An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Do they let anyone in here?!!

A reflection on Acts 10:44-48 & 1 John 5:1-6 by Nathan Nettleton

This short reading from the Acts of the Apostles is really just the punch line of a much longer story that occupies the whole of chapter ten, and if you’re not too familiar with it, it would be well worth your while reading the whole chapter before you read the rest of this.

The story gives us a window into how the early church dealt with one of the biggest dilemmas it faced. There was at least a couple of differing levels to this dilemma. Firstly it was a question about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Jesus was a Jew and most of his first followers were Jewish. Jesus had not suggested that they should abandon Judaism or in any way renounce their Jewish faith and its practices. In many ways Jesus, like John the Baptiser before him, presented himself as a Jewish reformer initiating a movement that would purify and reassert the Jewish faith. So the early church was faced with a curly question when gentile people began hearing the gospel preached and began responding to the message that those who put their trust in Jesus would become children of God. They were not hearing it as a call to convert to Judaism and adopt the faith and practices of Judaism. Instead they were hearing it as an inclusive welcome to all, which, while it clearly had ethical implications, did not mean that one had to get circumcised, stop eating pork and shellfish, and do all the other things that identified one as a faithful Jew. For the first Christians who had taken it for granted that Christian faith was a modified form of Judaism, this was a huge challenge. Didn’t following Jesus mean living as a Jew, since that’s how Jesus lived? How could it be otherwise? After all, you can’t just pick and choose the bits you like. You have to give God your whole life.

But there was another level to this dilemma too. This dilemma was not altogether new. There had been a debate running within Judaism long before the appearance of Jesus about the relationship between God, the Jews and the gentiles. So for the early Christians, the question of gentile converts simply gave a new spin to an old question. For centuries, the question had been asked, “Can gentiles make a faithful response to God and be accepted and blessed by God without becoming Jews?” Or to put in another way, “Are the distinctive practices of the Jews the only way to honour God or are they just the Jewish way and other people can honour God from within their own culture and practices?”

You can see this debate being fought out within the pages of the Hebrew scriptures, particularly in those parts which were written or reedited after the return from the exile in Babylon. Jewish faith had always been very strongly linked to the Jewish homeland, and particularly to Jerusalem, so a couple of generations as exiles in a foreign land initially threatened to completely wipe out their faith. As Psalm 137 put it, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” It took a major rethink of their faith before the exiles could work out what it meant to worship God in a strange land. Obvious and distinctive practices like circumcision, kosher food laws and sabbath keeping became increasingly important at this time in order to preserve their cultural and religious identity – in order to enable them to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Rigid ethnic and religious boundaries were defined and the idea that maintaining ethnic purity was essential to honouring God became a dominant ideology. You can read the theological expressions of this especially in the books of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. So extreme did this view become that when they returned from exile, they decided that no Jewish man could have a gentile wife and a policy of compulsory divorce and expulsion of gentile wives and their children was invoked.

In a nutshell, the thinking went that God had chosen the people of Israel and made a covenant with them only. The presence of non-Israelites within the community of the chosen people would dilute the purity of the people and therefore offend God and diminish God’s blessing. Non-Jews, being the unchosen people, were seen as being beyond the reach of the love and blessing of God.

But there was a dissenting view, and in the midst of the ethnic cleansing campaign that followed the exile, there were voices raised in protest. These voices appealed to the memories of earlier Judaism to demonstrate that God’s love was for all people, not just the Jews. They pointed out that both of Moses’ two wives were gentiles. They pointed out that King David married several gentile women and that his son and heir, King Solomon, had both a gentile mother and numerous gentile wives. When you invoke the names of Moses and David in Jewish circles, you’re pulling out the big guns!

The protesters also made much of the commands clearly present in early Jewish law that they were to take care of the foreigners among them, and even that foreigners who become permanent residents among them gained most of the rights of the true Jew.

There are books in the Hebrew Scriptures that are products of this protest movement and which are explicit attempts to counter the ethnic extremism represented in Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. The books of Joel, Ruth and Jonah best illustrate this side of the argument. Joel gave an apocalyptic vision of the coming day of the Lord, and in a passage that we’ll hear in a couple of weeks time at Pentecost, he spoke of God pouring out Holy Spirit on all humankind. His visions clearly tell of God breaking down the boundaries and embracing all who call on the name of the Lord, regardless of the ethnicity.

The book of Ruth, on the surface, is a harmless little romance novel. But published during a time of compulsory expulsion of gentile wives it was a bombshell, because the hero of the story, a faithful God fearing woman who becomes the great grandmother of King David, is a gentile wife who is unquestionably accepted and blessed by God.

