Over the past several weeks the conversation around race in America has accelerated. Individuals, churches, even corporations are all waking up to the cries that black people (and other people of color) that began centuries before George Floyd was mercilessly suffocated by a police officer and his three accomplices on the streets of Minneapolis. A movement has emerged in America, protests filling the streets, people are trying to do years of educating themselves, like cramming for a test, in a matter of weeks.
For many white Christians, this education has taken the form of a deep-dive into many of the resources that are available to help us see how insidious white supremacy is, how subtle its machinations, and violent its grip. This is a good thing. But one area that often goes unexamined is how the Scriptures frame this cultural moment. Christians often settle for cliches like “Jesus says to love everyone” the spiritual equivalent, in many ways, of saying, “All lives matter” without doing the deeper work of asking the profound question what does Scripture really have to say to matters of race? What does it mean to the shape of the Gospel? These questions are often downplayed or ignored all together as people settle for half-truths.
One of my most important roles as a pastor is to help people to see that the Bible is not as one of the worst acronyms in history would suggest, the B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth); but rather the Bible is a framing story about God and salvation that illuminates every other story. The Scriptures don’t fragment life into different fractal shards but unify them, arraying them in stunning mosaic. What if the Gospel of King Jesus has more to say about our current conversation regarding race than you ever realized? What if being a unified church, for our day across racial lines, is not a nice additional benefit of receiving salvation but is, in fact, the very sign of that salvation?
I want to invite you into the world of the scriptures because I think that the story of God’s redemption has everything to say to our navigation of race relations in our day. To do so, I will trace a thread that runs from the first book in the Bible to end with special emphasis on Abraham, Jesus, and the letters of Paul. This piece is a part of a much bigger project that I am working on so I am doing a lot of flyover work in this particular effort. But before we get started I need to offer two very important caveats. First, I will use the Gentile/Jew construct to draw parallels to our modern discussions around race. These parallels are strong as I will show but they are not 100% analogous. The modern concept of race, based on some combination of ethnicity and skin color, is simply not a part of the ancient societal structure. The Jewish people of the ancient near east signaled a particular ethnicity that would be closer to our modern understanding of race but their distinction for non-Jews, the ethnos or goyim was a large catch-all category that included many different ethnicities. However, for Jews of the first century, the Jew/Gentile divide was the primary line, like the Berlin Wall, running through their worldview. For more on our modern understandings of race, I commend to you Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination and the Origins of Race.
The second important caveat then, is that no modern race occupies the place of Jew or Gentile in this discussion. Paul speaks of salvation being first for the Jew and then for the Gentile. I’m not suggesting that one modern race needs to understand how God has opened up the way for all the other races, that they were somehow first and that God wants them to change their hearts. White Christians, if history is any warning, would be most susceptible to seeing themselves as the center of this discussion. I am not suggesting that any race needs to make room at the table for another race because, as Paul points out in a different context in 1 Corinthians 10, the table belongs to Jesus. The fundamental shift in this discussion happened two-thousand years ago. My call is absolutely not a call for predominately white churches to “make room” for people of color in their churches. If anything, white churches need to be learning, repenting, and standing in solidarity in protest right now with our black sisters and brothers. For practices that will help shape this understanding, I recommend David Swanson’s new release Rediscipling The White Church.
Ok, hopefully we have cleared the ground enough, now we move to the texts.
In Luke chapter 9, Jesus and his disciples are passing through Samaria. The disciples go ahead of Jesus into a Samaritan village and ask if the village will receive Jesus to teach them. The Samaritans, suspect of Jewish people from generations of ethnic animosity, decline the visit from the Jewish rabbi. James and John, raised on the stories of Bible heroes of old remember one of their favorites and, given all that they have seen Jesus do so far, wonder, “Is now the time? Is God going to do it again?” You see, the prophet Elijah when faced with Samaritans compromised by idolatry called down fire from heaven in judgment. And James and John, the Sons of Thunder living up to their name, have an itchy trigger finger. They turn to Jesus, hopefully, “Should we call down fire upon the village?” What a question, like asking, do you want us to input the nuclear codes? Jesus, horrified, rebukes them. In some manuscripts, there is an additional,”You don’t know what spirit you are of.” James and John thought that the kingdom of God coming meant one thing for the Jewish people and another thing for everybody else, but Jesus is doing the patient, slow, work of rebuking their aspirations and awakening them to the reality of the kingdom.
