Monday, 3 May 2021

Was Luther right on justification by faith?

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation
The online gathering of
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 

9th May 2021




Galatians 2.11-21      

2021 marks the five hundred year anniversary

            of the infamous Diet of Worms,

which wasn’t some medieval fitness fad,

            but rather the Church Assembly (or ‘Diet’)

            that was held in the German city of Worms,

at which Martin Luther, the founding father of the protestant reformation,

            defended his critique of the Roman Catholic church

            and was declared a heretic.

 

Martin uther was the son of a copper miner,

            who went to university before joining the Roman Catholic church

                        as an Augustinian Friar

He quickly set himself apart as a man with great academic gifts,

            and was soon teaching at the University of Wittenberg.

 

When he was 27, he made a visit to Rome

            on behalf of some Augustinian monasteries,

and whilst he was there he became appalled

            at the corruption he encountered in the hierarchy of the church.

 

The thing that most distressed the young Luther

            was a practice known as the ‘selling of indulgences’

where priests would, in exchange for large amounts of money,

            perform the ritual for the forgiveness of sins

            either on behalf of someone still living

            or indeed on behalf of someone who had died.

 

What this amounted to was, in effect, a licence to print money.

            The great fear of the medieval mind,

                        and it was a fear that the church did little to alleviate,

            was the fear of spending either eternity in hell

                        or a considerable period of time in purgatory.

 

And so priests who offered release from purgatory,

            or forgiveness for sins,

in exchange for money,

            were clearly onto a good thing.

 

But the thing which so upset Luther

            wasn’t so much the blatant profiteering

            from religious fear and superstition,

as it was the propagation

            of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later come to call ‘cheap grace’.

 

Bonhoeffer speaks of Martin Luther’s growing conviction:

 

‘When the Reformation came, the providence of God raised Martin Luther to restore the gospel of pure, costly grace... [God] showed him through the Scriptures that the following of Christ is not the achievement or merit of a select few, but the divine command to all Christians without distinction.’

            The Cost of Discipleship, Ch.1

 

On 31st October 1517 Luther published his now famous ’95 Theses’,

            in which he attacked the sale of indulgences

            along with what he regarded as many other abuses

                        of the church’s power.

 

As was the University custom,

            he pinned the theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg,

and in many ways,

            the European reformation began here.

 

One of Luther’s great concerns

            was that the doctrine and practice of the church

            should be based on scripture, rather than tradition.

 

And it was his study of Paul’s letters,

            particularly Romans and Galatians,

that led him to the conclusion

            that the Roman Catholic church of his era

            had gone so far away from a biblical perspective

            that full scale reformation was needed.

 

When Luther read Romans and Galatians,

            he thought that in Paul he had met a kindred spirit,

            battling against the forces of tradition and legalism

            in favour of liberty and freedom.

 

The Paul which Luther met in the Bible was a man engaged in a battle

            with a group of Jewish Christians

                        who were trying to impose Jewish legal requirements

            on the Gentile Christian converts of the first century.

 

Paul seemed, to Luther, to be arguing against legalism,

            he seemed to be fighting against the attempts

                        by certain religious leaders

            to introduce the requirements of legal tradition

                        into the relationship between the ordinary person and God

 

And for Luther, this seemed in many ways

            to parallel the situation in which he found himself.

 

For Luther, Paul’s battle against Jewish legalism

            was a parallel to his own battle against the corruption of Catholicism.

 

And in this battle, Luther encountered Paul’s doctrine

            of Justification by faith

as the final clinching biblical argument

            that people are not justified by the church, or by priests,

                        or by indulgences, or by any other ritual or practice,

            but by faith alone.

 

As Luther said in his commentary on this morning’s passage from Galatians:

 

‘Here the question arises by what means are we justified?

We answer with Paul,

"By faith only in Christ are we pronounced righteous, and not by works."

Not that we reject good works. Far from it.

But we will not allow ourselves to be removed from the anchorage of our salvation.’

