“God had granted also to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
By the time the Acts of the Apostles was written, the unification of Jews and Gentiles in the early Church was well on its way to being an accomplished fact. That this step was seen as important is indicated by the fact that Peter’s experience is described twice in Acts – first when it happens to Peter and second when he defends what he did to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. The need for that defense is an indication that the unification was not accomplished without a struggle. The first Christians, who were, of course, Jews, said “Fine . . . you can come in, but you have to be Jewish first and obey all of our laws. (After all, they’re God’s laws.) Then you can be Christian . . .” But – despite their sincerity and piety – they were wrong, as we now understand. God didn’t require the Gentile Christians to obey all the Jewish rules.
We contemporary Christians might be tempted to think “Well, that’s interesting” or, even perhaps, to be grateful because, after all, we Gentiles are the beneficiaries of that unity. But we can’t stop there; inspired scripture is never just about history – never just about how things came to be the way they are. As St. Paul says in Romans “All things written in times past were written for our instruction.” We don’t need to be instructed in history to be saved, but we do need to know God’s will. And that will, manifested in this story from Acts, is that God and God’s church are inclusive. There is room for everyone. God wants everyone.
Inclusiveness is as much a challenge for us today as it was for the Jewish Christians two millennia ago. We face issues such as male-female, lay-cleric, black-white, gay-straight, Protestant-Catholic. We say “Well, yes, there’s room for everybody. But first you have to be this or that, and obey all the rules, and change this or that . . . After all, that’s what God wants . . .”
Are we sure?
We need perhaps a little humility here. In several places the Gospels tell us that Jesus went off by Himself to pray. Almost certainly that “prayer” to His Father was “What is Your will in this situation? What do you want me to do?” We should do no less before deciding we know God’s will. How many times – and in how many places – has God told us “My ways are not your ways. My thoughts are not your thoughts”?
When we become alert to this theme of inclusiveness, we find it in many places throughout the New Testament (e.g., John 11:52; Acts 10:34–35; 11:17; Romans 10:12; 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11; Eph 3:2–6, etc.) and even the Old (Is 60:1–7), but most clearly in Paul’s soaring phrases from Galatians (3:28–29): “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
If that seems somehow wrong to us, well . . . it should. Paul calls it a “mystery” and says that this insight came not through human sources but by direct revelation from God. It is one manifestation of what is meant by the phrase “a new creation”. God has made something completely new – unprecedented. This understanding could not have had human origins. Humans reject the other, the stranger. For humans, it’s “them” and “us”.
But for God it’s just “us” – always “us”.
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