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Grace Reaches Across Racial Divides

We have been exploring practical ways the grace of God changes us, when we come to discover His unmerited favor in our lives. This week we look at how the gospel of grace draws together as one people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Our passage demonstrates how destructive racism can be, and why the Church must speak out, upholding the message of reconciliation.

Text: Galatians 2:11-14

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 13 The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?

I noticed a friend of mine named Stewart pacing the floor.  He was normally a very calm person, but it was obvious that something was really bothering him that day.  Stewart and I worked together in the customer service center of a mortgage company, when I was living in Grand Rapids.  We spent most of the day answering phone calls, and helping customers.  They called with questions, or because there was a problem with their account.  That’s why we were there: to help.

Stewart took his job seriously.  He knew what he was doing.  When he told someone he was going to do something, he did it.  He was always on time.  Every day he came to work wearing a suit and tie.  He always treated customers with courtesy and respect.  I guess he had spent several years in the military, and he brought that work ethic with him.  He was a really nice guy, and I was happy to have him a co-worker.  Oh, and Stewart happened to be black.

He was upset that day because of the way he had been treated by a customer.  All of us had been chewed out by an angry customer, at one time or another, but this customer used some pretty ugly language, accusing Stewart of incompetence and hurling several racial slurs at my friend.  “Why don’t you let me to talk someone who knows what they’re doing, boy.”  At that point, Stewart was more than willing to pass the customer on to someone else.

So he was pacing, trying to calm down, and I tried to encourage him.  “Don’t let it get to you,” I said.  But it was difficult for me to relate.  I’ve never really had that kind of experience.  I’ve never been treated poorly simply because of the color of my skin.  I’ve never been made to feel inferior, or that I wasn’t worth anything, because of my race.  I have never felt the sting of racial slurs.  Stewart had, and it was hurtful.

I would like to think that our country has come a long ways, overcoming racism and prejudice, but we’re reminded from time to time that those sinful attitudes are not entirely gone.  The news this past week was filled with headlines about a protest led by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia that turned violent.  They call themselves the “alt-right” but that’s not really a very good description.  They certainly do not reflect the values of conservatives, and there is nothing right about their ideology.  They marched through the park with torches, carrying flags bearing swastikas and other symbols.  They were eager to clash with anti-protesters, many of whom were apparently just as eager to clash with them.  Skirmishes broke out throughout the park, and a woman was killed when a car ran through the crowd.

All week long the media has been debating what happened, who is to blame, mostly fanning the flames of bitterness and resentment.  Meanwhile, people on social media have been wondering how to respond in a world that seems to be churning with hate.  Some think that the only way to fight hate is with more hate.  They don’t realize that they’re only adding fuel to the fire, and perpetuating the problem.  Others think the government should swoop in and fix the problem with resolutions. But the thing is, laws are not able to change a person’s heart.  Others want to ignore the issue altogether, and hope it just goes away.  But silence never really solves anything.

The Church should talk about racial prejudice, because it is destructive.

More than that, we’re in a unique position to speak to the issue, because we have a message of reconciliation to proclaim.  We are to tell the world about the Savior, Jesus Christ, who not only brings sinful human beings into fellowship with God, He also draws together people from every nation, tongue and tribe.

  • Only the gospel has the power to break through walls of division.
  • Only the gospel has the ability to change a person’s heart and mind.
  • Only the gospel can empower us to love our neighbor.

Our passage this morning, reminds us of how harmful racial prejudice can be. In Galatians 2:11-14, the apostle Paul describes a conflict which had taken place at the church in Antioch.

This was a very special congregation.  Several important things happened there.  It was the place where believers were first called Christians.  It was one of the first places where the gospel reached beyond the borders of Israel to draw together people from other nations.  Acts 11:19-21 tells us about the beginning of this church.

     19 So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.

This is perhaps the first, truly multicultural church and it was a beautiful thing.  People from various racial and ethnic backgrounds trusted in Christ as Savior, and were joined together to worship the Lord side by side, as one body.  They regarded each other as equals.  Even though many of the members came from different backgrounds and walks of life, they were able to experience unity because of their common faith in Jesus Christ.

