Bethlehem Baptist Mobile App Download the Bethlehem Baptist Church Mobile App Available for iOS and Android


January 19/2-/2-13

Racial Reconciliation: Accomplished and Applied

Jason Meyer | Philemon 1:8-20


Three questions seem important to tackle in my first sermon on racial reconciliation: (1) What does a small town South Dakota boy know about racial tensions? (2) Why would he care about Racial Harmony? (3) What would he do about it? Therefore, let me address these three questions under the following three headings.

  1. A Personal Narrative: My Experience With Ethnicity
  2. Biblical Bearings: Why I Care About Racial Harmony
  3. The Long Road Ahead: Outlining Steps for the Way Forward

1. A Personal Narrative: My Experience With Ethnic Diversity

South Dakota (Birth to 18)
My growing up years in a little town in Volga, South Dakota, did not present me with many opportunities to experience ethnic diversity. One of my friends in my class was Native American, but this was about the extent of the diversity we had. In high school, we played basketball against the Flandreau Indian School. I am ashamed to say that I did not even recognize some of the racist attitudes around me when at one point in a game at halftime, we saw almost the whole Flandreau Indian crowd get up and leave. Someone joked that the government checks had come in. I said no words of rebuke - only a slightly nervous laugh. Where were my convictions about treating people equally as made in the image of God?

College Years (age 18–22)
My college years gave me some more experience of ethnic diversity. International students and sports especially became gateways to understanding other cultures. I became close friends with many people during this time.

TBI (age 23–25)
It was not until my time here in Minneapolis that I began to see multiethnic families through adoption. I lived near Powderhorn Park. I taught seventh grade girls inner city basketball. Here I was shocked by how many of my girls were from very broken homes. It was not uncommon for me to try to coach them while one parent was yelling one thing from one side of the court and another parent was yelling something else at them from the stands.

It was at Bethlehem that I really became aware of some racist stereotypes that I had developed.

An illustration that Kenny Stokes told exposed a stereotype that I had fostered in my heart. He told the story of how many people can simplistically think that people living in poverty should just quit being lazy and work hard. 

He gave the illustration of a husband and a wife who each went to a different weight loss camp. The husband went to a camp that had healthy food and an encouraging environment and he was able to lose weight. The wife on the other hand went to a camp that had food loaded with fat and sugar and where they tore each other down all the time. She did not lose any weight—in fact she gained weight. He arrogantly said, “What is wrong with you. Why don’t you just work hard like me?” The Lord mercifully killed an overly simplistic stereotype I had developed. I stopped simplistically saying, “Why don’t they just work hard like me?” 

Another breakthrough during this period was my mission trip to Cameroon, West Africa. The Lord gave me a love for the nations. I wanted to give my life there, and though the Lord did not see fit to make that a reality, I nevertheless left part of my heart there.

Moving 'South': Louisville and Louisiana (age 25–33)
It was not until we moved further south that some of the blinders were removed in our context. Here we found a deeper consciousness of the civil war than we had ever seen and we experienced the importance for many of the Mason Dixon line. The quickest way to be called a Yankee was to say something like “pop.” Though it was beneath the surface in Louisville, it did not come out into the open in all of its ugliness until we moved to Louisiana. It was easy to assume that racism was an occasional problem, but not a major, deep-seated tragedy that continued to haunt our country. Perhaps our four years in Louisiana and Mississippi removed the veil of blindness more than any other experience. 

The most direct experience we had came to us while I was serving as an interim pastor in Natchez, Mississippi. The former pastor had tried to do the hard work of racial reconciliation and had experienced severe opposition and the church had splintered into different factions still present in the congregation. It was the only integrated church in the area, but it came with a price. Other churches would make it a point to keep integration from happening. A black lady from our church that was originally from the northeast and getting ready to move into our area told me the story of how she called another church in our area as to whether they had black people in the church, and they said, “No, and just between you and me, we aim to keep it that way.” In fact, it was very common to hear people say, “Well I am not racist, but I just think that there are churches for people like that.” People like that?!

It was in Natchez in Christian community that we found a family of faith—and we found gospel safety to have honest conversations. Our black brothers and sisters there became like heroes to me. They received flak from both their black community and the church community. People in the black community would say, “Yeah you go to that white church” (they said—no I think it is red brick). They came to the church and experienced white people getting up and moving to a different pew. Keep in mind that 50 years earlier in many churches the deacons stood outside of the church with shotguns to keep black people out. 

