Wednesday, May 15, 2019
I've written several times about how easily I get bored with Jesus' final discourse in John. Although full of beautiful theology like this Sunday's "I give you a new commandment: that you love one another," it's sooooo long, and there's almost no narrative action. Give me short, pithy parables, dramatic miracles, or conflict with the religious authorities. This long-winded, red-letter stuff is hard to preach on. This Sunday, I'm drawn more closely (and desperately) to the drama of Acts 11.
This morning, as I read Peter's account of his vision in Joppa, the part that grabs my attention is the very end of the lesson. In verse 18, the "circumcised believers" were stuck silent by Peter's testimony, and they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." Even to the Gentiles. Even to them. Even to us. Whether the surprise was genuine emotion felt by the Jewish followers of Jesus or Luke's way of conveying the remarkable nature of this expansion of God's saving work doesn't really matter. This is huge. That the God of Israel would include the peoples of other nations in God's work of salvation without first requiring that they become citizens of Israel--members of Abraham's ancestral family--is radical theology.
I take it for granted, of course. And so did the church. By the time the New Testament was compiled in its present form, the Way of Jesus had become a principally Gentile movement. These stories in their redacted, revised form, therefore, reflect this truth. Paul had already had his revelation. He had already written to the Galatians about the foolishness of forcing circumcision upon Gentile converts. The Jerusalem synod had already taken place. This was settled. But, in the moment, which Luke peels back the narrative curtain to let us see how it might have happened, there was nothing settled about it.
The Lord (note, here, the ethnic specificity that the term "Lord" implies) chose Abraham to be the father of God's people so that, through them, the whole world might come to know the power of the Lord. The descendants of Abraham were to become a light to the nations. The prophets envisioned all nations streaming to God's temple--a union of all the peoples of the earth under the banner of Israel's God. But, in this moment, God proves God's self to be bigger than that. God is not only the God of Israel who waits for the nations to know him. God is the God of the Greeks. God reaches them and includes them directly. Jesus Christ has become the mediator of a new covenant--the means by which God enacts relationship with others. Although perhaps not a rejection of the first vision of salvation coming to the nations of the earth, this wasn't the means by which the people of God expected that salvation to spread. God's grace had always been mediated through the people of God. And now the people of God were understood to be bigger than the descendants of Abraham. This is new stuff. This is, in fact, a new religion.
The words that the circumcised believers give us are the hinge upon which the Way of Jesus pivots from a branch of Judaism to its own distinct religion: "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." Same God. Same salvation. Same Christ. Different relationship. Different dispensation. Different way. It takes a while before it all sorts itself out, but this is the moment when salvation comes not merely in a newly translated language (Pentecost) or in a uniting ethnic expression (Samaritans) or in an expansive understanding of Israel (Ethiopian eunuch) but in a new way. In Peter's account of what happened in Caesarea, God reached the Gentile converts before they had become children of Abraham. As Paul will later imagine, Jesus made it possible for Gentiles to be grafted into the tree.
What does this mean for today, when we take this ingrafting for granted? I think we too easily forget how new, how radical, how other this moment of salvation was. This wasn't, "Play by our rules, our believes, our practices, and we'll let you into the salvation club." This is God doing something bigger than the faithful people could see. This is God surprising us with salvation. Where will it surprise us next?