Here's my sermon from this past Sunday, February 26th, on racial reconciliation. You can check out the audio on our website here.
Back in the 70s and 80s, before most of you were probably born, and certainly before I was in ministry, there was this thing called the “church growth” movement. Professors and pastors tried to imagine a large, expanding church and then reverse-engineer things so it would take place in real life. A key tenet of this movement was what’s called the “homogeneous unit principle.” Aubrey Sequeira, in an article critical of the movement, explains the principle this way.
“Churches grow fastest, church growth gurus say, when the gospel is propagated along existing social lines and networks and when people do not have to cross ethnic, cultural, or class barriers to become Christians.” (Aubrey Sequeira)
Translation: churches grow faster when everything is comfortable, when everyone looks alike. But here’s something I want us to consider together today: maybe the only goal isn’t to get big and to get big fast. And perhaps sameness is the exact opposite of what God wants for His Church. Maybe He calls us to something harder. Perhaps he beckons us to something better.
Today, we’ll take a brief step outside our series through Jonah and look at the book of Revelation. I want to pause today and talk about our vision for racial reconciliation here at Karis Church. And we get that vision from the final pages of Scripture - here in this Revelation to John. Now, we can’t get into all the complexities and mysteries of this book today. There is so much even in this passage that we won’t have time to explain. What I want to do this morning with you is simple. Let’s take a look at this glorious vision together. Let’s think for awhile about our future as God’s people. Let’s talk about how we can see more of it here and now.
Take your favorite book or maybe your favorite movie. Think about that last chapter, that last scene. When the princess rides off with the prince. When the victorious player is carried off by his teammates.
Your heart is moved by glory. Your cheeks are wet with tears. We have such a scene in our passage today. But it far exceeds the glory of any earthly tale. We turn to the final page - we get a glimpse of the last scene - of the story of stories here in Revelation 7. Or, really, it’s the first gaze at a glory that will go on forever and forever. Take it all in with me right now.
The Final, Beginning Scene
First, we see a reconciled, diverse people. This is no homogeneous group, right? Verse 9:
Rev. 7:9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb,
This is a massive multitude. The church has exploded. But it’s remarkably diverse. Every people group on earth is represented. That’s what we’ll see and experience if we’re in Christ.
But there is something important that we can’t forget. This isn’t just a diverse group. It’s a reconciled group. Organizations can produce diversity. Reconciliation is another matter. There is diversity, but there is also unity in this vision. They are made right with God. But they’re also made right with one another. This happens through Jesus.
Therefore, He is their focus. That’s the second thing we see. Second, we see a reconciled, diverse people that is engaged in eternal, grateful worship. This multitude, joined by angels, is, as it says in verse 10, “crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” They are falling on their faces, before the throne, singing out, says verse 12, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
They begin this song, in heaven, that will last for ever and ever. It’s eternal. You’ve probably heard this or thought this: “Won’t this be boring? Singing forever and ever?” Maybe you’ve been at the end of a sporting event like I have, when Mizzou upset Oklahoma back in 2010. Everyone stormed the field. I remember holding Hadley, looking at the crowd, thinking I could stand there and watch and cerebrate forever. Maybe you’ve been with the person you love, lying beside her in a park on a summer day, looking into her eyes. You feel like you never want to leave that moment. Now I don’t think this passage describes all that there will be in the new heavens and new earth. In fact, I think we’ll even work, but in a transformed way. But multiply those experiences by a gazillion. Eternal worship doesn’t sound that terrible and laborious, does it?
We’ll be eternally grateful. The crowd here is praising the Lord for who He is! They are worshipping their King for what He has done! There is so much gratitude. You may remember the waving of palm branches from somewhere else in Scripture. This is what the crowd does for Jesus on what we now call Palm Sunday. They wave their branches, the national symbol of Israel. They proclaim that Jesus is their king, the Son of David, the Messiah. They cry out, “Hosannah,” which basically means, “Lord, save us now!” There the crowd does it in hope. Here in Revelation, this multitude sees that hope fulfilled. And they worship. That leads to my next point.
Third, we see a reconciled, diverse people that is engaged in eternal, grateful worship over a joyful, total salvation. They are reconciled with their God. They are near His throne. They are saved from God by God. Jesus is indeed the King. He is making all things new! Hope has come and conquered!
