BEAUTY IN DIFFERENCE


What does the Bible have to say about the current transformation debate spreading across our country? From start to end God has an unmatched heart and vision for all humanity. From the opening pages in Genesis where we are made in the precious image of God, through to Revelation where the people of God spend all eternity together. The central question in the gospels are ‘who are the true people of God?’ and almost every letter of the New Testament addresses the Jew-Gentile conflict to some degree. Let’s consider one such letter. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.

Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God.

Romans 15.7

The Roman Context

A few years before Paul wrote this letter, approximately two thirds of the church in Rome was Jewish, while the rest were Greek speaking Gentiles[1]. The gospel had taken root. Synagogues had been transformed into churches. But then tragically due to socio-political reasons, all the Jewish people were forced to leave Rome. They were forced to leave their places of work and worship as families and friends were torn apart by their relocation. Twelve or thirteen years later due to a change in Roman governance, the Jewish people were allowed to return to Rome. This is when Paul pens the letter to the church in Rome.

There had been a growing hostility between Jews and Gentiles and the return of the Jews to Rome only compounded things. It is into this context of hurt and hatred that the Apostle Paul writes “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God”[2]. When Paul speaks about Jew Gentile unity it was radical. He boldly espoused a vision that there was “no Jew or Greek… for you are all one in Christ”[3] and that “Jesus himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility”[4]. We must see that this was radical inclusion to Gentiles and that it had massive implications on multicultural relationships. We must also sense just how similar their struggle was to ours. Let’s consider each part of Romans 15.7 beginning with the end phrase ‘glory of God’.

THE GLORIOUS VISION

Paul is captured by a vision. It is a vision that he was willing to die for and, as legend has it, he did die for. It’s a vision of all people, both Jew and Gentile glorifying God. How does this happen? The gospel of Jesus Christ. The first eight chapters of Romans is a prelude and explanation of the good news of Jesus. Paul shares the gospel and now in chapter fourteen and fifteen he deals with the implication of this good news; Jew and Gentile must welcome each other as Christ has welcomed you’. The mission of God is that his elect would experience his glory through the gospel. This vision runs throughout the entire Bible.

God made Adam and Eve and said they were ‘very good’[5] and the Psalmist says ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made’[6]. Every human being born or unborn, irrespective of culture, sexuality or creed is sacred because they are formed and shaped by God in his invaluable image. In Genesis 12 God called a pagan man named Abram to follow him. God promised to make him into a great nation. A nation through whom God would bless all the people of the earth[7]. The nation would become Israel. But Israel forgot their mandate and abandoned the vision. God sent prophets reminding them that he had a plan to rescue and save people from the whole world and that he would do it through his chosen one; the new Israel, God’s perfect Son Jesus Christ. Paul says it this way and uses Old Testament prophecies to show that this has always been God’s plan.

8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed 9 and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name.” 10 Again, it says, “Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.” 11 And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol him.” 12 And again, Isaiah says, “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope.[8] Ultimately we know that the story concludes with the vision realised as the Apostle John saw it in Revelation. He sees in heaven “every tribe and every tongue worshiping God”[9]. This means that God values different cultures and different people so much so that I will retain some of it in heaven (e.g my characteristically “coloured” grammar!) Paul is a man captured by this biblical vision. Is this biblical vision your framework? Has this vision captured you? It is this biblical framework that inspired Nelson Mandela who was also a man captured by a vision.

I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Nelson Mandela

Martin Luther King too was captured by vision when unscripted Mahalia Jackson shouted from the crowd “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” and from his heart, from deep within his bones, unrehearsed he waxed lyrical about the vision:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and we will live out the true meaning of its creed: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Martin Luther King

The biblical framework has many implications and one implication is that it should guide our personal responses to our country’s need. Here are some of the needs we have as a nation. Half of our country go to bed hungry despite the country producing more than enough food[10]. One out of every four of South Africans are not only hungry but go to bed starving[11]. And the richest ten percent of South Africans own seventy five percent of its wealth, while fifty percent own just under three percent of the wealth.

There is something wrong with our country and we do need transformation and you are the influential ones who can fix it. But we need more than just statue toppling, we need people who see the worth and value of all human life. We need to be convinced not that we must merely pursue tolerance and a quota system but that we must value the beauty of difference. There are other visions calling for your allegiance, promising societal transformation yet only the vision of God will provide true heart transformation.

THE POWER OF LOVE

How is the vision realized? How does God create this kind of people? It is through us welcoming one another as Christ has welcomed us.

