A House For All Nations
Why do we have so many churches of different ethnicities?
- Practical reasons: if you have moved to another country your mastery of the language may not be quite good enough to understand the pace at which an English service, for example, is delivered. Just stop and think: if you have a smattering of French for your holiday and you try it out, when people reply you will probably find you only understand a couple of words. French people talk so fast! That is exactly the same for other people who speak English as a second language. To go to a church of your ethnicity provides one point in the week when you can just relax and be comfortable in your own language, but you can also worship freely and without having to internally translate what is going on. You can express yourself to God; you are free to worship.
- Cultural reasons: if you are in a foreign country, you may well need some reassurance and a touch of home, just to help you through the week. Worshipping as you might at home may help and give confidence as you become used to an alien land. As British people, many of us would feel culturally uncomfortable in a service in a Catholic or Anglican church; we wouldn’t know the routine or the page to turn to, or all the prayers that everyone else can recite from memory. But at least we can understand what is being said.
- People have been made unwelcome. I think a strength of Emmanuel is that you can’t walk through the doors and not be welcomed by numerous people, wherever you are from. If you speak to the Iranian young men who have come through the church, they will tell you of the welcome and love they have received from the church – and you will find Wanda has been central to that. However, speak to Sally about the welcome she received on coming to this country in the 1950s, and you will get another picture. Sadly, the attitudes expressed then are still around. Black majority churches began because those who came over on the Windrush were not made welcome in white churches. So much for being one in Christ Jesus.
The big question is, can the church actually cope with people from every language, tribe and nation coming together and worshipping in a mix of languages and styles, remaining united? That is difficult and some may say impossible – but I think it is worth working at. In doing so we need to be prepared for church not always to be as we want it – and swallow our stubbornness and pride.
The reason I think we should work at it – and by church I don’t mean what we do in an hour on a Sunday – is because the Bible tells us that the Kingdom of God is and will be like that. Isaiah tells us that those who come seeking God will not be turned away – even eunuchs. That in itself is significant because they were emasculated and therefore considered unworthy to come before God. One of the things we need to realise and be repentant for is the fact that European – including British – Christianity has treated other nations as unworthy and less than human. This is made clear when you read accounts of former slaves or listen to the insights of those who have experienced British or European rule. It is painful and sometimes dreadful reading and not the history we have learned in school. We only have to seriously read the gospels to understand that the ones whom Jesus considered unworthy were those belonging to the religious establishment. His encounters with those they rejected show he definitely thought the outcast, Samaritans and even Romans were acceptable in the Kingdom of God.
Think back to the pictures of Jesus I showed last week. One of the reasons why other cultures need to imagine Jesus looking as they do, is because the image of a European Jesus is one of white domination. Jesus, who looks like that, is not sympathetic to those who are oppressed, but a symbol of those who oppress. Now this may be hard for us to swallow, but it is true. This is another reason for different ethnic churches.
Let’s consider the matter of ‘a house of prayer for all nations’. What was the significance of Jesus’ action in clearing the temple? For insights into this, I am indebted to Malcolm Patten, one of the ministers at Blackhorse Road Baptist Church in East London.
Jesus could not go into a church today and start casing a rumpus as he did in the temple. He would be arrested and charged with criminal damage. But something really got to Jesus as he went into the temple and looked around. I think his anger was motivated by an extreme sense of injustice because what he saw denied the prophecy of Isaiah. The idea that all nations could come and worship God was not new to Isaiah but part of the covenant of Abraham. The call on Abraham included the fact that he would become a blessing to all nations and Isaiah picks this up in his prophecy. Isaiah gives us a bit more. The foreigner will be included in the worship of the Lord and there is no hint the foreigner will be second class. Those considered unworthy will be included in the worship of the Lord, the reference to eunuchs. Other outcasts in Israel will be included in the worship of the Lord. This is not an exclusive place of worship, but inclusive.
Jesus encountered blatant exclusivity in the temple. It was a place of segregation. The outer courtyard was a place where anyone who worshipped the God of Israel could gather.
- Fully fledged Jews could pass through into the inner courtyard.
- Only Jewish men could pass beyond this to the next court.
- The only place Gentiles could worship was the outer courtyard which had become cluttered with the business of selling sacrifices and changing money into the temple currency – and of course there was an exchange rate.
How could the Gentiles join in with worship if their space was filled with those doing business. Effectively they were pushed out and excluded. The temple authorities didn’t care about it being a house for all nations and discriminated against those who were not full Jews. This I suggest was why Jesus was so incensed. In his statement he ratifies the words of Isaiah – as he has done throughout his ministry. He has actively been bringing in the eunuchs and the outcasts, expanding the context to those outside of Israel.
If we jump forward to Acts 2, we find that from all over the known world there are Jews and those who converted who have come to Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival. No doubt there were others in the mix. But look where they came from:
- Asia – this is largely the area of Turkey but stretching further east.
- Mesopotamia, which includes Iraq and Iran.
- Northern Africa – Libya and Egypt are specifically mentioned
- Rome is mentioned.
- Phillip encounters a court official – a eunuch – from Ethiopia.
Here we have the basis of a diverse church as all these people go back to their home nations and begin to tell others and follow Jesus. A house for all nations. These areas have had Christian worshippers for far longer than Europe. They went to Jerusalem to worship together regardless of nationality; they were united in their worship of the one true God. I’m not saying there were not ethnic tensions, that would be naive given the history of the human race. However they were united as they gathered to celebrate the deliverance of God. They went home having entered into the salvation of God through Jesus Christ and the focus point of their unity had shifted.
Paul writing to the Galatians said that they were all one in Christ Jesus. No distinctions based on superiority, no separation according to sex; no segregation according to status or nationality. Our unity in Christ is based on the fact that God loved the whole world; that Jesus died for the whole world; that all kneel equally before the cross; that all enter the Kingdom of God on equal terms and work and worship in the Kingdom on equal terms. Well that’s the theory and easy for me to say. I have never faced discrimnation because of my sex or ethnicity. I have not faced obstacles because I don’t fit the right profile. Some would say – as someone did to my brother once – that my career in education only ran smoothly because I was a young white male. There was probably some truth in that. It might even be the case for my time serving as a minister – I have fitted the right profile. I do know of churches that will not select a woman for their pastor. Sadly there will be churches which will filter out applicants according to nationality. This should not be the case in the church of Jesus Christ. Jesus would have gone into those churches and done the equivalent of overturning the tables and driving out those who prevented them being a house of prayer for all nations.
Jesus clearly demonstrated in his ministry and ultimately in his death that all are welcome in the Kingdom of God. Jesus didn’t die for one group more than another. The Holy Spirit has never designated one group superior to another. European theology has in the past interpreted the Bible to indicate that the Spirit did do this and used it to justify treating women and other ethnicities as less deserving, less important or even less than human. We cannot change the past or even be held responsible for it. However, we can change the present and the future. Just as we never stop growing and learning as disciples of Jesus Christ, so we never stop growing and learning how to be the house of prayer for all nations that Jesus desired. To think we have arrived is to stagnate and grow stale. As the make up of the church changes and grows, we will always have something to learn from another Christian’s experience.
The picture painted in Revelation is the nations of the world, the different languages and cultures of the world coming together in worship of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That process begins on earth: ‘Your Kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.’ It should begin with the church of Jesus Christ.
How do we move forward?
- We need to examine our own thoughts and attitudes and be prepared to change those dishonouring to our Saviour. At the end of the day he was a Palestinian Jew and not from our culture. How can we say we accept him, that we love him, but then look down upon brothers and sisters from other ethnicities.
- We need to be able to listen to each other, and perhaps change long held interpretations of Scripture, or add to our understanding and grasp of Scripture. We need to surrender our hidden prejudices and truly see each other as equal family members, loved and saved by Jesus.
- We can take steps in that process as we share in communion together, confessing our sins to God and receiving again the cleansing power of Jesus through the Holy Spirit.