We live in a society that is divided, terribly divided, and the divisions seem to be multiplying. There are racial divides. A variety of leaders are calling for you and me to huddle up and side with our “own kind,” the only ones who can be trusted. There are socio-economic divisions with hostilities oozing from those that want to pit the poor against the rich and the rich against the poor. We’ve not learned that money, or the lack thereof, is no indicator of integrity, honesty, or generosity. Political parties have become more polarized than OSU and OU fans. Political policies have become America’s new church dogma. Instead of the titles of “Republican” and “Democrat,” their zealots prefer “saints and sinners,” depending on whose side you are on. There are gender and sexual orientation battles being waged by the LGBTQA community and women who march and fight against the oppressive perils of a patriarchal society. And in the Church, among the followers of Jesus, there are religious divides as wide as the Grand Canyon as conservatives, evangelicals, and progressives lob theological molotov cocktails over the pews at one another. The list of divisions in our society keeps growing and new dividing lines seem to be added each and every day.
During the past two weeks I’ve read all kinds of opinions and strategies about how we can come together as a people, as a community, but there’s no consensus. As a matter of fact, there are arguments and division about the way we might bridge the divides that separate us.
Last week I shared with you how we as a people have grown more and more distant from God’s Word. Because most people don’t know the first thing about the Bible we don’t know how to weigh and evaluate the most basic teachings of the Christian faith, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Bible. Since we don’t know God’s Word we don’t know how to answer those who say things like Jesus is the white man’s Messiah or that the Bible is an instrument of oppression and subjugation.
It has been my goal, last week and today, to show you that the Bible details for you and me God’s story of redemption. Redemption not of the rich or poor, not of any ethnic group or political party, but of those who will turn to Him from every tribe, nation, and language. Last week we traced His work throughout the Old Testament and saw how God used Israelites and non-Israelites, people from modern-day Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Ethiopia, as well as other nations to do His work. Today, I want us to turn to the New Testament so we can see the work of God continue to unfold across the whole world. Let’s begin at Pentecost. Let me read to you from Acts 2:5-11.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:5-11 NIV)
Did you notice the variety of people who were present in Jerusalem at Pentecost? They were from the old Persian, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires. Today we call those lands Iran and Iraq. There were folks from North Africa in Egypt and Libya, Crete, an island off the southern tip of Greece, modern-day Turkey, and from Rome. They all came to Jerusalem speaking their own language, bringing their own culture, and yet they encountered God in their own language. God didn’t force conformity on His followers by making them all hear His message in one language; He embraced the diversity He had created by meeting people from different cultures where they were, by speaking to them in their own language. Before the Christian church was called “Christian,” (Acts 11:26) it was multicultural, multinational, and multilingual. The God of Christianity is a God of variety and the Gospel continues to be lived and experienced in every culture on the earth.
We began our time together last week by recognizing that God created all people. We all, regardless of where you have come from, share the same family tree. Remember the verse I shared with you? “From one man God made every nation of the human race, that they should inhabit the whole earth.” (Acts 17:26 NIVO)
The Apostle Paul, a diehard Jew, a Pharisee who was a persecutor of the followers of Jesus, became the most vocal voice for the Gentiles, non-Jewish people who were followers of Jesus. Paul experienced the rich diversity in the church in Syrian Antioch, located on the modern-day border of Turkey and Syria, where, for the first time Jewish and Gentile Christians worshiped together on equal footing. The church in Syrian Antioch was a multicultural church and this is evident from the names of the leaders listed in Acts 13:1-2. Listen to this.
1 In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:1-2 NIV)
Barnabas was a wealthy Jewish Levite, from a priestly family, who was born in Cyprus. (Acts 4:36) “Simeon, called Niger,” was most likely a North African proselyte to Judaism. “Lucius of Cyrene” was probably a North African Jew whose hometown was located in what is modern-day Libya. Manaen, who had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch, was a Hellenized Jewish aristocrat. Saul, was born in Tarsus and was raised a strict Jew in Jerusalem, who we know as Paul.
The church at Syrian Antioch became the hub of the missionary movement. It grew to become an important center in early church history. It was the headquarters of Paul and Barnabas. But the way it started is a real lesson in how God uses different people for different purposes to accomplish his work. It was after the stoning of Stephen that the early church was scattered because of persecution. Acts 11:19-21 tells us what happened.
19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21 NIVO)
There were many followers of Jesus who were run out of town because of their faith. Some, as they left Jerusalem shared the Gospel with the Jews, but others began to speak to the Gentiles, telling them the good news about Jesus. Notice, we are told they spoke to the Greeks. Before this the Christians who were scattered proclaimed Christ only to the Jews living in the city. But these men from Cyprus and Cyrene proclaimed the gospel message to the non-Jews. Who were these men? Later on we find the church is built up and Paul and Barnabas had joined the work. And then we read about two men from North Africa that must have been part of the group that first preached in Syrian Antioch. Simeon called Niger and Lucius of Cyrene. The word “Niger” means “black.” Long before Paul and Barnabas were in Syrian Antioch God had raised up these two African believers to build the church.
I want us to take a look at a very important person in the New Testament. The story of the Ethiopian Eunuch is found in Acts 8:26-39. Read along with me from verses 26-29.
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road–the desert road–that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” (Acts 8:26-29 NIV)
We see from verse 27 that this man was an important government official in the court of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. We also see that the man was one who loved reading God’s Word. We don’t know why or how he had a copy of Isaiah, but we know that God brought him to this passage to show him the way of eternal life. Notice how God brought these two men together. From a social class viewpoint Philip was from a lower class than the Ethiopian man who was an important government official. Racially, Philip was Greek whereas the Eunuch was African. But neither man saw these distinctions in each other as important. All they saw was another person seeking the things of God. And they joined together, rich and poor, Greek and Ethiopian, to share the good news of God’s message. God used Philip to lead the Eunuch into an encounter with Christ. After the Eunuch came to know Christ he went back to Ethiopia and who knows how many people came to know Jesus as Lord of their life because of this one man’s conversion and testimony?