This multitude, it says in verse 13, is “clothed in white robes.” Actually, the word for “robes” here refers to long, flowing garments. They’re clothed in glory. And they’re white. They’ve been cleansed. They’re clothed also in purity. The Lord has cleansed His people of their sin through Christ. How amazing will that day be?! But the cleansing is bigger even than that. It encompasses all of creation. Look at verses 15 through 17 again.
Rev. 7:15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
Rev. 7:16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.
Rev. 7:17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
No more hunger or thirst. No more suffering or pain. No more tears. Salvation will be total. Not just personal. Cosmic. We will be led out of this “great tribulation,” as verse 14 puts it, the trouble of this age, to jubilation.
Those tears of sadness will be turned to tears of happiness. We’ll be filled with joy. That’s what those “springs of living water” represent. Joy. Think back to Christ’s words to the Samaritan woman in John 4. There he promises this joy. Here she’s no doubt in this multitude - with those who believe - beginning to revel in it forever. She’s there, washed white as snow, with all of her hurts healed, praising Jesus for total, joyful salvation. Will we join her?
That leads to the fourth thing here. Fourth, we see a reconciled, diverse people that is engaged in eternal, grateful worship over a joyful, total salvation, through a perfect, substitutionary sacrifice. How does this salvation come about? Through the death of Jesus on the cross. Those Israelites back on Palm Sunday waved their branches and asked Jesus to save them. But they had no categories for Good Friday. Here, a multitude of believers in a new heaven and earth praise Jesus for giving His life for our salvation.
Jesus is the spotless Lamb before whom we’ll stand, before whom we’ll fall. It’s through His sacrifice that our clothes will be made clean.
We’ll be “made white in the blood of the Lamb,” as it says in verse 14. Maybe you’re new to Christianity and this all seems weird to you. But the Old Testament people of God made sacrifices that allowed them to draw near to God. Because they were sinners, because they were unclean, they couldn’t be in God’s presence. Those sacrifices of lambs pointed forward to the true Lamb, Jesus Christ. We, too, are full of sin. We, too, deserve death.
But Christ takes our penalty. He stands in our place. We can be forgiven. We can come near to God. We can be clean. I know it sounds weird - but through blood. Those sacrifices of old had to be repeated again and again. Those sacrifices of old never completely cleansed their consciences. Christ’s death, however, is perfect. It lasts forever. He is the Lamb of God.
But notice something interesting here. Jesus is also called the Shepherd. Right? Verse 17:
Rev. 7:17 “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Jesus protects us. He provides for us. He guides us. To salvation. To joy. But He also gives Himself so all of that can be possible. He is our Shepherd, but He willingly chooses to lay His life down for us. He is our Lamb. This is what the multitude praises God for. This is what will occupy our attention and fill up our hearts for all eternity.
So there is our vision. We see a reconciled, diverse people that is engaged in eternal, grateful worship over a joyful, total salvation, through a perfect, substitutionary sacrifice.
How We’ll Get There
Now I want to turn and ask this question. How will we get there? Now it’s not uncommon here to hear us talk about Christ as our sacrifice. We constantly thank God also for His salvation in our sermons and songs. The topic of our worship in heaven is something we also like to discuss. But the thing we should wrestle with far more is the first point: if we’ll be a reconciled, diverse people then, how can we more and more become that now?
Author and teacher D.A. Carson says this:
“The church is the only institution that will survive this world and continue to exist in all of its perfected splendor in the next. That means that the church is supposed to be an outpost in time of what it will one day be in eternity.” (D.A. Carson)
How can we be that outpost that points ahead? How can we give people a vision of the new heavens and new earth? How can we particularly do that in terms of ethnic or racial relations? Here are four things we can do. I’ll expand especially on the final point.
First, be dazzled and changed by this gospel. Mediate on how Christ our Lamb died for our sin, on how He took our punishment for our racist thoughts and deeds. Ponder how Christ our Shepherd came to people unlike Him. Not only to humans - remember, He’s God. But sinful human beings. Jerks like us. He could have kept His distance. But He came close. He pursued us.
Sometimes when you talk about race in the church, people respond, “Why don’t you just preach the gospel? This is a social issue. Not a gospel issue.” But if that’s your view, I don’t know how you could be more confused. That’s because the gospel doesn’t just make us right with God. It makes us right with others. It brings people who would otherwise never be together into loving family.
