Thirty-eight years ago, January 16, 1968, when I was a senior in college, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a message in Memphis, Tenn., entitled "The Good Samaritan or ’If I had sneezed...’". It became known as the "I’ve Been to the Mountain" message because he saw his death coming and was looking over into the promised land of freedom and justice for African Americans, but didn’t expect to get there. He was killed in Memphis April 4 of that same year when he was thirty-nine-years-old.
Why would a thirty-nine-year-old man be killed? We need to teach our children this history. Some of us lived it and will never forget it. Segregation was the world I grew up in—legally mandated separation of races at all kinds of levels. It had an unbelievably oppressive and demeaning effect on the African American community. And had a deadening effect on the conscience of the white community. One looks back on it with shame and disgrace. Separate schools, separate motels, separate restrooms, separate swimming pools, separate drinking fountains. How could you more clearly communicate the lie that being black was like a disease. It was a despicable time in our history, and most of the Christian church was tragically silent and consenting in the evil.
<"I’m Glad You Didn’t Sneeze">
The change called the Civil Rights Movement had many catalysts. One of the most important happened on May 17, 1954. That was the day that the Supreme Court decided the case called Brown v. the Board of Education. It declared that state-imposed segregation in the public schools was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Many scholars say that "Brown remains the most important Supreme Court decision in this century."1 Some of us would say that the 1973 Roe v Wade was equally important, only for opposite reasons. Brown tried to restore rights to an oppressed group. Roe v. Wade took rights away from an oppressed group. More on that next week.
Another catalyst happened about a year and a half later. On December 1, 1955, a forty-two-year-old black woman named Rosa Parks (whose funeral we just experienced last November 2) refused to surrender her seat to a white man on an officially segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala. Amazingly the black community of Montgomery rallied behind the jailing of Rosa Parks and boycotted the buses for 381 days. The leader of the movement—by no choice of his own—was the twenty-six-year-old pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. And with that leadership he became the unrivaled leader of the movement until his death 13 years later. No one spoke in that cause with more influence.
On October 19, 1983, the Senate voted to make the third Monday in January a national holiday to commemorate the birth (he was born January 15, 1929) of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. President Reagan signed the bill into law on November 2, 1983.
We will mark this holiday tomorrow at Bethlehem not because Martin Luther King was exemplary in his theology or in all of his private and public life. His early views at Crozer Seminary, in fact, were distinctly and seriously unbiblical.2 It is difficult to trace how his views of Christ’s deity and his bodily resurrection may have developed later. We don’t mark historic days because of personal views or behaviors of historic figures, but because of what they stood for publicly and the good that they unleashed in the world. Martin Luther King called for freedoms and rights and justice that were long overdue. And he did it with an appeal to historic Christian vision, with amazing rhetorical skill, without condoning violence, and with unprecedented and lasting success. That’s why we will mark the holiday tomorrow.
In fact I want to go further and say personally, with the ninth-grade white girl who wrote to Martin Luther King and said, "I’m glad you didn’t sneeze." He told this story in the sermon in Memphis January 16, 1968.3 He said that in 1958 he was doing a book signing for his new book, Stride Toward Freedom, and a deranged black woman stabbed him in the chest. In the hospital he was told that the tip of the knife stopped just touching a major artery. "If you had just sneezed, you would have been dead." The ninth grader heard that news and wrote to King, "I’m glad you didn’t sneeze." So am I. I am glad you didn’t sneeze. In God’s providence you were used to bring changes that were desperately needed—in the country and in our hearts. And the work is not yet done.
So I want us to look at Galatians 2:11-16 and let the Scripture refine and increase our commitment to racial and ethnic diversity and harmony for the glory of Christ. What I mean by a commitment to ethnic diversity and harmony is that it is a good and beautiful thing when Christians of different ethnic origins (not just black and white but all of them) live and work and worship and relax and eat together in joyful, Christ-exalting peace. There may be situations where living with all one race is inevitable. If so, I don’t condemn it. But there are solid biblical, historical, and cultural reasons why ethnically diverse Christians living, working, worshipping, relaxing and eating together is good and beautiful thing, and therefore worth pursuing.
I think Galatians 2:11-16 will help us forward in this. And that’s what I hope for—movement forward. Not perfection. Not the end of the mighty-long journey, but movement in the right direction. Too many Christians are not moving, or are going backward. While I have life I simply want to keep urging us in the right direction. Perhaps God would do something amazing among us for the cause of ethnic diversity and harmony. But our obedience does not depend on that. May all of us take a step forward on this road today.
The key phrase is in Galatians 2:14, "But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ’If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’" The key phrase is "conduct not in step with the truth of the gospel." Do you see what that implies? It implies that there is conduct—behavior, action, things you do—that are out of step with the truth of the gospel. Or to put it another way: the gospel governs not just our beliefs but our actions. There is gospel belief and there is gospel action. Some beliefs contradict the gospel, and some actions contradict the gospel. Peter’s action here was contradicting the gospel.
