Borders, Bridges, & Bodies – The Birth of the Multicultural Church
Rev. Donnell T. Wyche – September 27, 2020
Hey Church we are launching a new sermon series today. Over the series, we will follow Paul through his journeys in the book of Acts to introduce the story of Jesus in various cross-cultural settings.
In some of these stories and settings, we will find Paul among existing believers encouraging them to go further in their trust and loyalty to Jesus; in other settings, the Gospel that Paul is preaching will be a lightening rod for the culture or community resulting in rioting, imprisonment, beatings, or worse.
Paul’s answer to the divisive differences between human bodies and the power dynamics of culture, gender, government, and money is the bloody, disconcerting, riot-inducing reality of the crucified and resurrected Jesus’s body in all of its radical welcome.
We get our start at the beginning of it all, Acts 13. Paul has his start in the community that is found in Syrian Antioch. Paul has been the beneficiary of this multi-ethnic, socially economically diverse church. A community is led by a cross-cultural team of elders, prophets, and teachers including Barnabas, Simeon, the African, and others. This eldership comprised the cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic representation of the community and the church.
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:1-3)
It’s within this framework that Paul and Barnabas start their missionary journey across Asia Minor and the surrounding areas. They have this cross-cultural community in mind as they think of what the church is. What made this community of faith stand out is their benevolent actions were not motivated by acquiring members but in understanding the individual and collective needs of the community.
This idea that we belong to each other, that we have a shared responsibility to each other is something we are continuing to move towards here at the Vineyard. That our multi-ethnic, multi-generational church is a witness of the coming kingdom where God’s vision of a reconstituted family is achieved.
And if you are paying attention to cultural shits here in the United States, you may be experiencing what demographers have been reporting since the late aughts, that we are becoming more and more polarized, not just in our politics, but also in our beliefs and understanding of ourselves and our shared responsibilities to each other.
The book of Acts has something to say to us here. The early church was tied up in an identity crisis as they figured out who they were within the Empire. Would they declare that Jesus is Lord or that Caesar is Lord? Would every convert have to be circumcised if they could be? How would baptism change the practice of circumcised? How would women be welcomed? Could they lead? What about the Jewish and Gentile distinctives?
From Acts 13 onward we see the birth of the multi-ethnic church, which is a witness to the telos (goal) of the Gospel; Paul was at the frontline of the reconstituted family of God that was multi-ethnic, multi-generational, socially and economically diverse, where anyone and everyone could find welcome and a new home. This was the height of being counter-cultural. And there were real threats. Not just violence that might show up as a beating, a riot, an arrest, or exile, but violence that also included death.
So as Paul and Barnabas head out to announce good news of the resurrected Messiah, and the new community that was forming in and around his name, they realize that this message isn’t just for the Jews, but it’s also for the Gentiles because the Gospel is for all of creation; it’s good news for everyone.
But that simple statement is what’s at the center of all the violence that Paul and others experience as they announce and demonstrate this resurrected Messiah’s goal for a new world order.
We pick up our story in the middle of Acts 13. Paul and Barnabas are in Pisidian Antioch preaching in the synagogues there. Paul is retelling the story of Israel from captivity in Egypt to Jesus. He says,
26“Brothers and sisters from the children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. 27The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. 28Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. 30But God raised him from the dead, 31and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people. (Acts 13:26-31)
Paul is making a simple argument to win those who are listening. He’s arguing for the faithfulness of God. God has been faithful to Israel and all of God’s promises are yes and Amen in Christ Jesus. But there’s something in the way. Something we are still wrestling with today. Nationalism. Let me tell you, nationalism makes sense. It really does. It’s just a collective understanding of existence. Which comes from our need to know who we are – ultimately, we want to be known for who we are, and we look around us to self-identify. It’s communion without God. If we want to be free, powerful, united, and feared, nationalism is the way to go. It is almost impossible for us not to see the world as a collection of nations, nation-states, and as people who are not nations yet, but who are on their way to becoming nations. Why? Because hidden in the nation-state and the nationalism that it produces is this promise of security, freedom, independence, and self-determination. When you read scripture through the lens of nationalism, it distorts and taints what you read. It forces us to re-read biblical Israel’s existence and trajectory, reading into their history the goal of God creating in biblical Israel a nation-state.
