Editor’s Note: I’m at the #Thriving/Frequency conference in Philadelphia this weekend. Lord willing, I’ll bring some live blogging (is that still a thing?) to The Front Porch. These will be raw notes and something approaching rough transcripts. They won’t be edited and the reader is cautioned to check out the audio when it’s available so that context and meaning can be maintained.
Tonight, Bryan Loritts preached the closing plenary. His subject was based on Peter’s interaction with the Gentiles Simon the tanner and Cornelius in Acts 9:43-11:1. It’s the best sermon I think I’ve ever heard Bryan preach. It’s a model of patient, careful, insightful, applicational, and exhortatory exposition.
I’m not a sociologist but I praise God for the field of sociology. Unashamedly I am a preacher of the gospel. But the word of the Lord has profound social implications. I want to show you these implications as we continue to wrestle with what it means to be a “woke church.”
Acts 9:43–“And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner.”
We cannot understand Acts 10 unless we understand something about the house in which Peter was staying.
17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate 18 and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. 19 And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” 21 And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for. What is the reason for your coming?” 22 And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So he invited them in to be his guests.
Watch the ethnic and power implications here. Cornelius is a Gentile. Peter is Jewish. God sends a minority of the oppressed demographic to share the gospel with his oppressor.
Watch for the crabs in the barrel syndrome in Acts 11:1. “Now the apostles and the brothers[a] who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party[b] criticized him….”
It was the great liberator and emancipator, Harriet Tubman, this Jesus-loving diminutive woman, who risked her life for the sake of others who penned these words: “If you are tired keep going. If you are scared keep going. If you are hungry keep going. If you want to taste freedom keep going.”
My parched soul has drunk deeply from these words over the many years I’ve spent as a weary immigrant in the land of white evangelicalism. I’ve had to preach the gospel to myself to tell myself to “keep going.” I was first called “nigger” in Bible college. The first time I heard the word was not from a white redneck but a colleague of mine who studied along with me out of the Scofied Study Bible. With a venom, his words punctured my soul. I could feel the tears trickle down my face. I had to remind myself, “Keep going.”
More disheartening was not the word spoken to me but when I appealed to help from the power structure at the school, who happened to be white, they reminded me they had no hate speech policy. I complained. But they didn’t like my attitude. I discovered four years later that one of them wrote on my recommendation letter to seminary that I was a racist. I had to remind myself, “Keep going.”
I can’t tell you how many times I felt like Ralph Ellison’s nameless character in the Invisible Man as I sat in the hallowed halls of white seminaries and not once was I required to read a text from someone that looked like me. I had to remind myself to “Keep going.”
In the various preaching courses I sat in, not once did I hear about Gardner Taylor or E.V. Hill or Caesar Clark or A. Lewis Patterson. The heroes in those classes were middle aged or deceased men like Spurgeon, etc. I had to remind myself to “Keep going.”
When I landed in Memphis to plant a church to preach the gospel in its horizontal and vertical dimensions, I had white members stand up and leave whenever I talked about justice. I had to remind myself, “Keep going.”
I’ve planted multi-ethnic church with multi-ethnic elder boards, I had to watch out for the power and plantation dynamics. Watch out for those who would not stand up and speak truth to power. I’ve dealt with elders who tried to keep their thumbs on me and I had to remind myself, “Keep going.”
At a recent evangelical conference I was approached by a well-known preacher who came up to me after my sermon with these words, “Bryan, I’m so glad to meet you. I loved your sermon. I’m surprised to hear how gospel-centered it was.” I had to remind myself, “Keep going.”
Ed Gilbreath’s seminal work, Reconciliation Blues, likens us to bridges. And he reminds us that a bridge by definition is something that gets stepped on. How do we minister to an ethnically different people while remaining who I am ethnically without losing myself and having a Jonah syndrome infect my soul. Jonah reminds us we can be a covenant people ordained and racist at the same time. How can I minister where I don’t stand and wield the Bible to an ethnically different people like a knife to wound them but wield it like a scalpel so that it cuts but heals them?
