No “Us” and “Them”: Race, Ethnicity, and the Mandate of Love
A Sermon Preached at Venice Presbyterian Church
on August 20, 2017
Pastor Gary A. Chorpenning
Venice Presbyterian Church
Cecil Township, PA
Since you can’t help but notice it, let me acknowledge that I’m going to do something here this morning that I have not done for probably more than 15 years. I am going to preach to you from a written manuscript. I do this, because I am going to talk about some things that are very controversial at this moment in our society’s life, and so I want to be careful as I can be to say exactly what I mean to say.
I do that because we are coming out of a couple of weeks of very heated rhetoric in which there is a lot of heat but often very little light on matters of race and ethnicity. I am not going to talk to you about statues. That is not the heart of the matter. I am not going to talk to you about who started what fight. That is not the heart of the matter. I am not going to talk about what this political leader said or that religious leader said. This is not a time to set one human leader against another. This is a time to reason together and then to bow before the Word of God.
We are missing an opportunity here. There is a fundamental value here that I believe all Americans regardless of party should be able to unite around – the fundamental equality, dignity, and value of all human beings regardless of race, skin color, or ethnic origins. I still have hope that we can do that. That is a fundamental principle and value upon which our country was founded. We haven’t always practiced it as well as we should. But we have affirmed that principle from the very beginning.
But here today, most important, we are people of Jesus Christ gathered here in submission to our Master and Lord. We might differ on the details of how this should all work out in the complicated and fallen world we live in. But if we cannot bond together around the clear calling of our Lord on this matter, then we are allowing other things, things of this world, to take a higher place in our lives than the Lord Jesus.
I really need to mention one other factor in all of this for me. It only dawned on me later in this week why I was feeling so sharply emotional about all this. I suddenly realized something that I don’t often think about. . . . My youngest child is not white. She is a foreign-born Asian woman. She doesn’t fit the image that white nationalists have in mind for America. I guess that’s another reason that I’ve decided to write this out. It’s carrying an extra emotional charge for me.
Let’s get into God’s word now. Let’s pray:
Lord, give us hearts that are turned toward you and open to hear what you want to say to us. We acknowledge that you are Lord of our hearts and minds. Holy Spirit, speak to us now in power so as to line up all the thoughts and desires of our hearts with your heart. Through your word, make us fully and completely yours; in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
So, as you’ll notice if you were here last week, we’re looking at the same passage in Acts as we did last week. The church was in a crisis, and they had gathered in council with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to seek the Lord on a matter that was and is crucial to the faith. Gentiles were being converted to Christ in larger and larger numbers. Some in the Church was arguing that in order for a Gentiles to become a Christians, they first had to become Jewish and that in order for anyone to be saved they had to have faith in Jesus AND live their lives in obedience to the Jewish law. Boiled down to its essence, the question they were wrestling with was this: Is salvation based solely on the free grace of God without the addition of any contribution from human beings? That was the question that was the question we explored last week. This council and its decision marked a critical, a pivotal moment in the life of the Church. The council concluded that salvation was entirely the work of Jesus Christ and that human beings contribute nothing at all to it. As I put it, “God does all the work; God gets all the glory.”
This is a profound and absolutely foundational truth. It has deep and very wide theological implications. I think it’s safe to say that uncountable numbers of theological volumes have been written because of the decision that this council of Church leaders made. But what the Church leaders meeting there in Jerusalem understood probably more clearly than we tend to understand today is that these profound theological truths that they decided about there in Jerusalem had more than just theological implications. They had social, cultural, and ethnic implications as well.
You can see something of that recognition in what Paul wrote to the Galatian church sometime after the Jerusalem council rendered its decision. He wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Paul recognized that before God there are not categories of people. There are only fallen human beings. God makes no distinction between types or categories of human being. In God’s eyes, there are just human beings. All are equally in need of saving. All are saved in the same way. None are of higher value or status than any others. Human beings are just human beings. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female., for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” There is no “us” and “them.” There is only us. No distinctions are possible.
In saying this, Paul is echoing something that Peter said at the Jerusalem Council. Look there in Acts 15:8-9: “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them.” God does not want . . .let me go farther and say, God does not permit his people to think in terms of “us” and “them.” Before God there is only “us.” There is no “them.”
Paul is ever more clear in his letter to the church in Colossae. There he writes: “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11) Paul was writing to in a world that was, like ours, divided up by ethnicity and race. I think it’s right to say that the ancient world of the early church didn’t understand race and ethnicity in exactly the same way we do today. But just the same the ancient world of the early church just like our modern world did divide itself up along ethnic and racial lines. And those divisions were often quite filled with intense hostility and bigotry.
At the time of Jesus, some Jews believed that they should not even set foot in a Gentile’s house because they believed that it would make them dirty. Jews despised Samaritans so much that they would walk miles and miles out of their way in order to avoid getting the dust of Samaritan soil on their shoes. Romans considered everyone who was not a Roman to be a barbarian. They considered Jews to be backward, superstitious, and congenitally arrogant. And on and on it went.