 

So far so good.

 

But, and it’s a big but,

            there is an issue here relating to the translation

                        from the original Greek of Paul’s letter,

            and it’s one of those translation issues that really matters!

 

I’ve had a number of conversations recently with people

            regarding the difficulty of translating things into a different language.

There are a of people who are part of our congregation this morning

            who speak English as their second, or even third or fourth, language!

And I’m sure they will know the difficulty that can sometimes be faced

            when trying to take a phrase from one language

            and accurately translate it into another.

 

Well, this morning’s reading from Galatians

            contains two words in the Greek

where it is not entirely clear how they should be translated.

 

The words are ‘pistis Christou’

            and they can either be translated as ‘faith in Christ’

                        or ‘the faithfulness of Christ’.

 

For those of you who are linguists,

            the difference is whether it should be treated

                        as a subjective genitive or an objective genitive

            but we don’t need to know the technical jargon

                        to appreciate that this is a significant difference.

 

And there is no linguistic way of judging between them:

            both are acceptable renderings of the original Greek.

 

Which means it is unclear whether Paul, in Galatians 2.16, means to say:

            that a person is made righteous by faith in Christ,

            or that a person is made righteous by the faith (or faithfulness) of Christ.

 

Clearly Luther went with ‘faith in Christ’ reading,

            because it so clearly resonated with the attack he was wanting to make

            on the corrupted practices of the church of his own time.

 

Luther’s point was clear:

            You are not justified by the works of the church,

            you are justified by faith in Christ alone.

 

And in opting for this he made an exegetical decision

            which was born of his cultural context,

and which, inadvertently, set the trajectory for protestant theology

            for the next five centuries.

 

There are some very good things to come out of Luther’s reading

            of justification by faith in Christ.

 

For starters, it brings an emphasis on personal response,

            where you become a follower of Jesus through free choice.

 

This emphasis on the faithful response of the individual

            opened the door for a whole raft of breakaway Christian movements,

                        including our own Baptist congregations,

and in many ways spelled the beginning of the end

            for the unholy alliance of church and state

            that had come to be known as Christendom.

 

The emphasis on justification by faith in Christ

            also gave rise in time to the evangelical movement,

                        with all the great missionary endeavours that followed,

            as the gospel of Christ was conceived of as ‘good news’

                        which needed to be told as far and wide as possible.

 

Again, so far so good.

 

But Luther’s theology also opened the door to some dark places as well,

            and I’m especially thinking here

                        of the way in which his conflation of Jewish legalism

                                    with Catholic corruption

                        paved the way for wave after wave of European anti-Semitism,

                                    with a reformed Europe needing to be purged

                                                of the so-called ‘legalistic Jews’ who had killed Christ.

 

Indeed, one of Luther’s more distressing works,

            was an essay entitled ‘The Jews and Their Lies’

                        which he published in 1543.

 

Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith in Christ

            also led to many Christian groups

                        over-emphasizing the ‘personal response’

            that is required for a person to be considered a proper Christian.

 

And this over-emphasis on ‘personal choice’

            can lead away from the entirely proper freedom to choose one’s religion,

                        as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

            to an ‘in or out’ mentality,

                        where various shibboleth’s are used

                        to define in ever more nuanced fashion

                                    the question of whether someone is actually justified.

 

Justification by faith in Christ has become,

            in many strands of post-Lutheran Christianity,

a requirement to choose faith,

            and to then demonstrate that choice in some proscribed manner

as a requirement for full acceptance within the body of the church.

 

Whether it is the requirement

            to say a prayer of commitment in a certain way,

                        the ‘sinners prayer’ as it is sometimes called;

or a requirement to manifest a particular expression

            of the gifts of the Holy Spirit,

                        such as speaking in tongues;

or a requirement to undergo a certain rite or ritual,

            such as believer-baptism;

the effect has been to place a fence or boundary

            around the people of God

whereby those who are ‘in’, know that they are ‘in’,

            and those who are ‘out’ know that they are ‘out’.