Just a chapter later in Luke 10, Jesus is telling a story about those who are righteous in God’s sight, keeping the commandments. And wouldn’t you know it, who does he choose as the hero, the righteous one in his story, but a Samaritan. Jesus knows what he’s doing here. Not only is he telling a story that will address the situation at hand but he’s also talking to James and John out of the side of his mouth: “Remember those people you counted as judged and accursed, well there the one’s who get it.” Meanwhile in Jesus’ story, as it comes later to be known the story of the Good Samaritan, those who should get it—the Levite, the teacher of the law—walk along on the wrong side of the road.
When Mary, the mother of Jesus, receives the news from the angel that she will bear the child that is to redeem the world, she cannot contain the joy, she sings a deeply beautiful and theologically profound song. The conclusion of her song, sings that Jesus has come “according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever” (Luke 1v55). Perhaps one of the deepest gaps in the American Christian understanding of Jesus and his gospel message, is not that far off from James and John’s failure to understand their own ancestral story—what is the promise that was given to Abraham?
Before we get to Genesis 12, we need to stop briefly in Genesis 11. The creation story, from just slightly after the beginning, has been a disaster: humanity betraying God (Genesis 3), brother killing brother (Genesis 4), God flooding the earth (Genesis 6), Noah’s family still being a mess (Genesis 9). But in Genesis 11, it seems like everything is finally going right. All the nations of the earth are together, they share one common language and they are even working on a project together. They determine to “ build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” But as God comes down an examines their work, he sees their togetherness and their ambitions not as a proud parent sees his kid’s (for once) playing peacefully together but as a threat, a declaration of war upon the heavens. At Babel, the tower they are building is not a monument but a siege tower. So is God a tormented despot, paranoid to maintain control? No, as we will see in a moment, he founded the world in blessing and his posture remains blessing towards all of the nations of the earth. But Genesis 11 shows us, as Genesis 3 first unveiled, there is no blessing outside of relationship to God. The nations need to be united, they need to share in the common project that all of humanity is called to (Genesis 1vv26-28) but this cannot happen without the blessing of God.
So, In Genesis 12, following yet another unraveling of God’s creation project, God calls a man named Abram (later changed to Abraham) and tells him:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen. 12vv1-3).
There are essentially two promises that are outlined here. First, Abraham will be made into a great nation, blessed by God. Second, all the families of the earth will be blessed through this one family. James and John basically only grasped the first of these promises. They wanted their Messiah to be a conquering king, like King David, they wanted their prophet to breathe fire on the enemies of God, like Elijah, they, as we will see later, want to be vicegerents as ethnic Israel is elevated to the status of world power, flipping the political order of their day upside down, they want to tax and oppress the Romans, and burn the villages of Samaritans. They wanted blessing on their terms which meant that all the nations of the earth would be blessed when Israel was on top.
In our own day, American white evangelicals, accept the second part of this story but miss the first part. This family of Abraham, in our modern sociological constructs, this new race that God creates with a promise of blessing is of the utmost significance to the entirety of the biblical narrative. Jesus, as Mary resounds, comes to fulfill the promise God made to Abraham. He does not drop into the middle of the story and say, “Well, we tried the law but that was never going to work, here is grace.” Jesus is adamant throughout his life that what he is doing is “not to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5v17). But the accomplishment of the promises and the law come with a major twist: the cross.
Even to the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus’ disciples drastically misunderstand what Jesus means by coming in his kingdom. When the cohort of soldiers come to arrest Jesus in the garden, Peter draws his sword, the sword of rebellion, of revenge and cuts the ear of Malchus. Why does Peter do this? Because even in this moment, Peter is still waiting for the fight to begin, for Jesus to say “now”, for the crowds who lined the streets welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem to be called to arms, to fashion their palm leaves into swords and to revolt against Rome. And the end of all of this, in Peter’s revolutionary imagination? God returns to the temple to dwell amongst his people (Ezek.10), Israel is exalted to her rightful place as nation among nations, and every nation looks to Zion (Jerusalem) as the center of the world. So he fights, because as the soldiers approach he can see in the flicker of the torchlight, his dream dying. But Jesus, doesn’t fight, Jesus heals.
As Jesus is crucified by the collusion of the Roman Empire and the Jewish authorities, demonic forces and powers and principalities in high places, and the love of God allowing these dark forces to seemingly win the day, the disciples look on in horror. “We thought you were the one” or worse yet, “You were the one, and God is just not strong enough, not able to fulfill his promises to Abraham, or David…” The disciples spend the weekend hiding, not knowing what to do and worrying the same authorities who arrested Jesus would come for them next. And while the disciples are hidden away in their rooms, Jesus is also hidden away, conquering the world, not as the disciples had hoped, by the blood of their enemies, but by his very own blood.
