"I have a dream… I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' – I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they are judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today."
Those of course are not my words – but the words of Martin Luther King. Spoken on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial building in Washington in 1963 – they are rightly famous.
Sadly the fact that he was assassinated five years later in pursuit of that dream begs the question: How? How do you produce a society – produce people – who judge others not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character? How do you change human nature? Because it is riddled with selfishness, prejudice and intolerance. We know that about the human race, don't we?
Which is why despite the great advances in civil rights in the United States – many black American football players have spent the last three seasons "taking the knee" before games during the US national anthem in protest over issues of racial inequality. It's why slightly closer to home – an African member of our congregation who I spoke with earlier on in the week told me that when he and his family moved into the house they're now in – a lad used to walk past every day, and as he did so he would spit on the pavement outside. You still don't have to look far for stories of racial tensions or injustice in our day.
I was chatting with a friend about one of those stories recently. It was the England football team's game against Montenegro a few months back which – though they won 5-1 – it was marred by racist abuse directed at players like Raheem Stirling and Danny Rose.
And my friend said he couldn't help but notice two interviews in the aftermath of that match which offered a solution to racism:
First up was the England manager Gareth Southgate – who said the answer was: "Education".
The next morning he saw John Barnes, the ex-Liverpool and England footballer, on the BBC Breakfast show – and he said that the answer was: "the Media changing people's perception".
I wonder what you'd say? What's your answer to racial prejudice?
I think I've heard solutions like Gareth's and John's many times before. And I wouldn't for a minute want to say, "Let's not try that. Education is a total waste of time."
But we have to be realists. For the Bible makes it clear that human beings are intrinsically selfish, warped creatures – and that the moral renewal needed to create a new society – the society of which Martin Luther King dreamed – does not lie within the orbit of human competence. We can't do it!
If you think that sounds a bit strong – then please see how the Apostle Paul puts it even more bluntly than that at the start of Ephesians 2. "Humanity…" he says – chapter 2 verse 1 is: "…dead in trespasses and sins..." We are powerless to do anything about our selfish human nature.
"But…" says Paul, "though there's no possibility of escape by our own efforts – there is the possibility of escape by rescue."
We were helpless, we were dead… "But…" – verse 4 – because of his "mercy", because of his grace, his generosity, his kindness – God has raised us up out of our Spiritual tombs and initiated a programme of moral and spiritual rehabilitation.
In doing so he has created a new humanity – A humanity who God can use to create a new society because they themselves have been recreated by Jesus to be like Jesus. You see, this is God's antidote to Racism – the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was what Martin Luther King himself – as a Christian minister – pinned his hopes on.
2,000 years earlier the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2 applies it to quite possibly one of the most horrific racial divisions the world has ever known – between Jew and Gentile – to show that if Christianity is able to break down that racial divide then surely there is no social alienation it can't overcome.
So we're going to step back in time and look at the Problem, the Solution – and then step back in the time machine and come back to the modern day to see what the challenge is for us in 2019.
1. The Problem: The Dividing Wall of Hostility
A friend of mine went to a Crocodile Park when he was out in Australia a few years ago – and found that plastered all over the fences were signs like these saying: "Trespassers will be eaten." He thought that was hilarious! But in the 1st century AD there were signs on the wall of the temple in Jerusalem that were no laughing matter. Archaeologists have dug some of them up and they say: "Trespassers will be – not prosecuted – but executed." This was the message from the Jews for the Gentiles – all those who weren't from the Jewish people: "Go over this wall and we will kill you." That's what they said.
For the Jews practiced a policy of Apartheid to keep themselves from being polluted by those from other "unclean" nations. So it was forbidden for Jews to shake hands with a Gentile. It was forbidden to give him or her good advice. The Rabbis even forbade a Jewish midwife to assist a Gentile mother in childbirth. Why? "Well you're only producing another log for the fire of hell," they said. That was the society. And if some Jewish Romeo wanted to marry a Gentile Juliette – what did his family do? Prepare for the wedding? No. They had a funeral. They pronounced him dead.
Do you see? Ephesians 2.14 – There was: "a dividing wall of hostility" between these two peoples.
