Acts 11:1-18, John 13:31-35
It happened in my first congregation in Waitoa, New Zealand – I used to meet with the women of the village around their kitchen tables and talk about all sorts of issues. As the group grew larger, I decided to form a women’s coffee group that met at the Church and discussed social issues. I was hauled over the coals and reprimanded at a special meeting of the Elders. What I should have done was to invite them to the Women’s Fellowship group that met in the homes of the local farming families. The social divide between the factory workers of the village and the landed gentry was palpable.
Luke informs us to one of the crunch points in early Christian community that was made up of Jewish Christians who kept most of their Jewish religious traditions: When Gentile started to take an interest in the Gospel the question arose as to what is the place of non-Jews in the new Christian communities? Fortunately, we know about the issue also from Paul, who wrote 30 or 40 years earlier. At stake was whether Gentiles/non-Jews, could also be counted among God's people. Was the good news also for them? The “circumcised saints” are distressed, it seems, because the Gentiles were being received as brothers and sisters rather than as proselytes. Normally there was 613 mizvot or "commandments" in the five books of Moses (the Torah) for not accepting Gentiles because of their failure to keep the purity laws.. The animosity was so strong that Jews would not mix or have any interactions what so ever with Gentiles unless they became proselytes. This meant that “Gentiles” were really no longer “Gentile” at all, but a Jew, for becoming a proselyte meant circumcision and placing oneself under the Law of Moses.
So how did Peter deal with the situation?
Peter took six of the believers (Members of the Christian Community) with him to meet the new believers to the fellowship that met in Cornelius’ house. Cornelius was known for alms giving, prayer and now he had received the Holy Spirit. God had given the Gentiles meeting at Cornelius’ home the same experience as the Jewish believers.
Peter did not insist that the Gentile believers be circumcised, but that they be baptized. The Jewish Christians tended to continue think that salvation only came to Israel; but it resisted the fact that salvation was also to come to the world through Israel. God’s salvation was to come both to the Jews and through the Jews. (Isaiah 55)
At the heart of Peter’s message was that the generosity/grace and love of God whose goodness reached out to all, including the marginalised and the downright wicked. The problem of the early Jewish Christians was that they assumed ownership of the gospel, as though salvation belonged to the Jews and was not available to the Gentiles. They had a traditional prejudice against the Gentiles, and thus they twisted the Old Testament laws concerning “clean” and “unclean” to justify their exclusion the Gentiles. Prejudice was thus practiced in the name of purity of the group—something that still happens today.
What happens when the message of Jesus’ teaching and subsequent execution and vindication reaches out to include Gentiles, as it did when the mixed Christian Community met in cities of Asia Minor. Jesus preached the vision of the Kingdom of God which included the Gentiles. This motif persists in early tradition (In Paul's gathering of the Gentile offering to help out the Jewish Christians who were facing a drought in Jerusalem (Acts11:27-30); Matthew's inclusion of the Gentile Magi, Jesus dismissed the issue of food purity in Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23. (Interestingly Luke did not include this story). However in the Jewish community most such conversions we know of were incidental or through marriage, not through mission.
Early Christian preachers, all of them Jewish, had also to decide whether, beyond picking up Gentile converts incidentally, they should actually seek them out. It was not that Jews and Gentiles never mixed. Most Jews lived out in the Gentile world of the Roman Empire. Some were in the army. As with most things, where people became ritually impure, there were provisions for purification. It was no more sinful to become unclean by entering a Gentile's house than it was to become unclean through menstruation or dealing with a corpse. Becoming unclean and then undergoing purification was as natural a part of life as literal washing from the dirt of the day. The general rule, however, was to avoid becoming unclean where possible. So, most Jews would avoid contact with Gentile or entering a Gentile house. This explains why both times when Jesus heals a Gentile he heals at a distance thus to avoid entering their houses.
The question for the New Christians: would Christian Jews be able to enter Gentile houses as a regular feature of their interactions? Would they be able to eat with Gentiles on a regular basis?
Paul tells us in Gal 2:11-14 that he with Peter and Barnabas and other Jewish Christians had indeed decided to share in fellowship meals with Gentiles at Antioch. However when leaders like James, and the brother of Jesus, from the Jerusalem congregation visited the persuaded them to stop doing so -That is all except Paul! Paul justified his behaviour by insisting that God's love now overrode all such Jewish requirements, just as he and others had agreed that it overrode the requirement of circumcision. Paul's defense was on the basis of an approach to scripture which exercised discernment about what mattered most and was courageous enough to declare some things unnecessary or redundant. Naturally enough, the more conservative Jewish Christian disagreed with him for it and nearly all of his letters show how he had to struggle with fundamentalism of this kind.