The book of Jonah is probably the most hard hitting of all, but we usually don’t notice because we’ve reduced it to a children’s story about a bloke living for three days in the belly of a whale. The book of Jonah goes to the heart of the debate because it deals directly, though in story form, with the question of what it means to be the chosen people. You see, the protesters didn’t deny that Israel was the chosen people, they just said that that didn’t mean they were the only people God loved. They argued that God had chosen them to be the means of revealing God’s message of love and plan of salvation to all the world. And they further argued that the reason God kept punishing them was because they were trying to keep God’s blessing to themselves and failing to be the light of the world, the bearers of blessing to the whole world.

So Jonah in the story represents Israel. God calls him to go to Ninevah, a gentile city, and call the people of Ninevah to repentance. Jonah refuses to go because he is afraid that if he does the Ninevites might repent and God might forgive them and bless them, and Jonah doesn’t want the Ninevites to be forgiven and blessed because they are not Jews. So he runs away. It is in the process of running away that he manages to get swallowed by the fish and three days later vomited up on the beach near Ninevah. God calls him again. “Go and preach in the streets of Ninevah.” After three days in the belly of a fish, Jonah is not willing to be quite so obviously uncooperative. So he goes to Ninevah and preaches in a low whisper in the streets, hoping no one will hear him. They do hear him though, and much to Jonah’s disgust, the Ninevites repent and call on God for forgiveness. Now, one interesting feature of this is that the author makes it quite clear that their repentance does not involve adopting Judaism. Jonah addresses God as “Yahweh”, but the Ninevites just call out to “God”, which was seen as a sort of generic calling on the divine rather than an acknowledgement of the God of Israel. But God hears them anyway, no matter what name they call him by, and Jonah is so depressed he storms out of the city and wants to die! The writer couldn’t make the protest much sharper. Israel is choosing death rather than fulfil her vocation as God’s chosen people, chosen to bring God’s blessing to all the peoples of the world.

So, jump forward four or five centuries and you see this old old argument reemerging for the first Christians. “Does God really bless those who are not Israelites? Even if they don’t first convert to the Jewish religion?” For the Jewish Christians, the old question simply had a new twist, “Was Jesus the true embodiment of the chosen people – the one who brought the blessing of God to all the nations regardless of their lack of Jewishness?”

If you’ve read the whole of Acts 10 you’ll know the story of God preparing Peter for this moment, but in these few verses at the end of the chapter, we hear the first rationale for what became the orthodox Christian answer. Basically what Peter says is, “There’s no point in refusing to recognise what God is obviously doing. If it is perfectly clear that God is pouring out the Holy Spirit on these non-Jews, then there’s no point in arguing over whether we can baptise them. God’s will is already clear. God accepts them. God is blessing them. And there’s no point trying to accuse God of not being a good Jew!!”

Now I’ve taken the long way round here of giving you a lightening tour of the biblical background to this debate, but the question is, what does it mean for us? I don’t think too many Christians are still arguing over whether gentiles can be Christian without becoming Jewish first. Surely the argument is long since over? True enough, it is. But it keeps coming back in various different guises, and so imprinting Peter’s solution on our minds is a useful defence against new heresies. Over and over again throughout the history of the world, Christian people have kept reverting to the idea of needing to maintain a pure group in order to honour God and every conceivable social boundary has been seen by someone as the limit of God’s love and grace. Over and over again it has been asserted that we need to maintain the purity of our faith by avoiding the contamination of some group or another. More often than not it has been a racial thing and we’ve seen a highly developed theological expression of it in South Africa in the not too distant past. But as Sorry Day reminded us this last week, it happened here too and the legacy of that still divides the Australian people.

The Christian defence against such heresies is to again and again invoke Peter’s simple reasoning. “Is there evidence that God’s Spirit is active among the people on the other side? Yes. Then pull down the barricades and welcome them.”

You don’t have to think too far before you begin seeing how this works itself out in more recent debates that have divided Christians. Can women be ordained as ministers of the gospel? Well, are there any women who show signs of having been called and gifted by God for such ministry? Yes. Then put aside the old rules and welcome the new things that God is doing! Can homosexual people be Christians without first being “cured” of their homosexuality? Well, are there any homosexual people who are growing in the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit? Yes. Then put aside the old rules and welcome the new things that God is doing!

It’s a simple enough approach, and it’s obviously biblical, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that everyone will therefore welcome it as a way of sorting out our arguments!

Questions for thought and discussion.

• What groups of people does the church still tend to see as beyond the reach of God’s love and gracious acceptance? It might help to think about who are regarded as the “unsaved” or to ask what are the prerequisites for being accepted by God and who do we think isn’t meeting them.

• What are the grounds on which we tend to think of them as separated from God? In what way are those grounds similar to the old Jewish definitions of insiders and outsiders?

• What new sorts of questions might we ask in evaluating others in light of Peter’s solution to the “gentile problem”?

• In what ways might these new questions change the ways we think about “non-Christians” (eg. Buddhists) or “unorthodox Christians” (eg Mormons)?

• Would such changes be a threat to the integrity of the Christian faith? Why or why not?


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