Christ our Example, Christ our Hope
Read Romans 15:7-13.
Every three years InterVarsity Christian Fellowship sponsors the Urbana Conference. It’s a gathering that challenges university students to get involved in world evangelization, world missions. Back in 2009 about 16,000 students from around the world attended the conference. But there was more than just the number of attendees that made the 2009 conference stand out.
After the main session each evening, students would leave the larger conference auditorium to meet in smaller groups for prayer and reflection. In one of the banquet halls, there was a small group comprised of Chinese students, another group of Taiwanese students, and another group of students from Hong Kong. Large dividers stood between the three. Now, it’s no secret that these three cultures have historically, right up until today, harbored bitterness and animosity toward one another, so these walls, these dividers, were important. Each group felt it was best to pray and worship each with their own people.
But as the Chinese students were praying one night, they told their leader they wanted to invite the other countries to join them. When the Taiwanese students received the invitation, they prayed and sang a little while, and then they opened up the wall divider. It wasn’t too much longer before the students from Hong Kong pulled back their divider, and some 80 students mingled together.
“In Christ, we are all one family,” said one leader. “And [Christ] breaks down political boundaries. In Christ, we have the desire to make the first steps to connect.”
The Taiwanese students asked the students from China and Hong Kong to lead them in worship. The next night, they invited the Korean and Japanese groups to join them, nations which also had experienced fierce animosity. The leader told them, “We are living out what we have learned this week in John: This is ‘God with us.’” One girl from China said, “It was a really moving time. This kind of thing would not happen in another situation.”[i]
Everywhere we go, we encounter walls. Some are necessary. Walls hold up the roofs that protect us from the elements, and they define our “space.” When someone breaches the walls of your home without being invited in by someone who lives there, we call the police, right? It’s a crime to enter someone’s home without an invitation, isn’t it. The walls within your home define the space that can be occupied by certain people. Your room is your room. Living rooms and kitchens are more public. Anyone invited into the home or living there can be in them. But the same isn’t true of bedrooms.
Some walls are invisible. In fact, I think most of the walls we find in this world are invisible. There’s an invisible boundary around your property, and someone on it uninvited could be trespassing. We all have that bubble around us that we call our “personal space.” And everyone’s sense of personal space is different. Some people are more comfortable being closer. Others prefer more distance. And when someone who shouldn’t be in your personal space gets too close, you get uncomfortable. The personal space between husband and wife, for example, is different than the personal space between neighbors. And our mood can impact our personal space, our boundaries. Sometimes when we’re in a bad mood, we need more space, even from the people we love dearly.
Some walls, some boundaries, are completely appropriate and necessary. They’re protective, and define where I end and you begin. But this world is filled with walls that aren’t. You see, we as human beings seem to have an innate distrust of people who are different than we are. Sometimes that distrust is earned, because we also have a tendency to treat people who are different than we are poorly. Walls between genders, between cultures, between races, between rich and poor. For the most part, those walls are completely invisible, but they’re just as real as the walls defining your home. Cities are divided into ethnic and economic clusters … the black neighborhood, the white neighborhood, the other side of the tracks, which usually means poor white, middle class neighborhoods, wealthy suburbs, the projects. We as human beings are terrible at getting along with people who are different than we are. The normal, default human condition is to be divided, and to spend most of our time with people who look like, think like, act like, live like, and talk like we do. When I was studying for this message this week, I wrote down the words “Humans suck at unity.”
But God calls his church to be different. We as followers of Christ are expected to be a diverse community. One of the primary ways we show the power of God and the goodness of God and the love of God to the watching world is by allowing God to shape us into a diverse, united community of joy. One pastor wrote, “the quality of our unity either attracts or repels the world.” Sadly, the church, from the beginning, has struggled with division too. The church in Galatia was divided by legalism. The church in Corinth divided over what to do about a member who was committing incest. The church in Pergamum was divided as Christians married unbelievers. God said that the church in Laodicea made him sick to his stomach. The church in Rome was no different. Many believe that some of the early Christian martyrs in Rome, including both Peter and Paul, were killed because of bitterness and jealousy among the Christians in Rome, with rivalry so bitter that some were turning in the names of their brothers and sisters in Christ to the Roman authorities, accusing them of being traitors to the empire. If that’s true, divided Christians were responsible for helping to feed other Christians to the lions in the colosseum and light fires under the believers who burned in Nero’s gardens. No wonder Paul spent so much time emphasizing unity in the body of Christ.