Acts 11 goes on to tell us that Barnabas was sent by the apostles to check out this new congregation, and when he got there and saw what the Lord had accomplished, he began praising God.  Immediately, he went to find to Paul, and brought him there, and the two of them spent time ministering in that city.  The Lord used this congregation to launch Paul’s missionaries journeys.

But trouble came to Antioch.  Believers allowed sinful attitudes to fill their hearts, and the church was divided.

Our passage shows us that the Church must speak out against racial prejudice because it devalues people whom God loves.

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision.

The apostle doesn’t tell us when these events took place, but most commentators believe it was probably after his first missionary journey.  Peter, who is also called Cephas, had come to visit the congregation in that city.  He had probably come to encourage them, to see how they were doing, and to spend some time in fellowship.  All was well.  He was getting to know the people.  It didn’t matter who was sitting at the table when they shared a meal.  Peter had been just as happy to sit down with his Roman brothers as he was to sit with down with his Jewish brothers.  It made no difference.  The Lord had already showed him that there is no partiality with God.

Then a group of believers from Jerusalem arrived, and things changed.  They weren’t pleased to see Jews and Gentiles sitting next to each other.  They were still holding on to the old mindset.  In the OT, the people of Israel were called to be distinct from the other nations.  They were to be very careful about their association with foreigners.  It wasn’t an issue of race, but religion.  The other nations worshipped idols, and the Israelites had a bad habit of allowing themselves to be carried away into idolatry.  So they didn’t eat with Gentiles.  They didn’t associate with Gentiles.  They even developed the attitude, at times, that said “we’re better than the Gentiles.”

These men had a hard time adjusting to what God was doing in the church at Antioch.  They didn’t like what they saw.  They refused to stand next to a Greek in the worship service.  They wouldn’t sit at the same table with a Roman for a meal.  You can picture them huddled together by themselves at the end of the room.  Meanwhile, some of the men in the church, who happened to be Greek, walked up to sit next to them, and they turned them away, “Sorry, this seat is taken.”  They were okay sitting beside Peter.  He was one of them.  But they refused to join with the rest of the church, who was not “one of them.”  “Sorry, nothing personal, we just don’t fellowship with your people.”

Can you imagine how the non-Jewish members of the church felt?  It probably made them feel this big… like they were worthless… like they were second class citizens… like they were not as special as the other members… like they were less valuable.  By their actions, these men were saying “God loves us more than He loves you.”  When Peter joined them, without challenging their behavior, he was in essence endorsing that message.

It reminds us of eating lunch in the cafeteria at high school, doesn’t it?  The first day of school, a new student goes through the lunch line, and is carrying their tray, looking for a place to sit.  “Which table do I choose?”  She heads towards the table where the cheerleaders are sitting, but they give her a look that says, “you can’t sit here.”  She heads towards the table where the science team is sitting, but they move their books to the empty seat, as if to say “you’re not one of us.”  Finally she sits down by herself at the empty table, wondering what she has to do to fit in.  It’s easy to communicate that message.  (“you’re not welcome,” “you’re not one of us,” “you don’t belong.”  We don’t have to use words.  It can be a look… or an attitude… or the act of avoiding someone.

I don’t think most people try to exclude others, but it’s important that we make an effort to include those who might feel left out.

Christian author David Anderson writes, “I define racism as speaking, acting, or thinking negatively about someone else solely based on that person’s color, class or culture.  [On the other hand] A common definition for grace is the unmerited favor of God on humankind.  Extending such favor and kindness upon other human beings is how we Christians demonstrate this grace practically from day to day.  When one merges the definition of racism, which is negative, with the definition of grace, which is positive, a new term emerges – gracism.  I define gracism as the positive extension of favor on other human beings based on color, class, or culture.” (Gracism, p.21)

In other words, he is encouraging Christians to go out of our way to make those who are different from us feel welcome.  Imagine a new family moves into your neighborhood.  You look out the window as the moving van pulls in front of the house, and watch your new neighbors get out of their car.  You listen to the children playing in the yard, and notice that they are speaking a different language.  Their father is a foreign student, moving to town to attend college.  That must be difficult for them, in some ways, entering a new culture, where they have no family or friends.  It would be easy to keep your distance.  After all, you may not have a lot in common.  But instead you rush out to greet them, welcoming them to the neighborhood.  You don’t want them to feel isolated or alone.  You want them to know they are loved.