It was here that we experienced the grace to be real and vulnerable. We were able to ask the awkward questions that needed to be asked. We said, “What would you like us to call you?” I hear some people say they want to be called black while others want to be called African American. They said, if someone is looking for a reason to be offended, they will find it no matter what you say. On the whole, we prefer “black” because we do not call you “European American.”

I realize today the difficulty of black people who do not feel like they have a zip code to call home. Korean Americans or European Americans can trace their ancestry much easier. Slavery has erased the ability to find a return address.

Ethiopia to the Present (34–36)
The six months that we spent in Ethiopia also helped us gain some ethnic sensitivity. We were a minority. We were on the receiving end of stereotypes: like being rich Westerners, which is true in part, but not the way that many of them imagined. We were stared at a lot. We became a multi-ethnic family and got more stares.

After coming home, I now have the added advantage of getting to see life through the eyes of my sons. The first week we came to church, my son said, “Daddy, look. He looks like me.” We can go to a small Midwestern town and walk into a store and think, “My sons may be the only people of color here.” My story is the story of someone that was an outsider overhearing the discussion from a distance who now has entered the conversation—I have not entered in the conversation with the answers or the desire to be a teacher—but as someone that longs for oneness in Christ and is willing to do whatever it takes to find it.

2. Biblical Bearings: Why I Care About Racial Harmony

Let me first give a fly over of how the Bible’s story line makes us care deeply about racial reconciliation. Creation: God made from one man every nation of mankind and he even appointed the specific boundaries of where they would live (Acts 17). The fall and the Tower of Babel led to ethnic differences and began a whole history of ethnic hatred. Redemption accomplished on the cross shows that God purchased all peoples with the price of the blood of his Son. The redemption and reconciliation is then applied in relationships. One day, in the consummation, we will be swept up into the experience of sinless life together with brothers and sisters from every tribe and tongue around the throne.

If God created every ethnicity, died for every ethnicity, and brings every ethnicity into his everlasting kingdom, then we need to get in line with God’s view of every ethnicity. We share the same beginning, the same problem of sin, the same solution at the cross of Christ, the same destiny of heaven if we are children of God. The things that unite us are bigger and more beautiful than the things that make us different.

Racial Harmony in Colossians and Philemon
Let’s drill down for just a moment into the message of two books—Colossians and Philemon. 

These two letters are massively interrelated in their historical circumstances.

  1. Colossians refers to Onesimus (4:9)
  2. Onesimus is a resident of Colossae (4:9) and thus Philemon as well (one may safely infer that Philemon resides in the same place as his slave)
  3. Both letters have Timothy as the co-sender (Philemon1:1; Colossians 1:1)
  4. Both letters refer to Epaphras (Philemon 23; Colossians 1:7) and Archippus (Philemon 2; Colossians 4:17)
  5. Both letters include Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke among Paul’s companions (Philemon 24; Colossians 4:10, 14)
  6. Paul was in prison when he wrote both letters. Many scholars conclude that these similarities between the two letters suggest that they were written at the same time and place and were sent together to Colossae.

Reconciliation Accomplished (Colossians)
For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and without reproach.—Colossians 1:19–22

Reconciliation Applied (Philemon)
Philemon effectively takes Colossians’ concept of cosmic reconciliation through the cross of Christ and translates it into a specific setting of reconciliation between two individuals. The gospel message does not stand in a spiritual vacuum. One cannot relegate its importance to an ethereal spiritual realm—it has real life impact on all of life. Relationships in the body of Christ are gospel relationships and social issues like slavery were then and are now gospel issues.

Some have tried to argue that Paul does not speak forcefully in terms of abolishing slavery. This assessment makes a categorical mistake between first tier and second tier and between cause and effect. Paul does not start by abolishing slavery; he starts by establishing the gospel. The gospel is what is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15). Once the gospel is rooted and grounded into a culture, the result will be social justice. Heart change must precede social change in order to be lasting change. 

Though Paul does not directly attack social issues like slavery in Philemon, he does clearly suggest that the gospel has important implications for issues like slavery. Paul asks Philemon to accept Onesimus as a fellow brother in Christ. Equality before God through the gospel challenges the very heart and soul of slavery as the ownership of one human by another.

