After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’John 20:20-23
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers.’ And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.Mark11:15-18
As Christians, we are granted an incredible amount of responsibility and power that we sometimes misunderstand. Jesus tells his disciples that they have the power to forgive or deny forgiveness, but that they should use this discernment very carefully and faithfully (John 20:23). Jesus also models for us that, when we witness sacrilegious behavior, we need to act (Mark 11:15-16). God’s truth is to be actively lived out in the beliefs and behaviors of Christ’s disciples.
Often, when we hear the commandment, “you shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15), we think in terms of material possessions. But there are many other significant ways we steal from others. Gossip steals another’s reputation. Lying steals trust. We can steal another person’s dignity, self-esteem, security, nobility, and self-respect by words and actions. Messages of “you don’t belong,” “you’re stupid,” “go back where you came from,” “speak English,” “take a bath,” and other derogatory insults do great harm, and are real forms of stealing. Stealing, in all its forms, is injustice, violence, and oppression. Any time a dominant culture makes minority cultures feel unwelcome, disrespected, inferior, defective, or humiliated, it is stealing from that minority culture.
Any time a dominant culture makes minority cultures feel unwelcome, disrespected, inferior, defective, or humiliated, it is stealing from that minority culture. Any time a member of a dominant culture engages in a like manner toward a member or group of a minority culture, they are doing harm, violence, and oppression to them.
Modern biblical scholarship notes a shift from Hebrew scriptures to the Christian scriptures in the scope of God’s instructions and will. Most of what we call the Old Testament explains the covenant God held with the Chosen People, the Children of Israel, the Jewish faith. However, in Christ, the scope of the covenant became universal and inclusive; God is God of all.
The ethnic prejudice, cultural divisions, and tribal animosity intrinsic to the Law and the Prophets were all broken down through Christ Jesus. Reconciliation and universal invitation to confess Christ opened salvation to the entire earth. God so loved the WORLD.
But the world is a big, big place, and most of us occupy only a small part of it. What we don’t know, experience, encounter, and understand about our world is significantly greater than what we do know. The world can be a scary place, filled with things we don’t understand. Bryan Stevenson’s fourth principle of a more just and equitable world is “be willing to be discomforted in order to be faithful witnesses.”
Normally, people avoid things that make them uncomfortable. We like things that are familiar and help us feel comfortable and secure. We listen to news outlets that reinforce and confirm what we already believe; we read books and watch programs that resonate with the things we like, we gravitate toward favorites foods, music, hobbies, clothing, and people we most enjoy; and we keep as much to ourselves as we can. We do the things we choose to do gladly; we resist doing the things we are told we ought to do by others. We love to feel a sense of control over what happens to us. It makes one wonder why anyone becomes Christian, because God clearly has other ideas for us.
It is clear that the followers of Jesus were asked to do things they would rather not have done. In fact, many drifted away and ceased following Jesus when they realized what it would cost (see John 6:66). Standing up for what is right is sometimes unpopular and even dangerous. John Wesley often asked of early Methodists what they were willing to give to serve Jesus, even asking if they were willing to give their very lives. However, Wesley was also quick to assert, “No matter what, God is with us,” which is at the heart of the liturgy of John Wesley’s covenant service. Here is John Wesley’s traditional Covenant Prayer (United Methodist Hymnal #607):
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
This is the declaration of faith we are invited to make as United Methodist Christian disciples each and every day. It is a voluntary pledge to leave our comfort zones and meet people who are different, strange, foreign, perhaps difficult to understand, and maybe even a little threatening. Yet, there is not a person walking this earth that God does not want us to care for, to love, to engage, to invite, and to get to know. And the only way we can get to know others is to share stories.
Every person on this earth is unique; paradoxically, it is the one thing we all have in common. As unique as each of us is, we actually have more similarities than differences, but we can discover this truth only by talking with each other. It is very easy to be prejudiced against a category, a label, a faceless other, an undefined mass. This all changes when we meet people one-on-one, face-to-face. People stop being statistics, demographics, target audiences, and stereotypes; they become real, live, flesh-and-blood siblings. We open our normativity to include a new normal. We expand our circle. This happens only when we are willing to be discomforted in order to be faithful witnesses for Christ.
There is a real power and grace in Christian community as we think about engaging with others; we never have to do it alone. It may feel overwhelmingly threatening to go out alone to meet new people, especially people we perceive to be significantly different. This is why Jesus sent disciples out two-by-two. Joined together, we are given support, security, and safety. But it is also important not to overwhelm. When one group “gangs up” on another (e.g., a majority group on a minority group), we create unfair and undermining tokenism. Many of our best intercultural and inclusive intentions break down in the expectation that minority individuals should join large, dominant groups.
Questions for Conversation
1. What new experiences have you had with people different from yourself? What experiences has our church congregation offered to interact with people different from the majority membership?
2. What efforts can we make to reach out to people who are different? What resources can we use to bridge differences and build understanding?
3. What is the cultural, ethnic, and social diversity present in our community? How can we deepen our understanding of and relationships with people not represented in our faith community?
Questions for Personal Reflection between Sessions
1. In our Gospels and throughout the New Testament, the Jesus movement was the minority population, and it met resistance and oppression in many forms in its earliest days. Today, many Christians feel that Christianity no longer holds the respect and prominence it once did. Why do you think this is so? Where has Christianity failed to tell its story well? Where is it failing to connect with the story of others?
2. Where have you witnessed injustice or oppression that motivated you to get involved? What motivates you to step up and get actively engaged in work for justice, equality, compassion, and unity?
3. Where do you process your thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about other cultures, ethnicities, races, classes, and castes? How diverse are these encounters?
Closing Prayer (or one of your own):
Lord of all creation, we cannot begin to comprehend the immensity of all that exists, all you have made, and all that you love. We are truly humbled, and we confess that we too often avoid that which is strange and different. We love our comfort, and we need to repent our complacency. Help us to see the foreigner and the stranger and the other as beloved gifts from you. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Recommended Resources for Deeper Learning and Understanding:
The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone. Discomforting, but powerful theological reflection on the parallels between the crucifixion of Christ and the lynching of black men and women throughout our history.
Fruitvale Station by Ryan Coogler. True story of a 22-year-old loving father and beloved son on the last day of his life before being gunned down on New Year’s Day 2009