I remember the first time I saw a confederate flag in Tacoma, fixed to the back of a pickup truck and driving down 6th Ave without a care in the world.
I gasped of shock. It was during the 2016 presidential election and this memory crystalizes the division for me. The Other. The Right Christian and the Wrong Christian. Unfriending online and in reality. Everyone says, “We’ve never been so divided.” Perhaps we have never been this divided as a country (although the Civil War might beg to differ), but as a group of faithful following the teachings of Christ, we have certainly been this divided.
So then, even to the Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life. ~ Acts 11:18
Peter is speaking to Jewish people here, assuring them that Gentiles (anyone who was not a Jew) could experience the gift of the Holy Spirit as well and should be treated with the same respect as fellow Jews. But it’s not really this verse talking about inclusion of people who were from different ethnicities and backgrounds that tells me there was division, it’s the word even.
Even the Gentiles. . .
That little phrase says so much to us about the conflicts of the time. It invokes a little shock, the idea that the original listener was going to be the tiniest bit horrified and would need some reassurance. Yes,
Even the Gentiles.
Some Historical Context
Such separation, such “otherness” existed between the Jews and the Gentiles that Jews considered Gentiles to be ceremonially unclean and would need to separate themselves from the Jewish community for a period of cleansing if they associated with a Gentile or ate their food (e.g., Leviticus 11). In fact, Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary argues that the entire “clean/unclean system” in Leviticus was created “…to teach separation from the Gentiles.”
Gentiles felt so alienated from Jews that, when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and asked him for a drink, she replied to Him: “’You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans).” (John 4:9).
Even The Gentiles
However, despite centuries of separation and alienation, a little earlier in Acts, we read that all the Believers lived as one community. They were together and had everything in common, they shared meals, provided for each other, and had fun while doing it. This is what even the Gentiles were being welcomed into. Not church across town, not to shake hands now and then when you were at the same breakfast meeting. But to share breakfast, to share life, to be of one heart and one mind.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. ~ 1 John 4:7
You can continue to read in Acts to see the struggles and triumphs experienced by the early church as they strove to embrace this concept. You can also fast forward two thousand years and see that same tension wreaking havoc in the Church of Christ today. Because, we conveniently forget the even.
Let us love one another, even the ones who vote differently than I do.
Let us love one another, even the ones who disagree with me on immigration policies.
Let us love one another, even the ones who believe in different gun control laws than I do.
Yep, that’s right, I’m not talking about loving people who serve different snacks than you or who like baseball when soccer is obviously the superior sport. I mean the real issues, the I-am-unfriending-that-person-on-Facebook because they-make-me-so-mad issues.
The problem is, we can’t love someone from afar (sorry every single RomCom…but we can’t). We must be up close to love, because that’s how God is, and we are made in His image.
Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. ~ 1 John 4:7-9
I actually kind of hate this principle. You see, I am REALLY good at showing love to the people I love. I will bring you a meal, help you move, give you a Christmas present, and send a thoughtful prayer text. Heck, I will coordinate meals for you, organize your move, throw a Christmas party and create a whole prayer experience!
But just for you, my bestie, only you. Not others, and definitely not, even those others.
The problem is that means I’m a pretty weak person. A friend of mine gave a sermon on this issue and said that we need people in our lives who exercise our “love muscle” because otherwise it’s weak, and honestly, worthless. Jesus sums this up when He says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” (Luke 6:32) Meaning, if you’re only ever nice to people whom you like, are you really a nice person?
Embracing the Even
Luke and Peter talk about the oneness shared by Believers in the early church. But, if we feel awkward being around people who have a different skin color than ours, or angry at the idea of having dinner with people who vote differently than we do (and like to talk about it!), or if we just haven’t put any effort into it, then can we simply start hanging out with people, even them, and expect God to work?
Yes, because obedience often comes before emotion, but thankfully there’s more to it than that.
But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. ~ 1 Corinthians 6:17
The great news is that God wanted this closeness with us. He sent His Son to live among us, and after Jesus returned to heaven, He sent the Holy Spirit so that we might always experience oneness with Him. So that we can have oneness with other Believers.
Even those ones.
Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. ~ 1 John 4:11-12
Saying God’s love will be complete implies that there’s a possibility of His love not being complete. I think we can imagine what it looks like when that love is not complete…and it brings us back to the importance of diversity within the church. Luke uses the book of Acts to show that even with extreme diversity, there can be beautiful unity. In fact, for our own spiritual growth, and that of our church, we must have diversity. We will never grow to who God calls us to be if we do not embrace the even.
Christena Cleveland talks about this concept in her book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart. She dissects the Right Christian and the Wrong Christian.
Take a moment and think about the people you choose to allow into your community, and the ones you keep at arm’s length. Do they hold the same beliefs as you do over who can become a pastor? Do they not wear certain clothes or listen to certain music because it’s inappropriate? Maybe the Right and Wrong Christians are defined by what they believe about the LGBTQ community?
Can we see Jesus in the people who have different beliefs from us, or does our perspective block Him from our view?
Cleveland admits this is a difficult concept, and that differences within our church can be significant and based on important identities. But unless we are purposeful about living life with those who are different than we are, we will become more and more entrenched in our own way of thinking, convinced that it is the only way.
In order to follow God, [we] must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross. (Cleveland, 21)
God became human and came down to save us. Even us.
If we hold on tight to the idea that our views are the only correct ones, then we are one quick step away from believing that we are better than anyone who believes differently. And our fear and arrogance prevent us from ever even attempting to live life in community with anyone except those who look, sound, and value as we do. But when we seek the heart of Christ in all Believers, even the ones we disagree with, we experience His humility, we sharpen each other, we show His love to the world.
I have no idea if the Confederate flag-waving, truck-driving person is a Believer or not. What I do know is I judged him instantly. And if I had been in church with him, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have joined his small group or helped him move. Maybe, as you read this, you’re judging me and think I am the Wrong Christian. Maybe we’re both right and we’re both wrong.
Maybe we can learn from each other.
It is one thing to enter into a relationship with Jesus. It’s another to strive to be more and more like Him with each day. If we want to grow in our walks with God, if we want to grow our church to reach more people, and if we want to affect any kind of change in our community, then our own small community must embrace diversity.
Small groups of people, filled with diversity, worshiping as one, that is the kingdom of God here on earth.