This is the most important question we can ask about any habit or action or behavior that we have—does it contradict the gospel? Or positively, is it in step with the truth of the gospel? Does our action say true things about the gospel? Does it reflect the gospel? Does it look like the kind of action that would flow from the gospel?
Now Paul leaves little doubt in the book of Galatians what the heart of the gospel is. We don’t have to go any farther than verse 16 to see it: "We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified." The heart of the gospel for Paul was justification by faith alone apart from works of the law. Justification is what a judge does in a court room. It is a declaration that a defendant is found innocent, because there is real innocence. The defendant is declared to be just, because he is found to be just.
For us, we can never be declared innocent or just in ourselves. We have all sinned. We are guilty as charged. We deserve the full sentence of condemnation. Works of the law cannot save us. We have broken God’s law. Now the law condemns us. So how can we be justified? How can God, the judge, declare us righteous and innocent? The answer is that Jesus Christ lived and died to provide our righteousness and bear our punishment. It is by trusting Christ that his righteousness is imputed to us and his death is counted as ours. Faith alone unites us to Christ. Not works. No works of any kind connect us with Christ and his righteousness and atonement. We look away from ourselves. We despair of measuring up. We cast ourselves utterly on him—his righteousness, his blood. And for his sake alone God counts us righteous, and accepts us and welcomes us in to his fellowship for our joy for ever.
That is the heart of the gospel—the good news. And O how many new, sweet, tender, deep, strong, beautiful, noble, humble, kind, wise, patient, caring, serving attitudes and behaviors flow from this gospel. Just read the second half of most of Paul’s letters to see how he describes the life in step with the truth of the gospel.
One of the central cadences of the gospel life is the breaking down of ethnic hostilities and suspicions and the impulse of unity and harmony. Listen to Paul’s way of connecting justification by faith with this issue in Romans 3:29-30, "Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also [that is, the other ethnic peoples in the world]? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith." In other words, since there is only one way for all people in the world to get right with God and to be God’s children, namely by faith in Jesus Christ, therefore no ethnic distinctives can any longer be compelling separators of those who trust Christ. Justification by faith puts all of us on a level ground of utter dependence on grace.
Now look at how Peter failed in this and how Paul rebuked him. Galatians 2:11-13, "But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy."
Paul says in the next verse (14) that this behavior is "not in step with the truth of the gospel." Peter had been experiencing the freedom of the gospel as a Jew and was crossing the ethnic and religious barriers to eat with Gentiles. He was eating with them. Just hanging out and eating with them. That was a good thing. That is what we want to happen across ethnic lines in this church, and in this city. It’s not staged. It’s not artificial or programmed. These are simple, free, natural relationships. They were eating together. There should be huge amounts of eating together in this church. And in the process we should enjoy gospel freedom in forgetting all ethnic limitations. In fact, I think there can be and should be a natural, joyful, spontaneous mixing it up in our table fellowship.
What happened to Peter? It says in verse 12 that certain men came from James. These were Jerusalem conservatives who believed that Gentiles—because of their uncircumcision and their unkosher dietary habits and failure to keep the holy days—were off limits, even as Christians. Religious and ethnic issues were inseparable. But justification by faith alone had overcome all that. Galatians 3:26, 28, "In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. . . There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
But at the end of Galatians 2:12 we see that Peter was governed by fear and not by the gospel. Fear of what I wonder? He wasn’t afraid of the Gentiles. He was afraid of his own ethnic group. Why?
Here are some possibilities. 1) He was afraid of conflict. The people from James were going to cause a scene. It’s going to be very awkward. Maybe we can just avoid a scene and they will be satisfied that we don’t hang out together and go home, and we can return to normal. Paul calls that fearful behavior hypocrisy, and says it is not in step with the gospel. Is your life governed by the fear of controversy?
2) Or maybe Peter was afraid that his convictions were not well-founded and that the people from James might get the best of him in an argument based on the Mosaic law. His faith was weak and his gospel intuitions faltered. Are you clear on the practical implications of justification by faith?
3) Or maybe Peter was afraid of being called a Paul groupie. He can hear the people from James saying, "What a wimp! As soon as you leave your cozy hometown in Jerusalem, you just start copying the compromiser Paul. Everybody copies Paul. Paul, the big shot. Not even Peter can stand up to the great Paul." Are you afraid of doing something in the cause of racial harmony because of whom you will be associated with?
I’m not sure what Peter was afraid of. Maybe a mixture of all three. But what’s clear is that fear ruined practical gospel faithfulness. He was free. He was eating with brothers across ethnic lines. And fear (for a moment) destroyed the diversity and the harmony.
So I think, the least that I can say today is: Don’t let fear ruin your joyful freedom in living and working and worshipping and relaxing and eating with brothers and sisters different from yourself. Or to put it positively, fall in love again with the gospel. Rejoice all over again that you are justified by faith alone. And then wake up to the gospel truth that justification by faith alone means that this faith, and nothing else, is the great eternal unifier of all the peoples of the world who trust in Christ.
Let’s live that together.