Sunday January 15, 2023 | Greg Boyd
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!”
In remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr., Greg engages the teaching of King to challenge the church to continue God’s call to tear down walls that divide people along racial lines.
In this sermon, Greg reflects on the call for racial equality by engaging with the words of Martin Luther King Jr. The goal of MLK was to draw attention to injustices suffered by black people and address those injustices through non-violent means. Because of his actions, on April 12, 1963 he and other leaders were thrown into jail. While in jail, he wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in response to a newspaper article written by eight Alabama clergy who denounced the methods of the civil rights movement.
In his response, King argued that an unjust law is not a law at all, and not only are people not obliged to obey unjust laws, they are morally obliged to disobey them. In addition, the Supreme Court had already passed federal law against segregation. This was the strategy: break unjust racist laws with a commitment to not retaliate, no matter what the police or others did.
The contrast between the injustice and cruelty being inflicted on them on the one hand, and their calm and peaceful response on the other, will highlight the injustice and cruelty being done to them. It will prick the conscience of the local and national community and bring about change.
In King’ letter, he also expresses the disappointment with the white church. He states:
“I had the strange feeling when I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery several years ago that we would have the support of the white church…Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
“In spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and with deep moral concern serve as the channel through which our just grievances could get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.”
“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular…. “
“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.”
One of the reasons Jesus offered up his life on the cross was to bring an end to the “hostility” between Jew and Gentile, and therefore all racial division. This is what Paul argued in Ephesians 2:14-16. For in his sacrificed body, Jesus has created one new humanity. In Colossians 1, Paul says that by means of the perfect love revealed on the cross, God is reconciling everything in heaven and earth to God and to one another, thus bringing peace to the whole cosmos. Jesus died to end racism, and the church’s job is to manifest all that Jesus died for. A central part of the calling of the church is to work with God to tear down all walls of division and hostility between people groups.
We can understand why King would say that he was disappointed in the white church as a whole. The church is to be leading the charge at tearing down walls to manifest reconciled humanity that Jesus died for, and by and large the majority of the white church was not doing this.
What did the black church of King’s time see that the white church did not? The main thing was expressed in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In part of his speech he says,
“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
This was an expression of a vision for the end of history, but not as simply something for which we wait. It is a dream that inspires hope to promote action in the present so that the end vision might be worked out now. What King had that so many others lacked was faith that what Jesus died to accomplish would someday be fully manifested. That faith motivated him to tireless work towards that vision. This is defined for us in Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the substantiation of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”
Faith is mentally envisioning what you hope or expect to happen as a substantial reality, as though it already happened. The more vivid this vision, the more it produces in us a conviction that it will be so and this motivates us to begin to move in the direction of what we envision.
King and others who lived according to what he taught had faith that God wanted to use his people to tear down walls of hostility and unite people groups that had been in conflict. As a result, they were willing to lay their bodies on the line to tear down walls and build bridges. They had faith that Jesus died to create one new humanity and faith that the church is called to put this one new humanity on display, which meant that they were willing to be beaten and jailed to see this happen.
The question we face is this: Do we have faith? Or to put it in concrete terms: Do we share MLK’s dream? Do we see a vision of God’s dream for creation and do we see it clearly enough that we are willing to put our life on the line for what we see so that our lives might move toward that vision?
Greg closes his sermon with the following action steps: