Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them ... Peter stood up and said to them ... "God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." -- Acts 15:1-2a, 7-11
This passage makes me think about the many ways people exclude others from God's Kingdom. Thank God for his Holy Spirit.
There have always been people who have tried to draw a line between who is "in" and who is "out." Back then, as the Gospel message spread outward from Jerusalem and was accepted by more and more non-Jews, some Jews wanted to draw the line between those who accepted circumcision and those who did not. That is, they said that you had to be Jewish, like themselves, in order to fully accepted into the group. But the Holy Spirit so filled these non-circumcised Gentiles that it was clear to the leaders of the church that such distinction was not important to God.
Still, this was a hard concept to accept, especially for many devout Jews who had grown up with the understanding that they were chosen among all the people in the world to be God's people. Their special sense of being set apart from the Gentiles around them was hard to overcome. Even after a voice from heaven tells Peter, "What God has made clean, let no man call profane." (Acts 10:15), he still has trouble moving beyond the culture he has always known. Though Peter can accept Gentiles enough to baptize them, he has trouble breaking down all social barriers. He finally draws the line when it comes to eating with Gentiles, in Antioch. I can almost imagine Peter saying to Paul, "You know that some of my best friends are Gentiles, but the law says I must not eat what they eat. So, my hands are tied on this one." Tradition and customary laws are hard to overcome -- even when you know its better to listen to the Holy Spirit.
Paul, though not very sympathetic to Peter's dilemma, drew lines, too. This man who said, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28), still could not move far beyond his patriarchal society to fully include women as teachers in his church, even though women supported church houses and had the ability to prophesy. And so, I imagine Paul defending his ruling by saying, "Look, some of my best friends are women, but I cannot allow them to teach other men. That's going too far." Even for Paul, so willing to admit Gentiles, tradition and cultural customs were impossible to overcome.
Most recently, the church to which I proudly belong (the ELCA), erased the line that had been drawn between celibate homosexuals and partnered homosexuals, acknowledging their right to be fully who they are and fully members of the church at the same time. For it had become clear that what God's Holy Spirit had blessed, man should not deny. Nor should we place upon anyone "a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we [would] have been able to bear." However, though the church took this courageous step, it was not without painful consequences. For some people, this was a line that could not be erased. I heard more than one person say, "Some of my best friends are gay, but that doesn't mean I approve of their lifestyle." And they drew the line when it came to supporting life-long, monogamous, partnerships between homosexual adults.
It is hard to believe, considering how inclusive Jesus was toward the ostracized and outcasts of his day, and how he made compassion for people of greater priority than the law. His followers, however, seem to have a special gift for excluding others from God's Kingdom.
When I was in high school, my best friend told me that unless I was a born-again Southern Baptist, like herself, I would go to Hell. And in graduate school, my best friend, a highly-educated and sophisticated woman, told me that only Greek Orthodox, such as herself, go to Heaven. Clearly these messages of exclusivity were taught by their respective churches, and not by Jesus.
Along these same lines is the response of one Lutheran pastor when he was asked why he thought Gandhi would not be accepted in God's Kingdom. His answer was, "I'm sorry, but I didn't make the rules." What rules?, I wondered. Jesus told his followers to "Love each other as I have loved you." That's it. That was his rule.
We still have a long way to go before we can be the people Jesus wanted us to be. He gave us a key, however, and a hope, for progress, when he said, "No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins ... but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins." Jesus' teachings were like new wine. They needed, and continually need, to be put into fresh wineskins. So, I do believe we will get there -- if we always make listening to God's Holy Spirit our priority.
Dear God, you are ever patient with us, always persistently pushing us to be as faithful, and hopeful, and loving, as your son Jesus. Thank you. Love always, Pam