The occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday this week has inspired me to do some deeper than normal reflection on the relationships between the races as seen through Scripture. As a white, middle-class, suburban pastor of a largely white, middle class, suburban church, I have to admit that I have blindspots when it comes to race. Case in point, whenever this holiday rolls around, in my church we usually give it just a passing nod, if we recognize it at all. Want further proof? We just finished before Christmas a three month series on relationships in the body of Christ. And not once did we call attention to how race impacts our relationships as Christians. All the controversial stuff going on in our nation since the summer involving black and white – Ferguson, Baltimore and the rise of ‘Black Lives Matter’ – and it doesn’t even appear on our radar screen?! If that’s not a blind spot, I don’t know what is.
I know what some of you are thinking perhaps, because I try to comfort myself with this thought as well: But haven’t we made such great strides as a nation in this area? Haven’t we made progress since that day, more than 50 years ago now, when Dr. King strode to the podium at the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his famous “I Have A Dream Speech”?
Don’t forget what it was that launched this movement and put Dr. King in the public’s eye. It was in 1955 that King, then a 26-year-old pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, was called upon to lead a bus boycott in that city, after the arrest of a quiet, black seamstress named Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. When asked to explain why she had broken the law which clearly demanded that she give up her seat, she said, “My feet were tired.”
A black person could not ride a public bus! And far worse things than that were happening. This was us, our country, not all that long ago. You almost can’t get your brain around it. So yes, many of these conditions have been changed to a great degree. But Dr. King’s dream was for America to become a place where his four children would grow up and not be judged by the color of their skin but by the conduct of their character. Once you hold up that standard – the standard of a colorless acceptance of another human – you realize how far we still have to travel on this road.
This by the way wasn’t just Martin Luther King’s dream. His dream was merely an echo of God’s own dream for us, revealed straight from the Bible. Ephesians 2 is one of the most powerful statements in all the Bible of how faith in Jesus Christ should lead, must lead to the tearing down of any walls of prejudice and pride that exist between us. We shouldn’t forget that the Jews had their own racial issues to deal with back in Jesus’ day. The Jews were God’s chosen people, so special in fact that they had a word to describe everyone else – if you weren’t a Jew, then you were a Gentile. That’s rather audacious, arrogant when you think about it. There’s you, and your group, and everyone else. (I’ve met New England Patriot fans who are like that.)
And what often happened is that the Jews forgot why they were chosen. It wasn’t because they were so special, or better than everyone else. But because of God’s grace alone. He chose them because…he chose them. And when they forgot that, they got into this nasty habit of looking down on everyone else.
But now because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, all this had changed. Both Jew and Gentile could be reconciled to God by simple faith in Jesus. So Paul writes in verse 13 to this congregation made up of both Jew and Gentile, simmering no doubt with all that racial tension – “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away