A brief essay on God’s attitude toward “us” and “them” (560 words). I have categorized this under “Religious Stuff” and “Political Stuff” because I think it applies to both.
One of my church’s priests, the Rev. Lindsay Ross-Hunt, delivered a homily this past Sunday on a story in Acts 11, one of the readings assigned for the fifth Sunday of Easter in the liturgical calendar.
The gist of the story is that a godly but non-Jewish man is told by God to send for the apostle Peter, who will tell him how he and his family can be saved. At about the same time, in another city, the Holy Spirit shows Peter a vision of ritually clean food and tells him to eat it. Peter objects because he is a good Jew and good Jews do not eat unclean food. To which God says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Then the messengers from the Gentile man show up and the Holy Spirit tells Peter “to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” He goes and tells them about Jesus Christ, whereupon the Holy Spirit falls on them and they manifest the same ecstatic phenomena that the apostles experienced when the Spirit fell on them. Peter takes this to mean that salvation through Jesus Christ is available to non-Jewish as well as Jews.
When news of this gets back to the church in Jerusalem, it creates something of a stir, because up to this point the emerging church was strictly a Jewish affair. Their reading of the Old Testament, their culture and their traditions taught them that salvation was for the Jews only. Even to associate with non-Jews was unacceptable. So they call Peter back to Jerusalem to explain why he is hobnobbing around with non-Jews. He tells them what the Holy Spirit did and “when they heard this they were silenced.”
It is easy for us to miss the significance of this event. It is, in fact, a turning point in the life of the early church. Had the apostles and other leaders in Jerusalem decided that Peter was wrong, Christianity would today be nothing more than a Jewish sect.
I suspect the decision in that Jerusalem council was not nearly as straightforward as the text of Acts 11 suggests. They would have understood that letting Gentiles (“them”) into the church (“us”) would change everything: their most cherished beliefs would be challenged; their way of life would change; their customs and practices would be changed; even their language would change. And indeed all of this happened. It could not have been an easy thing to abandon their historic us-and-them paradigm, to no longer “make a distinction between them and us,” to risk losing their whole way of life in order to allow others to enter the Kingdom of God.
I am grateful to have found a church that practices not making a distinction between them and us, striving instead to expand the circle of our tribe to include “them.” We still struggle with our own hidden biases that blind us to the many ways we continue treat others as “them.” But we are committed as a church to a journey of inclusiveness, because that is the journey Jesus is on.
Here’s are the obvious questions for reflection: Who is “them” to you? What would Jesus do with “them?” What are you going to do to include “them” in your tribe?