Listen to these words from my friend, Dr. Jarvis Williams:
“If you don’t believe racial reconciliation is a gospel issue, you have missed understood the gospel: namely, God chose to redeem Jews and Gentiles by the blood of his Jewish Son, Jesus Christ, so that they would be reconciled to God and to each other, within a glorified cosmos in the new heavens and the new earth. Folks, if that’s not racial reconciliation, I don’t know what is and if what I’ve just described to you is not racial reconciliation, then I don’t know what is. There are a lot of features to the “gospel” of Jesus Christ, for which we all should be willing to die (e.g. justification, reconciliation, substitutionary atonement, etc.), and racial reconciliation is one of those issues. When you strip any aspect of the gospel away from the gospel, you lose the gospel. And I would argue, and I have argued, that there is no gospel of Jesus Christ without gospel-centered racial reconciliation, because Jesus, a Jewish God-man, died to reconcile Jews and Gentiles to God and to one another.” (Jarvis Williams)
Do we want to become this reconciled, diverse family here? We must let our hearts and minds be dazzled by this gospel and see it change us.
Second, jump in and get started with praise. This is pretty closely related. Start doing today what you’ll be doing for all eternity. Worship Him. Not just on Sundays. In all of life. Ask Him to help you get your mind off yourself and more fixed on Him. On His wisdom. On His glory. On His power and might. Focus on blessing Him. On thanking Him. And more and more what God wants will shape us. His agenda will then define us. We worship because we’ve been changed. But worship also changes us.
Get in God’s word. Read the Bible with us here in Karis. Show up to hear it preached every week. Focus on the gospel. Praise the Lord for it. Even when you don’t feel like it. And expect God to make you look more like Him.
As you do, you’ll increasingly find yourself around people who aren’t just like you. You’ll look for opportunities to worship alongside people who might have a different skin color, who might have a different accent from yours, who might live in a different part of town. Lift up your hands up to heaven. Reach out to bring others beside you.
Third, dare to hope in His saving work. I’ve wrestled with doubts with the death of my mother. Do I really believe there is life after death? Do I really think I may see her one day again in heaven? It’s hard. But, at the end of the day, yes, I do believe it.
But it was maybe harder to think God could heal our relationship on earth. We see this picture in Revelation. We may not have difficulties seeing all of this in our future. But do we really think God can usher in just a glimpse of it here and now? In our churches? In our cities? Is the gospel that powerful? Is the Holy Spirit really at work?
It’s easier I think for us to stay cynical, to remain skeptical, and to go on tolerating the status quo. Less heartache that way. But what if the gospel is true? What if it changes lives - not just then but now? Why not act and hope?
Fourth, run hard after God’s design. This passage in Revelation 7 shows God’s design for the future. It shows the fruit of Christ’s cross. A reconciled, diverse body. It’s common to say, “Why aren’t we just color-blind?” As Isaac Adams has put it, in one sense God doesn’t see color. We’re all made in His image. He’s shaping us all into a new race in Jesus. But at the same time, the Lord also loves color. He’s made us this way. A diverse church is His plan. And if this is the case, we should do whatever is good and godly to bring this about here and now.
Why Would This Be His Design?
But this might be your question. Why is this God’s design? Why is it so important to the Lord? And why should it matter so much to us? To help us in this answer, I got John Piper’s help from his book, Bloodlines. Read it. Here Piper says that “racial and ethnic diversity and harmony among the redeemed is the God-ordained and blood-bought means of glorifying the grace of God.” He then gives four reasons why this would be the case.
First, he says that “there is a beauty and power of praise that comes from unity in diversity that is greater than that which comes from unity alone.” He uses the illustration of a choir, where vocalists singing different parts gives more depth and beauty than groups singing in unison. Diverse peoples praising Jesus bring Him more glory than if just a homogeneous group praised Him.
Second, he argues that “the fame and greatness and worth of an object of beauty increases in proportion to the diversity of those who recognize its beauty.” He illustrates this by speaking of a work of art that isn’t just recognized as glorious by a “small and likeminded group of people.” It would be hard for that piece to be considered great. He writes, “If a work of art continues to win more and more admirers not only across cultures but also across decades and centuries, then its greatness is irresistibly manifested.”
Third, “the strength and wisdom and love of a leader are magnified in proportion to the diversity of people he can inspire to follow him with joy.” We know this from experience. He or she who can get lots of different types of people with all sorts of different issues to come together - that person is a gifted leader. Jesus will bring the nations together. It will be for His glory.
