Sunday 27 November 2011

No Barriers, No Burdens, Just Be Faithful

Going through the first half of the Acts of the Apostles, trying to see it afresh, minimising preconceptions, is quite an eye-opener. But it leaves me wondering, how on earth did the church end up here? All these rules, all these barriers, all this exclusiveness: that's not how the church began.

One huge theme in the early chapters of Acts is the contrast between the old Jerusalem Temple - full of barriers to keep people away from God - and the new Temple which is Jesus' body, his followers, going out to take God to people: any people, any where, no barriers (see my last post for an attempt at presenting this).

Around AD 47 Paul and Barnabas, two of these early followers of Jesus, took the new Temple out in this way to Southern Galatia (in modern Turkey) founding churches in the towns there. These were churches to which anyone was welcome, no matter who, and of which anyone could be a part: as long as they turned from their old lives to God, through Jesus, of which baptism was the sign; and as long as they accepted God's gift of his Holy Spirit, bringing life and unity to the churches.

After Paul and Barnabas returned to their home church in Antioch, other followers of Jesus came and visited these new Galatian churches. They celebrated that God was at work in this new way, and that new people had come into the family of God's people. Of course, these others told the Galatians, having become God's people they would now have to learn to live like God's people. They would have to follow God's Law, as revealed in the Scriptures. They wouldn't have to learn it all straight away, of course - there are 613 rules in there - but they should start with one of the earliest signs of membership in God's people: circumcision.

When Paul heard he was furious, he wrote a very passionate and rather idealistic letter to the Galatian churches begging them not to be fooled, not to turn away from trusting Jesus. Then when Christians preaching a similarly legalistic message came to Antioch, there were blazing rows, and soon the Antioch Church sent them to Jerusalem to sort the question out “once and for all”.

Essentially the question that the Council of Jerusalem had to sort out was this: are there moral rules you have to follow in order to be a part of a Jesus’ body, the church? Whether these are the 613 rules of the Torah, or the ‘10 commandments’ which are right at the heart of the Jewish Law, or any other set of membership requirements church organisations might come up with. Paul said “no, none”, other early Christians said that the rules laid down in Scripture – Jewish law – were required.

Given the state of the church today, busily tearing itself apart over who is allowed to belong, the answer to this has obvious current relevance. Or it would do, if there was the slightest chance of it being followed.

The Jerusalem Council came out with a rather strange answer. Rather than talking about rules, they simply said there should be no burdens (on non-Jewish believers). What's the difference between a rule and a burden? Consider the old sabbath laws, given to Israel as a celebration of freedom. They had been slaves in Egypt, and slaves don't get days off. But now they are free so they should take a day off a week: they are to remain free and not allow themselves to be enslaved again into an unending routine of labour. The sabbath rules were meant as a boon, a blessing, yet by Jesus' day a crippled woman who comes to Jesus for healing in the synagogue on a Sabbath day is heavily criticised for it: the boon has been turned to a burden. Sadly, religions are all too good at turning rules into cages.

The Council did lay down some restrictions, which at first sight are confusing: they look awfully like burdensome rules. Thankfully Paul later wrote to another new church, out in Corinth, to explain these restrictions. Essentially they are about communion: when we share bread and wine in Jesus' name, we are part of his body. Likewise, if we share in an idolatrous feast we are in communion with an idol, which Paul describes as a demon. So being in communion with Jesus at the same time as being in communion with demonic powers isn't on, it's unfaithful.

Not all communion is about sharing food: even today there are temple prostitutes in parts of India, back in Paul's day they were all over the eastern Mediterranean. Another communion which is inappropriate for a member of the body of Jesus.

So the basic ruling was: no barriers, no burdens, just be faithful to Jesus.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

A Tale Of Two Temples

Model by Alec Garrard
The scene is set in Jerusalem's Temple, AD49, where God Himself is believed to dwell at the heart of the Temple, in the Holy of Holies, where no-one is allowed to go except the High Priest once a year.

"Hey, you, filthy Samaritan – get off our holy mountain. We don’t want your kind here. I'll set the Temple Guard on you - go away!"

"Ah, good morning, Gentile sir. You are not allowed into the Temple proper, but here we have the Court of the Gentiles especially for you. You mustn’t come any further, but there are plenty of merchandising opportunities."

"Ladies, welcome! Come on into the Court of the Women ... you can’t see what’s going on with this enormous wall in the way, but there is plenty of opportunity to chatter and gossip."

"Oh, a eunuch ... I'm terribly sorry, sir, but you know what our Scripture says: no eunuchs in the assembly, so you are not allowed into the Temple. You can go to the Court of the Gentiles, though, and maybe talk to our foreign friend here."

"A son of Israel! Come on up – you are ceremonially clean? Of course you are! Come into the Court of the Israelites. No further: you can’t actually go into the area where sacrifices are happening, but you can see what is going on from here."

"Good day, Sir Priest. Come on up to the Court of the Priests. But don’t go any further – you don’t want to end up in the Holy of Holies, do you sir."

Jewish man: “But I want to meet with God and to worship Him!”

"Meet with God? Oh Sir, you are in the wrong place for that. Why would you want to meet with God anyway? It’s not safe: He's not safe. As for worshipping – well, Sir, that’s the point of this Temple: to help you worship God from a safe distance."

Jewish man: “But I want to meet with God and to worship Him, face to face!”

[Furtive looks around] "Are you sure? You really want to meet with God? What I said was true - He really isn't safe. Okay, follow me."

[Off the stage] "You don’t need to be on a holy mountain or in a special building to meet God for worship, but you do need the right people. Here will do nicely."

"You, Sir! Mr Samaritan, come and join us. Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, told us of a day when both Jews and Samaritans would worship God in Spirit and in Truth – that day has come."

"And you, Mr Eunuch, you come too. The prophet Isaiah said that when the Messiah comes then eunuchs would have a special place of honour in the Temple. The Messiah has come, and God has born witness to that by raising him from the dead. I tell you that wherever the story of the growth of this new Temple, this new people of God, is told, then a eunuch – an Ethiopian eunuch– will have a special role."

"And Isaiah also said that gentile foreigners would find joy here in the new Temple, so you come and join us also."

"Women too. In this new Temple there is no separation, no wall, you are here on equal footing with the rest of us – we are all in the new Holy of Holies and none of us are worthy. And chattering and gossip are inappropriate for us all, I’m sure you agree."

"And finally, Mr Priest, will you join us. Stop sacrificing the same old animals day after day, year after year, and still never getting close to God. Accept the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus and come into the Holy Place, into the presence of God. For when followers of Jesus gather together then that is the new Holy of Holies, that is where God especially dwells, that is where heaven breaks through to earth and where amazing things can happen."

"There are no barriers in this new Temple. Jesus came for everyone - without exception - to remove the walls and to enable anyone who so desires to meet with God and to worship Him, face-to-face and heart-to-heart."