Now, I could go from here to tell you that Jesus is opposed to this dividing up of “us” and “them” among human beings, and I suppose that would be true. But I don’t think that would really be right way to describe Jesus’ position on these matters. Jesus doesn’t so much call us to be against something, but rather he calls us to be for something and to do something. Jesus calls us to love. Jesus insists that every desire and action of our lives be shaped entirely by love. If our lives are shaped and molded entirely by love, then it will be impossible for us to divide up between “us” and “them.”
For Jesus, love was the hallmark of what it meant to live the life of one of his disciples. Just before he was arrested, Jesus issued this commandment, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35) This is the defining characteristic of life within the church. Love. Nothing must be allowed to cause the followers of Jesus to break up into us and them. . . . Okay, admittedly the Church has had some trouble with this one over the centuries. But now in days like these, we need to make sure that everyone can see that we love each other. We need to do that here within our own congregation, and we need to do that between us here at Venice and other churches and Christians in our community who might look different from us or who might worship differently from us or do things differently from us.
Here’s a challenge and an opportunity for this congregation here at Venice Church. We live in a time in America when as a nation we are more divided over politics than we have been . . . well, in a very long time. I remember the 1960s, and we were pretty divided then, too. But the divisions today are very intense and very passionate. Now, here’s the opportunity. I know first-hand that we in this room do not all agree politically. We didn’t all vote for the same candidates. We’re not all members of the same political party. We have an opportunity to show the rest of our divided nation that the love of Jesus can overcome those differences. If you believe that following Jesus is more important that following the dictates of your political party, if you believe that following Jesus is a higher calling than following your particular candidate, if you believe that following Jesus is more important than anything else, then you’ll love your brothers and sisters in Christ no matter what they believe politically. And we will be living proof of the truth and the power of Jesus Christ.
Now, you and I have brothers and sisters in Christ in pretty much every country on the face of the earth. They have skin of all different colors. They have facial feature of all sorts. They speak literally thousands of different languages. I have no idea what sorts of political beliefs they hold, but I’ll bet some of their ideas may be different from mine. But they are all my brothers and sisters in Christ. And when Jesus says his followers must love each other. He means us to love each other across all these differences.
But even here in America our brothers and sisters don’t all look like us. They also come in all colors, all ethnic backgrounds, from all sorts of cultures. So. when a white nationalist tells my African-American brother in Christ that he is filth, that he is an ape, that he does not belong in this country, Jesus has already told us what is required of us. It’s not complicated. He’s my brother in Christ. I stand with him. I stand for him. And I stand up against the evil that seeks to do him harm. Period. No “buts.” No “howevers.”
But Jesus isn’t satisfied to leave it there. He tells us this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:21) “Neighbor” here is not restricted to fellow disciples of Jesus. Here he is referring to the people we encounter day in and day out. Even with regard to these non-Christian neighbors there is to be no “us” and “them.” Jesus applies the requirements of love here as well. My neighbor may be different from me in any number of ways, but if she is a human being, then she is my neighbor. And my Lord Jesus requires me to love her. And if someone seeks to harm her because of the color of her skin or the place where she was born or the language that she speaks or the religion that she practices, then the requirements of love are plain. It’s not complicated. There is no political calculation involved. She is my neighbor, and Jesus has commanded me to love her in action and in deed.
But Jesus isn’t done yet. You all know where Jesus is taking us next.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? (Matthew 5:43-47)
Now, this is where this love business gets really hard, right? The requirements of love apply also to those who are hostile to me, to people who behave like an enemy toward me, people who do bad things to me. Now, it does not mean that I have to tolerate their evil. In fact, love for my neighbor might require me to oppose their evil behavior in order to protect my neighbor. But I am no permitted to seek to harm them in order to get revenge, in order to pay them back. I am required by Jesus and by love to desire their well-being and to seek, as much as I’m able, to do good even to my enemies without exception.
That’s what Jesus did. He loved those who put him to death. By the way, you know who put Jesus to death, right? You and I did. That’s what the cross is – the emblem of love for one’s enemies. When Jesus calls us to love our enemies, he is calling us to be like him. And when we do that, we show the world what the grace and love of God looks like.
This is hard for me. I recognize in this that I am required to love the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who hate my daughter. I don’t like it. But I’m trying to do it.
All of this is an opportunity for us – an opportunity to show a divided and hostile world that love can conquer hate and division – to show that we can be united in spite of our difference. God has put us, the followers of Jesus, here for just such a time as this, to be a people of love. We start here in this congregation. We love each other no matter what. So, Democrats, you have to love the Republicans who are in the pews next to you. Republicans, you have to love the Democrats who are here in the pews next to you. And independents like me have to figure out how to love the both of you. Which is pretty hard sometimes. But we all have to do that, if we mean to follow Jesus.
Now, as I’ve acknowledged this is hard, but we don’t do it in our own strength and ability. We do it by the power of God’s love which he pours into us. We ask and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to do this in us and through us. We can’t do this without the empowering of the Holy Spirit. So, call on God to make you able to love.
In the power of risen Jesus, we can stand up against all efforts to divide the world into “us” and “them.” The love of Jesus says that there is no “them.” There’s only “us” – sinful, hateful, nasty sometimes but just one human race – “us.” The power of love conquers. Jesus has proved that. Jesus is raised from the dead. Love didn’t die on the cross. Love conquers hate. The power that raised Jesus is at work in us to love. The world needs to see that, and we are the ones to show them.
©2017 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved