Don’t miss this sermon, shared last Sabbath in a racially and ethnically diverse Adventist congregation.
Published on: 06-12-2020
In this article, originally a sermon, elements of the original spoken delivery have been preserved.—Editors.
“That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21,NIV).
In our verse for today, Jesus, in His final sermon, wants to impress on His disciples the core of what He’s been trying to teach them for more than three years. His prayer is that they might have a unity that reflects the unity of the Godhead. Did you hear that? Jesus wants us as believers to be as unified as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are.
The reason that would lead people to believe in Jesus is that in a sinful world, division is the norm. Long before our society began to struggle with racism, Lucifer kept fomenting division in heaven until his faction had to be expelled. Here on earth, it’s darkly funny how immediately after the fall, Adam and Eve moved to blaming and finger-pointing. In the first generation after Creation, that division grew so severe that Cain murdered his own brother, and over an offering to God.
But we are fortunate here at the church I attend. I can’t see into anyone’s soul, but what I do see is a church that’s prepared to meet our Savior as part of a multitude of every nation, kindred, tribe, and people. We don’t quite have that level of diversity in our membership yet, but we’re working on it. Praise the Lord! One of the things that drew me to this church was how diverse and how welcoming it was; and I feel that has grown. We’re ahead of the curve on that. Sociologists of religion call 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. on Sunday the most segregated hour of the week. Christians generally have not put into practice Christ’s call for unity. Adventists as a whole are among the most diverse denominations in North America, and as I mentioned, our congregation is unusually diverse even within Adventism. Unfortunately, the Lord rarely touches our hearts with a message about how awesome we are. Only one church of the seven in Revelation got only positive feedback, and it definitely wasn’t the one that represents our place in history.
Second Corinthians 5:18-20 says: “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (NASB).
“Reconciliation”: What does that mean to you? Sin has separated us from God. From the very beginning, as soon as humankind had sinned, we hid from God. But God came in search of us. He gave us the promise of restoration. He was with the children of Israel in the cloud and fire and then gave instructions for the tabernacle so that He could live in their midst. Sin separates; but God, from the moment we first sinned, has been trying to reunite us with Him, a goal ultimately made possible by the death of Christ on our behalf. Yet, as mentioned before with Adam and Eve, and then with Cain and Abel, sin doesn’t separate us only from God; it separates us from one another. And 2 Corinthians 5 tells us that God has chosen us to share in His work of restoring humanity to what He meant for us to be—ending our separation from Him and ending our separation from one another.
Galatians 3:28 tells us that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NIV).
There are those who would suggest that the solution to problems of division is to insist that they don’t exist. Is that what Paul is saying here? Is there no difference between men and women? I think he’s denying a difference in value. I don’t want to get into a different hot-button issue in the middle of this topic, but I will briefly say that without the willingness of both genders to be used by the Spirit, neither our denomination nor our own church might exist, and the Joy of Troy would not be as well led as we are in this difficult time. Are slaves and free people the same? Thankfully, none of us has direct experience with the former condition. Paul encourages slaves not to revolt against their bondage, but when he writes to Philemon about Onesimus, who had escaped, Paul asks Philemon to confirm his status as a free man. It’s clear that Paul doesn’t think enslavement is an identical status. Again, in a world where some human beings were considered property, Paul insists that to God they are of equal importance.
And now we come to Jew and Greek. Just as we struggle with race and racism in our society, among the first generation of believers this was the primary division. How did they address it? Say we’re all one and move on?
“Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:1-6, NASB).
So what was the solution? I don’t speak or read Greek, but I can tell you something about the names on that list: they’re Greek. They recruited Greek speakers to serve the Greek-speaking widows who’d felt discriminated against. Indeed, Greeks were assigned to run the whole undertaking. Were there no Aramaic-speaking believers from Palestine who could do the job? Was there no one else of good repute and full of the Spirit and of wisdom? Sure. But the church was taking action to affirm the place of the Greek speakers within the community, not merely by ensuring that food distribution was fair but by placing people who talked like them, people who spoke their language, in positions of leadership.
Isaiah 58 is one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture, and I’ve preached on it before. But today I’m focusing on a different verse. Talking about the ministry of reconciliation, just before the stirring final verses about the huge blessing of keeping the Sabbath, verse 12 says: “Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; you will raise up the age-old foundations; and you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell” (NASB).
We could say in response to that: “But I didn’t breach the walls; I didn’t tear down the ruins; I’m not responsible for the potholes in the street—that happened a long time ago; I wasn’t even born yet.” I’m reminded of a phrase used several times in the books of Moses, including both tellings of the Ten Commandments: “to the third and fourth generation.” Does God really punish people for the sins of their grandparents and great-grandparents? Does that seem fair to you? What I have come to understand is that God is reminding us that actions have consequences than can last beyond our own lifetimes. The structures of racial discrimination in the United States are many centuries old, and this nation only began to seriously confront them within our or our parents’ lifetimes. While our fingerprints may not be on the breaches, we cannot therefore escape our duty to repair them. If the idea that we have a duty to fix racism seems a bit daunting, we can take advice from another community that enjoys the blessing of the Sabbath. The Talmud records Rabbi Tarfon saying, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”
“We will work with each other; we will work side by side;
And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride,
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
I don’t know what God is calling you to do this morning, but I want to be clear that it’s more than just not doing bad. As Isaiah 1:16, 17 says, we are not only to cease to do evil, we are to learn to do good. We must work actively on behalf of those who are the weakest and most marginalized in our society. In Matthew 25:31-46, when Jesus separates the saved sheep from the lost goats, those assigned to His left are not accused of attacking the needy, starving the hungry, ridiculing the naked; no, they simply didn’t notice them. I pray that God will open our eyes to injustice around us and illuminate our minds so we perceive where we can be of service.
“We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand,
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
All praise to the Father from whom all things come,
And all praise to Christ Jesus His only Son,
And all praise to the Spirit who makes us one:
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
Lloyd Caesar, a resident of Clifton Park, New York, works for the New York State Department of Labor and is a member of the Joy of Troy Community Seventh-day Adventist Church.