 

All of which is rather ironic,

            given this morning’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

 

Those who are enthusiastic about Justification by faith in Christ alone

            will quickly focus in on chapter 2 verse 16.

But I want us to take a step back for a moment

            and remember that Paul wasn’t writing a thesis on justification.

Rather, he was writing a personal letter to some friends,

            and his theology on justification by faith

                        is not some abstract statement of the doctrine of salvation,

            but rather is the answer he gives

                        to a real and intensely pastoral practical problem,

                        grounded in a very real and pragmatic situation.

 

It seems that Peter, yes the ‘St Peter’ of the twelve disciples fame,

            had been struggling with the issue

of how to relate to the gentiles who had started following Jesus.

 

Particularly, he had been struggling

            with the issue of whether it was appropriate for him,

                        as a Jewish follower of Jesus,

            to sit and eat with non-Jewish followers.

 

You may remember the story from the book of Acts,

            where Peter received his vision of a table-cloth

            spread with all kinds of food, both ritually clean and ritually unclean.

 

A heavenly voice told him to eat,

            and Peter protested that he had never eaten ritually unclean food.

 

The voice then told him that what God had made clean,

            he must not regard as unclean.

 

The context of this vision was that Peter was about to be called

            to the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius

                        to lead him and his family to faith in Jesus

                        without requiring them to convert to Judaism,

             something that Peter, as an observant Jew,

                        might have struggled to do.

 

And the message is clear:

            in the renewed people of God that has come into being in Christ,

                        ethnicity and cultural practice are no bar

                        to membership of God’s people.

 

However, if we fast-forward some twenty years on from Cornelius’ house

            to the city of Antioch,

it seems that Peter was still grappling

            with the issue of the full inclusion of gentiles

            who have converted to Christianity.

 

He had been quite happily integrating his Jewish identity

            with the Gentile Christians there,

            until some Jewish visitors from James arrived.

 

James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem

            and also one of the brothers of Jesus.

 

It seems as if the Jerusalem church, based in the Jewish capital,

            had not yet properly addressed the issue of fully integrating gentile converts,

and so when the visitors from Jerusalem arrived,

            Peter and the other Jewish Christians in Antioch

                        had started to separate themselves from eating and socialising

                        with the ritually unclean gentile Christians.

 

Paul tells the Galatians in his letter

            that when he discovered this he was having none of it!

 

And so he had called Peter’s hypocrisy for what it was:

            ‘Look here’, Paul had said to Peter,

            ‘you’re a Jew, but you’ve been living like a Gentile.

            How can you force Gentiles to become Jews?’

 

I paraphrase, but that’s the gist of it.

 

And here we catch a glimpse of what, for Paul,

            was the defining issue of his ministry and his theology.

 

If God has included in his kingdom the ritually unclean gentiles,

            then the ritually clean Jewish Christians

            have no cause to exclude them in any way,

                        including the refusal to sit at table and eat with them.

 

Paul is utterly opposed to any sense of drawing back,

            any implication that the ‘best’ or ‘proper’ Christians

                        are those who combine their following of Jesus

                        with their on-going observance of the law.

 

Paul does not accept that those who are followers of Christ,

                        but not followers of the Jewish law,

            are in any sense second-rate citizens of the kingdom of God.

 

And so he says,

            ‘we know that a person is not justified by the works of the Jewish law,

                        but through faith.’

 

The context, therefore, for Paul’s great statement in Galatians on Justification by faith,

            is that of Jews eating with gentiles in the churches of Christ.

 

Of course, for Paul the Jew,

            this is a radical departure from his previous beliefs as a Pharisee,

                        just as it is a radical departure for Peter

                        the Jewish fisherman from Galilee.

 

But for Paul it was not a break with the past,

            rather it was the appropriate development of his Jewish heritage.

 

For Paul, the stories of his Jewish ancestors found in the Hebrew Scriptures,

            what we call the Old Testament,

were stories of God’s on-going faithfulness to God’s covenant people.

