Isaiah 56:1,6-8; Matthew 15:22-28
In this Isaiah passage the prophet is speaking to the people after they have returned from exile in Babylon. Some non-Jews had joined the Jewish returnees in the worship of God and had embraced the Law of Moses as their way of life and faith.
Apparently, however, they were concerned that they might be expelled from this worshipping community. So the prophet writes to assure the Gentiles that they have a place in God’s family. This is one of clearest prophesies in the Old Testament that Gentiles would be included in God’s covenant community.
God’s plan was fulfilled in the New Testament when the Gentiles were made equal members of God’s covenant community in Christ. There was, however, an ongoing conflict among the early Christians about how to do this.
Some Christians, called the party of the circumcision, insisted that male Gentile believers be circumcised in order for them and their families to be church members, and keep other elements of the Mosaic Law, as indeed Isaiah and other Old Testament passages had clearly instructed. Others like the Apostle Paul argued that faith in Jesus was sufficient.
Christians today tend to ignore this theme because most churches today are made up entirely of Gentiles. So the discussion about the requirement of circumcision for membership doesn’t seem relevant to us. Still, there are lessons for us from this early conflict.
Perhaps the first lesson is to consider what requirements to place on church membership. Most churches have membership requirements. Some are reasonable and some not.
In colonial America, for example, many churches required a testimony of a definite born-again experience. Entrusting one’s life to Jesus wasn’t enough. So as you can imagine, few colonial Americans became church members.
Many missionaries to other countries in the 19th century required new converts to wear Western clothes and adopt other Western customs. It wasn’t enough to commit their lives to Jesus—they had to become culturally Western. Just as the party of the circumcision insisted that the Gentile believers become culturally Jewish.
When I was growing up being White was a requirement for membership in many churches. Black Christians and members of other races and ethnicities were not welcomed in White-only churches.
In our church we have a different approach, which has been called the “centered-set” approach. We welcome everyone without requirements. And we all encourage each other — whatever our starting point — to grow in greater faithfulness, to mature as faithful disciples.
There’s a famous story about William Penn, governor of colonial Pennsylvania, and George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. William Penn became a Quaker. As Governor he wore a ceremonial sword. But Quakers are committed to non-violence and to not bearing arms. So William Penn asked George Fox, “How long may I continue to carry my sword?” Fox replied, “As long as Thee can, Brother William. As long as Thee can.”
Fox didn’t mean that Penn should keep on wearing it without feeling any concern. He meant that the Holy Spirit would work on Penn’s heart to bring him to the place where he felt internally compelled to give up his sword.
We can’t make people follow Jesus more faithfully. But we can help expose each other to the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts and transform our lives.
We can apply this model of welcome to other areas of our lives as well. We can open our lives, as God leads, to become friends with folks who we might not ordinarily relate to. In doing this we meet Christ anew in the face of the neighbor.
I’ve told the story before from the Hasidic Jewish tradition about a rabbi who finds a leper covered completely with sores, his hands and feet rotting, sitting in a miserable hovel. The rabbi starts spending day after day sitting with him. After a while, other people ask him, why are you staying all the time with that miserable leper? The rabbi replied, “Don’t you know, that’s the Messiah. As Isaiah tells us, ‘He had no stately form or majesty and was despised and rejected by mankind.’” As we expand our circle of friendship as God leads, we will find ourselves blessed with a greater presence of Christ in our lives.
Another challenge for the early churches was how to respect each other across their diverse cultures and “make fast the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Some members observed the Sabbaths, some didn’t. Some kept the Mosaic dietary laws and some didn’t. Some circumcised their male children, some didn’t.
It’s easy for us to be judgmental of those who do things differently from us.
But the Apostle Paul’s instruction is: “Accept one another as God has accepted you.”
Paul encouraged believers to respect each other as individuals and also to be respectful and appreciative of the distinctive ethnic, cultural and social identities among church members. The goal was unity in diversity, not uniformity.
When Paul wrote, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, male and female, Roman or barbarian, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” he was talking about equality and unity, not erasing all differences.
This is also God’s will for society at large. While respecting each other as individuals, we are also called to learn about, appreciate and respect our differences across diverse races, ethnicities, cultures and communities. Not just to accept one another, but to value each other both in our individuality and also in our different cultural identities. To seek unity while honoring our diversity.
One last lesson is about privilege. The early churches had an ongoing problem with some church members exercising privilege over other members.
The book of Acts provides a graphic example in the Jerusalem church. All the Jerusalem church members were Jewish believers in Jesus. But some were Aramaic-speaking natives of Judea, and some were Greek-speaking Jews from the diaspora.
This cultural difference resulted in the Greek widows being systematically short-changed in the daily food distribution. The native Aramaic-speaking widows were being privileged over the Greek widows, who were treated as second class.
To solve this inequity the Apostles appointed seven Greek speaking Jews to be in charge of the food distribution, which brought about equal treatment. The Greek widows and church members were empowered. The native Aramaic-speaking believers gave up their privilege, like Jesus did when he emptied himself and became a servant to all.
Once the church expanded beyond Judea tension existed between Jewish and Gentile members. Sometimes the Jewish Jesus-believers exercised privilege over the Gentiles, and sometimes the Gentiles exercised privilege over the Jews.
You may remember that the Apostle Paul rebuked Peter publicly for withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentile Christians in Antioch. Peter had reverted to claiming Jewish superiority and treating the Gentile Christians as second class. And Paul rebuked him.
There were other kinds of unjust privilege being practiced. In the mostly Gentile church at Corinth Paul rebukes the wealthier members for exercising privilege over the economically poorer members. Each Sunday the church enjoyed a meal together, during which they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. But wealthier members brought lots of food,-while the poorer members often couldn’t afford to bring anything and went without eating.
Paul said that this exercise of privilege was a sin against the body and blood of Christ and was bringing God’s judgement on the church.
As a bi-lingual, multi-cultural church we’ve experienced similar situations, where we’ve become aware of ways that English speakers were being privileged over Spanish speakers. And we’ve made changes to try to correct that. For example, our sermons used to be preached in English with translation equipment for those who only spoke Spanish. That was a form of privilege.
Unjust privilege is widespread in society at large. In the United States White people generally are privileged in ways that Blacks and Latinos are not. Studies show that Whites get more job interviews than others, even when Blacks and Latinos submit comparable resumes. Whites find it easier than others to rent or buy property in some neighborhoods, even where the applicants’ incomes are comparable. White people generally have fewer negative interactions with police than others who are equally law-abiding. And White people on the whole receive better medical care that others.
White privilege is an unjust reality in American society. Christians do well to speak up with love to end such unjust privilege in both church and society. Just as the Greek-speaking widows spoke up in the Jerusalem church. And as Paul did when he rebuked Peter. Christians are called in the Spirit of Christ to oppose injustice.
In the early church Christians belonging to the party of the circumcision wanted to draw a circle that excluded people that weren’t like them, or to include them only as second-class members. To the contrary, Paul and the Apostles drew a bigger, more inclusive circle.
There’s a famous verse by the poet Edwin Markham that speaks to this. Let’s close with that:
“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and brought him in!”
Whether we’re talking about church, personal friendships or America as a country, let’s draw our circles big.
Marty Shupack, 8/20/2023