On Saturday, August 19, three protest groups descended upon Hot Springs. Putting these groups together is like making a bomb. Thanks to much prayer, God's mercies, and excellent law enforcement, no violence erupted. I attended a couple of prayer gatherings that morning, and during those gatherings, the Holy Spirit nudged me to address racism in my sermon the next morning. It was a Communion Sunday, so we were coming to the Lord's Table. This is where the Spirit led me. This is longer than my typical blog, but a number of people encouraged me to get this out there where more could read it. I did not print the biblical text, but I encourage you to read it before you read this sermon. The fact that this is almost a week later shows my hesitation, but here it is. I hope it helps those who take time to read it.
I had planned to go a different direction today as we prepare to come to the Lord’s Table. But in light of Charlottesville, the event that happened in our own city yesterday, and a couple of prayer meetings I attended on Saturday morning, the Lord changed my direction. I invite you to open your Bible this morning to Ephesians 2:11-21.
Grace Thomas grew up in Birmingham, married in the 1930s, and moved to Georgia. She was an office worker for state government but decided she wanted more. She took night classes and got a law degree. And then, in 1954, she had the nerve to run for governor. Unlike the other eight candidates, Grace argued that the just rendered verdict in the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education was a just ruling. That desegregation and equality in education opportunities for black children was a good thing. On election day, she came in dead last. Her family hoped she got that out of her system.
She didn’t. She decided to run for governor again in 1962 as the Civil Rights Movement was heating up. One day in that campaign, Grace made an appearance in the small town of Louisville, Georgia. In those days, the centerpiece of the town square in Louisville was not a courthouse or a war memorial but an old slave market, a tragic and evil place where human beings had once been bought and sold like cattle or cotton or any other commodity. Grace chose the slave market as the site for her campaign speech. As she stood on the very spot where slaves had been auctioned, a hostile crowd of storekeepers and farmers gathered to hear what she would say. “The old has passed away,” she began, “and the new has come." Gesturing to the market, she said, “This place represents all about our past over which we must repent. A new day is here, a day when Georgians white and black can join hands to work together.”
This was provocative talk in 1962 Georgia. Her talk riled the crowd. “Are you a communist?” a heckler shouted at her.
Grace paused in midsentence. “No,” she said softly, “I am not.”
“Well, then, where’d you get those blankety-blank ideas?”
Grace thought for a minute, and then she pointed to the steeple of a nearby church. “I got them over there,” she said, “in Sunday school.”
Apparently, these ideas haven’t been taught in enough Sunday Schools and churches. Even though it’s always been at least under the surface, racism is making a comeback in our culture—even among some who claim to be racist in the name of Jesus. In case you’re not sure what Jesus and the Bible teach about these things, let’s briefly review this morning before we come to the Lord’s Table. Hear the word of the Lord … (read the text).
Paul was dealing with a kind of racism in his day. It wasn’t a black-white thing; it was a Jew-Gentile thing. When Paul planted the church in Ephesus, the church began with a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. But like most churches in the Empire, the Ephesian church was predominantly Gentile. Jews referred to themselves as "the circumcision," and, in an ethnic putdown, referred to the Gentiles as "the uncircumcised."—probably employed in the same spirit of today's racial slurs. It was not a descriptive term, it was an insult. It was name-calling. It was a putdown spoken from one who thinks he’s superior to one he considers inferior. “We’re the circumcised. They’re the uncircumcised.” You have to look down your nose to say it just right. Paul felt the need to address this barrier to fellowship in the church—this barrier, this wall between Jew and Gentile Christians who both claimed Christ as Savior and Lord. The animosity worked both ways.
The Jews considered the Gentiles to be pagans. Gentiles would bow down to anything as a god. Gentiles lived by a very loose moral standard in areas of sexual conduct. Gentiles had little concern over all the cleanliness issues that were important to Jews. The Jews looked down their noses at Gentiles. They believed the Gentiles were an inferior race. That didn’t go away when Jews became Christian. One of the earliest questions the newly birthed church had to resolve when God started adding Gentiles to the church was this: Does a Gentile have to become a Jew before he can become a Christian? An entire chapter of Acts is devoted to a conference designed to answer that question. Of course, the answer was no. But many Jewish believers still considered Gentiles their inferiors in matters of religion and culture. It had been bred into them. That’s the Jews.
On the other hand, Gentiles viewed the Jews as weird, odd, bizarre even. Jews worshipped a God they couldn't see and couldn't reproduce in the form of an idol. They were morally strict. They were very picky about what they would eat. They carried a religious chip on their shoulders. Who are these people?
There was an “us against them” mentality on the part of both Jews and Gentiles. Racism had them by the heart. A huge wall stood between them—a wall built by a sense of racial superiority and racial hatred. That’s the way they were. Those are the attitudes they brought with them when they came to Christ and the church.
But Jesus changes things. Jesus knocks down the wall that divides the races. He pushes against that wicked wall with those nail-scarred hands until it fractures and comes tumbling down. Paul is writing to a church where racial tension was palpable. And according to Paul, Jesus says, “Not in my house! No racial walls in my house.”
People who don’t know Christ, those who are still dead in their sins and slave to their sins, some of them may well be racist and think little of it. Usually it’s passed down from their parents. They are blinded by their bigotry. They are too blind to see that all of us are made in the image of God, too blind to see that basic human kindness and decency trumps racism. They don’t know Christ. The wall of racism may still stand firm in their hearts.
But when we are in Christ, the wall comes tumbling down. It must. There is no other option. Jesus demands it. Jesus won’t stand for racism among his people. It’s a sin against God, a sin against one another, and a sin against love. If you are in Christ and you harbor racial hatred in your heart, you need to repent. Why would you want to gather up the rubble of a wall Jesus destroyed and build it back again? Why would you want to work against the very Savior you profess to believe and love and follow?