When Jesus, the resurrected king, appears before them on the third day, he extends to them the same blessing that has flowed forth from the heart of God since the foundation the world: peace, shalom, wholeness. The disciples are in awe, Jesus has overcome the world and the first thing that he does is ask them, “Do you have anything to eat?” The table was a central part of the life of Jewish people, how you ate, what you ate, and more importantly who you ate with. The table became a flash point of Jesus’ earthly life because he ate with “tax collectors and sinners” and as Jesus shows with his first actions upon his resurrection, the table will remain a central symbol in the life of the new covenant community.
Acts 1 portrays the disciples still misunderstanding what Jesus is accomplishing in his resurrection. The disciples ask the risen Lord, “Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1v6). But Jesus doesn’t outright tell them no, he just tells them, it is not for them to know. When the Spirit descends at Pentecost (Acts 2), Babel is reversed. The humanist attempt to ascend the heavens, and make a name for ourselves is met with the descent of the Spirit of God. Instead of one language, the text describes Parthians, Medes Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
Cretans and Arabs… all hearing the wonders of God in their own language (Acts 2vv9-11) You see, the results of Babel were never what God placed under curse, it was the intent of Babel. But still, though the text notes proselytes, we are still largely within the realm of ethnic Israel. With the promise given to Abraham still ringing in the background, it would seem, here in Acts 2 that Jesus’ work on the cross has only furthered and solidified the convent with Abraham to make his people into a great nation. But what will it mean for this nation, this family, to fulfill the second part of this promise—how will God, through them, bless every nation on earth?
Tucked into the beginning of Acts is the blueprint for the narrative of Acts and the commission that the church will be called to carry out. Echoing the great commission given to the disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Luke (the author of Acts) records Jesus telling the disciples: you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1v8). Still, we will see there is both a reluctance to move and misunderstanding of what this means. In Acts 8, we get a glimpse, as the Ethiopian eunuch is baptized into kingdom by Philip. But, and here’s the catch, he is a eunuch, he cannot be asked to be circumcised, because, well, uhh…yeah. So the question remains, is God fulfilling the promise to Abraham by calling more people to become effectively Jewish, practicing Jewish table restrictions and the Jewish cultural marker of circumcision? Or is something else going on here.
In Acts 10, a seismic shift, and an answer to this question begins to unfold. Acts 10 introduces us to Cornelius, devout man who fears God and gives alms to the poor, and also, a gentile. He is told to summon Peter to his house, but here’s the thing, Peter, as a good Jewish man, even on the other side of the resurrection of Jesus, wants nothing to do with going to the house of a Gentile. Peter, through a long series of preparatory visions agrees to go to Cornelius’ house and upon his arrival announces, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?”Cornelius explains why he summoned Peter, that the Spirit of God appeared to Cornelius.
And for the first time of what would become a painfully slow process of unlearning in Peter’s life, Peter understood that “God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10vv34-35). Did you catch that? Every nation. Remember the promise to Abraham? Every nation. The Spirit of God is being poured out upon the Gentiles, the family is expanding.
This brings us to Acts 15. So what does it mean for the promises of God to be available, on a massive scale, to those who are not ethnically Jewish? Acts 15v5 states the matter that confronts the early church in Jerusalem, as the earliest Jewish Christians try to put extra constraints upon the Gentile believers who have come to faith in Jesus the Messiah. They argue, it is necessary for them (Gentile Christians) to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” This may seem innocuous, like oh just some strict rule followers trying to impose extra sanctions (and some pain, let’s be honest) upon these newcomers. But to miss the significance is to miss the way that the ground is shifting beneath the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. The question essentially being asked, “Do the Gentiles need to become Jews?” Or asked another way, is the promise that was given to Abraham that God would make Abraham into a great nation and would bless all the nations to be fulfilled by making all the nations Jewish? Peter speaks in the assembly, in regards to the giving of the Holy Spirit “and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us” (Acts 15v9). James then summarizes and settles the matter tracing through the Old Testament saying and concludes: therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood (Acts 15v20). Unity (no distinction, not eating foods sacrificed to idols, maintaining sexual holiness) and diversity (no circumcision).
Here, things begin to coalesce around this promise given to Abraham way back in Genesis 12: God is indeed making the nation of Israel into a great nation, more numerous than the stars, and he is indeed blessing every nation on earth through this family, but he is doing so by creating one family, Jew and Gentile, a diversity of peoples that will share the table in a way that completely confounds the wider culture. Paul is commissioned as the apostle to take the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles and to announce this bold vision that God has created a new humanity through the work on the cross of the Jewish Messiah. As it turns out, this is a vision so expansive and so counterintuitive, that will take the rest of the New Testament to truly work out.
