Back in the day, as I understand it, there was a lot of arguing about whether non-Jews could be followers of Christ. There was the establishment position – definitely not, no way, no how. This was the position of the Apostles who knew Christ in life as far as we know, and it was the position of the Christian leaders in Jerusalem when Paul was alive and preaching.
Presented without Scriptural proof-texts for our reading enjoyment.
On the other side, you had Paul, and a few others who agreed with him. They thought there was room for Gentiles to be followers of Christ. They did not know Jesus when he was alive, as far as we know (Paul was the “apostle” who broke from the normative definition, since he was someone who never met Christ as a living person and yet considered himself a “witness”) but they felt that Jesus was calling Gentiles to come and follow.
Now, as the Peter and Cornelius story points out, the anti-Gentile folks had Scripture on their side. The chosen people were the chosen people. That’s about it. The rules were pretty darn clear, and they were very, very old. What God has made clean, do not make unclean. There is no room in God’s realm for the unclean.
But then a little problem – God comes to Peter and says “You know that unclean stuff? Its clean now. Get over it.” Peter, of course, tests this new teaching out in his relationship with Cornelius, a Gentile, just the kind of person that the leadership of the early movement felt was so undesirable. Peter hears from God, goes to meet Cornelius, and changes his mind (or his heart if you prefer, or his theology, or his doctrine, or his orthodoxy, or his orthopraxis, or all of the above).
There are a lot of angry people who could quote a lot of Scripture which would contradict what Peter did. But he was called by God, and after testing it himself, it made sense and seemed to be the right thing to do. And you know what? Peter had some Scripture on his side too. Imagine that.
The result of this was that there were a bunch of big fights (or really, little fights that were a big deal). So everybody got together in Jerusalem to work things out. They decided that there would be two gospels – the gospel of the circumcision and the gospel of the uncircumcision. (I don’t think Blogger takes greek fonts, so you’ll have to look those up yourself). Two gospels! Can you believe it? One was the traditional gospel and one of them was, basically, Paul’s, and now Peter’s after he had his own vision and made his own decision.
Of course, now we take it for granted that Gentiles can be Christians. In fact, things have changed so much that Christian = Gentile, from a Jewish point of view. How things have changed! Who would’ve thought? What the great majority of the very first Christians, who knew Jesus personally, thought was absolutely correct we now take to be obviously wrong. Incredible stuff, here. Incredible.
I bring this up because I think there is something in there, perhaps, for our own fight over whether homosexuals can be followers of Christ, whether we can accept them as equals and recognize God’s call in their lives. One side, the side currently in authority in most Churches, has strong cleanliness issues with homosexuality, and they have some Scripture they can quote (homosexuals are as bad as shellfish, after all). This sounds familiar to me, does it seem familiar to anyone else? And yeah, I get that unclean is also a moral judgement – it was for shellfish too.
On the other side are people who say they are hearing from God, that they are seeing God calling people to service in the Church beyond being tolerated on the fringes. They are testing this out themselves and finding – holy of holies! – these people are so much more than just their sexual orientation, and they are so clearly called by God it is like being slapped in the forehead when you see it.
So, maybe, we all gather, and somehow, we find a way to make room for both positions. We work things out at least as well as the early Church tried to work them out.
Because here’s the thing. Two thousand years later, we are all Gentiles. Paul’s position, Peter’s position, won out. It took time, but the truth was made clear in time. And now, of course, we can’t imagine things differently.
Maybe we can let that happen this time. Maybe we can take the time to really see what is true, what is right, rather than screaming at each other about it, rather than making absurd declarations of war, of disaster, or schism, or the falling sky.
And in the meantime, we find a way to mutually respect, to allow room. In disagreeing, we are participating in the great salvation history of great disagreements, in Scripture and after we closed the canon, to this very day. It happened in ancient Israel, in the early Church, and it happens now. It is who we are, in part at least.
If I can figure this stuff out, so you can anyone, so the only excuse is that we’re too invested in our position being right, at the expense of our brothers and sisters, to contemplate some third way that actually makes room for God to be glorified.
Have we, in two thousand years, learned anything?