Monday, April 18, 2016

Wrong Side of History

Should we pull the statues of slave owners and segregationists and colonial oppressors down from their lofty perches on buildings that were erected in their honor centuries ago? Should we rename the bridge in Selma, Alabama, where civil rights demonstrators were attacked by state troopers, because its namesake, Edmund Pettus, was a noted Confederate general, senator, and Ku Klux Klansman? Is the best way to rewrite the history books to expunge the record of these once-honored, now-denigrated figures, or should we allow the dissonant histories--then and now--to stand alongside each other and point out the conflict so that we might learn from it? Can we point to those historical markers without praising the men whom they once lauded? I think we can. I think we must.

On Sunday in Acts 11:1-18, we will encounter Peter's report to the Jerusalem authorities that the Holy Spirit had fallen upon uncircumcised Gentiles. The "Circumcision Party," objected to Peter's fraternization of these outsiders, arguing the conservative position that the Way of Jesus was a distinctly Jewish movement and necessitated a clear Jewish identity. That made sense. Jesus was Jewish. His messianic identity could only be understood in its Jewish prophetic context. To preach the good news of Jesus in a Greek, Gentile, thoroughly non-Jewish arena was to miss the whole point of his life, death, and resurrection. Even today, two thousand years later, pastors, preachers, and theologians strive to recapture Jesus' Jewish identity so that the faith of his followers might be deepened. But, in Jesus, God was--and still is--doing something quite unexpected.

Peter didn't see it coming. As his report in Jerusalem made clear, three times he declined the invitation to eat the non-kosher foods presented to him in his heavenly vision. Three times God tapped him on the shoulder--knocked him on the head--to help him see that something new was taking place. The God-coordinated coincidence of Cornelius' inquiry and Peter's vision was confirmed by the Holy Spirit's unexpected, unrequested descent upon the uncircumcised Gentile believers in the centurion's house. At the end of his argument, Peter states the irrefutable truth: "If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" We read that "they were silenced." And, after a epiphanic pause, "they praised God, saying, 'Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.'"

We're now two thousand years down the road. The "Circumcision Party" doesn't exist anymore. There are still some isolated manifestations of this same argument (e.g. Seventh Day Adventists preserving the Sabbath vs. everyone else celebrating the Lord's Day on Sunday), but we've pretty much moved on from the "must one be observantly Jewish before becoming Christian" question. But I think we've distanced ourselves so completely from that moment in Jerusalem that we've forgotten what it means for God to do in an instant a reversal that radical, that unexpected, and that dramatic.

If you are a follower of Jesus, your faith is a product of that moment. Although our religion has its Jewish roots, we are no longer a branch of Judaism, and we haven't been since that day in Cornelius' house. Although Peter still needed to make the argument, and the Jerusalem Council still needed to accept it, and it took Paul a long time to get word of that sea change to the missionary church (read Galatians), when God revealed so resolutely what he was doing, who, indeed, could hinder God?

We forget that it didn't take a committee to make this happen. In the institutional, bureaucratic church, we forget that God doesn't wait for a resolution to pass before revealing what he's doing. We've forgotten it, and our historical ignorance is dangerous. "We've never done it that way," is the universal slogan of conservatism. But,  in Jesus, God has been shattering expectations--of the scribes and Pharisees, of the Roman Empire, of the Circumcision Party, and of the church and its leaders--for thousands of years. Who would hinder God? Have we grown so accustomed to the way we operate as the church that we are unwilling or unable to see that God might do something completely new? Why would we be surprised by that? Why would we be threatened by that? Remember our history as Christians, or else we'll find ourselves on the wrong side of what God is doing in the world.

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