Many years ago, when I was still in seminary, I briefly served a small, country church as their Children’s Pastor. Despite being inexperienced and constitutionally ill-suited to that particular calling, I had one significant advantage - our church was the only congregation in that small town that had a children’s ministry (monopoly can cover a multitude of sins). After a few months, that congregation - which typically only saw a hundred or so members on a given Sunday - had thirty boys and girls coming forward for the children’s sermon!
As I was leaving church at the end of a particularly successful Sunday, the chairman of deacons - a regal man in his late 70s - approached me. “You’ve been doing a fine job, young man,” he said (I beamed), “but I have one thing I’d like you to work on.”
“Of course! What is it?” I said, full of youthful enthusiasm.
“I’d like to see a few more pretty, white faces coming down for the children’s sermon.”
Old habits die hard. But they are nothing compared to old prejudices. The American South is still recovering from two centuries of racism and bigotry, and sadly the church has often done more harm than good.
Jerusalem during the time of the early church had its own problems with race. A deeply-ingrained culture taught that Gentiles were not to be trusted. They were oppressors, slavers, and idolaters - people beyond God’s love or grace. As Peter returns from Cornelius’ house, you can hear some echoes of that old, racist deacon in their criticism: “You went to a Gentile’s house? You ATE with him!?”
But they listened. They heard a story - not of Peter’s “mistake,” but of a grace so great that it could save even their worst enemies, their most hated rivals. And instead of scheming to keep the Gentiles out of the church, they fell to their knees and praised God and His mercy.
One day, God willing, the scars of racism in our nation may be healed. But there will always be animosity between people. There will always be those who believe they are better than others. There will always be someone eager to draw a line separating “us” from “them.” This story reminds us that such thinking has no place in the church. In God’s Kingdom we are called to love our neighbor - even our enemy - as ourselves. Our compassion should be as boundless as our Lord’s grace. His mercy has no prejudice. Neither should we.