Now you might be thinking – but isn't that how God set it all up? Didn't he make the Jewish people – the nation of Israel – his chosen people? Didn't he privilege them with his presence and promises of blessing? Didn't he even tell them to be distinct, "set apart" from the other nations?
Well come on let's get back in that time machine – I'm afraid we're going to have to go even further back! Right back to the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12 – where God tells Abram (as he was then):
"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 him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
You see God's intention for the nation of Israel was always that they should use the blessings that he gave to them to bless others. Folks, if God blesses us it is always his intention that we should use those blessings to bless others. So it was for the Jewish people.
Any distinctiveness God called them to – was supposed to show the other nations God's holy, loving, healing, perfect character – so that they too could come and find his blessings with them.
But just like us – in their own strength God's Old Testament people couldn't do it. They failed to be a blessing. In fact, rather than sharing God's blessings they snatched at what all the other nations had and built a national identity of their own.
And as they did so they built up this dividing wall of hostility – even in the temple – the place where folks were supposed to come and meet and worship the God of all nations.
Which is why God sent Jesus…
2. The Solution: To Reconcile Us Through The Cross
If I were to ask you the question: "Why did Jesus die on the Cross?" You might reply: "To pay for our sin – to reconcile us to God" And you would be absolutely correct!
But in Ephesians chapter 2, we see that Jesus also died on the Cross to reconcile Christian believers from different backgrounds.
The Apostle Paul says this to the Gentile Christians in Ephesus (Ephesians 2.13-16):
"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one (believing Jews and Gentiles are one in Christ) and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility."
Do you see? By his death on the Cross, Jesus has not just broken down the wall of hostility between us and God – he has also broken down the dividing wall of hostility between believing Jews and Gentiles. So that all Christians – whatever background they come from – are now one in Christ.
Now I should say that as Christians, we do not deny our cultural differences. Italian food is good, Persian food is good, Indian food and Congolese food and Malaysian food are good too, and British food is… ok! That's one of the reasons we love to travel, isn't it? Not just for the food, but for the rich diversity of cultural experience we find in different parts of the world. There is beauty in diversity and it's right to appreciate our cultural differences – but the big point here is that our gospel unity transcends those differences. Because God's plan for the world is that we should all be one in Christ.
And do you know what? These aren't just fancy theological words here for Paul. He put his money where his mouth is. Paul is writing these words from prison – chapter 3 verse 1 – "a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf for you Gentiles".
Because in Acts 21 he had taken an Ephesian Gentile called Trophimus through the wall into the Jerusalem Temple and he got arrested for that. But he did it because he was determined to demonstrate to the Christian community that the wall had been destroyed by the cross of Christ. So the Jew Paul and the Gentile Trophimus were now:
- Verse 15 – "one new man" – and could…
- Verse 18 – pray together to the Father by one Spirit.
And folks, as they went to the temple to do that – after thousands of years of alienation – this sent shockwaves through the ancient world…
- That the Jew and Gentile who lived opposite each other in Ephesus should suddenly be friends.
- That their children should play together.
- That they should visit each other and break bread and eat together.
- And meet in the temple to pray together! It was revolutionary!
And this is the ultimate antidote to so much prejudice and conflict. So we are told in Galatians 3 that because of the cross of Christ:
- There will be "neither Jew nor Greek" – It's the antidote to racism if we live it out.
- "Neither…male or female" – It's the antidote to sexism again if we live it out.
- "Neither… slave nor free" – It's the antidote to classism and power struggles and abuse.
- And they might have added "young and old" also – as it's the antidote to ageism too.
Because though there is still great diversity amongst us – the cross of Christ is the great leveller. It says that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God and that we all need his forgiveness and his power to change.
We may not share a common language, or a common colour, we may not share very much in common at all – but in Christ we share a common Saviour! And that's what matters most. And Paul was arrested and went to prison for that truth. He went to prison for it! So it makes me wonder: How important is it to us? For Paul it cost him his freedom. But how important is it to you? To me?
