Jesus Is the End of Ethnocentrism
Racial Harmony Sunday
And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, 18 "THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, 19 TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD." 20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." 22 And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, "Is this not Joseph's son?" 23 And He said to them, "No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, 'Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.'" 24 And He said, "Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown. 25 "But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; 26 and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 "And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian." 28 And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; 29 and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, He went His way.
Last Sunday I tried to blow a trumpet for a vision that I called Planting a Passion. Can we come together as a whole congregation and link alarms around a dream and plant a church in 2002 somewhere else in the Twin Cities – or even beyond (like Charlotte, NC to coincide with the move of BGEA there)? I called it Planting a Passion so that it would be plain that this is a specific focusing of our church mission statement: We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. But I made clear that the aim is not to plant just any kind of church. I put some specific descriptions on it: God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, mission-mobilizing, soul-winning, justice-pursuing, etc.
The Pursuit of Justice
When I used the term "justice-pursuing," I had in mind at least two issues: the focus of this Sunday on racial harmony and the focus of next Sunday on the sanctity of life. Two of the great issues of our own country here at the beginning of the 21st century are the issues of racial justice and justice for the unborn. I believe there is a connection between being a justice-pursuing church and being a God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated church.
We Need to Be More God-Centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-Saturated
One of the reasons the evangelical church – especially the white evangelical church (even that designation is unfortunate, as is "black church") – one of the reasons we have not pursued racial justice and justice for the unborn with as much passion as we might is that we have not been as God-centered and Christ-exalting and Bible-saturated as we think we are.
When we say, "We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples," have we really thought deeply about how God is being made supreme in racial relations? Have we thought about how Christ is being exalted in racial relations? Have we asked how the Bible is saturating our thinking and feeling and acting about ethnic relationships and issues of race in education, and housing, and economics, and the composition of the body of Christ? Do the supremacy of God and the glory of Christ and the radical message of the Bible shape our thinking and feeling and acting in "all things for the joy of all peoples"?
The Paralysis of Imperfection
So when we think about church planting, it isn't because we've arrived and are therefore ready to reproduce ourselves. If we wait till we've arrived to dare such a thing, we will never do it – and you won't every marry, or stay married, or take your first job or keep it, or go into missions or stay there, or decide to have children or start a ministry. Few things paralyze good people more than their imperfection. O that God would raise up a people who would listen and learn and let go of the paralyzing criticism of nay-sayers. We don't aim to plant a church because we have perfection, but because we have a dream: that a new church in a new place with different leaders will do some things a lot better than we do them here, drawn by the same Biblical vision.
Live for a Great Cause, not a Great Comfort
One of the ways I think about Planting a Passion is that we are planting a people who are committed to live for a great cause, not a great comfort. I have preached before under the banner: To be a Christian is to move toward need not comfort. To get up in the morning and go to bed at night dreaming not about how to advance my comforts, but how to advance some great God-centered cause. Planting a Passion means planting a people who don't spend themselves day and night pursing self-preservation and self-exaltation and self-recreation, but who pursue something bigger and greater than themselves or their family or their church.
What is the greater Cause you are living for? This Sunday and next Sunday I am asking, Will there be some of you – hundreds of you – who say, "It is the grand cause of my life to magnify Jesus Christ through God-centered, Bible-saturated racial justice and racial harmony"? Or who say, "It is the grand cause of my life to magnify Jesus Christ through God-centered, Bible-saturated justice for the unborn." O that God would raise up, against all the self-centeredness and temporary loyalties and undisciplined devotion, men and women who sustain a great cause, not the way adrenaline does but the way the heart does! Adrenaline produces a spurt of needed energy then lets the body drop. The heart keeps on pumping life into the body in good times and hard times, winter and summer, sad and happy, strong and weak, sick and well! O for more coronary Christians in the cause of racial justice, not just adrenal Christians!
We Need William Wilberforces
Who among you are the William Wilberforce's for our time? He was deeply Christian, vibrantly evangelical, and passionate over the long haul in the cause of racial justice in England. On October 28, 1787 he wrote in his diary at the age of 28, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of [Morals]" (John Pollock, Wilberforce, p. 69). Battle after battle in Parliament he was defeated because the African slave trade was too much woven into the financial interests of the nation. But he never gave up and never sat down. He was not an adrenaline Christian, but a coronary Christian. On February 24, 1807 at 4:00 am, twenty years after he wrote in his journal, the decisive vote was cast and the Slave Trade became illegal. Still the work was not done after 20 years of perseverance. What about slave-holding itself? On July 26, 1833, 16 years later, and three days before he died, the vote was cast and Slavery became illegal in England and her colonies.
So when I think of Planting a Passion, I think of planting a church to breed this kind of passion – coronary-like passion, not adrenal-like passion. God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, justice-pursuing, never-say-die commitment to a great Cause not to comfort.
So if we want to put God at the center and exalt Christ and be Bible-saturated, let's go to the gospels and listen to Jesus and watch Jesus put an end to ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism – the conviction or the feeling that my ethnic group should be treated as superior or privileged.
Luke 4:16-30: The Kingdom Is Ethnically Different Than You Think
We begin in Luke 4:16-30. Here is the homegrown boy coming back to his hometown, Nazareth, after making a name for himself in Capernaum. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and a crowd comes to hear him. And what he does in this message is almost incredible. He almost incites a riot. And he does it intentionally. First they give him the scroll of Isaiah the prophet to read from, and he chooses chapter 61. It's about the coming redeemer who will set free the oppressed and proclaim the favorable year of the Lord (vv. 18b-19); and he claims that it was being fulfilled in their hearing. Verse 21: "And He began to say to them, 'Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.'" Now that was astonishing. Headlines: "Homegrown boy claims to be the Messiah." But this would not cause a riot. Verse 22: "And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips." So far so good.