This particular piece is part of a larger project that I am working on so a survey of the texts is going to have to do for now. But if we simply focus on the letters of Paul, we see that this Jew/Gentile motif is not cast off as ancillary to the “real gospel” of justification by faith. But rather, for Paul, this wonder of Jew and Gentile coming together as one people is inherent to living out the resurrection life. From Paul’s perspective, God has fulfilled his promises to Israel—specifically those given to Abraham, David, and to the people in exile in places like Isaiah 40-55—by making this newly reconciled people, Jew and Gentile, and their shared life together the new temple of the living God.
Look at how Paul employs the language of the two (Jew/Gentile) becoming one in most of his letters.
Romans is written to help Jews and Gentiles coexist under the power of the Gospel. The Jews expelled from Rome after the edict of Claudius (49 AD cf. Acts 18v2) are now returning to fellowship in the Roman church. The Gentiles in that church, previously somewhat dependent upon their Jewish sisters and brothers in Christ have now ascended to the roles of leadership. The Jewish believers return to a tense situation that Paul must navigate pastorally to help merge these two groups in their newfound circumstances. Paul’s language is overt throughout Romans:
Romans 1v17- For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Much of the rest of Romans is devoted to observing both that apart from Christ, both the Romans and Gentiles are under the same yoke of slavery from sin (Romans 1-3), that because of Christ being offered as the hilasterion (“place of atonement”- Rom. 3v25) they are now co-inheritors of the promises to Abraham who is their ancestor according to faith (Rom. 4). Paul asks the obvious questions, “Ok why do the whole law thing at all?” And “What good is it to be a part of Israel if God was going to so thoroughly reimagine the whole thing?” (Rom. 7-11).
As Paul turns to his final greetings in Romans 16, he again turns to this theme of Jew and Gentile in Romans 15vv:8-13 (quoting Isaiah 11)
For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,
and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name”; and again he says,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; and again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him”; and again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Again, if ethnicity doesn’t matter, and Paul is just trying to get the message of “justification by faith” (as its commonly understood in modern evangelicalism) home, why all this Jew/Gentile stuff? Isn’t it a distraction?
We will return to Galatians at the conclusion but a quick survey of other letters of Paul:
In Ephesians 1, Paul offers his often controversial statements about those who were destined for adoption in Christ (v.3). It’s controversial because it carries with it an accompanying question, are those who aren’t destined to be adopted destined to be destroyed? Calvin would say yes. But notice that Paul is talking in the first-person plural (“us”) and then in v. 13 he turns to second person plural writing:
In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit…
Who are the “you also?” This sounds awfully like a recollection of the scene with Cornelius and the gentiles receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. It would seem that Paul is tracing the chronology of the promise given first to Jews (predestined for adoption) and then Gentiles (also predestined for adoption) under the big umbrella of the cross fulfilling the promises given to Abraham. This is made more explicit when Paul turns again to the argument that all people were bound under the slavery of sin:
First the Gentiles in Eph. 2vv1-2: You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.
And then Paul, speaking of himself and his own people, the Jews in Eph. 2v3: All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
Paul then lays out the beautiful turning point of the grace of Jesus in Eph. 2vv4-6
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
And Eph. 2v8:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God
And then, Paul makes it so explicit in Ephesians ch. 2 that the results of Christ’s work on the cross and in his resurrection are a renewed, reconciled humanity that it simply cannot be ignored:
Ephesian 2vv11-22 are beautiful and must be quoted in full here:
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God
Abolishing the law, reconciling the two groups into one body, a new humanity. We usually denote the peace that Jesus makes through his blood between humanity and God but that is not what Paul is referencing here in Eph. 2v16. He is referencing peace between Jew and Gentile. Don’t miss this, the witness to the resurrection of Jesus is an embodied people of peace, a people who otherwise at best shared an unspoken distrust of one another and at worst held outright contempt and animosity towards one another, living together in the peace of God victoriously forged by the cross of Jesus.
Again Paul says it plainly in Eph. 3vv5-6:
In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
In Galatians—what most scholars believe is the earliest of Paul’s letters—, we already see that this bold vision, even the very specific rulings of the Jerusalem council have begun to unravel. And who is one of the leaders of the behaviors that are undermining the truth of the Gospel? Why, it’s Peter himself.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.