Many of you will go back to your various settings, some of those gentrifying. Gentrification is complicated; I understand that. But it’s mind-numbing. Some of you wanting to plant in a gentrifying setting, I want to encourage you not to think there are not gospel preaching churches there already. If you do you will be commit spiritual colonization.
The very presence of white people will mean better food—Whole Foods. There’s this angst in you: How can I have not just indignation but righteous indignation. You should have righteous indignation, but make sure it’s framed in love.
Scholars call Acts 10 the Gentile Pentecost. The Jewish Pentecost is Acts 2. This is the unleashing of the gospel in an unprecedented mass way on Gentiles. God in his sovereign irony decides that he will send a minority Jew to be the carrier of the gospel to the power structure roman centurions house to bring about widespread change. Any fair reading and exegesis of this text gives us the outpouring of the gospel—the spiritual realm—but we must also see the profound spiritual implications. That God would choose to use a minority to speak truth to power and be the emancipator of those in power shows the foolishness of the gospel.
But God has a problem. It’s as if God says to Peter, “Peter, you don’t know this. But I’m readying you to take the gospel to people who do not like you. They have abused you. Peter, my gospel is powerful but I don’t want you to be an impediment to my work. So, Peter, there are some things in you that need to get worked out. I could preach a sermon to you and you’d get it. Maybe give you a book to read and you’d get it. But to fish these prejudices out of you, a book ain’t gon do it. Conferences aint’ gon do it. Downloading some mp3s ain’t gon do it. Peter, I’m going to need you to be in close community with a man named Simon the tanner.”
Simon is a tanner. It means he makes his living working with dead animals. The very fact that he does this means he is not a Jewish.
Jews didn’t go into the homes of Gentiles. You just didn’t do this. We’d wave at you. Talk about you behind your back. But we ain’t going to live with you. God says, “change your plans. Peter there is some prejudice in you that the way I’m going to get at it is to put you in close community with the very ones you don’t like. I can’t have you going over there in unrighteous anger. Peter, I need you to hang out with Simon.”
It was Larry Costen (?), great president of Urban Youth Workers Institute, “We hurt in isolation but we heal in community.” The problem with the body o Christ today, it is obvious from Facebook posts and comments on blogs, that we don’t have Simon the tanners in our lives. Need I remind you that human flesh is not your enemy. For we wrestle now against flesh and blood.
I know y’all aren’t going to shout on this. White evangelicals make me itch. If I’m not filled with the Holy Spirit I have a problem with them. They can be flippant, condescending. The stuff that comes out of their mouths. The excuses they make. If I’m not living in close community with some Simon the tanners I will be unredemptively Black.
As a matter of my sanctification, and it pains me to say this, I need white folks in my life. I hate to say this because my great-great-grandfather, Peter, was a slave. But if I don’t have white, Hispanic and Asian brothers—proximity breeds intimacy; distance breeds suspicion. It’s easy to lob grenades at folks you don’t know. So when I’m tempted to write off all white people the Holy Spirit will bring to mind one of my mentors—a mayonnaise sandwich eating redneck from the Ozark Mountains who takes me duck hunting once a year, but who also calls me shis pastor and follows my leadership and apologizes to me. We’ve been in community 14 years. Every time I want to say “That’s just white folks,” God will direct my attention to a Simon the tanner.
There’s McClain Wilson. His grandfather started Holiday Inn. He’s worth millions. He joined my church in Memphis and followed my leadership. As we began to talk I began to challenge him about his membership at an all-white golf club. A couple weeks later I asked him if he would leave. He said, “No, but I got you a membership if you want in.” I said, “I don’t feel a Jackie Robinson anointing.” We’ve had robust conversations about the segregationist history of his grandfather’s business. We’ve talked and for years quietly behind the scenes he’s built houses and gave zero-percent loans to African Americans to help get them on their feet. He says we’ve got to talk about gospel restitution.
What changed him was the collision of his being a Simon the tanner with me and me being one with him. If all the people in your life look like you, act like you, and vote like you, your presuppositions and biases are not being challenged but entrenched. MSNBC folks need Fox News folks and CNN folks need them all.
So what do we need to be woke to? First, I need to be woke to my own prejudices and biases.
Second, I need ot be woke to ethnic tribalism. Acts 11 is heartbreaking. Peter, this Jew, is following the call of God. He preaches the gospel. Cornelius the gentile and his entire household come to faith in Jesus. They’re speaking in tongues. And you would think celebration. No. Word gets back to the circumcision party, Jewish Christians, and the text says they “criticized him.” Why? Not because of the gospel. But, “How dare you go and be with those Gentiles.” It is a version of calling Peter an “Uncle Tom.” I wish this were no longer relevant. But ethnic tribalism still exists. And I want to preach its eulogy right now.
I grow up in the Black Church. Bishop Kenneth Ulmer is my pastor. I’m at home with him and B3 organs. The church I grew up in didn’t have air conditioning. We had a little wooden stick, with a white cardboard deal, a picture of Dr. King, and a funeral home on it. We knew we were about to die. That’s home.
In the spring of 1988 I was minding my own business. God called me from the chocolate church to the vanilla church. At the same time, I make no apologies, I always assumed I’d marry a black woman. I get a half-Irish, half-Mexican, all fine woman. Those two decisions came down in the span of about six weeks. My own people called me “uncle Tom.” Over the years, pastoring multi-ethnic churches, other black pastors say stuff to me like, “when you gon’ come back home?” As if following Jesus ain’t home. I’ve had my blackness questioned because I use words like “genuflect” and “coalesce.”
There’s a sociological construct popularized in Crossover Preacher called “the blackness that whiteness created.” Black people historically has always measured the veracity of one’s blackness by it’s proximity the whiteness. The closer to whiteness the less black I am; the farther away the more black. The irony of this construct is it uses whiteness as its benchmark. The very thing you’re trying to attack you’re empowering. This leads to ethnic tribalism.
Don’t you ever let someone question your call. I’m 40-somehting years old. In the words of Bernie Mac, “I ain’t scared of y’all.” You know I cleaned that up.
I’ve been a victim of this and I’ve done it as well. I did it to Thabiti. I’ve apologized. We’ve talked and had dinner for hours. By the way, I’m a big believer of apologizing in the same forum in which you sinned.
How do we get beyond this?
Galatians 3 says in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free. He is not saying there’s an adrogynyzing of humanity. How could he? He’s the guy who gives us the longest passages on husbands and wives. He is saying that in Christ what is essential is not ethnicity but Jesus. This is not colorblindness. If you believe that you haven’t read Rev. 5 and 7. The gest way I can describe it is that now in Christ I am “redemptively black.” I put “Black” in the noun position and “redemptively” in the adjective position. So the adjective modifies my blackness. When I do this, no more ethnic tribalism. No more crabs in the barrel.
I used to say back in the day, “Praise God for Dr. Mason. He’s Allen Iverson and I’m Theo Huxtable. He grew up in the hood and I grew up in the cul-de-sac.”
Third, we want to be woke—Peter says, “Here’s why I keep going: I saw the power of God falling on sinners through me, a sinner.” What keeps us going is the incredible power of the gospel.
Here’s where I take issue with James Cone. I love Dr. Cone. But he says the gospel is only for the oppressed. Then he must cut off Acts 10, Jonah, and the cross where the gentile centurion begs for forgiveness. The gospel is not just for the lynched but for the lynch mob. This is what centurions like Cornelius represents.
You be careful. Those gentrifying urban hipsters need Jesus too.
Two men walked into an art gallery one day. One of them was a world-famous chess player. They walk into the art gallery right as it was closing. The security guard tells them they must hurry. They hurry until they get to a picture of two people playing chess called “Checkmate.” One keeps going and the other continues looking at it and studying it. His friend turns and says hurry up. The friend says, “Don’t you see this painting. It’s called checkmate but this game is not over because the king still has one more move. As long as the King has one more move the game is not over.”
The King of Heaven hung on the cross, was buried in a tomb, and three days later rose from the grave. He sits now reigning in heaven and He always has one more move! As long as He does, you keep going and don’t lose hope!