Relationships at the social level (masters and slaves) look much different in the redefining light of relationships enjoyed at the spiritual level (fellow brothers and slaves of Christ). The social convention can only “wilt and die” when the gospel uproots the concept that grounds it and establishes its growth. D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo say it well: 

“That it took so long for this to happen is a sad chapter in Christian blindness to the implications of the gospel.”

A quote by Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Ephesians—Darkness And Light) addresses the centrality of the gospel in these discussions:

When the church preaches the gospel as the power of God, as spiritual dynamic that can operate in men and change them, it is THEN that she deals with the social problem; not when she is talking about the social problem, and giving statistics and making moral appeals. That is a waste of time, and we must reject it as a temptation from the devil! I do not hesitate to say so. The devil is perfectly satisfied as long as the church is just reading, Sunday by Sunday, little moral essays, trying to give a little moral uplift, and making an appeal to people to be decent. I am certain that at such times the devil rejoices, because he knows that his kingdom will not be affected.

3. The Long Road Ahead: Outlining Steps for the Way Forward

Past Models:

  1. Relational [make a friend with someone from another ethnicity and you will bring about social change through friendship, one life at a time]
  2. Institutional change model [create justice and equity by redistributing power among groups].


  1. Feasibility (you don’t have to be an expert in ethnic matters to do this).
  2. This simplicity is motivating for people who are newly interested in the ministry of reconciliation and need a realistic way to get started (The Heart of Racial Justice; p. 48).

But it is weak as an overall change strategy because it leaves to the side the “historical impact of sin and evil and the way this history has led to structural injustice that cannot be changed by the “one life at a time” approach” (The Heart of Racial Justice; p. 48). “Without significant resources and counsel, many cross-ethnic interpersonal relationships are doomed to a constant cycle of frustration, misunderstanding and further wounding. Developing a personal friendship with someone of another ethnicity is still probably the most important first step we can take, but it’s not an adequate change model to address the immense challenges we face” (The Heart of Racial Justice; p. 48).

This approach seeks to create justice and equity by redistributing power among groups. Advocates say we should hire more people of color within an organization, help mobilize them to vote, use economic power through boycotts, job training, and public school reform. This approach goes after the power structures of society.


  1. It encourages people to take personal responsibility for their destiny
  2. It empowers them to make new choices for the future by giving them knowledge and skills
  3. It realistically takes account of the sociopolitical historical factors that often work against reconciliation, justice, and equity.

The problem is that it is overly simplistic. It reduces all relationships to relations of power. It makes the kingdom of God about competition for power, not love. Our goal cannot merely be to give the poor, oppressed, and wounded the upper hand so that they are now the top dog that can take it to the underdog. Our goal is to bring worship and shalom and to have justice fall down like a mighty waterfall—not change the game so that one group is freed from oppression so that it can oppress another group and give them a taste of their own medicine. Is that what repentance and worship look like?

A Model for Moving Forward: Gospel Healing

Reconciliation accomplished and applied are both equally works of God. The difference is that the first he does outside of us and the second one he does in us and through us. This is important because activism for social change can lead to burn out and human-centered effort. God builds his kingdom and he will keep our spiritual vitality as we pursue reconciliation and justice. Faith in the future grace of reconciliation applied comes after God has shown his commitment to reconciliation at the cross.

Reconciliation with others is based on having a healthy sense of one’s own identity. We must come to grips with false identities and idolatry and embrace our corporate identity in Christ.

Examples of False Identities:

  1. Self-Hatred Identity—beneath envy for others’ opportunities is a deep rejection of your own ethnic identity (a fundamental rejection.
  2. The rage-filled identity (related to the first—one response to oppression and injustice is to reject and even hate ourselves—thinking we deserve such treatment—the other pole is to become filled with rage and hatred toward the person or group who has caused such suffering). One way to notice is if you become unexpectedly angry to little things done by people of other ethnicities (you get disproportionately angry at every small perceived slight or expression of ignorance).
  3. Victim mentality (Victims always look to others to fix the situation; they are dependent upon others for making their life better—they are bent over toward the person who caused the problem and is now expected to fix it.)
  4. The model minority identity (tempted to feel this if you succeed as a person of color in America—you feel shame and great awkwardness when you are around relatives and other people who are acting especially “ethnic” and traditional.
  5. The hip white person identity: European Americans who base their identity on being the white person who gets it—they can be trusted by people of color – their sense of worth is based on the acceptance they receive from the particular group they are trying to identify with.
  6. The white superiority identity (anti-Semitism, slavery, Jim Crow segregation laws, and the Holocaust).
  7. The color-blind identity (white people who don’t think of themselves as being ethnic at all—white Americans must own their background—one cannot ignore ethnic identity as if it did not matter a great deal historically).

