By Drew Williams
Recognizing that American culture is increasingly splintered and divided, The Barna Group, a leading research firm focused on the intersection of culture and faith, conducted research in 2016 that concluded that most Americans think it would be difficult to have a natural and normal conversation with people in minority groups who are different from them.
This included atheists, Christians, Muslims, and so on. Curiously, the largest group that has this difficulty is American Christians. In fact, not only do American Christians have the hardest time having normal natural conversations with people in minority groups, 28% of Christians say they have a hard time having a normal conversation with other Christians! Author and pastor John Ortberg wrote, “If we look at [the Barna research], the followers of the most inclusive man in human history have become the most excluding people in American society.”
What do these findings have to do with Jesus’ words, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth,” (Acts 1:8)? Not a lot, if we look at these words as a set of sequential operating instructions in which we reach out with the love of God to those closest to us first and then (once we have had a bit of practice) to those within the same cultural group (those who laugh at our jokes, enjoy the same movies and read the same newspapers) and then (if we are really bold) to those who live cross-culturally.
The problem with this analysis is that it ignores the simple fact that the disciples were not from Jerusalem and were not even Judeans. They were Galileans (Acts 1:11, 2:7). Therefore, they were already reaching out cross-culturally from day one. This is the equivalent of asking eleven guys from Elberta, Michigan, with a population of 370, to plant a church in New York City! If Jesus had wanted the disciples to start with their family members, He would not have told them to stay in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4). Bottom line, what Jesus would have us understand by His exhortation is that the love of God is for the whole world!
This is not a new idea. Speaking of the people of God, the Lord, through the prophet Isaiah, said, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that My salvation shall reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6b) Indeed, Jesus said, “Go make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19a) So, what gets in the way of that? The answer is that, invariably, we do.
Jesus’ exhortation has much less to do with geography and sequencing, and has much more to do with the kind of people who figuratively live in our own “Jerusalem,” “Judea,” “Samaria,” and the back of beyond. This has much more to do with making us face up to the objections and prejudices that we are inclined to hold onto in justifying why we don’t need to show the love of Jesus to “those kinds” of people.
So, figuratively speaking, what is our problem with the people in our own backyard? Let’s call that our “Jerusalem.” While Jerusalem was not the disciples’ hometown, Jerusalem could be described as Christianity’s first hometown. This is where the first Christians worshipped together. This is where the first Christians welcomed in their neighbor into the family of God. Jesus is saying to us, “In witnessing to the world, do not neglect your Jerusalem.” So, who is our “Jerusalem?” It absolutely is our own family and absolutely includes our church family. But Jerusalem is not merely “our people” at our place of our greatest comfort.
The celebrated American author Anne Rice, having been a committed atheist before becoming a follower of Jesus, made this unilateral declaration: “Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to ‘being Christian’ or being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.…My faith in Christ is central to my life.
My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me.…Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity….”
In some ways, her words are appealing. Who could possibly argue with her desire to socially drop a bunch of quarrelsome, hostile and disputatious religious people? But, is raising the drawbridge and the declaration of splendid isolation a legitimate choice? St. Cypian wrote, “One cannot have God as his father who does not have the Church as his mother.” The Bible knows nothing of Christians who relate to God as isolated individuals or who see the local church as optional in their faith. Part of the faith experience is learning to love difficult people at close quarters. This includes actively moving toward people we don’t naturally like or enjoy.
Before I left for Seminary, buoyant with optimism, my pastor wisely told me: “Drew, when you get to Seminary you are going to find people who really irritate you! These are some of God’s greatest gifts to you because in their company God will knock off your rough edges. Like a rough pebble in a rock polishing machine, you will be smoothed out!” And he was right. God has this magnificent way of working through our differences to bring out the best in each of us. Rick Warren wrote: “The local church is the classroom for learning how to get along in God’s family. It is a lab for practicing unselfish, sympathetic love. As a participating member you learn to care about others and share the experiences of others.…Only in regular contact with ordinary, imperfect believers can we learn real fellowship and experience the New Testament truths of being connected and dependent on each other.”
Jesus also mentioned Samaria. So again, figuratively speaking, what is our problem with the people in our own Samaria? For a season, I lived in the North Devon village of Chulmleigh, toward the bottom end of the U.K. It was not quite the ends of the earth, but you could certainly see it from there. We lived at the top of the hill from where we could look down upon the smaller neighboring village of Chawleigh, literally on the other side of the valley and across a small river. And yet, despite these two villages living cheek by jowl and sharing much in common, we very soon detected a certain tension and rivalry between the two communities.
