Wednesday in Easter 5 - May 17, 2017
Acts 15:1–6; John 15:1–8
Is Jesus really God?
Can Christians who sin after baptism be forgiven?
Is the God of the Old Testament the same as the God of the New Testament?
Do Christians believe that the Old Testament is the Word of God?
These are some of the questions and controversies that the church encountered in its early history. What about more recently?
Should the church accept same-sex marriage?
May homosexuals serve as bishops or as other clergy?
Should women be allowed to serve as bishops and priests?
Does the "new" prayer book and its theology of baptismal regeneration abandon our Anglican theology and identity?
These are some of the controversies that we have encountered in the last few decades. Of course, there are more controversies still ahead of us.
Will we revise the prayer book yet again?
Will we allow unbaptized individuals to receive Communion?
Will we permit lay people to preside at the Eucharist?
Will we reunite with the Methodists? The Presbyterians?
Will there even be a church in another century? How must the church adapt to ensure its survival?
Right now, some of these feel substantial and even threatening. Others seem small and even petty. At one time or another, each of them has (or will) cause considerable consternation for some within the church. And there are always a few in the church for whom a particular controversy is "no big deal."
In today's reading from Acts 15, we encounter what perhaps has been the single biggest and most determinative controversy that the church has ever encountered. (And it has nothing to do with sex!) "Certain individuals...were teaching the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'" Paul and Barnabas, on the other hand, "had no small dissention and debate with them," and, if you remember anything of what Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians or his letter to the Romans or the Colossians or Titus, then you know that Paul thought this was a pretty big deal and that he made preaching against it part of his mission for the rest of his life.
But why circumcision? Nowadays, when doctors require parents to sign a release form before a non-necessary medical procedure is carried out on their newborn sons, we've largely lost sight of what circumcision represented. It was the sign of the covenant between God and God's people, the children of Abraham. Ever since God made that covenant with Abraham, all males in the Israelite tradition have been circumcised. Even those foreigners who come to live with them were to be circumcised. To this day, although I'm not sure this rule is universally enforced, you're not allowed to eat the Passover meal with Jews unless you've been circumcised. In Jewish conversions, males are either circumcised or, if they were circumcised in a non-ritual way at birth, another small cut is made and blood is drawn as a ritual sign of the conversion by circumcision. It is, therefore, essentially Jewish. In all the generations in which the Temple Mount has been unavailable for centralized ritual worship, circumcision and the other observances that go with it (honoring Shabbat, keeping kosher, observing the festivals) have taken the place of the sacrificial cultus.
Jesus, of course, was circumcised. All of his disciples were circumcised. In the beginning, Jesus' ministry was a thoroughly Jewish ministry. He may have rejected the centralized religious practices of his day, but the core Jewish beliefs and practices, symbolized in part by circumcision, were very much a part of his life and ministry. What it meant to be a follower of Jesus was to be Jewish--a very particular, peculiar brand of Judaism but Judaism without a doubt. And then things started to change.
Early on in the post-Pentecost era, as we read about in the Acts of the Apostles beginning with the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, the Jesus Movement became a religion for non-Israelites. Within a generation, the primary makeup of the Christian community had become Gentile. The appeal of this radical offshoot of Judaism had waned in the Jewish community, and Gentiles, whose in-grafting into the family of Abraham was enabled by Jesus, had picked up the cause. But how would they be included in the religion of Jesus the Jew? Would a Gentile convert need to become thoroughly Jewish before walking the Way of Christianity?
Even if we've lost our sensitivity to the controversy itself, we know how everything worked out. Paul and Barnabas and those who were convinced that the Way of Jesus was a way of liberation from the restrictions of the Old Covenant persuaded the leaders in the Jerusalem Council to remove any expectation that converts would be circumcised. Although the church still has its Jewish roots, it's hard to imagine Christianity as a denomination of Judaism. Although it's logically conceivable, it's culturally baffling to think of converting to Judaism before being baptized into the Christian faith. A doctrine of unconditional love isn't unique to the Christian faith, but the distinctiveness of the gospel of grace has developed to the point where any sort of hurdle for admission like circumcision seems contrary to the principles of the faith. Or does it?
If Paul and Barnabas looked around today's church, what would they see? What new barriers to entry have we created? The remarkable thing about the Jerusalem Council is that experience won the day. Peter stood up and explained how uncircumcised, unbaptized Gentiles had shown evidence of the Holy Spirit's work. Paul and Barnabas explained how their work in the frontier had proven to them that God is working through Gentiles to spread the gospel of Jesus to the ends of the earth. James then stood up and quoted the prophet Simeon, who had identified Jesus as the "light to enlighten the Gentiles." And before long it was settled, and the decision was made because of what the leaders of the church could see: that God would not and could not be stopped by ethnic, cultural, religious, or ritualistic barriers.
What about us? For the most part, I think we've moved past the expectation that men will come to church in a nice suit and that women will cover their heads during worship. (Thanks be to God!) But what are the new ritual hurdles for admission? I readily and enthusiastically admit I fully subscribe to the practice of Baptism before Communion, but, to the extent that Baptism has become a ritual act instead of a conversion moment, can we say that it has become the new circumcision? Surely we see that God is doing something new and different and holy when it comes to lifelong expressions of monogamous sexual fidelity. Even a church polity geek like me can recognize that there is fruit in sharing full communion with a non-episcopal tradition like Methodists or Presbyterians. How do we know where the Spirit is leading us? We begin be acknowledging that that which could never have been anticipated--the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles in the family and faith of Abraham--was brought about by the church's willingness to trust what the Spirit was showing them, tested in prayer, tried in theological debate, and grounded in scripture. Is that our posture still today, or should we go back to the Jerusalem Council and start all over with the campaign to circumcise all believers?