Whereas God’s trajectory for the history of biblical Israel was clear — God called Israel to be a light to the world.
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
The goal was that God’s salvation for both Israel and the Gentiles was to reach the ends of the world. But when the goal is nationalism, every step is towards self-determination, control of land and resources, and membership in a global economy. It rejects a picture of the world where we belong to each other, and care for each other, and instead focuses on borders and bodies. The borders help identify who belongs and who doesn’t. The bodies get caught up in these conflicts over borders and are not affirmed as sharing in the imago dei (image of God). They threaten what nationalism promises: stability, security, opportunity. We are no longer our brother or sister’s keeper. We are something distorted. We no longer see our responsibility to each other, we only see competition with each other over scarce resources, dividing ourselves into borders along our gender, cultural, racial, and economic differences. Nationalism requires military power to enforce these borders to maintain our independence. This violence touches us all.
But Paul has something else is in mind. Something better. He’s caught a vision. It’s tied up in the cross of Jesus, his death and resurrection, which ushers in a new world order.
38“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38-39)
Paul says that through the cross of Jesus, his death and resurrection, God is reconciling all of humankind. This reconciliation is in repentance of the false gods and idols, a repudiation of nationalism. Instead, we are invited to accept the creator God and his son, Jesus. Paul has this grand sweeping vision: Christ is now enthroned with God. The story of Jesus’ victory over death, evil, and sin on the cross reverses the effects of the rebellion in the garden with the first humans and creates a new unified community that is multi-ethnic and reflects the grace of God. Paul is rejecting the formation of nationalism. He’s offering a King who already has a Kingdom. The borders of this kingdom is the whole earth and everyone in it.(Psalm 24:1 & Psalm 89:11). And there’s already a King who rules and reigns. And sees each person because each of us was created in the Imago Dei. You belong here.
This is good news!
Paul warns them,
40Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you:
41“ ‘Look, you scoffers,
wonder and perish,
for I am going to do something in your days
that you would never believe,
even if someone told you.’” (Acts 13:40-41)
Initially the community in Pisidian Antioch is interested and invite Paul and Barnabas back to speak further on this message next week. Yet something happens in the meantime, the word gets out. The word that gets out is verse 39, and it causes all hell to break loose.
39Through him [Jesus] everyone who believes is set free from every sin.
So, the community rejects Paul’s message. They reject the message because they way to control who belongs and who doesn’t.
45When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him. (Acts 13:45)
We have a vision for nationalism. We know what’s needed for nationalism, we know what to do. This new world order where everyone who believe is set free and belongs is something else, is something harder. It requires us to eliminate the other. Partnering with God’s goal of a reconstituted family requires us to erase borders, to cross bridges, and place our bodies at new tables.
Understandably, the people reject what is being offered.
46Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47For this is what the Lord has commanded us:
“ ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”
48When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.
Paul says that this hope found in Jesus that came first for the Jews has now found its way to the Gentiles, but here’s the key — it was always for both of them. The Gentiles do not replace the Jews, the message is expanded to include both Jew and Gentiles because God’s salvation is intended to reach the ends of the world.
When those who are looking for hope find it, they cling to it.
48When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. 49The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. 50But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. (Acts 13:48-50)
As we follow Paul around Asia Minor and the Empire as he preaches the Gospel, we will discover that the same message that is hope-filled to some will be a stumbling block for others.
Paul is clear: everyone, anyone who believes and repents, can be set free.
Friends as we find ourselves in an ever increasing polarized culture and world, we have to ask ourselves some tough questions. Whose report do we believe? Who do we trust? What borders are we willing to erase, what bridges are we willing to cross, and at whose tables are we willing to seat our bodies.
A helpful set of questions to consider with me this week:
What are obstacles in our current cultural or political context that prevent us from receiving the core message of the Gospel and surrendering our lives to God?
How are the answers to these questions helping us see that we belong to each other?
Basically, how are the answers to these questions helping us neighbor or hindering us from neighboring?
Saints, stay with us as we make our together!