Monday, September 10, 2012

The Church Changes


One of the biggest developments in the first century of Christianity was its transformation to a sect of Judaism to a free-standing, Gentile-focused religion. Of course, an argument could be made that it was never really a Jewish sect. And I suppose others could argue that it still is Jewish in nature. But I think our faith, although Jewish in heritage, is distinct. So how and when did that happen?

Today’s reading from Acts (Acts 13:44-52) tells the story almost in passing. After preaching the word of God effectively, Paul and Barnabas were met with strong and successful opposition from the Jewish leaders of Antioch. That rift, which had been developing throughout the near-East, became too great to heal. And Paul and Barnabas looked at the Jews and said, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.” At that moment, everything changes. The Gentiles rejoice, and the Jews probably rejoiced, too. Like a difficult partnership that was destined from the beginning for failure, Christianity stepped aside from its ancestral spouse and became its own religion.

In other posts, I’ve written about the historically accidental nature of that split. Basically, synagogues couldn’t hold both Christians and Jews, and, as the Jewish people didn’t see a need to convert, it was natural for Christianity to reach out to Gentiles. Still, though, it seems to be a bigger deal than Acts makes it out to be. In a few quick sentences, Paul writes off those in his own ethnic community who haven’t gotten on board, and he turns his attention to everyone else. Shouldn’t there be more to it than that?

One line in the reading reminds me why stories of this significance get written the way they do: “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.” There is a role of destiny in this and every story. By writing from the perspective of hindsight, the author is able to look back and see that everything worked out exactly as it should. But isn’t that the way it always works?

Even in huge, religion-splitting moments like this one, we can look back at them and trace evidence of God’s will—the Spirit’s guidance and direction—all the way through a controversial moment. The same can be said of the first Ecumenical Councils, at which the strangest coincidences led us to our definition of orthodoxy. Part of what it means to be human is to be able to discern God’s work and will in human history.

We could argue all day whether God is pulling the puppet strings or whether he set everything in motion or whether he exists at all. Looking back and seeing God’s hand at work is an exercise in faith. And in tumultuous times like this one, when expressions of the faith are going through as much change as they did in the days of Paul and Barnabas, we have to remember that 500 years from now people will look back and see the same God and work in the same ways—even if we’re too close to discern that.

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