1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
It doesn’t surprise me that Peter would face criticism; criticism is one of the most wearying aspects of congregational life. What surprises me is that Peter explained what happened and “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God.” It’s easier for me to believe that Jesus walked on water than that Peter’s congregation was turned so easily from criticism to praise.
I want to believe that those first believers were as open and perceptive to the work of the Spirit as Luke describes, but I know that the question whether Gentile’s could be baptized into the community of Christ without first becoming a member of the Jewish community was a deeply challenging issue for the early church.
It is difficult to be certain exactly what the terms ‘Jew’ (Greek = ‘Judean’) and ‘Gentile’ (Greek = ‘the nations’) signified in the first century, but they clearly represent a deep cultural divide between those in the Judean community who define themselves as separate from the Hellenistic world and those who are thoroughly acculturated to that world. How do you have table fellowship – or any fellowship – with those who do not share the same mores, food laws and sense of purity?
To welcome “those people” is always a profound challenge for any community, and it was especially significant for the developing Christian movement. Luke goes into great detail in telling this story – and then has Peter relate the events again. Paul’s ministry to the nations is under constant attack and three times Luke relates Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord and his call to go to the nations. The problem of “Jew” and “Gentile” is the subject of the apostolic delegation to Antioch, Paul’s confrontation with Peter, and the so-called Jerusalem Conference. This issue of “them” and “us” didn’t go away and, in the end, led to the riot in the temple, Paul’s arrest and his eventual execution.
Change is not an easy thing. And it is especially difficult to bridge those cultural boundaries between different social and ethnic groups. But this is the wondrous thing about Jesus. He reaches out to tax collectors and parties with Zacchaeus and his outcast friends. Women travel in his company and he welcomes them as disciples. He converses with the Samaritan woman, treating her as a member of his family – and she brings her whole Samaritan village to him.
The Spirit empowers the believers at Pentecost to proclaim God’s praise in every language. Hellenized Judeans living in Jerusalem take up the Gospel and, when they are scattered by communal violence, share it freely with Samaritans. Philip declares there is no impediment to baptism for the Ethiopian Eunuch (who cannot enter the temple because, as a eunuch, he is ritually unclean). Peter baptizes Cornelius. Antioch welcomes Greeks. Paul and Barnabas are sent to the nations.
Despite ourselves, the heart of the Christian message transcends culture. Christ welcomes all peoples. Indeed, transcending tribalism is at the core of the Christian proclamation that the healing and redemption of all creation is at hand in Jesus. And so Paul declares:
“In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
This is a far more profound creation of a new community than the modern liberal notion of inclusiveness. It is the kingdom of God.
And though I love Luke’s picture of a Christian community open to the movement of God’s Spirit to gather all into Christ, and I still hope for a congregation that welcomes all and can recognize the movement of the Spirit with joy and praise – the more profound truth is that we are usually dragged into that kingdom kicking and screaming.
But God’s kingdom comes. To us, and for us, and in spite of us, God’s kingdom comes.