Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bringing an end to division

Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.  You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.  You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him (Acts 10:34-38).

In Japan, some people are prejudiced against the Ainu who live on the northern island of Hokkaido because the Ainu look like western foreigners.  In Iraq, tribal Kurds and Arabs have fought each other for hundreds of years.  In Africa, thousands of people have been displaced due to ethnic cleansing.  Here in America, there is discrimination against Latinos and mistrust between whites and blacks.

In the musical South Pacific, one of the characters has this to say about prejudice and hatred: “you have to be carefully taught.”  There is some truth to these words.  A child is likely to pick up on his parent’s bigotry and adopt those attitudes as his own.  Yet I have also seen cases where children reject the prejudices of their families and dare to form relationships that others disapprove of.   Sadly, these kind of people are in the minority.

Wherever you go, people are wary of those who are different.  You can be shunned for your skin color or how you dress. People don’t trust others who speak in a foreign language or have a hard time communicating in English. Individuals laugh at you for being too dumb or too smart, too heavy or too skinny.  You can be judged on your hairstyle, makeup, body piercings, and tattoos.

How do we treat people who are different?  We stare.  We whisper to each other and giggle.  We tell jokes about them. We exclude them from our circle of friends.  We don’t hire them or give them promotions.  We push them around.  We pick fights with them.  Sometimes their homes get vandalized.  Sometimes they end up bruised and bleeding.  Sometimes they end up dead.

Perhaps the saddest part of it all is that we don’t have to be “carefully taught.”  Rudeness comes naturally. Hatefulness comes naturally.  Sin comes naturally.  We go after those who are different to maintain the illusion that we are the best—the best looking, the best educated, the best raised.  We were born to be kings of the hill, and we’re ready to prove our superiority by kicking down anyone who dares to challenge us!

And so the news is filled with stories of discrimination, war, and ethnic cleansing.  The world is a hodgepodge of people gathered into groups, each of them full of pride and ready to fight anyone who offends them.  How can we hope for peace in such a world?  How can we see any chance for unity among men?

The apostle Peter was a man who struggled with prejudice.  He saw the world as two groups—Jews and non-Jews.  Jews were God’s chosen people; everyone else was a filthy Gentile.  He knew that Jesus loved all mankind; He had seen Jesus perform a miracle for a woman of the Gentiles.  But in Peter’s mind, Jews remained superior to everyone else.  It took a vision from heaven to show Peter the error in his thinking; as a result he said, I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.

Listen to the words of Holy Scripture: The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).  God doesn’t care about eye or skin color; God doesn’t care about cosmetic details like nose or lips or cheekbones.  He doesn’t care how you dress or what language you speak.  What matters to Him is the content of your heart.

Ultimately, it is the heart that separates one person from another.  The heart takes notice of our differences; the heart responds with fear or hate, pride or ridicule.  The heart must be changed before choosing sides and taking shots at each other can become a thing of the past.

Harmony and unity can only be achieved through Christ and the cleansing that He offers.  The Son of God took up residence as one of us to free mankind from sin and bring us into God’s precious family.  Jesus taught about His Father in heaven, that we might want Him in our lives.  Then Christ shed His blood in death to make that relationship possible.  When He suffered on the cross, Jesus took responsibility for all the blackness that has characterized our lives and kept us at arm’s length from God and each other.  God the Father punished His Son in our place, that we might be spared His terrible wrath.

Jesus has done everything necessary to knock down the walls that cause division.  Having settled our debt of guilt, He can offer us forgiveness and a place in God’s holy family.  We can be adopted by God, an adoption that brings us together despite our differences.

Adoption has the power to make families out of people from very different backgrounds.  Adoptive parents can end up with an array of children who, to all outward appearances, have nothing in common.  Yet they are united—united in name, united in love, united in loyalty to each other.

Jesus accomplishes this kind of unity through baptism.  Baptism removes that which separates us—sin.  The sin of prejudice.  The sin of pride.  The sin of selfishness.  The sin of holding a grudge or demanding restitution instead of forgiving as Christ does—freely and unconditionally.  These sins separate us from each other; through baptism, Jesus washes these sins away.

Through baptism, God adopts us into His royal family.  We become children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ.  We see the proof of this in the Gospel of Mark chapter three: Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him.  A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, "Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you." "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother."

Baptism connects us to Jesus, our Savior and our elder brother.  In fact, baptism forges such an intimate family bond that through it we share in the blessings of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  In Romans chapter six Paul writes, don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.  Paul goes on to explain how that baptismal link with Christ changes our lives right here and now: we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.  Through our baptismal link to Jesus, we have shared in His death, a death that frees us from helpless slavery to the power of sin.

The benefits of baptism extend beyond life in this world.  In Romans chapter eight Paul says, we are God's children.  Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.  As God’s children, we have citizenship in His kingdom and a home in His royal palace.  With such a future ahead of us, death loses its ability to frighten.

How can baptism do all this?  How can water clean us from sin, bring us into God’s family, and unite us despite our differences?  Baptism gets its power from Christ, who uses the water as a vehicle for His mercy and love.  Baptism is the start of a new life, as our sinful past is washed away and the Spirit of God takes up residence in our hearts.  When the Spirit rested on Jesus at our Lord’s baptism, He appeared as a dove, showing that the Holy Spirit works to bring the peace that all families crave.  But attaining such peace is not easy or painless; John the Baptist spoke of God’s Spirit as a fire that destroys everything undesirable.  The Spirit works for peace by burning away anything that gets in the way of peace—things like prejudice and pride, selfishness and an unforgiving heart.  This process is uncomfortable, sometimes painful and frightening. But sinful ways must be abandoned if we are to be the kind of children that are welcome in God’s home.

The baptism of John focused on repentance—turning away from the past so that a new and better future might become reality.  The Spirit wants us to respect God, fearing to make Him angry.  The Spirit guides us in doing what is right.  The Spirit wants to make us acceptable to God. Under His guidance, we reject a past where we were angry and prideful loners who imagined that we stood at the top of the heap.  Through baptism we are freed from the devil’s unchallenged control and are offered unity with God and all who love Him like a Father.

Through baptism we are united with Christ.  He wraps us in His righteousness, a white and holy covering that warms, protects, and covers up our imperfection.  Without Christ, no one has the slightest hope of hearing words of approval from the Lord of heaven.  But joined to Christ as we are through baptism, we hope to hear the same words spoken by the Father to our Elder Brother: with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:11).

Through baptism, God has adopted you into His family.  Every Christian in the world is your brother or sister.  You have been cleansed of your sins and freed from Satan’s domination.  Don’t let the old ways separate you from fellow believers just because they look or sound different than you’re used to.  Don’t let pride or bigotry make your heart cold and unloving.  Don’t let the hurts you’ve suffered raise walls of resentment.  Ask Christ to bring you the peace of sins forgiven, and a love that ignores outward appearance to gaze at the heart, that we might all be one in God’s huge adopted family.

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