And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
Paul says of Peter, that he is undermining the very truth of the gospel. Now, since Luther and Calvin and in much popular evangelical theology, the way that Peter is undermining the gospel is by trying to earn his salvation through works of the law. Galatians is a complex, sustained argument and it is difficult to trace Paul’s to see the beauty of the tapestry Paul weaves through the winding argument but I want to propose that Paul is not condemning Peter simply for acting Jewish, but he is saying that reverting to his cultural identity because of what it suggests about the Gospel of Jesus is absolute anathema to the Gospel. At this point, you might be asking, well didn’t you say that the fulfillment to the promises to Abraham maintains diversity, isn’t Peter just living out of his former identity in a way that maintains his diversity? But this is exactly Paul’s point, and it is parallel to the instructions the Gentiles are given in Acts 15 and that are later spelled out more implicitly in regards to love of neighbor in 1 Corinthians 10 and Romans 14, when the things that you do out of your ethnic identity—for Jewish people things like imposing circumcision or not eating with Gentiles—divide the body, you are to again quote Paul, “not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel.”
Paul will through the rest of Galatians 2 and 3 turn to an argument from, you guessed it!, Abraham and then will offer this conclusion in Gal. 3vv26-29:
for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise
For Paul, here, the sign of the new family of God is that these people from all these disparate poles in society, groups that did not co-mingle socially and certainly not treat one another as equals, are all sharing the table together as one. Paul’s statement here does not obliterate these identities, this is evident in his subsequent instructions to women and slaves. However, the unity of the body, co-heirs of the promises given to Abraham, is the sign of the resurrection of Jesus.
Throughout his letters, Paul maintains this tension of grafting the Gentile people into the story of Israel without making them Jewish. And throughout his letters, Paul is insistent that this was always the point of the promises given to Abraham, that God was creating a new family and that new family would be a blessing to the entire world. This new people is to become, to again reference Ephesians 2, the holy temple of the Lord.
As N. T. Wright points out in his seminal, The New Testament and The People of God, one of the greatest apologetics for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is the church itself. If several people had not seen the risen Jesus as they hid away in the upper room on the third day, how do you explain this movement, especially the movement of faithful Jewish people towards fellowship with Gentiles? How do you explain the societal structures of antiquity being so thoroughly reshaped as slaveowners are sharing religious practice with slaves?
And just as that inexplicable reality was a sign to the 1st century world that Jesus had conquered the world, it remains a sign to our world today. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed over 50 years ago that, in a then extremely segregated America, Sunday morning was still the most segregated hour each week. How grieved we should be, as Christians, that it took the heinous murder of George Floyd for there to be a large-scale acknowledgment of the presence of racism in America—while the larger power of white supremacy remains largely unnamed in evangelical spaces.
For the culture of Paul’s day, Jew and Gentile, especially from the Jewish perspective was the primary ethnic division in culture. In twenty-first century America, we can break down the ethnic divisions with a far finer comb, we are Jamaican-Americans, Guatemalan-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and Liberian-Americans along with hundreds of other distinctions. And even if you were born here, unless your 100% Native American, your family came from somewhere. Sure, Paul was not talking about race in our modern construct, but he was talking about the unity of the body across every division.
So why do I care so much about race and the church? Well first of all because I just care about people I know and love, I see their pain and it moves me. But second of all, when you survey the texts, unity across lines of divisions is not somehow a nice downstream benefit of faith in Jesus but is integral to the gospel of King Jesus that all who claim his name are united in our love for one another. The sad truth is the church should not be playing catch-up on this conversation because it is at the very heart of our Scriptures but when we read the Bible, the inspired word of God written to communities individualistically, when we make them about “me and my personal Jesus” we miss the wider, world-shaking implications.
Rev. 7v9 holds out a beautiful vision of the age to come:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands
This mosaic beauty, the fulfillment to the promises given to Abraham, a true celebration of diversity and unity under the Lordship of Jesus is our destiny, it is our promise. But the New Testament shows us that there is a struggle between here and there, that we have to fight for love. For the ancient near east, this fight was to overcome the animosity and cultural misunderstandings between Jew and Gentile. In our own day, this struggle is overcome that which to quote Paul’s rebuke to Peter in Gal. 2 “is not consistent with the truth of the Gospel”-the demonic force of white supremacy to atone for the Christian endorsement of chattel slavery, 3/5, Jim Crow. This is not optional work after we receive the Gospel of salvation by faith, this is Gospel.
White supremacy has been nailed to the cross of Jesus (Col. 2vv14-15), now we must take up our crosses, and lay down our lives for one another so that the world will see us, a city shining on a hill, united across lines that so starkly divide as overcoming the world by the blood of the lamb which makes for peace.