 

God had established the covenant with Abraham,

            promising that Abraham’s children, the Jewish nation,

            would be God’s people, and that the Lord God would be their God.

 

The Hebrew Scriptures then tell of God’s on-going faithfulness to that covenant,

            even when the people of Israel behaved in ways

            that broke their part of the covenant.

 

But for Paul there was a purpose to God choosing Israel,

            there was a purpose to God calling them to be his people

                        and promising to be their God.

 

And that purpose was to ultimately bring not just Israel

            but all nations into the kingdom of God.

 

Not just the Jews but the gentiles as well.

 

And it is this covenant purpose that Paul understood

            as having been fulfilled in Christ.

 

Through the death and resurrection of Christ,

            Paul saw God decisively intervening in human history

                        to bring about the fulfilment of his covenant with Abraham,

            as the gates of the kingdom were thrown open,

                        so that all could be made righteous through faith,

                        and through faith alone.

 

However, here our exploration of Paul’s thought

            hits up against Luther’s exegetical decision

            to render Paul’s Greek phrase pistis Christou as ‘faith in Christ’.

 

Many contemporary scholars are now convinced

            that here in Galatians, as well as in Romans and elsewhere,

            the alternative translation is more appropriate.

 

Let me read you Tom Wright’s translation of Galatians 2.16:

 

16But we know that a person is not declared ‘righteous’ by works of the Jewish Law,

but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.

 

It seems most likely that what Paul meant, when he used the phrase,

            ‘a person is justified not by the works of the law

                        but by pistis Christou’,

            was that a person is justified not by their faith in Christ,

                        but by the faithfulness of Christ.

 

In other words, it is on the basis

            of the faithfulness of Christ to the covenant of God,

                        demonstrated through his death and resurrection,

            that people are declared righteous.

 

The human response of faith

            is not what makes a person righteous:

God does that for them, through the faithfulness of Christ.

 

The faith-full response of the believer

            is the appropriate response to what God has already done.

 

The relationship between the covenant faithfulness of Christ

            and the Christian response of faith,

is therefore analogous to the relationship within Judaism

            of the covenant faithfulness of God

            and the Jewish response of faithfulness to the Jewish law.

 

And Paul is clear:

            for Jews, keeping the law was the appropriate and faithful response

                        to the covenant faithfulness of God,

            but the works of the law in themselves

                        did not make a person righteous.

 

It’s the same with the Christian response

            to the faithfulness of Christ:

keeping the faith is the appropriate response

            to Christ’s covenant faithfulness,

but we are not made righteous by our faith.

 

We are declared righteous

            because of the faithfulness of Christ.

 

Therefore any attempt to introduce any kind of division

            within the kingdom of God ,

based on different responses of faith on the part of Christians,

            is as bad as Peter withdrawing from the Gentile Christians in Antioch

            and refusing to sit and eat with them.

 

And here, perhaps, we start to hear the challenge for us today:

            Who, I wonder, might we not want to sit at table and eat with?

                        Who might we not want to share food with?

 

            Where might we start to draw the boundaries

                        in our minds, hearts, and lives

                        which begin the process of setting ourselves apart from others?

 

            What ‘works of the law’ are there in us which,

                        whilst entirely appropriate responses in themselves

                                    to the faithfulness of Christ,

                        run the risk of becoming defining issues

                                    by which we reckon ourselves righteous

                                    and others unrighteous?

 

In what ways do we need to hear Paul saying to us:

            ‘we know that a person is not declared righteous

                        by the works of the law,

            but through the faithfulness of the Jewish messiah.’

 

Our faithful ethical and moral response to Christ

            is certainly the appropriate response of faith,

            but it does not in itself declare us righteous.

 

We are not justified through our faith in Christ,

            but through the faithfulness of Christ to us!

 

Just in case Paul’s Galatian readers hadn’t got the point yet,

            he goes on over the next few verses to spell it out even more clearly.