Where did this emphasis to reach all people groups come from? To answer that question all we need to do is to take a look at Jesus’ mandate given to His followers in what we know as the Great Commission. You can find it in Matthew 28:18-20.
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIV)
The Greek word that is translated “nations” in the New International Version is the word, “ethnos,” and it means, “race, nation, or people group.” It is the Greek word from which we get our word “ethnicity.” The followers of Jesus carried this message to the world, to all of the people groups of the world. It shaped their character, it undergirded their mission, and empowered them to view others differently. Paul, the great antagonist of Christianity who became the leading voice of the Christian mission wrote these words,
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28 NIV)
How do you account for such a dramatic transformation in Paul’s view of other people? It certainly didn’t come from his educational background. He was trained as a Pharisee. Gentiles, those who were not Jews, were not on the same level as God’s Chosen People. We can find evidence for this in the New Testament. Jesus’ disciples were shocked that He was talking to a woman, a woman from Samaria, a Gentile woman. In Matthew 15, a Canaanite woman approached Jesus for help with her daughter’s condition and Jesus used the common term of the Jews for Gentiles when He said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” (Matthew 15:26 NIVO) Jesus wasn’t insulting her, He was testing her faith. He was using the word Gentiles were used to hearing from the lips of Jews. It is the woman’s response to what Jesus said that will overwhelm you, as it did Jesus. She said,
27 “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Matthew 15:27 NIVO)
Jesus heard what she said and replied, “Woman you have great faith!” He assured her that her daughter would be healed. Gentiles were dogs, they were less than, they were undesirables, and this was the mindset of Saul of Tarsus before his life was radically transformed by Jesus. It wasn’t higher education that transformed Saul, it was Jesus.
I read an article this past week from a journalist named Conor Friedersdorf, who writes for The Atlantic. He writes about how divided we are as Americans in his article, “Making Up Is Hard to Do.” After he details the many things that divide us he writes,
How, then, can we get along? Many believe the country would be at peace if only we better educated our children. On the right, one ideal is for more kids to learn from both a mother and a father; attend Sunday school; study civics; and, in college, glean wisdom from the Great Books. Aristotle! Plutarch! Montesquieu! What could be a better foundation for good citizenship? Progressives, for their part, might propose a Montessori education, a gay-straight alliance at a diverse high school, college classes that teach ‘cultural competency,’ time abroad, and a workplace where new hires go through sexual-harassment training. In either case, trying to teach our way out of this problem could doom us to failure. (Coner Friedersdorf. “Making Up Is Hard To Do.” The Atlantic. November 2016)
More and more people believe that the change we need will come from the halls of academia, but I believe real change must come from the heart, a heart that is yielded to Jesus in living out His Word. When people meet Jesus, whether we are talking about Paul or people who are living in our day and time, their hearts change and so does their view of other people.
In the years that I’ve been here at Britton Christian Church I’ve witnessed first hand the power of Jesus to change human hearts. I’ve seen people cross racial, socio-economic, educational, and political lines–not because of the goodness of their hearts, but because of the goodness of His. There are people sitting in this sanctuary this morning who grew up being taught things about people who are different from them who now call those same people “brothers and sisters” in Christ. I’ve witnessed the power of God’s Holy Spirit using God’s Word to transform a gathering of people in such a way that they are willing to go out of their way to welcome new neighbors who didn’t grow up in their neighborhood or speak their language. Jesus is still changing minds and hearts and He wants to change yours this morning. I want to share one more of Paul’s writings with you. Paul wrote to the church in Colosse and echoed the same sentiment.
11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. 12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:11-14 NIV)
For Paul, Jesus was the Destroyer of the walls of hostility between people groups, both Jewish and Gentile. Enemies became brothers and sisters, in Christ. Jesus does not demolish cultural distinctives, but He demolishes the animosity and prejudice of all of His followers and replaces it with unity based on God’s activity in creating all people and loving all people.
It is interesting that in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, we find stated that the Lamb, Jesus, is worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals because with His blood, He purchased people from every tribe, language, people, and nation. Listen to these verses.
9 And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Revelation 5:9 NIV)
9 After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-10 NIV)
It is important to recognize that one glorious day, when all of the followers of Jesus are gathered around the throne of God, there will be people from every tribe, nation, and language known to humanity. If this is what Heaven is going to be like, then wouldn’t you think that the followers of Jesus should embrace and embody that glorious vision in the here and now? The church ought to be a place where we have rich, not so rich, and dirt poor people worshiping God, serving one another, and sharing life together. The church ought to be a place where we have young, not so young, and senior saints worshiping God, serving one another, and sharing life together. The church ought to be the place where we have white collar and blue collar men and women worshiping God, serving one another, and sharing life together. A church ought to be a place in which we have people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds worshiping God, serving one another, and sharing life together.
This past week, during the tragedy of what has happened in South Texas and Louisiana, we’ve seen all kinds of people working alongside of one another, serving one another, and sharing in each other’s trials together. It’s been pointed out time and time again that people weren’t cordoned off into racial, socio-economic, or political groups–they were all there together, working together, and for the benefit of everyone. That happens during times of tragedy, but it’s not sustainable in our society. What’s not sustainable in society is more than achievable in God’s family because He has called us, saved us, and empowered us with His Word and through His Spirit to live together, love another, and share life together as brothers and sisters in Christ. It is my prayer that at Britton Christian Church we will embody and embrace God’s story of redemption for all people. Let’s let His light shine!
Britton Christian Church
September 3, 2017