16 of us were standing on a platform against the wall outside Stephen’s Gate (aka Lion’s Gate) in Jerusalem. The Al Aqsa mosque had just ended morning services and people were streaming out of the gate. There were so many people exiting that entering was impossible. So we waited and we watched, for 45 minutes. I don’t know why zoo comes to mind, but if it is any kind of description, we were the caged creatures and they were the passing observers. We looked out of place in our tourist clothes and backpacks. Coming out of the gate were men dressed in their worship attire, children asking their parents for treats from the stands that lined the exit streets, and women in full length burkas in the hot August heat. I cannot imagine how so many people could have fit in that mosque! There wasn’t even room to cross between them. In some ways, it reminded me of standing outside the Rose Garden after a Blazer’s game. In other ways, it was as surreal. I won’t say we huddled against the wall, but our elevated platform did keep us close to one another and distant from them. We were with Jewish guides, who had repeatedly expressed their disdain for the very people we were watching pass us by.
I am very comfortable in cross-cultural environments. I like people. I have something in me bold enough to think people like me. Prior to that day, I don’t think I had ever been in a place where I didn’t feel I could amble into a crowd and engage strangers in conversation. But there on the platform by the gate, I was as estranged from this river of humanity as I have ever felt; 5 feet and a bottomless cultural chasm away. It was us and them.
Us and them. Isn’t it amazing how many ways we divide ourselves into us and them? We do it in terms of our race, politics, education, work, social status, living places,.. you name it. It is how we segregate ourselves into comfortable, safe enclaves and where we go to keep a challenging world at arm’s length. It is our inner circle. In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the inner circle as a place that is defined not by who is in it, but by who is not in it. It is a culture of exclusion. We name our enemies. We name those who don’t fit inside. We justify ourselves in doing so. We have no problem determining the rightness of our exclusions. Us and them.
It has been said that the most segregated place in America is the church. Our church growth experts have taught us that we can attract the most people if we stay focused on a particular demographic. As Christian consumers, we volunteer our allegiance to churches with people who look like us, think like us, and talk like us. But that is not worship, it is narcissism. And this is not a relic of the mega church movement, but is alive and well in the new missional church movement, having the same focus but an even more narrowed demographic. Multi-ethnic, multi-generational churches are an exception. And us and them rhetoric, even regarding our enmity with one another, dots conversations in the church. And not regarding believers and non-believers, which is bad enough, but between believers of differing demographics.
The Acts church was not like this. From what we read in Scripture, one of the great testimonies of the church was its diversity. From the outset, 3,000 people of differing tongues and cultures were welcomed as brothers and sisters. The examples we see of houses worshipping are multi-generational. The Pentecost believers were from differing cultures, but at least they were all Jewish, so they did share that culture. But throughout the remainder of the book of Acts, and into the epistles, the Jewish Christians wrestled with the reality that God was not bound by culture or faith, bringing even pagan gentiles into the family of God. The defining characteristics of most churches seemed to be location, not demographics. And where there were struggles, the epistles encouraged the believers to overcome the differences and celebrate the unity that God was forming. The Kingdom of God was defined by people of God from every nation under Heaven..
The Bible is not silent on God’s challenge to us and them…
Your brothers and sisters in Christ…
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, ESV)
For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14, ESV)
“You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9, ESV)
“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him.” (Exodus 23:4, ESV)
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Matthew 5:44, ESV)
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16, ESV)
In the Book of Revelation, the Lamb is celebrated for bringing people of every tribe, language, people and nation into the Kingdom.
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…” (Rev 5:9)
Our eternal family is going to be full of diversity from every nation; ancient, present and future. How good would it be to embrace our Kingdom family in worship here, on this side of eternity.