Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’
Something amazing and unanticipated has happened in the early church. People of every social status, ethnicity and nation, have flocked to join the with the followers of Christ! It was unanticipated because many thought this would be a renewal among Hebrews only. But the story of Jesus‘ life, death and resurrection attracted everyone! Why were so many different people drawn to this? It was the way the community organized itself. They fed the hungry no matter their ethnicity. They welcomed poor and wealthy alike. Slaves and women had as much value as men. Roman society attempted to keep people clearly stratified, with Roman men at the top, women, other ethnic groups, the poor and slaves all in lower tiers. Christians valued all equally as the creation of God, as those called family by Jesus.
But as we can see, the arrival of all of these different ethnic groups caused controversy. The Messiah, so some thought, came for Israel. These ethnic groups must, therefore, become a part of Israel, (be like us) in order to be a part of God’s Kingdom (to be saved). The heart of the matter is just that. Does the unity of the church depend on the uniformity of its members. Must all be circumcised, become Israel, be like us.
Chapter 15 of Acts is a very important story in the life of the church. In this chapter if was decided that unity in Christ did not depend on national or ethnic identity. All people were welcomed into the community of Christ. This sounds great. And it sounds very much like our own Baptist tradition of ‘Soul Liberty‘ which proclaims that God has created each person with a mind and a conscience and given the Holy Spirit so that each can respond to God as they feel called, as they see fit. But in practice, it gets complicated. Even today we see evidence of the challenge. Rarely are churches truly representative of a variety of ethnic groups and races. In our day and age churches are even divided among lines of age, young and old.
First, this story allows us to admit that we do find welcome of the stranger, the other, challenging. Who are the ‘others’ that you find most challenging to welcome? When/Where have you experienced being the outsider? Were you made to feel welcome or left on your own?