Fourth, “by focusing his redemption and his mission on all the people groups of the world, God undercuts ethnocentric pride and puts all peoples back upon his free grace rather than any distinctive of their own.” The Lord alone is to be worshipped. He is the only being who can rightly seek His own glory. “God wants us to revel in his grace, not in our goodness.” He wants us to boast in Him and not ourselves, and certainly not our pedigree.
So those are Piper’s four reasons. And I think they’re helpful. Christians are those who depend on God’s grace. Christians are those that long for God’s glory. His glory is seen in a greater way when we are a reconciled, diverse people. With that in mind, I want to take that point just a bit further. What are some ways we can run hard after God’s design? I’m going to give you five ways. And primarily my application here has black and white relationships in mind. That’s given our history as a nation. It’s given our present struggles. But it applies more broadly, certainly.
Pursuing God’s Vision
First, listen and learn. When it comes to race, so many of us have opinions. A conversation escalates into an argument really quickly. Wouldn’t it do us all some good to sit and listen? If a black sister says she doesn’t feel like her life matters in our country, wouldn’t it honor Christ to hear her out? If a black brother says he fears the police, why not listen to his perspective? Maybe it wouldn’t hurt those in the majority to hear some minority voices. If we won’t try to hear and labor to understand different perspectives and experiences, how can we have the kind of unity we see here? None of this is easy. We will have disagreements, for sure. But maybe we should start by being quick to listen.
Second, sacrifice and serve. For this vision to become reality, we’re going to have to lay down our preferences. We’re going to have to embrace discomfort. But this is the way of Jesus, right?
Christena Cleveland, a gifted African-American writer and teacher, admits that she hates diversity. It exposes her “inner control freak.” It exposes her “desire for a easy-breezy Christian life.” It exposes her “privilege.” But she knows she has to resist all of those things. The way of the cross moves us. She writes:
“But thank heavens Jesus doesn’t hold our view of diversity. Where would we be if Jesus had shrugged his shoulders about diversity and said, ‘Being in relationship with people who are different than me? Meh. I can take it or leave it.’ Even though Jesus experienced the ultimate holy huddle with God and Holy Spirit, he chose to leave it so he, the Eternal and Holy One, could pursue meaningful, interdependent, and loving relationship with us – mortal, sinful humans.
Jesus loves diversity. Indeed, he was so passionate about creating a diverse family with us that he crossed metaphysical planes, abdicated his privilege, morphed into physical form, and spent 30 years on earth just hanging out with us – all the while knowing that his pursuit of diversity would ultimately cost him his life.
It’s this truth that compels me to get down on my knees, pray for the Holy Spirit’s conviction, and ask myself hard questions about why I’m resistant to truly living in diverse community. What am I afraid of? How are my fears preventing me from experiencing the richness of the racially diverse family of God? And is God big enough to sustain me as I face my fears?” (Christena Cleveland)
Third, pray and partner. Do we believe that this is what God wants for us? Do we believe that He will empower us? Let’s ask God to work - to bring diversity in our midst, and to bring it into our city. Let’s partner with other believers and churches as much as we can to give a multi-ethnic gospel front to our city. That brings the Lord glory.
At the start, I talked about the desire of church growth gurus to reverse-engineer growth. In a conversation between pastors on the 9 Marks site, they discussed this question: “Can you reverse engineer a multi-ethnic church?” Their answer was, “You really can’t.” No more than you can reverse engineer a mega-church. You can’t just do five steps and, bam, there’s this multi-ethnic vision. Only God can do this. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t act. That’s the point I’m making here today! But true, reconciled diversity is something that only God can do. Therefore, we have to pray.
Fourth, repent and repair. This may be my most controversial point. The Bible teaches we’re broken people. We’re biased against God’s design for our lives. That includes His desire for racial diversity and harmony. You may say, “I’ve never kept someone out of a job” or “I’ve never said that racial slur” or “I’ve never burned a cross.” But we’re all carrying around prejudice. We all have racist thoughts.
And so much of the time, this sin is so subtle. It’s the assumptions we make about people. It’s our instincts when caught by surprise. Jemar Tisby has put it this way: "Racism does not have to be explicit to be egregious. We should, in fact, expect it to operate both subtly and powerfully.” We have to confess these things. We have to repent from them. We have to call out to God and ask us to show us our hearts and give us His grace so we can change.