Knowing looks would be exchanged and there would be sharp intakes of breath at the mention of the other town’s name (remember, this is England so this is tantamount to deep and raging hostility). I grew curious and asked a longtime resident of Chulmleigh what the deal was. He lowered his voice and said conspiratorially, “Don’t you know?!” “Know what?” I whispered back. His reply came, “Those people in Chawleigh were on the other side in the English Civil War!” (Now, bear in mind, the English Civil War began 1642 and hostilities ceased in 1651!)
There was something of the same history of animosity for the Jews and the Samaritans. In a nutshell, after the separation of Judah and Israel in the ninth century B.C., King Omri of the Northern Kingdom bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer [1 Kings 16:24]. There, he built the city of Samaria, which became his capital. In 722 B.C., the city fell to the Assyrians. While many of the inhabitants of the city and the surrounding area of Samaria were led off into captivity, some farmers and others were left behind.
They intermarried with new settlers from Mesopotamia and Syria. When Cyrus, King of Persia, permitted the Jewish people to return from the Babylonian exile, the Samaritans were ready to welcome them back. The Jewish exiles, however, despised the Samaritans as renegades. When the Samaritans wanted to join in rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, their assistance was rejected. This story appears in the Book of Ezra, chapter four. The Samaritans then returned fire by attempting to undermine the restoration works.
The fact that there was such dislike and hostility between Jews and Samaritans is what gives the use of the Samaritan in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) such a kick! The Samaritan is the one who is able to rise above the bigotry and prejudices of centuries and show mercy and compassion for the injured Jewish man. When Jesus specifically mentions Samaria, He is impliedly asking us if we might do the same. This is why Samaria makes it in His list! Author and pastor Tim Keller wrote: “Tolerance isn’t about not having beliefs. It is about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you.”
What does that mean for us today? What does that mean for how we relate to those who do not believe as we do? Is it possible to profoundly disagree with someone and love that person deeply at the same time? Is it possible to hold deep convictions and simultaneously embrace those who reject your deep convictions? Jesus, who made claims that were breathtakingly bold, also pursued relational connections that were scandalously and breathtakingly humble.
He deliberately touched an untouchable leper. He allowed a woman who was known to be caught up in a life of prostitution to bathe his feet. He commended a hated Roman centurion. He ate with despised tax collectors. What we discover is that Jesus was relentlessly bold in His devotion to God and relentlessly humble in His relationships with other people. Is it possible that Jesus knew that my natural inclination is to be modest in my devotion to God and narrow-minded in my relationships with other people?
What Jesus is showing us is that, with the help of His Holy Spirit, we can boldly hold out the profound truth of His love, Lordship and mercy in our lives and, at the same time, we can walk with humility in reaching out to other people with the same love and mercy. In Jesus, this is possible. In fact, in the power of His Spirit, these qualities are inextricably linked.
Finally, what is our problem with the people who live at “the ends of the earth?” Essentially, Jesus is reminding us that His message of redemption and restoration has no boundaries. Jesus went out of His way to affirm the dignity of every type of person, rich and poor. According to Jesus, every single person is a carrier of the Divine imprint. This means that the poorest parents in Uganda love their children as much as we love our children and they want for their children exactly what we want for our children. And, on the subject of the “ends of the earth,” let’s not forget that those of us who grew up in the West are different from Jesus in almost every way: generationally, geographically, ethnically, socio-economically, vocationally, linguistically and more. In a very real sense, we are the ends of the earth!
I am so tired of the Church being labeled (and often appropriately) as bigoted, small-minded, myopic, angry and defensive. I am so weary of being defined by what the world says the Church is against and not what Jesus says we are for. In the power of His Spirit, we are to bear witness to the mission of God in all its fullness.
We are to bear witness to the risen life of Jesus in our shared lives: a love that is everlasting, a love that has always been, a love that we cannot be separated from, a love that forgives, a love that redeems and cleanses us from all our sins, a love that sees me as if I had never sinned, a love that heals, a love that restores, a love that reconciles all things, a love that casts out fear, a love that laid down His life for the love of all the world. This is the mission dei, the mission of God. And all the way at the very ends of the earth, this is the mission that He invites us to join Him in.
Drew Williams is Senior Pastor of Trinity Church. Trinity Sunday services are at 9:15 and 11 a.m. at GHS. Visit trinitychurch.life