Thursday, December 21, 2006

Paul and Discrimination

Paul the apostle is at a 21st century university campus, taking questions in a lecture hall.

Samuel: (A divinity student at the university, stands and is recognized) Paul, what do you think is your most important teaching?

Paul: (Looking confused) Why, the gospel of course—That Jesus died on the cross and so opened up the kingdom of God to us all. I wasn’t the first to teach this to you Gentiles, but I, and Timothy and others, did the largest work in the area.

Samuel: Perhaps I could rephrase the question—What do you think is your most important contribution to the church, that is distinct to yourself, apart from Jesus or the other apostles?

Paul: (Thinking for a moment) Well, the most important issue I dealt with, especially in my early years, is preventing discrimination against the Gentiles.

Samuel: What kind of discrimination?

Paul: The main issue was Jewish Christians not eating with Gentile Christians.

Samuel: Like what you wrote in Galatians 2?

Paul: Galatians? Which letter was that?

Samuel: Well, you wrote to the churches in Galatia that Peter and Barnabas separated themselves from the Gentiles and didn’t eat with them when James’ men were there.

Paul: Yes, that is a good example. You see, Cephas was visiting Antioch, which had a mix of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. In Antioch, the two groups worshipped together, but they had a very different culture, and so they didn’t… what is the phrase you use? They didn’t “hang out” together. It wasn’t that they didn’t like each other, it’s just they didn’t have much to talk about. Very different people. Cephas made a point of sitting with the Gentiles.

Samuel: So they could feel that he appreciated them?

Paul: No, no—Eating with someone in my world is very important. To eat with someone at the same table is to say that you are brothers with them, family. I suppose you can understand it better if you remember that whoever ate at a table would eat out of the same bowl. So everyone’s fingers and bread would get in everyone else’s food, if you were at the same table. You had to really trust the other people at the table if you ate with them. So Cephas ate with them in order to show that we were all a part of the same family.

Samuel: So when James’ men came…

Paul: Cephas stopped eating with the Gentiles altogether. I suppose the men suggested to Peter that it made him unclean—unfit to worship at the Temple. Which is true. By the law of the time, if one ate with Gentiles, then that one is unclean. There was a ceremony to be clean again, but still, the stigma was there.

Samuel: So Peter was being a hypocrite?

Paul: Well, yes. But that’s not why I was so angry with him at the time. I was angry because he was treating the Gentile Christians as proselytes, as second-rate Christians, not really a part of the true family of Jesus.

Samuel: But, well, weren’t they? I mean, they were pagans, I assume, and then they came to Jesus, so they were newcomers, right?

Paul: You are as ignorant as Cephas! Don’t you see? We were ALL proselytes! All of us are immigrants to a nation not of our making. No matter whether we had been in the Temple, or even a priest, when we came to Jesus, we were all newcomers! Jesus was the only one who was in the family of God, and he accepted us through faith. So what right did Cephas—and Barnabas too—have to treat the Gentiles as less citizens of the kingdom of God than they were? We were all there by God’s grace, none of us had the right to be there, but God allowed us to enter anyway. Yes, the Jews received the gospel first, and some Jews—Galileans, really—were the first to have faith in Jesus. But there is no line to divide those in the kingdom from those who barely made it in, by the skin of their teeth. None of us deserved to eat at that table, to be a part of the family of God. None of us were born into it, or were naturally accepted into it. Only Jesus’ death made it possible for us to receive it. I wrote a long letter to Rome on this subject.

Samuel: Romans? Isn’t that about the gospel—how we are all saved?

Paul: Yes, yes, but most importantly it was about how the Gentiles deserved salvation as much as the Jews did. That there were no special privileges. That Jews and Gentiles needed to learn how to work together in the kingdom of God, and one group couldn’t put themselves above the other. Surely a hypocrite doesn’t have a greater privilege before God than an open sinner—they are all sinners. Just because one knew God’s will and the other did not doesn’t make one really different than the other.

Don: (A professor at the university) If I could interrupt for a moment…

Samuel: Of course.