Don’t you realize that we human beings are more alike than different, that we all share a common made-in-the-image-of God-humanity? And among the things we have in common, two are central.
We are all sinners. There is no racial supremacy or superiority. Every race is comprised of sinners. History makes that clear. From unspeakable atrocities to intentional discrimination to arrogant smugness, every race has done their part to build walls and hurt others. No race gets a pass. No race is better than another. We are all sinners. We all hold that in common.
And we all hold this in common too: Jesus saves us all the same way. He saves Jews and Gentiles the same way. He saves black people and white people the same way. He saves Hispanics and Asians the same way. We are saved through the blood of Jesus Christ. There is no black Savior, no Hispanic Savior, no white Savior. There’s just one Savior. His name is Jesus, and he loves us all the same and gave himself for us all. Do you think it takes more of Jesus’ blood to save people from other races than it takes to save you?
Jesus came to tear down the dividing wall. Don’t try to rebuild something that Jesus tore down.
Do this instead: do what you can to love all people like Jesus loves people. Be kind. Build friendships. Serve one another.
Around 1910 or 1911 a tornado swept through Union Church, Mississippi, where my grandfather was managing his father’s farm. The twister damaged some of the farm buildings. And when the storm was over my grandfather, Samuel Tucker McCallum, went to check on the black families who lived on the place. When he arrived at one of the houses, a mother was wailing in grief. “My baby’s gone! My baby’s gone! The storm blew my baby away,” she cried. Granddaddy did his best to comfort her. He tried to give her hope by telling her that he had heard stories of children who had survived such things, and that he would go make careful search for the child.
And sure enough, he found the baby about fifty yards from the house. He was under a small tree, laying on his back in a puddle of water, crying to beat the band, trembling and scared, but apparently unhurt. My granddaddy scooped that baby up in his strong arms, carried him back to his mama as quickly as he could, and turned her tears into an ear to ear grin. Mourning was turned to dancing. And that boy’s mama was so thrilled and so grateful to get her baby back alive that she changed the baby’s name right there on the spot. She said, “From now on this baby’s name is Sam.” Get it? That's my grandfather's name. And from that time forward and until his death, that boy was known by all as ‘Cyclone Sam.’
Cyclone Sam grew up to be a farmer in the area. He lived to a ripe old age and used to bring vegetables to some of my grandfather’s cousins who lived in Jackson. He never forgot what my grandfather did for him and his family. Once he even made a trip to Jackson when he heard my Aunt Martha would be there so he could greet her and personally thank her for what her father, Sam McCallum, had done for him so many years ago. When Cyclone Sam died, my Aunt Martha and Aunt Nettie went to his funeral. When the ushers heard their names, they were seated with Cyclone Sam's family and enjoyed a wonderful meal and visit with them after the service. No wonder my dad, a southern man raised in Mississippi and Lake Village, Arkansas, taught his sons that since everybody is equal in God’s eyes, they ought to be equal in ours. That’s what his daddy taught him.
And this truth wasn’t taught through protests and demonstrations. It was taught by word and example. Good old Cyclone Sam. It’s amazing how simple acts of compassion, love, and friendship open doors of relationship that transcend the color of one’s skin or ethnicity. And what my granddaddy did on a small scale …
Jesus did on a cosmic scale. And I pray he keeps on doing it. A cyclone of racism is sweeping through our land again. It’s tearing apart lives and families and our nation. God hears the cries of his people. And he sends a Jewish Messiah named Jesus to find us and save us and get us home. Jesus came. He ministered to anybody and everybody—Jew and Gentile and Samaritan, every outcast, sinner, and tax collector. He loved them all and he loved them the same. But in order to complete his salvation mission, he had to express his love in more than healing and teaching and kindness; he had to die. And all the powers that be got into the act of killing him. The Jewish leadership pushed for crucifixion. The Gentile Romans pounded the nails through his hands and feet, all in the Passover presence of people from all over the known world of the day: many colors, many languages. You may be thinking, “How could they kill Jesus?” They? Just because we weren’t in Jerusalem that day, we all took part in the lynching and the killing. Our sins killed him. Jesus was no victim here. He could have said no to the cross at any point. But he didn’t. Our need is too great. His love is too strong. The cross was the only way to save us. Jesus had to die—to die for our sins by taking our sins, including racism, on himself, bear their penalty, and break their power.
At the end of that dark Friday, it looked like sin won. On Saturday, it looked like sin won. But on Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead. The penalty and power of sin was finished. The walls that separate us came tumbling down. Jesus won. Truth won. Love won. And when Jesus comes again even the presence of sin will be banished forever, and as brothers and sisters in one big happy family, every nation, tribe, and tongue will sing Christ’s praise around his throne: “Worthy, worthy is the Lamb who was slain to save us all!”
Until that day, Jesus is still moving about the earth, finding lost children and bringing them home to a Father who changes their name: from dead in sin to alive in Christ; from lost and condemned to saved and justified; from sinner to saint; from wall-builder to bridge-builder; from racist to one who loves like Christ. He changes our name to Christian—little Christ.
That’s why we come not to the Lord’s wall but to the Lord’s Table. Walls divide. Tables bring us together. Walls say, “You belong on one side, I belong on the other.” The Lord’s Table says, “There is a place for everyone at the same table.” That’s right. There is no Jewish Table, no Gentile table. There is no black table, no table just for white people. There is only one table for us all—the Lord’s Table. And regardless of your skin color or your heritage, if Jesus has changed your name to Christian, there is a place at the Table for you.