Perhaps you’ve noticed something lately. Actually, you’ve probably only noticed it if you’ve seen any of the news lately, listened to the radio, logged in to Facebook, read any kind of publication or blog, seen footage from a political debate, been out of your house for more than 5 minutes, or breathed in the past few weeks. So, if you haven’t done any of those things in the past few weeks, no need to keep reading.
For the rest of you, I wonder if you’ve noticed like I have that we live in a pretty divided culture. I asked a friend this week if he thought that was true, and he quickly responded, “We can’t get enough of division. We can’t get enough of categories.” We spend a considerable amount of time in our culture thinking about and writing about and talking about what makes us different. Different ideas, different backgrounds, different ways of talking and living, different religious foundations.
Log on to any neighborhood or community Facebook group and you’ll also see that we have grown to be really highly skilled at labeling our differences. Airing them out, so to speak. We’re very good at finding even the most minute distinctions and exploiting them. It reminds me a bit of when I was in high school, and we lived across the street from identical twins that were a couple years younger than me. I remember one particularly intense “argument” they were having in front of their house that ended with one of them yelling at the other, “You’re ugly!”
The response was maybe even better than the initial attack, “Your MOM’S ugly!” I was in my front yard, and thought about interjecting (“Um, excuse me, you know you two are identical…”) I decided in that instance (for once in my life) that it would be better to keep my mouth shut.
I’ve also noticed recently, and honestly this seems to be on the increase, that there’s a sense of growing fear around difference, a lot of anger around difference, a growing intolerance of difference – people who are different, ideas that are different, cultures that are different. The responses seem to be more and more extreme.
A few years ago, NPR columnist Linton Weeks wrote, “Do Americans disagree about everything? Are we such factious and fractious folks that we just naturally start arguing and choosing sides whenever something comes up? Are we always contentious, never content? Always warring, never loving? Have we reached such a pointed, poisoned, partisan point in our history that any topic, once it rises to the surface of national dialogue, triggers angry standoffs on Facebook and Twitter and everywhere else?”
Last week, we began a new series at our church called #Followers. The question we’re asking ourselves over and over again throughout this series is, “What does it truly mean to be followers of Jesus?” Last week, we said that followers of Jesus do more than just believe in Jesus in their hearts or agree with Jesus intellectually. True followers of Jesus are those who see what Jesus does and try to reproduce that in their own lives. American philosopher Dallas Willard wrote, “A [follower] of Jesus is one who has firmly decided to lead his or her life as Jesus himself would do it. To imagine how Jesus would live his or her life, and to live it that way.”
So, as I think about that question in the light of our growing cultural division, I find myself asking: what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in such a divided and divisive culture? If we dig in a bit to the culture Jesus lived in, an answer to that question begins to emerge.
CULTURAL DIVISION IN THE TIME OF JESUS
The first century, during the lifetime of Jesus, was full of cultural division. For Jewish people in the first century, there were really only two types of people: Jews or Gentiles, who were sometimes also referred to simply as “pagans.” Anyone who wasn’t Jewish was lumped into one category: “Other.”
This was not an uncommon approach. The Greeks took a similar approach to categorizing humanity. To the Greeks, people were either Greek or they were “barbarian.” The word barbarian came from Greek-speaking people denigrating the language of all other people, saying that when anyone spoke anything other than Greek, it sounded like they were just saying “bar bar bar bar.” (I imagine they thought all other languages sounded kind of like the teacher on Charlie Brown.)
Although Jewish people did sometimes interact with “other people” during the course of every day life, there were strict regulations on how and when they could interact. There were regulations and customs for Jews against eating with Gentiles and about how and when and where they could interact with Gentiles.
There’s a story in the book of Acts where Peter, one of the first followers of Jesus, is invited to come into the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, and Peter stops at the door and says, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a jew to associate with Gentiles or visit them.” (Acts 10:28).
Then, within Jewish culture itself, there was division on how best to distinguish or distance oneself from people and cultures that were different. The Pharisees were Jewish religious leaders who tried to distinguish themselves from the “others” with long lists of moral laws and regulations that they followed and tried to enforce. The Zealots often responded to those who were different than they were with violence. The Essenes were a group of people who responded to people who were different by withdrawing to remote places and living in isolation. The Sadducees responded by adopting much of the culture of those who were different. In addition to their attitudes and concerns about Gentiles, each of these groups had disputes with one another about whose way was the right way to live.
To say that there was cultural division during the time of Jesus is an understatement. If you were Jewish during the time of Jesus, not only would you not want to associate with Gentiles, you also would want to spend as little time as possible with people from the other factions within Judaism.
THE CROWDS THAT FOLLOW JESUS
Knowing about the division in culture during the first century makes the earliest description of the crowds following Jesus all that more amazing. In Matthew 4:25 it says, “Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.”
Now, when you and I first read that, we probably think, “No big deal, that’s just a list of places near where Jesus lived.” However, someone reading this or hearing about it in the first century would have stopped dead in their tracks after they read just the first two places there in the same grouping: Galilee and the Decapolis.
Galilee was the region in northern Israel where Jesus lived, the agricultural and fishing region surrounding and on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. It was made up almost exclusively of Jewish people.
The Decapolis was a region on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. It’s name comes from the Greek work for “ten” (deka) and the Greek word for “city” (polis), and it was a league of ten Greek speaking cities.
People from Galilee would have thought people from the Decapolis were unclean, impure, pagans. People from the Decapolis would have thought people from Galilee were backwards, uncivilized, barbarians. This is like saying Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and their campaign staffs have started hanging out together, only more extreme than that. These are two groups of people who lived very close to one another geographically, but culturally couldn’t have been farther apart. They had no desire, ever, to spend time together.
