Easter 5: 19 May Acts 11:1-18
Luke brings us to one of the crunch points in early Christianity: how it would handle non-Jews. Fortunately we know about the issues also from Paul, who wrote 30 or 40 years earlier. At stake was whether gentiles, non-Jews, could also be counted among God's people. Was the good news also for them? There were many different answers. There have also been many different understandings both of the problem and of the way, at least, Luke's saw the solution being given.
The problem is complex and our response to it has implications still today. Beginning with Jesus' ministry, it is clear that he claimed that in his ministry something was beginning which would in future come to full reality. Its impact would be good news for the poor and hungry. He addressed these hopes to his own people, Israel. At the heart of his message was the generosity of God whose goodness reached out to all, including the marginalised and the downright wicked. Possibly already at the end of his life people acclaimed him a kind of messiah, enough to lead him to his death. His resurrection vindicated what he said and did. There would be hope for Israel.
What happens when the message of his ministry and subsequent execution and vindication reaches gentiles, as it did when the Hellenists had to flee to places like Damascus? Jesus appears to have embraced a big vision for Israel which probably included generosity also to the gentiles, based on prophetic hopes that they too would come to Jerusalem and all nations would live in peace. This motif persists in early tradition (Paul's gathering of the gentile offering; Matthew's image of the gentile magi). Would gentiles be invited to be spectators of this future happening and its realisation in the present or could they participate? Should the concrete hope for Israel be transposed into something universal at a spiritual level - like a kingdom only in the world of the spirit? The simplest answer was to follow biblical provisions for foreigners to be accepted by conversion to Judaism and circumcision, a provision made clear in Genesis 17. But there was no precedent for that to happen on a grand scale. Most such conversions we know of were incidental or through marriage, not through mission.
Christian preachers, all of them Jewish, had also to decide whether, beyond picking up gentile converts incidentally, they should actually seek them out. It was not that Jews and gentiles never mixed. Most Jews lived out in the gentile world of the empire. Some were in the army. As with most things, where people became ritually impure, there were provisions for purification. It was no more sinful to become unclean by entering a gentile's house than it was to become unclean through menstruation or dealing with a corpse. Becoming unclean and then undergoing was as natural a part of life as literal washing from the dirt of the day. The general rule, however, was that one should avoid becoming unclean where possible. So most Jews would avoid entering a gentile house. This explains why both times that Jesus heals at a distance entailed healing gentiles partly to avoid entering their houses. To be careless about purity issues was sin, but the impurity itself was not sin.
Would Christian Jews be able to make entering gentile houses a regular feature of their behaviour? Would they be able to eat with gentiles on a regular basis - something else to be avoided? It is striking that Paul tells us in Gal 2:11-14 that he with Peter and Barnabas and other Jewish Christians had indeed decided to share in meal fellowship with gentiles at Antioch until people came from James, the brother of Jesus, leader of the Jerusalem congregation, who persuaded them to stop doing so - all except Paul! Paul justified his behaviour by insisting that God's love now overrode all such requirements, just as he and others had agreed that it overrode the requirement of circumcision. Paul's defence was on the basis of an approach to scripture which exercised discernment about what mattered moist and was courageous enough to declare some things unnecessary or redundant. Naturally enough, more conservative Christian hated him for it and nearly all of his letters show how he had to struggle with fundamentalist of this kind.
The first hand historical material in Paul's letters sits somewhat awkwardly with Luke's account in Acts. Luke is writing at a time when these issues had been largely resolved, including the tensions between Peter and Paul, and where showing unity was paramount. Accordingly, he has Peter become the hero who first affirmed that it was OK to enter gentile houses and eat with them! He had to rely on the sources available to him, which are not always reliable, as this instance shows. In fact the result is that he makes Peter sound more like Paul and later makes Paul sound more like Peter, namely when he depicts Paul as remaining an observer of Jewish law, quite contrary to what his letters tell us.
There are some further peculiarities about Luke's account which seem to indicate the awkwardness of his sources. The vision really does sound like it is telling Peter that the food laws no longer apply and should never have applied, for nothing which God made is unclean! That had been Mark's reading of the import of the incident about washing hands in Mark 7:1-23. Jesus declared that all foods are clean (7:19). Such a setting aside of biblical law contradicted what Luke said elsewhere in his gospel and so he omitted the passage. Here, too, he seems to understand it not as denying biblical laws about unclean animals but as symbolic. It symbolises that human beings are all to be considered clean. Later we find him asserting adherence to the Law in ways that assume the biblical laws remained intact. So, on Luke's understanding of Peter's vision, which he found in his sources, not animals, but human beings are now clean and so Christian Jews should feel free to mix with all human beings and eat with them. What a pity the real historical Peter did not know what Luke's Peter knew, when he was later in Antioch!
One way or other, both Paul and Luke reach the conclusion that no discrimination, no matter how biblically based, can stand in the way of God's outreaching love. Of course, Jews and Christian Jews who remained strict adherents of biblical law also affirmed such love for all, seeing circumcision and other provisions as God's gift of guidelines to sustain and protect the special relationship. Luke is close to them, needing divine interventions from heaven to contemplate change, but Paul goes all the way in arguing that one needs to recognise the unintended consequences of some biblical laws, which stand in tension with what should be seen as its heart and promise. Making love so central that it gives us freedom to set aside even biblical laws where new cultural contexts make them inappropriate was the insight which Paul brought. It is still at the heart of the much conflict about use of scripture today.
Gospel: Easter 5: 19 May John 13:31-35
Epistle: Easter 5:19 May Revelation 21:1-6