We could speak of all the difficult texts of the Bible, of the expulsion of the Canaanites from the land and the slaying of the Amalekites. We could speak of “texts of terror” as the biblical scholar Phyllis Trible has written. And perhaps you and I will speak of these, one day. But these days my thoughts go to new creation. It is perhaps Paul’s most powerful theological insight: that in Jesus Christ a new creation transpired. One in which there is “no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). In this new creation, there is no room for the ancient hatreds of racism and anti-Semitism. We are all one.
Christians seeking to respond to hatred have rich resources in biblical theology. To choose just a few among many, consider how the dramatic arc of Acts always pushes towards greater inclusion of the Gentiles. The fiery tongues of Pentecost were nothing less than the outpouring of the Holy Spirit enabling all nations to hear the Gospel. In Acts 10, Peter is led by a strange vision to the Gentile centurion Cornelius. Peter’s vision revealed a sheet full of unclean animals. A voice urged Peter to “kill and eat” the animals. Peter protests: “By no means Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice responds: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” There was no more division between Jew and Gentile; God had settled that. Peter remarks, incredibly, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” And yet so many voices in our world cry out that their neighbor is “unclean”—unworthy of communion.
Paul, writing to the church at Ephesus, tells these Gentile believers that there used to be a time when their status as uncircumcised people made them “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). But a new time has come. Paul, the violent and vociferous opponent of this fledgling Jesus movement, this man who was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5)…this man Paul had himself experienced alienation from God. He had a violent and earth-shattering experience in which he met the risen Christ. And all of the old paradigms in which he lived were thrown out. Of this Christ, Paul would write that “he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [Gentiles and Jews] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Eph. 2: 13-14).
What a metaphor. A wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile which has been “broken down.” You can’t read that seriously and be an anti-Semite. But there is a deeper truth afoot in these texts, namely, that in Jesus, God broke down all idolatrous barriers between people groups. At Ahavath Achim Synagogue last Saturday, I taught this lesson at a table of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. A participant remarked that he had to admit that he associated Southern Baptists with the ugly hatred of Charlottesville. I told him that we are in the South, and that we are Baptists, but that we aren’t that kind of Baptist. Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 after Georgia Baptists unsuccessfully attempted to have a slaveholder approved as a missionary with the Home Mission Society of the Triennial Convention. It makes a difference when Christians talk honestly about their faith with their neighbor. When we can look each other in the eye and say “that’s not who I am, but I could see why you might suspect otherwise before you met me,” a relationship flourishes. In those moments, we get a taste of new creation.
God was in Christ, Paul tells us in his second letter to the church at Corinth. What do you think God was doing in Christ? Dying for us so that we might proclaim enmity and hatred against our neighbor? Suffering for us so that we might believe that only white nationalism is the answer to our economic and societal woes? No. God was in Christ “reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor. 5:19). All of this comes about because God has made the world anew in some unfathomable way with what happened on the Cross.
What’s that? A message of reconciliation? That sounds dangerous. That sounds like it might cost us something. That sounds…like Jesus.