 

The reason, he says, why Jews should believe in Jesus as their messiah

            is precisely because their faithful adherence to the Jewish law

            had not enabled them to be declared righteous.

 

In fact, any attempt to keep the law for its own sake

            had only served to highlight the sinfulness

                        that lurks deep within the human heart.

 

Paul was painfully aware that no one, by their own efforts,

            can become perfect.

 

Goodness knows as a Pharisee he’d given it his best shot!

 

No-one, by their own efforts,

            can banish every wicked thought, every selfish action,

however successful they may be at projecting piety in their outward being.

 

Our souls know better, and we cannot heal ourselves.

 

The path to true righteousness lies outside of us, not within.

            It is found in surrendering to the one who is faithful to us,

                        and to God’s covenant purposes for all people.

            We are declared righteous,

                        not because of what we do or who we are,

                        but because of what Christ did and who he is.

 

And what he did was this:

            in fulfilment of God’s covenant with Abraham,

                        Christ died under the law

                        so that we might die to the law with him,

            and in so doing we might find release

                        from the compulsion to seek our own path to righteousness.

 

            And in fulfilment of God’s covenant with Abraham,

                        Christ was raised to new life

                                    to bring into being a new humanity

                                    where people are themselves made truly alive

                                                because Christ lives in them.

 

The response of faith to the faithfulness of Christ

            is what leads us to baptism,

It is the response of faith that calls us to enter the tomb with Christ

            so that we might be raised with him to new life.

 

And I’ll mention again that I’m planning a baptismal service for later in the year,

            if you feel the call of God to follow Jesus through the waters of baptism.

 

But baptism does not save us;

            it is simply the appropriate faithful response, to the faithfulness of Christ.

 

We are declared righteous through the faithfulness of Jesus the messiah.

 

This is the gospel of Christ, and it is good news for us all.

 

Amen.

Monday, 26 April 2021

Identity Politics and the Early Church

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation

the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

2nd May 2021

Acts 15.1-18


It seems that ‘Identity Politics’ is nothing new, even if the phrase itself wasn’t coined until the late 1970s.

Whilst it was a community of black feminists in Boston, just over forty years ago, who first used these specific words to articulate their struggle for power on the basis of their identity; the intertwining of politics with identity has been taking place for millennia, with countless people being asked to sacrifice aspects of who they are, in exchange for inclusion or freedom from oppression.

And our reading this morning from the book of Acts is just such an example from antiquity, of a highly charged political debate, with identity politics right at the heart of it.

This story from Acts 15 is regarded by many scholars as the central narrative of the whole book. It’s often referred to as ‘The Council at Jerusalem’, and at stake is the very basis and nature of the Christian church.

But you have to rewind to the beginning of Acts, to get a sense of the trajectory that Luke is setting for his readers in this account of the early years of Christianity.

In Acts 1.8 the risen, but not yet ascended Jesus, says to the disciples in Jerusalem:

‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

And there are two key aspects of this which we need to pay attention to, if we’re to understand what’s going on fifteen chapters later at the Council of Jerusalem.

Firstly, there is the promise of the Holy Spirit. We’ve not yet got to Pentecost in our own journey through the liturgical year of 2021: we’ll come to it later this month, on the 23rd May as we re-start weekly worship in the church building.

But the thing for us to note today is that here, right at the beginning of Acts, Jesus tells the disciples that the gift of the Holy Spirit will be decisive for their future mission.

The church going forward, will be the church shaped by the Spirit of Christ. As he departs from them in bodily form, his Spirit will remain to guide them.

And the second thing for us to register here is the geographical trajectory of that Spirit-led church - from Jerusalem, through all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The gift of the Spirit is given to the church to drive the church beyond Israel, into the gentile nations of the world.

And this is then precisely what we see happening through the first part of the book of Acts.

