I think I’ve been preparing this sermon for 26 years.
Dealing with diversity, the church, the biblical text of Ephesians, and with a few shout outs to Methodism in between, here is Causes & Their Effects.
It landed at this bottom line:
When it comes to ethnicity & the local church, diversity is NEVER the cause. It’s ALWAYS the result.
Maybe you remember or have heard of this commercial from back in the day: AV I’d like to teach the world to sing. What a great concept, what a great commercial, what a great hook, and what a greater cause? Glorious song, wonderful product (if you don’t mind it staining your teeth), and a compelling image of people of all colors and cultures coming together in perfect harmony!
I mean, that really is a great cause, is it not? It’s why some of you have Co-Exist bumper stickers on the back of your Prius. It’s why my nephew (now 50) when he was a kid came up with a concept for International Town in which he’d build a city in which the Coke commercial was an everyday reality. Kind of a utopian slant on urban planning from a six year old. Again, great, great cause. Gather together people from all cultures, colors, and corner and let them just get along.
But of course, somewhere along the way since the Coke commercial and Int’l Town, something happened to that cause, didn’t it? Whether it was the Hutus v. the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Sunnis v. the Shiites in the Middle East, or even racial strife in Ferguson & Baltimore here in the US, it seems like racial and ethnic and national strife is never far from us. The cause of harmony & unity among people who look different & talk different & believe different is so elusive. More promise than reality. The song on a moutaintop quickly becomes a rift in the valley.
And you know, people all around have tried to rectify these situations. It’s a cause worth pursuing; a goal worth fighting for. You did your part with the Co-Exist bumper sticker! Some of you took classes in anthropology and its more modern derivative, diversity studies. And MANY OF YOU – maybe all of you who have been in US industry – have gone through some kind of diversity training. Or sensitivity training. Usually it’s diversity training early on and if you get in trouble they send you to sensitivity training as part of your performance plan! Because the idea, the notion of perfect harmony between ppl of different ethnicities, languages, & skin colors is a noble cause, one worth fighting for by rebels & non rebels alike.
And it’s the kind of cause that HAD to be on Paul’s mind as he addressed his letter to the Ephesian church. The church there in that Turkish port town of Ephesus had the fortune/misfortune of being comprised primarily of two religious & ethnic groups: Jews and Greeks. They had between them centuries of suspicion and animosity over appearance, language, religion, morality, and different definitions of what it meant to be clean and unclean. Somewhere along the line BOTH groups developed the idea that the Jews were “IN,” they were “Original,” and that the Gentiles were somehow second class citizens in the kingdom. Outsiders.
So throughout the letter, Paul, a Jew, has been trying diligently to diminish the distinctions between YOU (Gentiles) and WE (Jews). (BTW, this is one of those reasons it is so important when you read the bible to realize that the “you” is not always YOU. It may be ultimately written FOR you but it was never written TO you.) Now the parallels in modern times to this Jew/Gentile division are all around us – most obviously in our land, between black and white. Yet even to press it further, recognizing that Jews & Greeks didn’t necessarily LOOK as different as typical AA & Caucasian, we realize that other parallels might exist in rivalries between ppl who don’t necessarily look that different: Immigrant & Native, PR & Argentinian, Cuban & Mexican, Korean & Chinese.
So with those kind of tensions in mind, look at 2:11-13:
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
OK, so the advent of Jesus brings about a new reality in which the hard lines of YOU and WE become much more blurred. The distinctions between excluded and included are now gone. And note what the unifying force is there in v. 13: the blood of Jesus. Tuck that away.
Now look at 2:14-18:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
And note especially there in v. 14 how Paul speaks of it as accomplished fact: has destroyed. Not a state he is trying to reach, not a goal to attain, but a reality that is already here and already now. And drill down into 2:15: READ. One new man/humanity out of the two. So his readers are no longer located IN Israel or IN Greece but now IN CHRIST. And how does it happen? Ah, 2:18 tells us: READ. Through the Spirit.
And now look at 2:19-22 where the demolition of the dividing wall is followed by the construction of something new:
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
The construction of the dwelling place of God – not a building because believe me, the NT church was not thinking in those terms, but in a community. And it’s clear that God “lives” or “dwells” most visibly when the colors & cultures are on display most vividly. But most especially, I want you to notice HOW all this takes place. Not through committees or commissions. Not through sensitivity training. Not through goose-bump inducing TV commercials. It’s 2:13, 16, 18, and 22 piled on top of each other, escalating in impact & power. Blood, blood, cross, cross, Spirit, Spirit. Racial and ethnic harmony never happens through social engineering; always through spiritual pioneering!