Yet for some reason, in Jesus, they found something, someone, worth following. And they followed together in a way that didn’t ordinarily make sense.
WHAT WE HAVE IN COMMON
If you look back to the previous two verses in that same story, there’s a clue or two as to what the people found in common. Matthew 4:23-24 say this, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them.”
Jesus went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
When it comes to life, there are two things that we all have in common. The first is this: Every single one of us is broken in some way, imperfect, in need of healing. No matter where we come from or where we’ve been, we can all be counted as part of the “all who were ill” listed above. There are no exceptions to that.
And the second is that the grace and love of Jesus are available to all people without cultural boundary. No amount of effort on our part can lead us to reach perfection. And no amount of imperfection on our part can separate us from the healing power of Jesus. Jesus proclaimed the good news of the kingdom and healed people without regard to cultural or geographical or philosophical or ideological borders.
One of my favorite scenes in all of Scripture is in Revelation 7, where it says, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’”
I love the thought of a multitude of people from every possible category, every potential division of people, united fully and wholly around the throne of God. A multitude of people that no one can count from every imaginable place who are one in focus, desire, mission, purpose. It’s powerful, it’s beautiful, but is it possible?
I know that reading this right now are people who are different or who disagree on almost every conceivable issue. I also sense that there is a growing number of people who are growing weary of division, who are no longer content with sharp partisan divides, who are longing for something more in this life. Is it possible that people who are different, people who disagree, could unite around anything in a culture like ours? What might that look like?
SINGING THE GOOD NEWS OF THE KINGDOM
A few years ago, I was on a high school choir tour with a group of youth from the church where I served as youth minister. The choir had a tradition that at the end of every concert, they would encircle the people in the room and sing the last song to them in the round. Their last song was always a song called “Wings of the Dawn,” which was based on Psalm 139.
This particular concert, the last of the tour, was at a facility for adults with special needs. Many of them were in wheelchairs, had varying mental capacities, and most were not able to verbally communicate or to care for themselves. There was a stark difference in the room between the vibrant youthfulness of the teenage students in the choir and the adults at the facility.
When it came time for the last song, the choir encircled the room and joined hands, as they typically did, and began singing the song. I looked around the room to take it all in and noticed something different, something beautiful, happening a few rows in front of me. Hannah was a sophomore in high school, and rather than joining her friends in the circle around the room, she had stepped a few rows into the crowd, knelt down by a man in a wheelchair, embraced him, and begun quietly singing the words of the song into his ear.
Here was Hannah, a beautiful high school girl singing to someone starkly different, a man who likely gets little attention in society because of how he looks. And into his ear, she softly sang the words of the Psalm, “You created me within, you knit me in my mother’s womb, I praise you for I am fearfully made, your works are wonderful. If I rise on wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”
She was literally embracing their differences and singing the words of God in his ear. As the story from Matthew 4 says, she was “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.” And I have to believe that the healing presence of Jesus was there in some way.
After the concert ended, I found her and hugged her, and I’ll admit I was a puddle of tears. I told her that had to be one of the most beautiful things I’d ever witnessed in my life. It’s a moment I’ll never forget, and in fact my eyes tear up every time I tell that story even today.
I think what’s so powerful about that story for me is it’s an illustration of the very thing that Jesus does for every one of us. In our difference, in our weakness, in our brokenness, he doesn’t judge us or yell at us or reject us, he embraces us and proclaims the good news of the kingdom to us. He quietly sings into our ears, “You are wonderfully made.” And if we’re his followers, that’s what we’ll do as well.
When we’re faced with differences, there are a variety of possible responses that we can have. Fear. Anger. Hatred. A sense of vengeance. An unwillingness to try to understand. Rejection. When Jesus was faced with differences, when Jesus was faced with hurting and broken and imperfect people, even those who may have otherwise hated him for his nationality, who may have disagreed vehemently with his politics, even those who may have eventually approved of his execution on a cross, he healed them. He proclaimed the good news of the kingdom to them and he healed them.
There are many people and many ways of thought that we can follow. We’re given a lot of options in this world, but if we are trying to figure out what it means to be followers of Jesus, then we are doing our very best to watch what he did, to learn from what he did, and to try to do that in our own lives. To live our lives as if Jesus himself were living them.
So, today, as you read this: what’s your first response to people who are different? To people who come from somewhere unlike where you’ve come from? To people who have different ideas, different assumptions, different ways of life, values, backgrounds? Jesus embraced people from starkly different backgrounds, he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom to them, and he healed them.
Every week at our church, we close our service with a time of communion and prayer. In communion, we find a tangible and powerful way forward in a culture as divided as ours. Communion has a mysteriously beautiful way of uniting people. You see, when we come to God’s table, we come as equals. We share in one loaf of bread, the same body of Christ that’s broken for each of us. And we share in one cup, the same blood of Christ that’s poured out for each one of us equally. The communion table is God’s table. It’s not my table or your table or our church’s table, but it’s God’s table, and everyone is invited equally to eat at God’s table.
Know that as I write this, I’m saying this prayer over each one of you who reads it, and I hope you’ll pray it with me as you read.
“God, we thank you that you are a God who loves without condition, that Jesus is a healer who heals without regard for who we are, and who proclaims the good news of the Kingdom to anyone with ears to hear. May you heal us this day in ways we never dreamed possible. Pour out your Holy Spirit on us even as we gather together on the internet or in our homes or wherever we might be together. By your Spirit, make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world. We pray these things in the uniting name of Jesus. Amen.”