One day each year Americans officially acknowledge our racist past. On Martin Luther King Day government offices and schools close and black folks have parades and speeches and white people and others go play golf, do some chores around the house, and see an editorial in the local newspaper about racial reconciliation or the lack of it.
Our beloved United States of America has a history of racism that us both ugly and undeniable. We hear far more about how badly African-Americans have been treated than any other because it is more current. But God help us if we forget how our forefathers treated the indigenous Indians who had lived on this continent long before they arrived here. And, let’s not forget the way we treated the Japanese and other Orientals after Pearl Harbor. We rounded them up like cattle and stripped them of their dignity and freedom. Even though our actions were driven by fear in their case, and greed in the case of the Native Americans, it was nonetheless racist.
Some you who are young adults might not know this but Americans didn’t invent racism. I could give a short history lesson about Europeans, Africans, the middle east and on and on but the fact that racial problems exist is well established, and on that we can all agree. Even some of our most quoted and admired Biblical characters were guilty.
Peter was a Jew and loud and proud. He was not unlike almost everyone he knew because his friends and closest associates were all Jews too. God would change that. In the Bible in Acts 10 is the story of God giving brother Peter a vision that would rock his world.
Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.” (Acts 10:9b-16)
Standing at the gate were messengers from an Italian army centurion, a Gentile named Cornelius. When Peter heard what they had to say he invited them in.
The first lesson for Peter, and for us about racial differences is this. What God has made clean, do not call uncommon. This object lesson was not only for Peter but for others as well including you and me. God made a decision that Peter would go preach Christ to the Gentiles and that they would believe. (Acts 15:7) It was God who chooses sons and daughters from every tongue and tribe and place and those who are chosen are “one” in Christ.
It was none other than Jesus himself who modeled what Peter and others of God’s people would eventually do. Remember the story of Jesus speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well? He went out of his way, (literally) to meet that woman who was not a Jew and had a sordid past and was at the present time living with a guy who was not her husband. God chose her to make clean.
In what I think is the most remarkable prayer in the Bible, Jesus prayed that his followers would be united, that they would be one. After Jesus had interceded for his followers he then prayed for you and me. He prayed for us!
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me,that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:20-23)
You see, only in Christ can every difference be either put aside or celebrated. Someone has said “The ground is level at the foot of the cross“. I get it. When we stand there with people from other races, from other faith heritages, we stand in grace. It is our common union with Christ that joins us with others. In Him alone teeming millions are made one.
News outlets report daily of the slaughter of people whose only offence is wrong race or wrong religion. It is as old as human history and it will not end until God makes everything over. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” and when the result of that work is fully realized there will be no more fighting over racial differences.
Until then, we must guard our hearts and do the hard work of loving people different from us. Peter started off well. He was obedient to his calling to take the good news about Jesus to the Gentiles. And, he defended them and God’s plan to the church leaders who were themselves pious yet wicked sinners. But, as time went on Peter fell into the trap of loving the praise of men more than the will of God. Paul tells the story in his letter to the Galatians.
11 But when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step 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 force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11-14)
Peter was a hypocrite. I am sometimes a hypocrite too. If we care more about what the leadership of the church thinks, or some family member, our a boss at work than what God has said and modeled we are headed for trouble.
The Christians across town, or in my pew, doesn’t have to look like me, or dress like me, or sing like me, or…..anything else to be my spiritual siblings. If our dialogue with our brothers and sisters centers more on Christ and his grace and less on religion, politics, and culture we will be far closer to being the people God intends.
As followers of Jesus you and I don’t have the luxury of choosing who we will love and accept. Our marching orders are to love everyone!
Let’s be aggressively loving like Jesus did. We will be better for it and our part of the world will be a better place to live. I’ll end with one more Scripture passage.
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:5)