Friday, 29 January 2016

Who Are The People Of God?

Jesus was a Jew: he worshipped at the Jerusalem Temple, followed Torah, the Jewish 'Law', even taught Torah - although with a subversive twist.

Jesus' earliest followers were Jews too, worshipping at the Jerusalem Temple, and so on.

Religious 1st-Century Jews knew who the people of God were: they were.

The people of God, they were sure, were born Jews (technically Israelites, although they denied the Samaritans that status), who remained within the covenant between God and Israel: the Torah. It was possible, although difficult, for a non-Jew to convert to Judaism and so become one of God's people too.

Torah includes provision for people who break its rules in a minor way to make a sacrifice and so return to compliance. By Jesus time this was taken to mean that you stopped doing whatever the infringement was. So if you stole, made the required sacrifice, and stopped stealing you were okay; if you continued stealing the sacrifice was not effective. This also meant that people who worked for non-Jews, who would necessarily break the food rules, were excluded from God's people unless they gave up their jobs.

A lot of the time when the New Testament refers to 'sinners' it means those who are outside God's covenant, maybe because they were born 'Gentile sinners' or because their lives exclude them from Torah. Correspondingly when it refers to those who are 'righteous' it usually means those within God's covenant. Thus you get one of the great letter-writer Paul's themes: those who are within Jesus are no longer 'sinners' but 'righteous' (or 'justified' or various other images of the same thing).

The sign of being one of God's people, from way back in the days of Abraham, had been to be circumcised (which maybe says something about the status of women!).

The very early church was essentially Jewish, although from quite early on they accepted Samaritans and even a eunuch (excluded from the people by Torah, but the prophets spoke of their acceptance when the Messiah came). Eventually even foreigners ('Gentiles') were accepted, although in Jerusalem and Judea they were very much in the minority.

Basically, in the first ten to fifteen years after Jesus' death and resurrection, the congregations of his followers nearly all shared a common religious upbringing and culture. It was very hard to separate that culture from their identity as God's people.

Then came Antioch. The church there started off as Jewish as anywhere else, but then they began attracting non-Jews to their meetings who wanted to join the church. When 'head office' in Jerusalem heard, they sent Barnabas to help - known as a good 'people person'. Barnabas went off to Tarsus to pick up Paul, who had previously persecuted Christians but, having met the risen Jesus for himself, was now spreading the word he had previously tried to suppress.

Barnabas and Paul built up the church in Antioch as a mixed church: Jews and non-Jews alike. But that meant that the congregation no longer shared that common religious upbringing and culture, nor even that 'badge' of God's people: a circumcised penis. Inevitably, perhaps, arguments broke out as religious expectations were not met and assumed standards of behaviour were ignored.

How are the people of God meant to live? Once outsiders have been welcomed in, is it the expectation that they will then change to become just like the insiders?

In the early church one big question was whether those who came into the faith, who had joined God's people later in life, should adopt the badge of God's people and become circumcised. The Old Testament (as we call it today) scriptures were clear: God calls his people to be circumcised. Slightly less clearly, the assumption (of those who grew up religious) was also that God calls his people to follow his law: the Torah.

Paul strongly disagreed: for him the 'badge' of God's people was the Holy Spirit (whatever he meant by that - a subject for a future post) and the 'law' that they had to follow was the law of love, guided by that Holy Spirit.

This row came to a head after Paul and Barnabas returned from travelling through Southern Galatia founding new mixed congregations, where Jews and non-Jews worshipped together.

But the question for churches in Britain today is: how do we deal with an influx of those who do not share our upbringing and religious values? For many, maybe most, of us this influx is something we desperately need, but the experience of Antioch and Galatia long ago warns us that it will not be easy. We insiders will have to change our ways: ditching a lot of cultural baggage, even when that baggage seems justified by tradition and scripture.

Somehow we must rediscover Paul's vision of the diverse people of God, gathered together in local communities, following Jesus under the guidance of his Spirit. After nearly two millenia that is quite a challenge, but it is necessary if we are to be faithful citizens of God's Kingdom.

Grace and peace for your week ahead.

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