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Unity in Diversity

"Unity in Diversity" Galatians 3:27-29

Distinctions drive people apart. Distinctionism is a part of sin. It is everywhere. Everywhere in the world, people prefer their own kind and discriminate against those who are different. There is no end to the examples of how people discriminate against others: skin color, history, facial features, culture, educational level, language, age, regionalism, nationalism, social level, financial status, generation, size, skill, beauty, strength, intelligence, background, musical taste, clothing style, city/suburb/country, immigration, political views. It is often pure pride: exalting oneself and one’s own above others (and often pushing the others down). It often involves disdain toward others. It is universal and very human. The Christian, however, is called to resist it and not to capitulate to it.

Galatians 3:27-29 "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise."

Paul is writing this to these believers because some Jewish were not accepting Gentile believers into their fellowship. They were insisting that they first become Jews by submitting to the ceremonial laws of Moses. But Paul tells them that when you put on Christ you leave your past identity behind. The old distinctions between people are gone.

But of course, this applies to us today, as well. It’s not just between Jews and Gentiles. It’s all distinctions. He gives two more distinctions as examples: slave and free, male and female: other big distinctions in that day. He does the same in Colossians 3:11, where he refers to a renewal "in which there is no [distinction between] Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all."

And what is the end of all these barriers being set aside in the body of Christ? We are given a glimpse of it in Rev. 7:9-10 "I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’" (Cf. Rev.5:9)

We see this exemplified in the church at Antioch in Acts 11 and 13. This was the first largely Gentile church. (Probably the reason believers were first called Christians there – Acts 11:26 – was because this was the first time the Gentiles couldn’t just refer to them as Jews.) The elders of that church were a very diverse lot:

"Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul." (Acts 13:1)

Barnabas was a Hebrew-speaking Jew from Jerusalem. Simeon was probably a black African (Niger means black), Lucius of Cyrene was also African (Cyrene was in modern-day Libya), Manaen was from the royal family related to Herod the tetrarch, and Paul was a Greek-speaking Jew from Asia Minor (specifically, Tarsus).

Years ago Don McCurry did a seminar at our church on Reaching Your Muslim neighbor. I still remember a jarring comment he made: "The biggest problem in the early church was racism." But it makes perfect sense. First we see the conflict over the Hebrew vs. Greek-speaking widows in Acts 6. Then we see the difficulty Peter has in accepting the point of the vision God gave him to welcome the Gentiles into the church. We see the controversy his preaching at Cornelius’ house stirred up in the church at Jerusalem. And the struggle of the Jews to accept the Gentiles into the church was the issue of the first church council — the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. This is also what kept getting Paul into trouble. This ultimately led to his arrest in Jerusalem in Acts 21-23. And in Gal.2:11-14 Paul tells of an confrontation which occurred in Antioch between him and Peter:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 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. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 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?"

All Peter did was move over to sit with his Jewish friends who were visiting from Jerusalem. How was this action not in step with the truth of the gospel? Paul goes on (Galatians 2:15-16) to explain how. He says that acceptance by God is not based on human factors. The Jews thought they were better than others because they kept the law. They wouldn’t accept Gentiles who hadn’t been circumcised and didn’t keep the ceremonial law. But by refusing the Gentiles (unless they became Jews) they were implying that salvation was based on keeping the law and being Jewish. And this is a contradiction of the gospel. The visiting Jews refused to sit with the Gentile believers because Jews don’t eat with Gentiles. When Peter joined them he was lending his name to their gospel-contradicting crime.

Is it a contradiction of the gospel when we separate ourselves from other believers because of some human distinction? I believe it is. We are saying that in order to be acceptable, you need a certain human distinctive. And the gospel forcefully declares that this is not true. Salvation is based on grace alone through faith alone and does not depend on human distinctives. You don’t have to be Jewish. You don’t have to be American. You don’t have to be white.

Martin Luther King Jr. Was right when he said, "Sunday morning at 11am is the most segregated hour in America." This is still true and still tragic. It seems to me that separate churches is more of a contradiction of the gospel than separate tables. The concept of separate but equal is as flawed in the church as it was in the schools.

Now I don’t want to trivialize the black/white problem in America, or any other ethnic/cultural gap. It’s very complicated and difficult. Churches which are trying to bridge the gap are often finding it hard to do. But we can’t just be happy with the stark racial and cultural divisions in the church. Jesus lived at a time when there was similar racial tension. At that time and place it was between Jew and Samaritan. And yet Jesus didn’t just live with it. He reached out across the barrier. "The Samaritan woman therefore said to Him, ‘How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman? For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.’" (John 4:9)

Do you remember the story of the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus in Luke 17:11-19? It helps us to understand the problem of and the solution to racism. There is something very noticeable about these ten lepers. Nine were Jews and one was a Samaritan. This begs the question: since when do Jews hang around with a Samaritan? What is it that drew them together? What was strong enough to bridge this wide racial gap between Jew and Samaritan? What drew together those who would never otherwise associate with one another? It was their leprosy. Their leprosy caused them to be rejected by both Jews and Samaritans. This rejection allowed them to accept each other. That is the way it is with the realization of sin. When we realize how broken and corrupt we are, then we stop looking down on those from different groups, because we realize they’re just like us. You see, racism is really a problem of pride. Wherever there is prejudice or bigotry, there is a failure to appreciate one's own sin, making the sin of the other group seem worse than mine.A prejudiced person is one who hasn't fully come to grips yet with his own sinfulness, his own spiritual leprosy. He’s still clinging to earthly attributes.

Now notice one more thing about this story which confirms what we’ve seen. When the ten were healed, it caused the ethnic division to reappear. The nine who were Jews went straight to the temple to show themselves to the priest and regain acceptance among their people. The Samaritan returned to Jesus to give thanks. He was still a reject among the Jews, though he was healed from his leprosy. Leprosy brought Jew and Samaritan together, healing separated them again. The Jewish lepers should have returned to Jesus as well, along with their Samaritan friend. Jesus is the One who unites people as sinners saved by grace in spite of all their differences, helping them realize that their human advantages mean nothing.

Unity in diversity glorifies God. The world needs to see that Christ is more powerful than human distinctions. What an incredible opportunity Christians have to demonstrate the power of Christ! How tragic it would be to send the message that skin color is a more powerful force of division than Jesus Christ is a force of unity. This is why the church should be taking the lead in this.

I agree that we need to be realistic. However, many of the greatest things done in history wouldn’t have been done if people had listened to those who insisted on being realistic. Also, is it unrealistic to think that God is big enough to help us overcome? There comes a time when you just have to do what’s right. God has done bigger things than this.