Which that brings me to…
3. The Challenge: Modelling Unity In Diversity In the Household of God
Folks, this is crucial. As here is the punchline. Here is the gospel consequence in Ephesians 2.19 – as it says one thing loud and clear – and it's this: 'You Belong.'
Do you see?
"So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…"
In God's new society it doesn't matter what it says on our birth certificates – because Christ invites us all to be members of God's household.
And that is very intimate, isn't it? To be a member of someone's family. And that's what the Jewish and Gentile believers were now – and that's what we are now if we trust in Christ. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. So no matter who you are and what your background is – you belong! We are family!
And if we really think about church in this way – won't it make a massive difference to the way we treat one another? But sadly it is to our great shame that so many churches have maintained and even breed the alienation of the old humanity – instead of demonstrating the unity the gospel brings.
I'm sure like me you might think of the way some clergymen used the Bible to justify slavery before it's abolition. Or the many churches and Christians in Europe who closed their ears, their eyes and ultimately their mouths to the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Or the white American Pastors who opposed Rev King and the civil rights movement in the States.
While I must admit that I do tend to feel a bit sceptical when I hear politicians apologising for the sins of the past. I believe we do need to repent of the past sins of the church – in the same way that Nehemiah and Daniel both repented of the sins of God's people even though they weren't responsible for them.
We do so – partly so that we won't sleepwalk into staying silent when we should speak out on these issues in our day. But we also do it because we need the Lord to test our hearts – to check for our blind spots.
Living in the 21st century and being better educated – I am tempted to think that I don't hold any of the prejudices of the past. But I was so struck by this confession by a fellow minister David Platt when I read his brilliant book Counter Culture recently – he said:
"I am prone to prefer people who are like me – in colour, culture, heritage and history. If I walk into a room by myself and see two tables, one with a group of people ethnically like me and the other with a group of people ethnically unlike me, I instinctively move towards the group that is like me."
What about us? When we walk into church or our coffee time afterwards – who are we drawn to? Who do we not want to be in a Bible Study group with? Our preferences can be so subtle, and not necessarily sinful but they keep us in our comfort zone and they build up walls between us.
Christ has smashed those walls down! And made us one in him. What has really struck me this week is that if I forget that truth – then my attitudes and actions will become careless, snobbish and lazy. And I will put up the walls – barriers to my brothers and sisters in Christ. And when I do that – I am then working directly against the work of Christ. I'm taking his cross away – And all that it stands for. He died to break down the barriers between us. So let's not rebuild them – let's do everything we can to tear them down.
In some instances that might mean having to work harder to find a way to overcome language barriers. I have a friend who works with refugees in the States and she basically holds many a conversation using Google translate. It's painstaking she says, but so worth it.
And I want to say that it is often the little things that we do in church that really count. A heartfelt welcome – that bothers to go beyond "hello". Looking out for someone the next week. Remembering a name. Taking folks home for food. These things really matter! But will we do it? Will make every effort to be who Christ has saved us to be? One new humanity, a family – will we let him – verse 22 – build us up: "…into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit"?
There is a myth that goes around that Christianity is a mainly white, male, middle class, western religion. But for all the wrong turns made by Christians over the last 2,000 years – when we look at the church globally we find that Christianity is actually the most diverse, inclusive, multiethnic, and multicultural movement in all of history.
And the last book of the Bible tells us that Martin Luther Kings' dream will one day be realised. As Revelation 7 paints a picture of heaven – where: "a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…" will worship Jesus.
Only Christians will be there. So if you're not a Christian and you want to be part of that – ask Jesus to take you there.
But for those of us who are Christians – this is where we will all be one day. And in that crowd, we will see the Israeli Christian next to the Arab Christian, the Hutu Christian next to the Tutsi Christian, the white South African Christian next to the black South African Christian, the North Korean next to the South Korean, the American next to the Iraqi... In the new creation, one diverse people will worship God together forever. That's God's plan for humanity. It's what Jesus died for. And it's what we are to get a taste for now – as we model this unity in diversity in the family of God.
Let's take a moment to pray through that challenge now. Let me give you a moment of quiet to do that for yourself. Let's pray…