Thursday, February 21, 2008

All One in Christ?

In my first Lent talk on Christian living, I intended to talk about how Jesus saw his teaching and ministry as being in fulfilment of the Old Testament. However, as I prepared it and thought of future talks, I found myself coming up against an issue that has occupied me for as long as I can remember, that of justification by faith and the place of the Law in the Christian life - and all else that flows from it. This issue has been increasingly complicated in recent years by what is known as the 'new perspective on Paul'. This is exactly what it says it is: a new way of looking at Paul. The new is some 30 years old, not that new it may seem, until compared with how old the old is! The old way being that of Augustine and Luther and all who followed them.

Anyway, I thought I would write a short series on the issue. The series will just be a few thoughts from a personal perspective. I make no claims to originality or thoroughness.

All One in Christ?

1. The Problem

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Despite modern squeamishness about parts of the Old Testament, the Old Testament, what it teaches and the story it tells, was the basis for Jesus’ teaching and ministry. The Church itself was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, all of whom were Jewish. For Jesus and the first Christians, second temple Judaism formed their spiritual universe. This meant that they could make certain common assumptions based on a shared identity. Becoming a follower of Jesus, however challenging it might have been, did not mean abandoning life-long beliefs and practices. The first 'Christians' in Jerusalem, for example, saw no problem continuing to go to the Temple.

Becoming a follower of Jesus for a first century Jew meant having faith in Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Messiah, it did not mean renouncing circumcision and the Law: anything but. Being a follower of Jesus the Messiah also meant keeping the Law. There was no contradiction and no problem. How could there be? When the Jewish believers preached the good news of Jesus to other Jews, they were talking to their own people. They were, after all, worshippers of the same God with the same religion and history.

This was all very different when the good news was preached to pagans as it was in Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth. The preachers and those preached to had very little in common socially and religiously. Jews in Gentile cities kept themselves separate from their pagan neighbours. This encounter between Jewish believers and Gentiles raised questions that not even Jesus himself had had to face and on which he had not given explicit guidance.

The first question they had to deal with was simple. Could Gentiles be saved in the first place? This was not as obvious as it might seem to us and God had to intervene with a vision to Peter, thrice repeated, before Peter was ready to share the good news with a Gentile. Even then, God had to give his Spirit to the Gentiles in a dramatic way to convince Peter and his associates that the Gentiles concerned ought to be baptized. Even after all this, Peter still had to justify himself to the Church at Jerusalem who were uneasy at the news of what had gone on.

Anyway, to give them their due, the Jewish believers, even if somewhat reluctantly, accepted that Gentiles could be saved. But this raised other questions. Given that they could in principle be saved, what did the Gentiles have to do to be saved and to be part of the Church. At the risk of over-simplification, there were two basic answers:

1. Have faith in Jesus and keep God’s Law, including being circumcised.

2. Have faith in Jesus.

The problem was that, for Jews, Gentiles were not part of the people of God. Historically, they could only become part of the people of God if they converted to Judaism and converting to Judaism meant being circumcised and keeping the Law. For a person to be saved on the Day of Judgement at the very least they had to be part of the people of God. How could Gentiles become part of the people of God and be saved on the last day?

Some Jewish believers, and it was a significant number, thought that Gentiles should do what Gentiles had always had to do, that is, be circumcised, if male, and keep God’s Law. This was not such an unreasonable position to take as it is sometimes portrayed as being. It is worth remembering that the Gentiles concerned do not themselves seem to have had a problem with it. After all, many of the first Gentile converts came from a group known as the ‘godfearers’. These were Gentiles who were attracted by Judaism and who attached themselves to the Jewish synagogue. In a sense, they were half way there. They were certainly predisposed to Judaism. In Galatia, they seem to have been positively enthusiastic about the idea of circumcision and keeping the Law.

My own guess is that the route the Church would have taken would have been to ask Gentiles to have faith in Jesus, followed by circumcision, for men, and obedience to the Law. In other words, to invite Gentile converts to become one in Christ with them. I imagine that the Jewish believers would have welcomed them with open arms and that the Gentiles would have been quite happy.

What prevented this eminently reasonable and justifiable approach and caused the Church to be plunged into controversy and division was one man, Paul.

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