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The Narrative Lectionary text for the next two weeks takes us to Acts 15:1-18 and Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21.
Some Jewish Christians of the first church were very concerned that Gentiles were becoming followers of the Way (the original term used to describe people who followed Jesus as Lord) without conforming to the Law of Moses and being circumcised.
Think about that for a minute. Imagine if the only way you could become a member of a church today was to willingly submit yourself to the physical surgery of circumcision. First of all…OUCH! Secondly, this is obviously a men’s only club.
To “obey the works of the Law” would mean to abandon your own ethnic identity and assimilate into a foreign ethnic identity in order to be consider a “true disciple of Jesus.”
Why would the Jewish followers of Jesus demand this of the Gentiles? Watch the video above step through the arguments around this topic from the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Simply put, some of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day had come to believe that the “works of the Law” (circumcision and dietary rules) were the signs that set them apart from the world and marked them as God’s chosen people, exclusively. They had forgotten that God’s vision, from the beginning was for ALL nations.
The Law of Moses was given to the people of Israel immediately after they were released from slavery in Egypt, 1400 years before Jesus lived. That law was given to protect them, show them how to be nation, and provide a national identity to a newly forming group. It was a life-giving, expansive gift from God, in its own time and context.
Jesus came in a different time and context. That once expansive gift had now become a constrictive tourniquet of exclusivity.
True, to be a Jewish person required following the Law of Moses. There is nothing wrong with being a Jewish person. Plus, it is 100% possible to follow Jesus as Messiah and Lord and remain 100% Jewish, circumcision and everything.
Here’s the main point of Acts 15 and Galatians: YOU DON’T HAVE TO BECOME JEWISH TO FOLLOW JESUS!
Kathryn Tanner talks about the Good News, or the Kingdom of God, like an invasive DNA where the Gospel doesn’t call you out of your host culture to become a separate “Christian Culture.” Rather, the Gospel penetrates every culture and seeks to redeem and transform it, within its own context, to bring about the Grace and Peace of God that resonates in the key of the host culture.
This debate in Acts chapter 15 and Paul’s argument in Galatians is the first record of the practical, human dialogue about how difficult it is to grasp the expansive nature of God’s Grace. ALL are welcome, and God usually colors outside of our cultural and comfortable boundaries.
Today, we continue to wrestle with our ethnic identities. They create a dividing wall of hostility. We use them as an excuse to hate each other.
The Kingdom of God is, and always has been, a multi-ethnic community of unity within diversity. Listen to The Bible Project’s excellent podcast series on this called The Family of God.
That doesn’t mean God doesn’t want you to remain within YOUR cultural identity (being Jewish and circumcised, or white of European descent, or black from African descent, or Japanese, or Lebanese, etc. is perfectly fine). It means that God doesn’t require other people to become JUST LIKE YOU in order to experience the love, grace, and transformation of life in God’s Kingdom.
May we rejoice that God colors outside the lines that we create!
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