We have trusted the academics, historians, the professional biblical scholars who have posited that this letter was written at the end of the 1st century, and here the author is, still talking about circumcision! You might wonder why. What makes them think they are so divided when we are living in these days.
The first followers of the way of Jesus were Jewish, no doubt because Jesus was Jewish. The first converts after Jesus’ resurrection were Jewish, remember they heard about Jesus when they were in Jerusalem for a festival and the disciples started teaching about Jesus after they had been gathered in the upper room for days.
Over time though, things started to change. The disciples and followers were being told in visions and prayer and through the movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of :::gasp::: gentiles that this message of Jesus’ wasn’t going to be contained to be a small subset of a small tribe of people in a small plot of land. The Jewish population in Roman-occupied Judea was about the size of Milwaukee, without the surrounding communities.
So, as more and more missionaries were being sent out into the lands of the gentile–everywhere else–the Jesus movement was becoming less and less Jewish. And with Paul “winning” the circumcision argument, they weren’t becoming Jewish. The end of the first century sees the movement at a point of radical change, where what is to come will look very little like what happened before.
And if people in the ancient world are anything like people today, watching one’s power, authority, place in the community start to shift, losing the ability to win the vote–for circumcision–is scary. And maybe it was starting to cause some conflict between the “traditionalists” talking about the way we’ve always done things and the new outsiders whose very presence was going to change everything.
AND to top everything else off, the Jew’s temple in Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed by the Romans in 70CE. There had been a relatively successful revolt for a few years. But in 70, the Roman Army began a siege on the city that lasted the summer, until they marched in and lay the city to ruins, including the temple. And then, Emperor Titus marked his victory on an Arch that is now given his name–celebrating his military conquests, including the sacking of the Temple and carrying off of its wealth.
All of this would have exasperated the already existing divided, the marginalization, the otherness of those who were not part of their own community–which is a thing most groups do, create insiders and outsiders if it’s for control, fear for themselves, or fear of others, that is, not to pick on our ancient Jewish siblings. When the temple was standing there were rules about who could go into certain spaces, who could offer sacrifices, who one could interact with, be in business with. There were just a lot of rules. And it’s hard to tell if the rules followed the feeling of culture or if the rules created a culture–a culture of exclusion. It’s probably both.
We have seen that in our nation’s history. We’ve seen in with black people and slavery and Jim Crow laws and laws against inter-marriages and redlining that kept people within certain areas of a city and high rates of imprisonment of young black men compared to white men who do the same things. We’ve seen with native people and wars and executions of whole villages with women and children and the seizing of land, the trail of tears, and the Indian School most of which set out to remove their native culture from the children–of which there were 10 in Wisconsin. While LGBT people are still so often kept out of the church, it’s Trans kids who seem to be taking the brunt of public exclusion. We find it in stigmatizing mental health, in who we allow to immigrate and from where. It is in our laws, in our dogma, in our culture, and in our fear who and how we keep “them”, “others” out.
And we have to be real honest, sometimes we are the ones left out, pushed aside, excluded. We know there are stories of those in our congregation who have been asked to leave a church. Or we know folks who were treated cruelly in spaces where they should have been welcomed.
The powers of the world have shown us what brings us together…
And we reinforced by Pepsi a few years ago with Kendall Jenner ending the need to protest against police violence against black people with a Pepsi. As it turns out though, for a moment, this one work, with Wired proclaiming: It United The Internet with how awful it was.
That world suggests that what might bring us together, might create some healing of wounds, that might bring peace is hyper capitalism? Rome thought peace and unity could come at the end of a sword–some still think that.
And in the midst of the changes at the end first century, the Letter Writer’s answer was… Jesus. Last week we talked about the first chapter in Ephesians and how God’s plan for the creation, for humanity is love. That love is revealed in Christ, in God coming to earth in Jesus and showing us what it is to love.
Jesus’ ministry was one of breaking down walls and barriers.
Theologian Barbara G Wheeler wrote: God hates walls and divisions and intends to save the world by breaking them down… People who wouldn’t come together for any other reason, who don’t share nationality, race, opinions, who don’t even like each other, can draw close to each other here, because God chose all of them. Jesus ate meals with those rejected by the religious elite. He offered healing to those who were oppressing his people. He entered into relationships with those who were culturally “other.” Jesus brought peace. Not peace that the world gives this was peace of reconciliation, of hospitality, of justice, of redemption, of welcome, of uniting, of love–which aren’t separate things but all one ministry, all can be found in the act of sharing a meal, a glass of water, of making space.
Christ makes us a new creation, it’s not about the gentiles followers of Jesus becoming like the Jewish followers of Jesus, or the other way around, it was about meeting where Christ already was, which, by the way, is everywhere. So when we come together as the church,
How do we do that? It goes back to the plan. The plan is love, the foundation is Christ who taught us love is peace, justice, restoration, reconciliation, and relationship– boundary-breaking love. And we, the beloved community, the people called church, are built on that foundation. Jesus is the cornerstone. Not the symbolic one that sets a date but the first stone of the foundation, sets the example, the course, the direction, and we are built and growing and becoming because the foundation is the plan that is love.
The church is called to be a foretaste of the kin-dom of God, an image of God’s plan for creation (which is love). The church is called to be an image of God’s good creation in all of its diversity. It doesn’t mean we don’t see differences but that we see Christ in each other. That our differences–be they who we love, skin color, language, gender, nationality, or ethnicity–are part of the plan, are part of what makes us an image of God’s plan of love. We represent the peace and love, the love that God was planning, that is the kin-dom of God that Jesus taught about, that is counter to the ways of the world that tries to sell us an image of peace. And as the beloved community, as the church, as the image of the kin-dom becoming, we share the peace, love, the justice, the grace, changing the world, even our little part of it, into that kin-dom becoming.
Which sounds great! but what does that mean?
As it turns out, we have some ideas:
Be the church. Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life
This is who we are as the United Church of Christ and as Emmanuel–we are the church, we act as the church, we become the church, we live as church. We do this by building and growing and becoming a diverse community, an inclusive community, the beloved community. It’s building community. NPR asked people to submit photos of what brought them joy during the pandemic. There was an old radio that connected him to the world. Her foster dog that connected her to another creature. Indian food Fridays that connected her to a culture and her new friend who owns the restaurant.
We feed the hungry, clothe those in need, house those who have no place to go. We speak up for those without a voice, we offer our platform for those whose voices haven’t been heard. We listen and repent and reconcile. We stand up when the world wants us to sit down, we’re bold when they’d rather we fade away. We write letters to our congress representatives and we show up at local meetings. We support the inclusion of all, the welling being of all, the work of kin-dom co-creating that all are God’s and all are welcome and there is justice and compassion for all.
We do this because we believe that Christ is in and through all that is created, that we are made new and whole and holy. We believe that we are connected to each other–not just to each other in this church community, or those who believe like us, or who claim Jesus–we are connected to all of creation, we are all part of one body that is longing to be made whole, longing to live in fullness and abundance, longing to be in the world set right. We see moments of it, glimpses of it, of the kin-dom here and coming. It gives us hope to carry on, to become and grown, to love well, to be the church.