So I put all that together this morning (and actually for the last 17 years) with the fait acompli of how Paul says this is reality now, not something to aspire to then, and I realize here’s the truth about the church & ethnic diversity: It’s never the cause. It’s always the result. The level of diversity we have here now and will have here in the future is not the goal, it’s never the cause. It’s only the result, it is always the effect of the greater cause. It is the result of a mad pursuit of the Holy Spirit, of the elevation of the Gospel, of the real time truth of Jesus’ own words: If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me. The Gospel of Jesus is THE CAUSE and a full color church wrought by the Holy Spirit is the RESULT. God help us at Good Shepherd if we ever get that backwards.
Hey preachers: if you want to build a diverse church, don’t start out trying to build a diverse church! Build a Jesus church! Soaked in his blood and swept up in his spirit! And diversity happens. You seek diversity as your primary goal and you’ll get the weakness of social engineering. God forbid! Why settle for that when we can have spiritual pioneering!
And do you know what all this is true and why I believe it so passionately? (Well, aside from the fact that this is precisely what Ephesians 2 is telling us.) Because diversity for its own sake has no foundation. It is lame. It’s why it doesn’t work on college campuses, why it creates so much resentment in your office, even why, even why (shhhh . . . ) most efforts in the UMC are absolutely doomed to failure. Now: I love being Methodist. Love it. But I have to smile when we go to Methodist meetings and they create a diverse panel at a Methodist meeting and go around slapping each other on the back congratulating each other on what a diverse denomination we have . . . and then when the meeting is over, everyone goes back to their single race UM church. That’s pretend diversity. Who cares if it happens on the denom level? It’s about the congregational level! We even have an office dedicated to racial matters and you know what’s funny about that? 1. We never needed to ask them “how” to do this and 2. They never ask us to share with others how. I think because the answer is uncomfortable: diversity as a cause stinks. Diversity as a result of a glorified Christ and unleashed HS rocks. That’s all. It’s never the cause. It’s always the result.
Years & years ago I remember being in a meeting talking abt diversity in local churches and someone mentioned that the Pentecostals do it sort of effortlessly. And they do! Even 20 yrs ago. People went into all kinds of sociological explanations of why and I just raised my hand and said, “maybe they’re just Xns.” Doh! It’s never the cause. It’s always the result.
Be very sure of this: you cannot cannot cannot separate racial & ethnic reconciliation from atonement. Walls don’t come down between races unless the wall first comes down between sinful ppl and a holy God. When you try & do it any other way you get a vapid political correctness – and we’re all tired of that. But that leads me to an obvious conclusion: if we harbor racial prejudices it’s because we’re not reconciled to God. When you embrace the cross, you embrace the colors died for on it. If you haven’t embraced all those colors, you haven’t embraced the cross. I’ll tell you straight: if you don’t want a church of all colors, if your heart is at all hard to this idea, it means your heart is hard to God. We don’t need to have a conference or a committee to decide this for us. Jesus has already spoken & he has already acted & he is in charge here. He’s not only in charge, he is the cause. It’s never the cause. It’s always the result.
Because this is so great. Look at 2:16 again: READ. Think about it: the blood INSIDE you distinguishes you from other ppl. There are even certain DNA markers that distinguish ppl groups from each other. So the blood inside me, for example, determines that I’m a white guy of European ancestry. Blood inside. Ah, but the blood APPLIED is completely different. Jesus’ blood APPLIED extinguishes all that the blood INSIDE distinguishes! We set up all these categories and camps based on what blood inside does and the blood applied comes along and DEMOLISHES all that. It’s why I can see someone like this (AV, Ron Dozier) and say w/o reservation that he is my BLOOD BROTHER! The line in that song “when all the colors bleed into one” has never been more true.
And the result of all that. I can’t get away from 2:22: READ. This miraculous dwelling place of God. I can NOT understand it. How does he live here in our midst? I dunno. But it’s clear from the setting that his presence is much more vivid when the collection of colors are more vibrant. And when you think about it, I Corinthians 6:19-20 says the same thing: READ. I love the connections again! Dwelling places of who? The Holy Spirit! Why? Bought! Blood! The cross! So what does that make every person here who is a Xn? Someone inhabiting a BOUGHT BODY. What does that make us? A whole bunch of BOUGHT BODIES. So you get a whole bunch of BOUGHT BODIES – some of them white, others black, others Asian – and what do you have? A dwelling where God lives by his spirit. Oh man, we focus on that – that we’re BOUGHT – more than on diversity itself . . . and we will have all the perfect harmony we can possibly handle.
We brought the message home with this video: