Race and the Gospel

jackie robinsonOn the wall of my office hangs a picture of Jackie Robinson stealing home during a Dodgers game in 1947. I like the message it sends about courage and taking risks, but more importantly I like the message it sends about how Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the game of baseball, pioneering a way through the racial tensions in our country. It can be argued that this event opened up the possibility for the Civil Rights Movement. In 2004, Major League Baseball declared each subsequent April 15th “Jackie Robinson Day.” On this day, I am reminded that few people have done more for racial reconciliation and equality than Jackie Robinson. Except Jesus.

The Dividing Wall

Imagine for a moment that you are a Gentile living in first century Palestine. You’ve grown up with Jewish friends, in a Jewish world, surrounded by a Jewish way of life. As part of that life, your friends participate in temple worship. Out of curiosity, you follow them to the temple one day. As you come close to the Temple Mount, you begin to get excited. Your friends have told you about the experience of worship, and the anticipation builds as you imagine what it might be like to encounter Israel’s God.

As you arrive, you are surprised by a sign on the wall of the temple. Looking a bit closer, your heart drops as you read the words: “Gentiles enter upon pain of death.”

You’ve just encountered one of the most egregious experiences of racial segregation in history. The temple, created as a house of prayer for all nations (see Isaiah 56), had become an exclusionary place of worship, guarded by a series of courts which kept certain groups of people (Gentiles, women, etc.) from getting near the Holy of Holies. The Court of the Gentiles was the outer-most court of the temple and kept every non-Jew on the outskirts. But this racial discrimination extended beyond temple worship. If you were a Gentile, a Jew would be considered unclean if he stepped into your house. If you were a Gentile woman in labor, Jews were not allowed to help you through childbirth. The list goes on.

One in Christ

Enter Jesus. He healed a Roman Centurion’s son. He told a story where a Samaritan (a Gentile half-breed despised by Jews) was the hero. And he, in Paul’s words, “broke down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility (picture the wall in the temple which kept the Gentiles out)…that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body…for through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:14-18).

Jesus died in order to kill the hostility between Jew and Gentile. In Galatians 3, he says there is no longer “Jew or Greek.” The cross is where all racial hostilities cease. Paul says that both groups (Jew and Gentile; also black and white, American and Iraqi, etc.) have the same access to the Father. If we have the same Father, that makes us brothers and sisters. And this despite differences in ethnicity, socio-economic status, and other worldly divisions.

The idea is that you have more in common with an Iraqi who follows Jesus than you do your own brother or sister if they don’t follow Jesus. It also means that despite whatever differences you have (skin color, country of origin, etc.), those differences are not as important as the one thing you do have in common with believers of other races – Jesus.

Seeing Like Jesus

So, the gospel breaks down racial barriers. It redefines what family and citizenship means. That’s why in the next verse of Ephesians, Paul says that we are “fellow citizens with the saints, members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).

So live like it. Whatever your color or background – the gospel calls us to care for all of the nations and love one another like Jesus loved us. If we are going to be gospel people, we must see one another as God sees us. God loves all people the same, regardless of color. Race should never be a barrier. This is what Jackie Robinson Day is all about.

For the Christian, this is what every day is about.