The good news of Jesus Christ, although expressed through a particular moment in human history, must always be translated into universal, culturally relevant terms. But that means more than simply telling the story in a way that people from other times and places can understand. It means that our faith must be willing to let go of those things which might feel sacrosanct but are actually impeding the spread of the gospel.
In today’s New Testament reading (Acts 15:1-11), we come to a decisive moment in the history of Christianity. Will the Gentiles need to be circumcised in order to be saved, or does the message of salvation transcend that fundamental expression of “chosenness” from which Judaism cannot be separated? Now, looking back, we know how the story ends. The Church accepted that someone need not be Jewish in order to be Christian. Individuals don’t need to observe the Jewish customs and laws regarding religious observance and dietary choice in order to be a part of the Jesus movement. Looking back, that seems obvious. But I don’t think we can overstate the significance of this dilemma or the decision that came out of it.
Circumcision is only the symbol of a deeper, costlier debate. How “new” is the faith that Jesus represented? In what ways is it a departure from the faith of his ancestors? To what extent does Christianity base its understanding of the divine-human relationship on a Jewish understanding? To put it in perspective, it’s hard for me to imagine Christianity without the cross. I might even suggest that it would be meaningless without it. But that’s the kind of transformation this Spirit-led, Apostle-made decision represented. Circumcision (and everything that went with it) wasn’t just a “minor feast” or a chunk of adiaphora. This was the core of Jesus’ own faith and identity. It’s like having Christianity without Christmas or Easter. Will the integrity of the Jesus movement crumble if this is given up?
From our perspective, of course, the answer is no. And, even though the “what if” question is largely spurious, I’ll still suggest that the faith we know now would be barely conceivable had that ancient decision gone the other way. We could still have our faith as followers of Jesus, but it would feel a lot different. What, then, must we be willing to give up—to sacrifice—as the gospel and God’s kingdom spread from one land into another and from one century into the next?
Peter reluctantly released his grip on the traditions of the faith as he knew it. Empowered by the Spirit, he was able to guide the Jewishness of Jesus’ faith into a Gentile-based expression. Where is God calling us to undergo similar growth? Some of the hallmarks of our faith aren’t as culturally relevant as they once were—atonement, sacrifice, marriage, Sunday, bread and wine, flimsy wafers and cheap port, exclusivity, patrimony, etc. Some of the changes our faith will undergo in the next century will lead us to places we might barely recognize today. But that’s not a process that we should fear. As God shepherds the growth of his gospel, the Truth remains a fixed reality even if expressions of that Truth look and feel completely different.