I love that idea of choosing gracism.  That’s how the Lord relates to us.  If anyone had a right to treat others as if they are “lesser than,” it would have been him.  He is God.  He is the creator of all things.  He is holy.  And yet, he went out of his way to enter our world, dwelling among us.  And so we should be willing to out of our way to make others feel welcome, showing them Christ’s love.

These men from Jerusalem failed to realize that God loves everyone.  Every member of that congregation was special to the Lord.  He didn’t have favorites.  Whether they were Greeks, or Romans, Cretans, or Arabs, Samaritans or Jews, it did not matter.  Christ died for all, so that we could all have a place at His table.

Revelation 7:9–10 gives us a glimpse into heaven saying,

“After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; 10 and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’”

The Church must speak out against racial prejudice because it has a way of spreading if we don’t.

    “For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.”

It was bad enough that these men were separating themselves from the non-Jewish members of the congregation.  Peter felt pressured to do the same.  For whatever reason, the apostle was afraid to stand up to them, and just went along with it.   When other Jewish members in the church saw Peter doing this, they followed his lead, and also separated themselves from their Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ.

Before long there was a schism that stretched across the room where believers had gathered.  Over here, on this half of the room, Jewish Christians sat down to eat.  Over there, on the other half of the room, the Gentile Christians were sitting down to eat.  In the middle was a huge divide. Even Barnabas – who had been a part of the church almost from the beginning, allowed himself to be carried away by the influence of these men.

Peter was not a racist.  Barnabas was not a racist.  The other Jewish members of the church were not racists.  But they didn’t stand up to these men, and allowed themselves to be carried away by their influence.   I know I would say, “I’m not a racist.  I don’t look at people differently because of the color of their skin.”  Maybe not, but would I would I allow myself to be carried away by the influence of others?

Picture a group of guys, sitting in the break room at work.  One of them says, “Hey, I’ve got a funny joke to tell you guys.  You’ll love this…”  He goes on to tell to a racial joke.  “What do you call a black man who…” [whatever].  Everyone at the table laughs.  Do you just go along with them?  Or do you notice the man sitting at the next table who isn’t laughing, because he happens to be black?  Do you speak up and say, “Guys, I’m sorry I have to say this, but that isn’t funny.”  Peer pressure can be a powerful thing.  It’s easy to go along with the crowd, even if won’t embrace the same mindset.  It’s difficult to speak up and say “that isn’t right.”  As Christians, we’re called to speak the truth, even when it’s difficult to do.

The Church must speak out against racial prejudice because it contradicts the gospel.

    “When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

It almost seems like Paul had been away from the church when all of this started, but when he returned he was horrified to see the congregation divided along racial lines.  He wasn’t willing to allow this to continue, but spoke up, confronting Peter, a fellow apostle, for his sinful actions.  “How can you do this?  You are acting as if you are somehow better than these Greeks, as if they should become more like you.  But when you treat your brothers and sisters in the Lord this way, you are the one who is behaving like a pagan.”

Paul doesn’t tell us what happened after this confrontation, but it would seem likely that Peter repented, perhaps even asking forgiveness from the members of the church he had slighted.  The church which had been divided was brought together once again, and a spirit of unity was restored.  I would imagine the men who had instigated the problem either had a change of heart, or didn’t stick around very long.

There is no place for that kind of attitude in the church.  How can we tell people that God loves them, if we are not willing to love our neighbor?  How can we preach a message of reconciliation, if there is hostility in our hearts towards our fellow man?  The world will not listen unless our words and our actions are saying the same thing.

We may look different on the outside, but underneath we are made of the same stuff.