We’re not looking at all these stories this year, but if we had read through the book in full up to today’s reading, we would have heard these stories:

  • Philip proclaiming Christ in Samaria (8.4-8),
  • Philip and Ethiopian Eunuch (8.26-40) which we looked at last week,
  • The conversion of Saul and his commissioning to preach to the gentiles,
  • Simon Peter’s vision on the rooftop of Cornelius the Centurion’s house and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit onto his gentile household (Acts 10),
  • The planting of the church among the gentiles in Antioch, and the gift of the Holy Spirit to them (11.19-30),
  • Paul and Barnabas being led by the Holy Spirit to plant churches in the gentile territories of Syria, Cyprus, and Asia Minor.

And woven through all of this early missionary activity were these two strands: the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the expansion of the church beyond Israel.

And then, right in the middle of it all, there emerged a huge, seismic controversy around identity, that threatened to tear the church apart, or stifle it altogether.

The key identities here were those of Jewish versus Gentile. As with any attempt to understand Jewish identity as it is depicted in the Christian scriptures, we need to tread carefully, and to be aware that these stories have contributed to a long and horrific tradition of anti-Semitism.

We cannot assume that the depiction of first century Judaism that we meet here is either complete or entirely accurate. However, neither can we ignore the identity issue at play, or we will never understand the story properly. So with that caveat articulated, let’s unpick this a bit.

The expression of Judaism we meet in the first century, often called Second Temple Judaism, had taken shape during of the Babylonian exile some six centuries earlier, and it was a form of intertwined religious and ethnic identity focussed around some key symbols and signs, that marked the Jews as distinct from other nations.

So, Torah-keeping or the observance of the Law was one key marker, with its distinctive dietary regulations, along with other behavioural expectations.

Another was the practice of male circumcision, as a visible and indelible sign of belonging to the covenant people of God.

You knew you were Jewish, not because you lived in the land of Israel, or because you went to the Temple for worship, but primarily because you participated in certain actions. Being a first century Jew was about who you were, not where you lived.

Of course, there were Jews who lived in Israel, but not everyone who lived in the land was Jewish; and similarly there were many Jews who lived in Gentile lands, the diaspora as they were known, who were every bit as Jewish as anyone who lived in Jerusalem.

So the identity markers of Jewish ethnicity and religion, including circumcision and dietary laws, ran very deep. If you questioned these, you questioned the very basis of both a person’s relationship with God, and their relationship with their community.

Factor into this that for a very long time, being Jewish had also meant being an oppressed people, and these markers of identity became even more deep-rooted.

Just as significant minority identities in contemporary society, such as black identity, or LGBTQ+ identity, or feminist identity, have all been forged in contexts of oppression or exclusion; so the Second Temple Jewish identity was forged in a context of persecution and subjugation.

This meant that the public inhabitation of that identity - through circumcising your male children, and visibly obeying the Torah laws - was a powerful marker of resistance against domination.

To ask a first century Jew to set aside circumcision or Torah, would have been analogous to asking a contemporary member of the LGBTQ+ community to set aside their sexuality or gender, or asking a black person to deny their culture of ancestry.

Therefore, to suggest, as Peter and Paul and others started to do, that gentiles might become part of God’s covenant people, but without taking on themselves the markers of Jewish identity, was heard and felt as a fundamental betrayal.

So Peter’s baptism of the Roman Centurion Cornelius’s family, or Paul’s invitation to gentiles to join the church in Antioch, were deeply problematic actions.

This is the setup for the crisis that leads to the Council at Jerusalem, and we cannot underestimate how difficult it is for the Jewish Christians to hear what Peter and Paul are saying.

They are claiming that God is pouring out the Holy Spirit on people who are outside of the existing community of God’s people, and they are arguing that if God is blessing the gentiles with the Spirit of Christ, then no further obligation needs to follow, in terms of either circumcision or any other demands of the Torah.

Paul has concluded on the basis of his experience in Antioch and elsewhere, that the hallmark of identity for belonging to the people of God is not whether a person embodies the markers of Israel, but whether they share the faith of Israel as it has been embodied in Jesus Christ.