Don: Paul, do you see this issue in today’s church as well?

Paul: The most heinous crime along these lines has already been dealt with—or at least the beginning is there. The treatment of some ethnic groups as less spiritual or blessed than others.

Don: Racism. Martin Luther King Jr. opened the eyes of many of us to that.

Paul: And in doing so, he was only continuing my ministry. Do you know that most of the time I spoke about Gentiles I used the word, “ethnoi”—the other ethnic groups. To discriminate against any ethnic group is to do the same as the Pharisaic group commanding the Gentiles to become Jews—it is ugly and an affront to Jesus who died for all people, and welcomes all people equally.

Don: Are there other areas in which we discriminate and we don’t even see it?

Paul: There are two ways that I’ve noticed. The first is nationalism. When we talked about Jews and Gentiles, it was less a racial difference than a national one. Frankly, anyone, from any nationality could become Jewish. Sure, if you were a pagan and you wanted to be a Judean you would be a proselyte for the rest of your life—but your children would be full Jews, even if ethnically they were Greek or African. The real argument we were having is what nation we were to belong to. I argued, successfully at the time, that the only nation we really belonged to was the kingdom of God, and that all nationalities were marginalized because of the act of Jesus—even the Jewish nation.

Don: So what does that have to do with today’s church?

Paul: Frankly, it has to do with much of today’s church in the United States. Simply because the U.S. is the latest imperial power to come around the block—just another form of Babylon—that does not mean that it has been more privileged by God than any other nation. And for so much of your American church to treat the U.S. as if it were the kingdom of God itself is just…appalling.

Don: No pun intended?

Paul: What? Anyway, I have read some Christians speak of the U.S. in the most glowing terms, honoring it above any other country in the world, but it is just as sinful and destructive as any other nation that has ever existed. And others treat this so-called nation of Israel as a special nation as well. This, even though they refuse to acknowledge God in their government. Should a single priest be alive today, they would proclaim that calling that nation “Israel” is a heresy! At least they didn’t name themselves Judea, the home of Zion and the Temple. By itself, the nation isn’t much of an offense—they do not claim to be God’s chosen people as a nation. But some Christians call that nation the kingdom of God, as if it were Judea risen again! It is no such thing—and even if it were, that is the very thing I was fighting against. Treating a nation in this age as if it were the kingdom of God, which is only in Jesus, who sits at the right hand of the Father, even today!

Don: (Trying to calm Paul down) Okay…

Paul: (Interrupting) Wait, I’m not done. As I said, in our day some did not eat with their own brothers because they were of a different nationality. But today, many of you will not eat with your brothers simply because they act differently or dress differently or hold to a different opinion than yourselves. Should a homeless man come into your church, do you welcome him, or wish that he would go away? If a person with a mental illness makes a “joyful noise to the Lord” in your house, do you ask her to leave? If a sincere follower of Jesus, who happens to be a Jehovah’s Witness or whatever other group you dislike, would you fellowship with them, or simply try to “convert” them? Stop treating your brothers and sisters as if they were people who didn’t belong in the church! As if they weren’t really citizens, as much as you are!

Don: How do you think we could stop our discrimination between family members?

Paul: First of all, stop treating some sins as unforgivable. Homosexuality, sexual immorality, drunkenness or even racism aren’t worse sins than greed, gossip or hypocrisy. They are all forgiven in Jesus through faith and repentance. And if someone has been a Christian for years and years, if they refuse to repent of their sin, then they are as dead in their sins as they began. Also, we need to treat all Christians as brothers and sisters, no matter how strangely they act. This means taking time to worship, fellowship and eat with brothers and sisters whom we wouldn’t usually associate with.

Don: Are you saying that we should all be a part of one church?

Paul: No, no. The differences in worship and teaching and cultures are wonderful—glorious, in fact. My fondest dream come true. But at times—not usually, but sometimes—we need to be with others who are not like us and treat them as family. We need to eat with the homeless, to worship with different ethnic groups, to take the Lord’s supper with the mentally ill—all in Christ, all as brothers and sisters.

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