Illustration – I while back I bought the kids each a toy that I enjoyed playing with as a child.  Do you remember the rubic snake?  You can twist the pieces and make different shapes.  I thought the kids might like it, and if not I will have fun playing with them.  I got each of them a different color, so they would know which one was theirs.  It’s funny that they are exactly the same, they just have different colored sticker on them.  But wouldn’t you know it the kids started to argue, “I want the blue one, no I want the blue one, I don’t like the green one, it’s not as good.”  Really?  Underneath it’s the same thing.

One of the themes running throughout Paul’s letters is that the color of one’s skin is irrelevant in the eyes of God.  We are made of the same stuff:

  • All human beings are created in the image of God, which means we are special regardless of what you look like on the outside.
  • We all descended from Adam, which means we share the same spiritual condition: we all need redemption.
  • We were all on the heart of Christ when he died on the cross for our sins. Scripture says that God so loved the world he sent his son.
  • And we are all invited to receive His salvation.
  • We must all come the same way, by grace through faith.
  • We are all joined together as one body, when we receive Christ as our Savior and Lord.

Romans 1:16 says,

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…”


In the book Gracism, a woman shares an experience where she was tempted to go along with the crowd, and exclude someone who was different.  She says,

“Last year I was airport waiting to board my flight.  I loved [this particular airline] because they have cheap fares, but the one thing I don’t like is that they have no assigned seats…  Everyone wants a good seat on the plane, so people will stand in that line for an hour if they have to, myself included.

I had been waiting in line for at least a half hour, when a family: husband, wife, and two small children loudly made their way to the boarding area.  You couldn’t help but notice them.  They seemed confused and were talking loudly in another language, glancing at their tickets, pulling their bags and their kids into the huddle of travelers.

It’s funny how these boarding lines may not look line lines at all in the literal sense.  They snake around tables, chairs and luggage; they dip with younger travelers sitting down in the middle; they have big gaps where someone has stopped to talk on their cell phone or finish a page in their novel.  But just to be clear, they are indeed lines.  And it is understood who is in front of you and who is in back of you, and your place in the line is respected by the other travelers.  Usually.

This family was trying to work their way into the line, and ended up a few people ahead of me, looking very confused.  They were hanging just to the right of the line and you could tell they were hoping to somehow get absorbed into a real spot.  The others in line were not happy about this.  I watched the people get closer to one another and even position the men with them to stand on the side like the defensive line of a football team.  The family kept trying to slip in, but this line was a united front – no one was moving.

All eyes were on them, and though no one said a word, the sound was deafening.  I could imagine what was going through the minds of those in line.  I could see them shaking their heads in disgust.  “Stupid foreigners.”  “Who do they think they are coming over here and just butting in?”  It didn’t matter that no one was speaking this stuff out loud.  I could see it on their faces and in their body language.  Part of me was feeling it too.  “I have waiting in this line all this time, no way these people are just going to butt in front of me.  Don’t they know the rules.  We just don’t do that here.”

Just as I was perfecting my speech in my head, full of righteous indignation and knowing full well that I was (we all were) right, [the Holy Spirit convicted me].  I needed to show special favor to those who were disregarded because of their race, class, or culture.  I prayed silently and asked the Lord to help me be a gracist.  He immediately showed me that my judgement of these people was wrong.  Did it really matter who was in front of me in line.  What was most important here?  What if you were in another country where you didn’t speak the language and you were confused, tired, and fearing you were going to make the plane?  Wouldn’t you be looking for someone to show you some kindness?”

So I tapped the mother on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me.  Please come over here.  You can get in line right here in front of me.  I knew she didn’t understand my words, but my message came through loud and clear.  She smiled so big I thought she was going to cry. (Gracism, p.25-27)

How can we reach across racial divides and bring people together?

  • By refusing to go along in the bitterness and animosity that we see in the world around us.
  • By going out of our way to make others feel valued and welcome.
  • By showing kindness and love to the different people we meet each day.
  • By sharing the message of reconciliation in our words and actions.

Romans 12:21 encourages us,

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”


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