The first-hand historical material in Paul's letters sits somewhat awkwardly with Luke's account in Acts. Luke is writing (Probably early 2nd century) at a time when these issues had been largely resolved, including the tensions between Peter and Paul, and where showing unity was important. According to Luke, Peter becomes the hero who first affirmed that it was OK to enter Gentile houses and eat with them! He had to rely on the sources available to him, which were not always reliable. In fact, the result is that he makes Peter sound more like Paul and later makes Paul sound more like Peter, namely when he depicts Paul in Acts as remaining an observer of Jewish law, quite contrary to what Paul’s letters tell us.
There are some further peculiarities about Luke's account which seem to indicate some awkwardness. The vision really does sound like it is telling Peter that the food laws no longer apply and should never have applied, for nothing which God made is unclean! That had been Mark's reading of the import of the incident about washing hands in Mark 7:1-23. Jesus declared that all foods are clean (7:19). The setting aside of biblical law contradicted what Luke said elsewhere in his gospel and so he omitted that passage. Here, too, he seems to understand it not as denying biblical laws about unclean animals but as symbolic. It symbolises that human beings are all to be considered clean. Later we find him asserting adherence to the Law in ways that assume the biblical laws remained intact. So, on Luke's understanding of Peter's vision, it is not animals, but human beings that are now clean and so Christian Jews should feel free to mix with all human beings and eat with them. What a pity the real historical Peter did not know what Luke's Peter knew, when he was later in Antioch!
Peter’s response was “Who was I that I should hinder God?
One way or other, both Paul and Luke reach the same conclusion that no discrimination, no matter how biblically based, can stand in the way of God's outreaching love. Of course, Jews and Christian Jews who remained strict adherents of biblical law also affirmed such love for all, seeing circumcision and other provisions as God's gift of guidelines to sustain and protect the special relationship. Luke is respectful of them, needing the imprimatur of divine interventions to contemplate change. Paul goes all the way in arguing that one needs to recognise the unintended consequences of some biblical laws, which stand in tension with what should be seen as at the heart of the Gospel. Making compassion and love so central that it gives us freedom to set aside even biblical laws where new cultural contexts make them inappropriate was the insight which Paul brought. It is still at the heart of the much conflict about use of scripture today.
According to the NT scholar Borg: In contrast to the purity system with its "sharp social boundaries" the emergent Christian movement substituted a radically alternate social vision. The new community that Jesus announced would be characterized by interior compassion for everyone, not external compliance to a purity code, by radical inclusivity rather than by hierarchical exclusivity, and by inward transformation rather than by outward ritual. In place of "be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 19:2), says Marcus Borg, Jesus deliberately substituted the call to "be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36).
In Ephesians Paul makes a play on words that echoes Peter's thinking. God, says Paul, is the patera of every patria—the "father (patera) from whom every family (patria) derives its name" (1:14–15). God is not the God of Jews alone, or the God only of Christians, but rather the "father of all fatherhood," the "father of every family," or the "father of the whole human family." He is the God of Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists. In a curious phrase that I find more mysterious than obvious, Paul expands God's patrilineage even further to embrace "every family in heaven and on earth."
Conversely, just as God is every person's father, so every human being is his child. To those who partition people according to ethnicity, economic class, or gender, Paul writes that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female" (Galatians 3:28). To those who limit God's lavish love to the morally upright, Matthew says that God "makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (5:45). Whether gay or straight, Liberal or Labour, Christian or Buddist, wealthy entrepreneur whom you envy or beggars on the street who repulses you, Paul quotes a pagan poet to affirm that every person is God's "offspring" (Acts 17:28).
God has given the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life. The Gospel is universal – no basis for excluding any group of people.
Holiness is about being like God/Jesus We are called to love as Jesus loved. Jn 13:34-35
Modern examples of this in the Uniting Church
The elevation of women in the Uniting Church was a major priority in the 1980s.
The formation of the Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress in 1985.
The development of migrant and ethnic congregations in the Uniting Church.
The acceptance of Gay and Lesbians in relationships as Elders and ministers in Uniting Church.
Rev Dr Robert Stringer