The good news is that where humans build barriers, Christ breaks them down. Look at Vv. 7-9. The word welcome means more than just tolerate. It means to fully accept as brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of anything accept for one thing – Christ. It is Christ who defines us. Some people come into the church seeking help, and we offer that help as much as we can without judging them. Some people come into the church because they’re spiritually hungry and seeking truth. They’re spiritual seekers not yet following Christ. To them God says, through us, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Psalm 34:8). And how do they do that? By experiencing the love of Christ in community. And then there are those of us who come because we are followers of Christ. We come to worship God together and to encourage and build one another up. And we come from a variety of backgrounds. Urban and rural. Educated and uneducated. Professional and laborer. From both sides of the political spectrum. And we come together as one body in Christ. A body that, by all rights, from this world’s perspective, shouldn’t be able to hold together because we’re so different. But we do, because we are held together by Christ. We welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us – as broken sinners in need of grace and forgiveness, as fellow Christ followers on this journey through life together.
We don’t agree about everything. We aren’t supposed to. But we agree about Jesus. We agree that we are all sinners saved by grace, that Jesus is the eternal son of the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons. That Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, lived a sinless life, died on the cross for our sins, was raised to life, and ascended to the right hand of the Father. And because we agree about Jesus, we hold together and love one another, even when it gets tough. And it’s a love that welcomes new brothers and sisters in Christ whenever they come.
The church in Rome was made up of Gentile Christians who for the most part saw their brothers and sisters in Christ from Jewish backgrounds as immature legalists who didn’t understand the fullness of what Christ had done. And it was made up of Jewish Christians who saw their Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ as liberals who didn’t understand what it meant to live as the people of God, unique and set apart in a hostile world. And those perspectives on one another created walls that grew to the point where they were no longer sure that the other side was really serious about following Jesus. From there, it was only a short leap to assuming that they weren’t following Jesus at all.
So Paul quotes several times from the Old Testament to help both sides understand exactly what God has done in Christ. Look at Vv. 9-12. The issue of division was serious enough that Paul quoted from the Old Testament not once but four times to make his point. And he quoted from the Psalms twice, from Deuteronomy, and from Isaiah. He quoted from what the Jews called the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. In other words, this was no minor theme in the Old Testament. This was a major chord, a primary theme. To the Jews, the message was, God’s plan from the beginning was to bring gentiles into his family, to make them a part of his people. The community you are living in right now is evidence that God is at work and keeping his promises, because the Gentiles, all of those on-Jews, are praising God, just as you are. But there was also a message to the Gentiles. Look again at V. 12. This is the quote from the prophet Isaiah. And served as a reminder to the Gentiles that they were like wild, foreign branches being grafted into the cultivated Jewish vine. In Christ, they were becoming part of one another – the gentiles, non-Jews, grafted into the Jewish vine because of the work of Jesus, who was born a Jew.
The people of God is to be a people who, because of the diversity present, in unity, makes no sense to the watching world. And in that mystery, they see the power of God.
The German philosopher Schopenhauer compared the human race to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter’s night. He said, “The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth; but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt one another with our sharp quills. And in the lonely night of earth’s winter eventually we begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze to death in our loneliness.”
Christ has given us an alternative: to forgive each other for the pokes we receive. That allows us to stay together and stay warm.[ii] That is the mystery that is the body of Christ.
