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.


  1. Hmmm...Thought I left a comment...

  2. Sorry, Nutsy, no comment reached me. What would the comment have said?

  3. It was mostly how I think the Catholic Church has gone wrong by being so exclusive. I don't believe for a minute that God doesn't truly accept each and every one of us for what we are. I also don't believe he would have made sex so fantastic had it only been for procreation! And gays and lesbians can be some of the most christian people I know. I feel that my church has lost its sense of celebration and community. It's wrapped up in fire, guilt and suffering. Paul had the right idea!!

  4. The trouble with having a very authoritarian hierarchy is that once someone at the top has made a stupid statement, everyone is then stuck with it. That's certainly how I look upon the 'sex is only for babies' theory. Surely something that only a group of celibates could possibly come up with :-)

    I wish it was only the RC church that had lost its sense of celebration and community - at least then it would be obvious to people that there is a choice.

    As it is, some churches do celebrate community and some don't. The titles, traditions and names of the churches don't seem to affect this: it just seems to be that in some places people are working with the Spirit of God in joy; in other places they are working against Him, in po-faced judgemental gloom.

    Sometimes (often) I get fed up with churches, but every now and again a beam of light shines through and I can see again what it is really about. That's what keeps me going.

    Have a great Christmas!

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