LOVE IS MISSION

Jesus preaches on Leviticus 19.18 “love your neighbour as you love yourself”. But when he preaches on this verse he says ‘A new command I give you: Love one another’ not as you love yourself but ‘love one another as I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will all men know that you are my disciples if you have love one for another’[12]. Paul follows the tradition of Jesus by pointing us to love and welcome as Jesus himself has loved and welcomed us. How does Jesus love? By entering into my space, by living the life I was supposed to live but failed to and then by dying in my place for my sins. Paul is saying the same thing that Jesus is: when you love one another in this way others will see and glorify God. This kind of love validates the gospel. At this point you may become suspicious and wonder what I am actually saying? You may feel that this is not practical or prescriptive enough. You may have questions about who’s right and who’s wrong? Should the statues stand or fall or not?

 

I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that the disciples of Jesus wanted him to prescribe specific actions. Peter was a Zealot - the Umkhonto we Sizwe of the Jewish people. They employed violence to fight against Roman oppression. Then you had Matthew the Tax Collector. A sell-out who extorted his own people by collecting taxes for Rome and lined his pockets through overcharging. And then you had John who may have been a part of the Essene’s. A community who withdrew from general society like the community at Qumran so that they could dedicate themselves to God. Imagine when they all first met and joined the team, and were faced with the question should the statues stand or fall? I imagine Peter would without hesitation arrange for its demolition. John may caution us to pray about it and allow the Spirit of God space to work. While Matthew may be tempted to change the subject to the fact that Zayn has left One Direction. But Jesus doesn’t always prescribe specific action. He does however caution that whatever the action, it must come from love. Why major on love?

LOVE IS POWERFUL

When we love each other in the way Jesus has loved us we will send a message to Cape Town and to South Africa that Jesus is the saviour of the world. They will see and believe. We will not only get the attention of our city but we will send a message to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. There are evil forces behind so much of the turmoil. The message goes like this. Jesus is winning! There is no leader greater because united we follow. There is no force stronger because his love teaches us to love; which is an unstoppable force. Jesus is winning! Even though spiritual forces of evil have tried to divide and conquer, even though it orchestrated the Anglo boer war, Apartheid, xenophobia and afrophobia, we are still forgiving, we are still uniting and we are still preaching the gospel. Jesus is winning because he has given us a new identity. An identity that has superceded yet not obliterated the old identity of coloured, white, black, comrade or Boer. In this identity we have more in common than apart. It has not replaced but it is bigger than. It defines us. We are in Christ. We are children of God. We are sons and daughters or God. We are co-heirs with Christ. You’ve tried to dehumanize us but we know who we are and who we are is royal. Jesus is winning!    

 

4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ… 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus… 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Ephesians 3.4-7

 

The phrase ‘rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms’ appears again in Ephesians chapter six in the well-known verses about the armour of God. Many times we use those verses for personal encouragement as we take our stand against personal battles which is right. But do you see that the armour of God is giving to the Christian who is fighting for unity in the church? That’s the context. When you join God in his mission of glorifying himself to all people God supplies you with the armour for the fight. And it is a fight. That is ultimately why we are still struggling with these issues. But it is not ultimately a fight against black or white or coloured but against spiritual forces of evil. And it is a fight that we will win and the sooner we open our hearts to the vision of God and stand firm in the power of practicing His love, we will realize it. 

 

TRUE TRANSFORMATION

How do we actually proceed? We do need to talk and pray and transform but how? Does unity mean silence? Does unity mean that we all wear the same t-shirts, go tandem cycling, have sleep overs every weekend? Unity doesn’t mean conformity or uniformity. Christian maturity is the key ingredient to transformation. Here’s how we mature. We serve, submit and we grow up.

SERVE

The Greek word for brothers is used eleven times in this text. The point is that we are family. What is the difference between going for a family lunch and going to a restaurant? You come to serve not to be served. You don’t sit down, place an order, complain if the lasagne is dry or bland and then debate whether or not to return. You get involved, you roll up your sleeves and unpack, clean up, wash plates and contribute. Who has a perfect family? A family where there’s no arguing, no crying, no slamming of doors, no butter flicking? So, why expect your spiritual family to be perfect? Our sanctification is a life-long process. This may take time. When you can see that someone is short sighted in their perspective remember that our sanctification may take a while. When she is insensitive remember - it’s going to take a while, when he speaks you totally don’t hear the vision of God but it may take a while. Instead of critiquing or quitting the family we get involved and become the change we want to see.

