By Matt Koerber
This spring, we are spending the season between Easter and Pentecost focusing on themes that relate to immigration and the multi-ethnic church. The theme verse for the blog is from Isaiah 2:2-3:
In the last days the mountain of the LORD's temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. 3 Many peoples will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." (NIV)
The picture that graces this post and the homepage for the blog is a print that hangs on a wall in our home. It was a gift for our wedding and is one of the few wall hangings that has made it through all five homes that we have lived in as a married couple. If you look closely you can see the words of Isaiah 2:2 written into the pathway.
People drawn in vibrant colors are walking together to the mountain of the Lord. It is one of my favorite paintings and captures the joyful excitement of God’s multi-ethnic kingdom. It was originally used for ministry purposes with the CCO and it appears in this blog with permission from the artist – Bonnie Liefer. It can be purchased from the CCO website here: https://cards.ccojubilee.org/collections/prints-1/products/mountain-print.
But perhaps you are asking the question: What does all of this have to do with Pentecost? When we hear the word “Pentecost” we often think of the Pentecostal movement. We think about the arguments that many Christians have about the place of supernatural ministry gifts in the life of the church. You may be disappointed to find out that is not the purpose of this blog. Instead, we are reflecting on the central meaning of the story of Pentecost found in Acts chapter two. In this chapter, the Holy Spirit falls upon the remnant of Jesus’ followers who are hiding in a house in Jerusalem. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they go out and preach with boldness to the people of Jerusalem. The events occur 50 days after the Passover. (The Greek word “pente” means “50”). On this occasion Jews from various parts of the Roman Empire had returned to Jerusalem for a pilgrimage. While they may have been fluent in Aramaic or Greek, they each spoke in a language that was particular to their homeland.
The miracle of Pentecost is that the apostles were empowered to speak a foreign language that they did not otherwise know. There is, of course, a great deal of controversy about exactly what is happening here. “How did God make this happen” and “should we expect this sort of miracle to happen again”? But the focus of the text is that each person heard the sermon in their own language and then asked about what it meant.
Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs– we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?" (Acts 2:7-12)
In the sermon that follows Peter tells them what it means. He says that it is a sign that Jesus has been raised to heaven and seated at God’s right hand and that now the gates of heaven are open to everyone who believes. The barriers of language, culture and ethnicity will no longer limit the spread of salvation. Furthermore, God’s presence is no longer contained in the temple, but the Holy Spirit dwells in the midst of all believers. Through the witness of the church, people from all nations will come to faith in God. This is how Isaiah 2:2 finds its fulfillment. Before, the temple of God was a physical building and one could only come into God’s presence by traveling to Jerusalem. Language, culture, ethnicities, and national borders were impediments. Now, people of all ethnicities can come into God’s eternal kingdom through faith in Christ. The barriers are being overcome.
This vision – a kingdom of every tribe, tongue, and nation – is the controlling vision of the New Testament church. It is the vision that ought to shape us today. It does not eliminate the many complex problems we face related to immigration policy. It does not negate concern for border security or economic protections. But it is the backdrop against which these conversations happen.
Modern forces of globalization create new economic opportunities and unprecedented challenges. But the great waves of migration that flow around the world are also part of God’s story. Today, the church is growing in South America, Africa and Asia. Refugees and migrants from the Middle East are encountering the gospel for the first time. The waves are sometimes rough and the future impact may be uncertain, but it is clear that the nations are streaming to the mountain of the Lord. Taking this vision seriously means that we have to talk about tough issues like immigration.. Christians will have legitimate disagreements about particular policies, but we can find common ground in this great story of being part of the multi-ethnic kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.
By Matt Koerber
This year, our spring devotional blog will lead up to Pentecost Sunday, celebrated June 4. In past years we had a blog that covered the season of Lent as we moved towards Easter. This year we will focus on the themes of Pentecost: God’s power to bring all people into his eternal kingdom. The theme verse for this blog is from Isaiah 2:2-3.
In the last days the mountain of the LORD's temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." (NIV)
In summary, the blog will focus on the multi-ethnic nature of the kingdom of God and how this relates to the current debates about immigration in America. This is an important topic for a number of reasons. First, City Reformed is a church located in the university community of Pittsburgh and we serve a very diverse population. People come to Oakland from all over the world and as a church we are committed to caring for people from different backgrounds. We currently have members from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and many who have immigrated to the United States. Our own congregation is made up of people “from every nation”. Second, we have a long commitment to supporting ministries that cross ethnic barriers. We support missionaries throughout the world and local ministries like P.R.I.S.M. (international students), YWAM (refugee care), and Ambassadors in Sports (significant refugee ministry.) All these ministries require constant energy and effort. We need to keep reminding ourselves why these are important investments.
The third reason is a bit trickier. Over the last couple of years, racial and ethnic issues have emerged as areas of significant concern and controversy. Immigration policy has been controversial throughout American history, but it has emerged with greater tension in the past election cycle. Border security, undocumented immigrants and deportation have become majorly divisive political issues. Furthermore, since 9/11, Americans have been uncertain about how to engage with immigrants from Muslim countries. Worldwide conflicts, especially in Syria, have also produced massive numbers of refugees from the Muslim world.
These topics are often highly controversial. They are also highly complex and require deep analysis and nuanced reasoning. Unfortunately, they have become politically polarized. As a result, Americans find it difficult to talk about these things with those who have differing viewpoints. In my opinion, both the political right and the left are guilty of reducing these complex issues to simple statements which they lob at their opponents like hand grenades. This doesn’t help us to understand these issues any better, and it can be destructive to communities where people have different beliefs. As Christians, we are committed to seeking the peace of our city (Jer 29). In this case, it requires us to talk about difficult things.
I know that this is a challenging issue that is important to many people in our congregation. Our end goal is not about trying to push the battle line closer to the right or the left on this issue, but to chart a course that is uniquely Christian. (More on that in the coming weeks.) I realize that some people may encounter this blog and be tempted to write it off before they even start to read. Perhaps some are tempted to think that they know in advance where we will be going and are skeptical about our intentions. In our current climate, that sort of cynicism is perfectly understandable. With those possible objections in mind I would like to lay out some guiding principles and our proposed format.