Corporate Identity:
Look around the throne—what we see there is who we are now—even if we don’t experience it all now. Believers are people who find their identity in God’s multicultural, multilingual, multinational kingdom of justice and love. Quit looking around for an identity as if you do not already have one! God gave you an identity that you cannot buy, you cannot produce, you cannot merit. It is a gift. In Christ, we have an undefeated identity. Christ has defeated death—it can no longer have mastery over him. We are not waiting for something to get excited about. We have something in Christ that can bring a unity that runs deeper and lasts longer than anything else. It can conquer every conceivable division that currently creates hostility in our world.

Because of the cross, the victim does not ask “How can I bring myself, as victim, to forgive those who have violated me and my society,” but “How can I discover the mercy of God welling up in my own life and where does that lead me?”

In the process of reconciling a conflict, victims often experience a sense of grace and closure as they tell their stories. Forgiveness without a full disclosure of truth is superficial. The South African Parliament on October 21, 1994, developed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission aimed at reconciliation rather than revenge and implemented a stunningly successful model. A key to the model’s success was the commitment of Bishop Tutu and the other members of the committee to tell and hear the unvarnished truth in order to bring about true reconciliation and justice. Deeply wounded people found immense healing just by telling their stories and being heard. There is a link between telling the truth and experiencing reconciliation. 

I would like to propose that this would be our initial starting point in both a relational sense and a corporate sense. We should give people a chance to tell their stories.

Remember that walls can come down when you ask someone, “Help me understand what life is like for you.” The goal as a hearer is to know that person in such a way that you are affected by the hardness and the hurt of their situation (Ed Welch, National Conference).

Risks and Solutions for Real Racial Conversations

There are risks to conversations like the ones I am outlining.

Risk 1: The victim could remain locked in rage, while the dominant person could remain locked in ignorance and apathy, unmoved in the face of suffering. Yet because of the cross, both can be free of the chains of bitterness, rage or unhealthy dominance that bind them.

Solution: Both can come together and say: 

My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord, O my soul.

Risk 2: Some people wait for justice before reconciliation. Some who see the need for justice may not be patient with people who are beginning to see it for the first time. The social underclass may take a “wait and see” kind of attitude. Yes, you talk a good game, but I will wait and see how serious you actually are. “Brenda couldn’t help but see him as just another white person who talked a good game but left the battle when things got too tough and retreated to the safety of the suburbs” (The Heart of Racial Justice; p. 46).

“Justice must be a major aim in all relationships, but complete justice can never be realized until God’s glory covers the earth” (The Heart of Racial Justice).

The upper class may feel like doing a little is enough to assuage their guilt and thus not see the need for perseverance. They then fulfill the stereotype of others that have done the same thing (Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson story). 

Solution: A focus on worship is the answer through the cross. I was moved by the story of a woman of color who went to an all-white church in the South. At first she would just stand in the foyer and not enter into the sanctuary. “But it was the singing that pulled me in and split me open. I could sing better here than I ever had before. Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated. Sitting there, standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life.” 

This is what happens when isolated people become part of the miracle of worship and sing the song of the Lamb with the multitude of the redeemed from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.

There is fight of faith here. We need God’s help to call to mind our true story before we can live it out. C.S. Lewis saw this reality clearly (Mere Christianity, 168–169):

What is concrete and immaterial can be kept in view only by painful effort. That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes (and hurts and hates!) for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. ... We can do it only for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us.

Sermon Discussion Questions

  • Describe your experience with ethnic diversity. This answer could include the transformation of simplistic stereotypes, attempts at racial reconciliation, or painful experiences.
  • Many people think of change that the gospel brings as primarily personal change. How does the gospel effect social change? In what ways (if any) have you personally witnessed that dynamic at Bethlehem?
  • It is relatively easy to say that we believe in racial reconciliation. If you had to prove it with more than words, what would you claim as evidence in your life that goes beyond intellectual belief?