SUBMIT

5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

Romans 14.5-9

We belong to God. Jesus came for you, lived the life you couldn’t, died in your place to ransom you from the power of sin. Now you belong to him. Every part of my life must come under the overarching Lordship of Jesus Christ. My culture, my likes and dislikes, my spirituality, my sense of right and wrong it must all come under the lordship of Christ. Some cultures eat other people – cannibalism. It’s not ok. That part of the culture must come under the lordship of Jesus. But often there are cultural blind spots that we can’t see on our own. Culture is to us what water is to a fish. We don’t know we are in it. So we need hearts that are submissive to the Lordship of Christ and open to each other. We must pastor each other and lovingly study the Bible together so that we can start having transformative insights about our cultural blind spots. Whether it be individualism or ancestral worship, tardiness or selfishness, no culture is perfect. It takes a submissive heart towards Christ, time and a loving community to identify cultural blind spots.  

GROW UP

There are four helpful categories in Romans 14 and 15 that show four attitudes. These verses are about identity markers such as food, kinship and various interpretations of the Bible and it was a big deal to these people.

  1. JUDGEMENTAL- STRONG[13]

The strong are those who have the right belief. Paul says in Romans 14.14 that all food is clean. Jesus says the same in Matthew 15.11. But the judgemental-strong are those who have the right answers but the wrong attitude. They know that all food is clean but they judge those who can’t eat. They are proud and arrogant and they look down at the weak in faith. Once I heard two Christian co-workers argue over drinking alcohol. The guy with the right belief (that it’s fine to drink alcohol) was really mocking the other guy’s view. What he didn’t care to know was that the other guy had come from a home with an alcoholic father. You can be right and still be wrong. In the racism discussions it’s so easy to say all the right things with the wrong attitude. You don’t say the wrong things but something is ‘off’, it may be an unwillingness to be sensitive, an uncaring approach and it’s not Christ like.

  1. CONDEMNING WEAK[14]

These guys are probably Jews who grew up believing that certain foods would defile them and so they are not ready to transition to the teachings of Jesus about all foods being clean. But they are not only wrong in their doctrine, they condemn those who eat! Sometimes when we have been hurt and someone comes close to the sensitive area we can respond by being very condemning. During my student years I tried sharing the gospel in Long Street on Saturday nights. But I got lambasted by an older Christian guy who felt that it was ungodly for me to be in Long Street in the first place. He condemned the action because he was unable to reconcile how I would remain unaffected by that environment. Weakness in ourselves can often surface as condemnation towards others. Perhaps there is an area of hurt or weakness in your heart because of our country’s history. Won’t you identify what these are and ask God to heal and restore you.

  1. PITIED-WEAK[15]

Paul says that for some people if they can’t eat certain foods then that’s ok they shouldn’t. They should just be fully convinced in their own minds. If you can’t drink alcohol, then don’t. But what’s implied? It’s that you’re weak! No one reads this and goes ‘yes! That’s me! I’m the weak person and proudly so!’ Paul is gently but not so subtly calling the weak to greater strength. There is hurt because of racism and it’s possible to know that you can’t engage in this discussion or that you can’t hang out with certain people of a particular cultural group for a while. That’s ok but know that God has a plan to grow you and a vision to give you. He doesn’t want you to get stagnant and stay there.  

  1. TRULY STRONG[16]

This is where God wants us. Know that you can eat anything but have the ability to not eat because you love your brother or sister. I have the right but I am overwhelmed by my sense of responsibility to my fellow brother or sister. This is how more mature Christians deal with less mature people. You sacrifice for your brother or sister like Christ sacrificed for you. We sometimes even give up our right to be offended or hurt in order to win them over. Sacrificial love will take different forms for different people. But what is certain is that all South African Christians must start to emulate Christ and welcome each other. It takes this kind of attitude to engage in truly transformative relationships and build a truly transformed nation.

 

This paper is a summarized transcript of a sermon by Ryan Saville given at a Fusion Student event on 15 April 2015. For more articles by Ryan please visit https://ryansaville.wordpress.com or www.jubileestudents.co.za .

 


[1] Gentile is the term the Bible uses to refer to non-Jews.

[2] Romans 15.7

[3] Galatians 5.16

[4] Ephesians 2.14

[5] Genesis 1.31

[6] Psalm 139.14

[7] Genesis 12.3

[8] Romans 15.8

[9] Revelation 7.9

[10] That’s 46% live off R20 a day. That’s 23 million is at risk of hunger.

[11] That’s 20% live below the food line which is R10/ day and are not able to feed themselves. That’s 10.2 million starving people.

[12] John 13.35

[13] Romans 14.1

[14] Romans 14.1

[15] Romans 14.2,5

[16] Romans 14.14-15

 


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