God’s Secret Plan: Creating One New Humanity

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Mon, 07/23/2018 - 10:45pm

Ephesians 2:11-22, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, July 22, 2018

             In Ephesians and Colossians, Paul said that God’s secret plan had been revealed to him. It was always God’s intention, but it had been kept secret until now. Paul had been entrusted with this mystery, and his job was to make it known to the world.

            What was this secret plan? Knowing Paul, you might guess that the secret was that God would forgive sin by means of the death of the Messiah. If you grew up evangelical, you might think that the secret was that you can go to heaven if you accept Christ as your personal Savior. But Paul is thinking of something else. As he experienced it, God’s great secret was that God wanted to break down the walls between Jews and Gentiles to create one new humanity. After Jesus’ action on the cross which reconciled all people to God, all people were now reconciled to one another. After Jesus, there was no division into Jew and Gentile, or barbarian or Scythian; in this new humanity which is the Messiah’s body on earth, there is no division between slaves and free people, between males and females. Those divisions that shaped Paul’s world—those labels that defined people—were done away with. Ethnic identity is a secondary matter, and no longer a source of pride or shame. Whether the law sees you as property or as a property owner does not ultimately matter, because you are a human being created in God’s image who is being transformed into the image of the Messiah day by day. Gender can no longer make one human more powerful or valuable than another; we are all part of this one new humanity.

            My senior year in high school—1969—a TV series was launched which only lasted one season but caught the imagination of many teenagers. The premise was that the State Department had selected a diverse group of American college students to go on a goodwill tour of Southeast Asia to show what American youth were really like. The tour didn’t go so well, because some of the students felt like it was a fake effort in light of what was going on in the Vietnam War. But on their way home, their plane crashed on an island in the South Pacific and all the adults died. The island—and this is the most farfetched part of the premise—was a nuclear test site that was never used, which looked like a real village, stocked with supplies. The question for the show was “How will these college students create their own civilization from scratch with their own rules?” The name of the show was “The New People.” In my high school, with the help of a new liberal sociology teacher from California who had landed in the redneck outskirts of Nashville, we formed an official school club called “The New People.” We wanted to say that we can have a multiracial society where everyone gets along. We thought we could start America over again with new rules. We weren’t willing to live with the prejudices of adults, so we’d pretend they were all dead and start fresh.

            Paul didn’t live in the late 60’s, but he did believe that it was possible to create a new people, a whole new humanity united in Christ. This was the revolution he announced. God had already done this: God had already broken down the dividing walls between ethnic groups. And Paul spells it out: the wall dividing us is not a literal wall like the one between Jews and Gentiles in the Temple; the wall dividing us is the hostility between us. That hostility is what Jesus knocked down by his acceptance of Jew and Gentile equally into one body made up of people who had been reconciled to God.

            For Paul, the big racial divide was between Jew and Gentile. In his experience as a Pharisee, there were only two kinds of people in the world—us and not-us. On the one hand were the Jews, who understood themselves as God’s chosen ones who needed to preserve their heritage at all costs. On the other hand were the non-Jews, everybody else, all those ethnic groups that God had not chosen, whom some Jews called dogs, whom some rabbis said were all destined for destruction. They were the unclean people you could never eat with. The hostility went both ways, of course, and what we call anti-Semitism was already present in the Gentile world.

            Paul was raised, for the most part, in the Jewish bubble, even though he grew up in the city of Tarsus. The whole point of most of the rules the Pharisees taught was to keep Jews separate from Gentiles, who would corrupt them. He studied at a synagogue and was sent to seminary, as it were, in Jerusalem where the rabbi Gamaliel would be his mentor. In his life before he met Jesus in a vision, Paul was a very strict Jew. He says in Philippians that as far as following the Jewish law goes, he was faultless. He believed in segregation, as the entire religious hierarchy did. One of the consequences of that would have been that Paul had very few Gentile friends.