But look what he says next. Utterly unexpected! Inexplicable if what you want is a following. Inexplicable if you only want church growth. He chooses to tell two stories from the Old Testament that fly right in the face of the ethnocentrism of his own hometown. He could hardly have been more offensive. He knows what their response is going to be because he says in verse 24, ""Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown." In other words, Yes, you are speaking well of me now (v. 22) while you have your own conception of what the Messiah will do, and what his kingdom will be like. But wait till I tell you what I am about to do and what my kingdom will be like.
Then he tells story number one. Verses 25-26, taken from 1 Kings 17: "But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; (26) and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon (Phoenicia), to a woman who was a widow." Out of the blue he tells a story about God's passing over all the ethnic Jews to bring a miraculous blessing to a foreign, Gentile from the land of Sidon (Phoenicia). And he does this blatantly and forcefully and without softening or explanation: There were many widows in Israel, and God blessed a foreigner.
And if that were not enough he tells a second story in verse 27 from 2 Kings 5: "And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian." Again the point is: of all the people that God might have chosen to heal of leprosy he chose a foreign king, a Syrian, not a Jew.
These two stories were not lost on the ethnocentrism of Nazareth. Verse 28: "And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; (29) and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff. (30) But passing through their midst, He went His way." They get it, and they didn't like it.
Now what is the point of this story? The point is: The kingdom I am bringing, Jesus says, is ethnically different than what you think. Your chosen place as Israel has not produced humility and compassion, but pride and scorn. Jesus is the end of ethnocentrism. Look to me. Learn from me, he says, I have come to redeem a people from every ethnic group, not just one or a few. Woe to you for your failure to see in the justice and mercy of God his zeal to gather from all the peoples a kingdom of priests and friends.
Matthew 8:5-13: Faith in Jesus Trumps Ethnicity
Have I gone too far in pronouncing a woe on these people of Nazareth? You decide as you consider another story, this time from Matthew 8:5-13. Jesus finishes the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and then, in Matthew 8:1-4, touches a leper, the most despised and ostracized of all people in Israel, and heals him. Then in Matthew 8:5 he enters Capernaum and meets the second most despised and offensive kind of person – a Roman centurion. Like an American Marine to a Taliban freedom fighter. The fact that this particular Centurion has some popularity among the Jews (Luke 7:3-5) is passed over by Matthew. It is not relevant for his point. The man is a foreigner, a non-Jew. That is what Matthew's point turns on.
What will be the point of this story? The Centurion begs Jesus, saying, "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented." Without the slightest query or hesitation Jesus says in verse 7, "I will come and heal him." Then the Centurion says something Jesus finds astonishing. Verse 8: "Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. (9) For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, 'Go!' and he goes, and to another, 'Come!' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this!' and he does it."
When Jesus hears this, verse 10 says, he marvels. Then he takes this whole situation which everyone thought was about healing and power and authority, and he turns it into something utterly different, namely, a situation about the composition of the kingdom out of foreigners and about the dangers of banking on ethnic identity for blessing. Verse 10b: "Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. (11) I say to you that many will come from east and west . . ." East and west! What is that? That is Phoenicia (the Gaza Strip), Egypt, Greece, Arabia, Persia (Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China). And what will happen when they come – these foreigners with their uncircumcised, non-kosher foreign ways and foreign looks? Verse 11b: ". . . and [they will] recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; (12) but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Now this is utterly shocking! You have to feel the force of this. Here is Jesus saying to the chosen people of Israel that first Romans, like this believing Centurion, and then all kinds of unclean ethnic Gentiles, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but you, the "sons of the kingdom," will be cast into outer darkness. This is almost unheard of to speak of the chosen race this way. What is he saying? He is saying: Jesus is the end of ethnocentrism.
Or to put it more positively: Jesus is saying that with his coming a radically new way of defining the people of God is here, namely, faith in him. Faith in Jesus trumps ethnicity. Over and over in the gospels this happens:
- The story of the Good Samaritan – the foreigner is the hero of compassion (Luke 10:33).
- The healing of the ten lepers, and only one returns; and what is he? A Samaritan, the foreigner shines with humble gratitude (Luke 17:16).
- The healing of the Syrophoenician's daughter (Mark 7:26).
- The worshipping of the wise men from the East, probably Persia or Arabia (Matthew 2:1).
- And finally the death and resurrection of Jesus which he himself interprets in advance in the parable of the tenants (Matthew 21:33-43). The owner of the vineyard sends his son to gather fruit from his people. They kill him. And Jesus asks, "What will the owner do?" What will God do when his Son is rejected by his chosen people? Verse 43 gives the answer: "Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it."
Not Color, but Faith in Christ
This was what Martin Luther King was pointing to in his most famous speech when he said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Jesus is the end of ethnocentrism. Not color but faith in Christ, that is the mark of the kingdom. Noel and I were reminiscing on the phone yesterday as we talked to our son Benjamin in Chicago. We recalled Urbana 1967. Warren Webster was asked in front of 15,000 students, What if your daughter decided to marry a Pakistani while you are ministering there? His answer still rings in our ears today, as I hope this message will in yours: Better a poor Christian Pakistani than a rich, white, unbelieving American banker. In other words, Christ, not color is the issue. Jesus is the end of ethnocentrism.
If we are going to plant a church that is God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible saturated, and justice-pursuing it will have to end here too. And what a beautiful thing it is when it ends and every tribe and race and people exalts Christ together. O Lord, make it happen!
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org