In Ephesians, Paul speaks of the giving of the Holy Spirit seal of a person’s salvation (1.13; 4.30); and in Romans he reinterprets circumcision for the follower of Christ as an inward spiritual act, rather than an outward physical ritual.

In other words, he argues that the primary identity of the Christian is found in Christ, and in the gift of the Spirit of Christ, and not in the keeping of Torah or in circumcision.

And so Paul finds himself back in Jerusalem, with Simon and James and the other leaders of the early church, to try and discern a way forwards.

The Baptist in me would like to claim this as the first proper argument at a Church Meeting, but that may be stretching it a bit; it’s more like an early church council.

Anyway, after much discussion, the Jerusalem Council reaches a compromise decision. They will not impose the full demands of Torah or circumcision on gentile converts, but neither will they say that behaviour doesn’t matter.

Rather, they identify three areas where gentiles will be asked to moderate their behaviour, and they name issues which are so culturally rooted in the Jewish identity of that time that to relax them would have made Jewish Christians unable to share physical space with Gentile Christians.

So they specify abstaining from food that has been offered to idols, from eating or drinking blood, and from fornication. And that’s it.

It’s a masterclass in cross cultural mission, and something that Western Colonial missionaries of the last five hundred years have had to learn again and again.

Pretty much wherever you think you draw your line on identity and behaviour, you can find evidence that God is beyond that line; at work, pouring out the Holy Spirit on people who are still regarded as unacceptable to the current embodiment of God’s people.

Compromises will sometimes have to be reached, in the name of sustaining relationships, but such pragmatic responses are just that - they are responses to human frailty, rather than divine mandates for human behaviour.

The theological principle here is often called the missio Dei, the mission of God.

The great missiologist David Bosch describes what this phrase missio Dei means. He says that “mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God.”

And Jurgen Moltmann says that, “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfil in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.”

In other words - the task of drawing the world to God, is God’s task. Not ours.

The people who are already part of God’s family have their part to play, sure, but our task is to prayerfully discern and observe what God is doing, to pay attention to where God is pouring out the Holy Spirit beyond the boundaries of the church as it currently defines itself, and to then join in with whatever new thing it is that God is doing.

Mission is therefore not something we do at all, it is who God is.

When we make mission about saving individuals, when we focus on personal salvation, we reduce God’s activity from the universal to the parochial. We make it all about us, and of course it isn’t about us at all, it’s about God.

And God’s plan is to love, save, and bless the whole world, indeed the whole of creation.

This is where I need to out myself, once again, as a universalist.

I think that any understanding of God’s activity in the world, that restricts the scope of God’s saving action to a subset of creation, is a diminishment and restriction of who God is revealed to be in Christ Jesus.

And it is a betrayal of the insights of Paul and Peter, who grasped that God is always to be found at work beyond whatever barriers we humans might seek to construct, around ourselves and our communities of faith.

It starts with God, and God’s invitation to you and to me. We are already now the people of faith. But it goes way beyond us.

As the Council of Jerusalem had to discern, God’s plan for the salvation of the world runs from Jerusalem, through all Judea and Samaria, and - yes - to the ends of the earth.

So when we find ourselves holding on to our traditions for dear life; when we feel our identity as God’s people is under threat; when we worry that we are losing control, and that our deeply held beliefs are being erased; we do well to remember that our task is simply to follow God.

The promise that God made to Abraham, back at the very beginning of the Jewish story, was that through Abraham’s descendants all the nations of the world would be blessed (Gen. 18.18).

This does not involve the erasing of any person or community’s identity, in fact quite the opposite.

As we discover God at work in those who are ‘not like us’, we also gain a new understanding of how God is at work in ‘us’ as well.

The Council at Jerusalem is not the abolition of Jewish identity, it is a glorious recognition that God is bigger than us, bigger than our tribe, bigger than our community of faith, and that God is at work through the Spirit of Christ, drawing all people into his eternal, loving embrace.

All we are called to do, as God’s people, chosen and loved for who we are, is join in with what God is doing.