            Now I’m going to ask you to make one intellectual move, and it’s this: For Paul, the experience of being Jewish was similar to our experience of being white—for those of you who identify as white. I don’t think it would have been a minority consciousness. He saw the world, in his pre-conversion life, as divided into two groups: us and not-us, and one of those groups was definitely superior to the other. His ethnic identity was a source of pride. He celebrated his heritage. He had been taught all his life that God cared about his group in a way God did not care about others. He had been taught the value of segregation and the sinfulness of intermarriage. In other words, he thought as white people think.

            My favorite musical as a kid was not The Sound of Music, even though I’d been to see it live and knew all the songs. It wasn’t The King and I, even though I’d grown up as a white kid in Asia. My favorite was South Pacific, in part, I think, because it dealt with racial themes. I’ve wondered at times if I wound up going to Princeton because Lieutenant Joe Cable went to school there. Do you remember the song that Cable sang—not as a Southerner like Nellie—but as a rich boy from the Main Line in Philadelphia who had absorbed racism?

You've got to be taught To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught From year to year,
It's got to be drummed In your dear little ear,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught.

Think about how you learned hostility—or, at best, condescension

toward people of the “other” race. My first real experience of America was coming to Arkansas for a year of furlough in 1961. It was still the Jim Crow South, in spite of what had happened at Little Rock Central. My school was all-white and the black elementary school was located in the poor part of town that even polite people referred to as N*town. I was telling Troy and Wilma about the way it was even in 1969 in the same high school that spawned “The New People.” We had square dancing as our physical education every Friday, and the boys had to walk across the basketball court to select partners. I had a pretty blonde “regular,” but one Friday she was absent, so I picked a cute black girl I knew from class. When I made my way to the locker room at the end of class, I was surrounded by guys calling me a N*lover. A couple of weeks later I went to a Friday night football game and, failing to spot the buddies I planned to sit with, I sat by that same cute black girl. Apparently, that crossed a line. Three days later I had a cross burned in my yard and the girl said to me, “I don’t think we should see each other again.”

            What Paul understood is that virtually all people learn hostility toward the other, and in the Jewish theology that Paul formerly espoused, the claim that God was exclusively attached to Jews was an expression of that hostility. That hostility is a mixture of fear and contempt—in our situation as much as in Paul’s. Whites are afraid of blacks and feel contempt for them. Blacks are afraid of whites and feel contempt for them. In that black-white binary, I’m pretty sure it’s the blacks who have more to fear, and more reason for contempt. And yet Paul says that in his body Christ has made both groups one. Jesus himself has broken down the hostility between us.

            It was always God’s secret plan to break down the walls of ethnic identity and create one new humanity. For those of us who grew up with completely individualistic notions of salvation, it is shocking to hear Paul say that Jesus died on the cross to break down the walls of division and hostility, that the goal of the cross was to create one new humanity in Christ which would no longer be divided.

            Paul says in Philippians that he was “a Hebrew of the Hebrews, of the tribe of Benjamin, as to the law, a Pharisee.” This was his identity. And yet, he says, when he met Christ he regarded those things as worthless so that he could have Christ. He put his former sources of identity aside as refuse, because there was only one thing he wanted: to know Christ.

            Most of us identify as white. We aren’t even aware that the concept of “white people” wasn’t around until the 17th century, created as a way to rationalize slave-owning. Some of us identify as English or Scottish, or as Mayflower descendants, or Daughters of the American Revolution. If we have the experience Paul had, we will say, “I used to have being white at the core of my identity. I thought it was more important to study English literature than black literature. I totally blinded myself to the fact that some of my ancestors were involved—one way or another—in the slave trade, and that I have been the beneficiary of institutions that were funded by the slave trade. I never thought of myself as racist, just as proud of my heritage. But then I met Jesus—and I realized that being white was useless to make me a good person or to give me any standing with God. I threw my white identity away so that I could claim a Christian identity, and I counted my white Christian nationalism as garbage so that I could actually become part of Christ’s body, which is a new way to be human.”

            Racial reconciliation is not a side effect of the cross; racial reconciliation was God’s secret purpose all along. Breaking down the walls that separate us is not a distraction from the gospel; it is the gospel. God’s great purpose in Christ was to reconcile us to himself in such a way that he reconciled us to one another, creating for the first time in the church one new humanity. May we live into the reality of what God has created.