that I have seen over the last 3 years is the increase in diversity in our church. We have people from Mexico, India, Vietnam, Kenya, Togo, Burundi, Mexico, Liberia, and may other nations around the world.
But with the chaos and divide that we see still exists in our country, can we say that we have done enough?
The story of Acts 10 is as much a story of racial reconciliation as it is anything else. It is as much about the conversion of Peter as it is the conversion of Cornelius. It is God breaking down the barriers of race and nationality to say there is one race now, one race united under Jesus Christ. As one commentator put it, “God has broken down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles, humiliating both. Jews lost their privileged position and Gentiles lost their self-sufficiency. Both were brought down to the same level, so that both might experience God’s grace and mercy.”
This story shows us that God’s attitude toward people is not determined by an external criteria, such as appearance, skin color, race, nationality, or even class. It is determined by Jesus Christ and what he has done on the cross.
The Takeaway of the Story
So what can we do? What should we do in response to this?
First, I think we need to grapple with this for a bit. Some of us have become desensitized or numb to what is happening around us. Those of us that have been in the majority race in this country need to be uncomfortable with what we see.
Next, we need to understand that it is about race. If you are white, you don’t get to say what is a racial situation or what is not. We have not had the same background or experiences.
I may offend some by saying this, but we need to recognize that white privilege is real. We are not all born equal, with equal access. Schools in some areas are better than schools in other areas. My kids in Waukee don’t struggle with the same issues as those in other parts of Des Moines. We cannot just assume that the experiences and opportunities afforded to many of us here are the same afforded to others. This simply isn’t true.
I do not have to warn my son in the same way a black father has to warn his son about social interactions. By understanding this, we need to remove from our vocabulary statements like, “They just need to try harder. They need to take some responsibility.”
Do you realize who you were in the story of Acts? You were the marginalized. You were the outsider. There was Jewish privilege. God had chosen them as a nation. And then, miraculously, God said, “no more.” We can’t do much about when and where we were born, but we can do something with it. Our education, our experience. . . we can use what we have been given to help others.
Another aspect we need to recognize is that we all struggle with racism. As much as I may hate to admit it, there is some level of racism in me. And I may not be the only one that needs to admit that. We need to take captive any thought or idea that tells us that we are better or more deserving than someone else.
And when we see racism within ourselves, we need to pray and we need to repent.
Just as with Peter, racial reconciliation began with God and with prayer, so too healing can come to our community when we pray and repent. An attitude of repentance can go a long way in healing relationships.
We need to be willing to break the barriers that exist. We need people to understand that racism isn’t from God. We need to be showing others and helping them understand that the Kingdom of God is an equalizer. We all come to the cross, not because of our skin color or privilege, not on our own merit, but by the grace and mercy of God. We can’t look down on anyone.
God has allowed me to befriend a Latino gentlemen in our community named Al. Al has a heart for this city and a heart for the gospel. Al has pulled me from my nice suburban existence and has begun to introduce me to other pastors in our community. This Thursday, I will go to a church in central Des Moines and join hands with pastors of every race and nationality to pray for our city and our churches and that God will continue to break down the walls that divide us.
We need to engage those from other cultures and approach them, not from a position of defensiveness, but a position of empathy and understanding.
We must be willing to confront prejudice when we see it in our communities and our church, and we need to be bold enough to condemn it. The only thing that is worse than racism is apathy towards it.
We must recognize that our involvement can’t come from guilt, but from the gospel. It’s not about the white man coming in to save the day. It is recognizing that I am no better than you and you no better than me. We are both made in the image of God and you need me as much as I need you because WE NEED ONE ANOTHER.
Do you realize that this really wasn’t the first time we saw a breaking down of the racial barriers in the Bible? Jesus himself modeled this for us. He destroyed barriers. In John 4 he interacted with the woman at the well. This was a doubly scandalous moment because he was interacting with a woman and because he was interacting with a Samaritan. Jews hated Samaritans. But, Jesus made time for her. Jesus told his followers a story about a Good Samaritan in an effort to demolish the idea of racial superiority.
I want you to understand the importance of this story today, not because it has been in the news lately, but because of the attention God gives it. We have almost two entire chapters devoted to this story and it is told not once, but twice, again in Acts, chapter 11. This is important.
We have seen in our country that laws will not fix it. Political correctness will not fix it. I heard a pastor say this week that although political correctness has taken racism out of our mouths, it has not taken it out of our hearts or our lives.
Our goal as a church and as followers of Jesus should be to reflect the Kingdom of God, and to give people here a taste of what is to come when sin is defeated and removed for good and we are able to live with Him in the new creation, a place where every tribe, and nation, and tongue is together.
As John Piper writes, “The bloodline of Jesus is deeper than the bloodline of race.”
I believe that the church of Jesus Christ cannot bury our heads in the sand, assume that this will self-correct, and go on about our way. We must be willing to stand up and be counted, to stand up and say discrimination and racism is inexcusable. And we must do everything we can to continue to tear down the barriers.
It is my prayer today that each of us has been a little uncomfortable with this message, and that in our discomfort, we will be motivated to engage when we see injustice and racial disparity in our culture.