You may have heard this maxim before, “It’s not a skin problem. It’s a sin problem.” I’m with one of my pastoral heroes, Thabiti Anyabwile. He says that’s absolutely true, but it can also be extremely unhelpful.
“We think too lightly of sin. Many recent discussions of racism provide a good illustration of how we sometimes think lightly of sin. Some people have said, ‘It’s not a skin problem it’s a sin problem.’ Oh, that’s cute. But excuse me, what do you mean by that? Oftentimes people are identifying the problem rightly while going on to treat it lightly. They’re shallow. It’s making sin and the sin of racism an empty rather than an ugly thing. There’s no horror in the statement. No shuddering. No recoiling at its ugliness. They make would could be a profound diagnosis a silly cliché. They’re saying in so many words, ‘It’s just sin.’” (Thabiti Anyabwile)
It’s sin, and it’s ugly. But we aren’t just talking here about personal sins. I’ve been reading this helpful book Divided by Faith by Emerson and Smith. It’s an in-depth study of white evangelical churches and their views on race. Here is one of the most staggering conclusions.
When white, Bible-believing believers think about racism, they almost always only think about it in personal terms, individual acts of racism - and again our understanding of it often doesn’t go too deep. When black, Bible-believing Christians talk about race, they more often talk about it in systemic, social terms. They think of structures and institutions that have allowed racism to exist, continue, and flourish.
What’s my point? We have to be comfortable with it being a both/and thing. We have to listen - I’m speaking mainly to white people now - and learn, once again. We also have to be willing to admit that the deck has been stacked against our black brothers and sisters, and we’ve benefited from that. And we have to roll up our sleeves and try to change things. To ask God to repair us, to repair our land. Otherwise, we’re not going to see Revelation 7 breaking into our midst.
Fifth, then, we must stand and struggle. As Curtiss DeYoung has put it, “Declaring that we are equal without repairing the wrongs of the past is cheap reconciliation.” I’m pro-life. I know many of you are here. Here’s what I don’t think we should say. “I’m personally against abortion. I don’t like it. I’d take the opportunity to tell any woman not to have one. But I’m not going to say anything about the laws that let it happen.” We wouldn’t say that. Most pro-life people wouldn’t. But we do something very similar with race. We say, “I’m against racism. I can’t stand it. I feel compelled to steer people away from it. But the laws, the structures that reflect it and further it - that’s not my place. I’m just going to preach the gospel.” Isn’t that what we often do?
I know there is going to be disagreement over what systems and structures are unjust. I don’t think we have to all find ourselves on exactly the same page. But we should look around and, where we see injustice, we should fight against it. And I think there are ways that we can do this and respect those in authority over us - those charged by God to lead us and protect us.
We should demonstrate we are truly pro-life in all respects. We should stand alongside our brothers and sisters of color. And we should also admit that perhaps, my white brothers and sisters, we don’t see everything as clearly as we think. To return to where I started, maybe we need to listen and learn.
Diversity and Our Mission
Does anybody here carry a Samsung Galaxy Note 7? Of course you don’t. Who wants their pockets to catch on fire, right? Every year, a Harris Poll ranks the 100 most recognizable brands in the U.S. It gauges the “reputation quotient” of companies. Last year, Samsung was ranked number 7. This year, it barely made the top half, coming up at 49th. Yes, if your phone could potentially cause a commercial airline to blow up, it might result in a drop in your reputation!
There’s another factor here that I have to mention as I close. It’s the Lord’s desire that we would reflect His glory to the nations. We, His people, haven’t done well in this area. We haven’t been a reconciled, diverse people before the world. Our reputation has taken a hit. We’ve reflected poorly on His. We’ve ended up going to the world to get help with all of this instead of leading the way.
The answer is found in the gospel. Too often, we’ve failed to live it out. We will be one in Jesus forever. Let’s start acting that way now. Let’s do it before our watching world. Let’s ask the Lord to help us as we endeavor to do it. Join us back here at 6 tonight. We will do exactly that.
In closing, one last thing, though I want to mention. I’ve been talking over and over about what best serves God’s glory. And that is the main thing. But maybe this vision for then and now is for our good, also. We image God together, but we can’t do it well alone. We need black and white, Asian and Latino, male and female, Rebublican and Democrat, to help us see what God is like. This reconciled, diverse vision enriches and blesses us, also. Greatly. Let’s pray.