Paul closes this section of his letter with a benediction, and I’d like us to look at it alongside the words with which he opened this section. So let’s look back at Romans 12:1-2. And now look at V. 13. As followers of Christ, you and I are, as individuals, being transformed by the renewing of our minds into the image of Christ. The word Christian literally means “little Christ.” We are being transformed, and we are being formed – into a community. A community marked by joy and peace with one another and hope. And that community is itself a gift of God, who is the God of all hope. God is at work transforming individuals and forming a community of followers of Christ. And it is through our individual lives and through those lives being knitted together into a community that the world will see the love and power of God. The good news of Jesus is that although you and I are sinful, broken, and deeply flawed, by the grace of God, through faith in Jesus, we are forgiven of our sin. And we are being transformed into the image of Christ and formed into a community, the body of Christ.
In the Old Testament prophet Isaiah we read, “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Is. 2:4). We all long for the day when, with the return of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God in its fullness we beat our swords into plows and get back to the work of cultivating this grand playground that God has given us to enjoy as he originally intended. And that work begins now, as it always does, within the body of Christ, as you and I, followers of Jesus, live as citizens of the Kingdom of God here and now.
Mark DeYmaz is the pastor of the Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas, and he’s passionate about building a multi-ethnic and economically diverse church. So he’s down there in Little Rock, Arkansas building a church that is intentionally multi-ethnic, multi-generational, and includes people from all walks of life, from the very poor to the very rich. They have worship services in both English and Spanish. In his book Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church, he really emphasizes that the church – especially the American church – ought to reflect the many colors and cultures that dot our landscape. But the diversity this requires isn’t easy. Diversity is never easy. But, as he puts it, the church ought to be “a place in which people are comfortable being uncomfortable.” And that as followers of Christ we have to realize that “[we] are a part of something much bigger than themselves.” And then he shares this story to show the beauty – and complexity – of multi-ethnic worship:
Let’s compare the multi-ethnic church to a multi-generational family. Assume for a moment that Grandma, who is alive and well, lives in the same house with you, your spouse, and several children of varying age. Now in your home, one tradition involves the family meal. Indeed, you expect the entire family to come to the table when dinner is served. However, one night you arrive home, only to be challenged in this regard.
On this occasion, Grandma has arrived early to help feed the baby while you help your spouse set the table. Soon your twelve-year-old twins enter the room arguing over television rights; nevertheless, they are seated and it is time to pray. At that moment, however, you realize someone is missing. Your teenage son is not at the table. Heading upstairs to see what’s the matter, you find him playing a video game in his room; he is wearing headphones so as not to be disturbed.
“Why,” you inquire, “are you not at the table? Didn’t you hear Mom say it’s time to eat?”
“Oh yeah,” he replies, with just a touch of attitude. “I heard her. But I’m not coming to dinner tonight. Mom’s serving meatloaf, and I don’t like it.”
Now let me ask you a question: If you were a parent, how would you respond?
No matter how many times I have asked that question, the answer always comes back the same. It’s likely that you, too, would tell your son to [go to the table whether he likes it or not]. And in so doing, of course, you would teach him a most profound lesson: It’s not about the food; it’s about the family.
“Look, Son,” you might say, “I don’t care what we’re eating tonight. You’re coming to dinner because you’re a part of this family. You see, it’s not so much the meal but the memories we make that’s important. And when you’re not there, we miss out on all you contribute, and you miss out, too. Sure it’s meatloaf tonight, but tomorrow we’re having pizza!”
Of course, the next night you will not need to have the same talk with Grandma. In her maturity, she learned long ago to appreciate the blessing of life and love. And while her stomach will not allow her to eat the pizza, she will enjoy watching her grandchildren tear into it! Yes, in that moment, she will be thankful just to have a seat at the table, still to be alive and a part of the family.[iii] Let us pray.
[i] Corrie McKee, “Asian Students Tear Down Walls,” Urbana Today (12-31-09), p. 6
[ii] Source: Wayne Brouwer, Holland, Michigan. Leadership, Vol. 17, no. 2.
[iii] Mark DeYmaz, Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church (Jossey-Bass, 2007), p. 111