All are Welcome

 

There’s conflict in the early church again! In Galatians 2:11-21 Paul has been working with a congregation for several years and in that time they have welcomed people regardless of their religious background. Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians are working and worshiping together and the community is flourishing. But then they have some visitors from outside the community. These visitors feel that by having Jewish Christians sharing the table with non-Jews, they are breaking the purity code of the Jewish tradition. Cephas has been part of the community and has been comfortable sharing the table with many different people. Once these visitors come, he starts to distance himself and refuses to share the table. Then others join in and the community is divided. The Jewish Christians aren’t about to eat with sinners who don’t keep the law.

Paul goes on to argue that everyone, whether Jewish or not, is sinner. To identify as a sinner isn’t always a comfortable place. To have sin pointed out to us isn’t always comfortable but sin simply means that we have missed the mark, that we have made a mistake, that we haven’t lived up to who we are meant to be. Sin may be very personal but it also has impact on community.

Sometimes it is difficult to identify the sin. Initially, in this story, the sin is seen as breaking the purity code and not following the tradition of a segregated table. In order to resolve this break in the code, the Jewish Christians refuse to eat with non-Jews. Paul challenges this and suggests that the real sin is refusing to share the table. Paul flips the idea of sin on its head. The people who are accusing others of sin become the sinners.

We want to keep nice neat boxes which allow some people to be insiders and others outsiders but the Holy Spirit is messy and doesn’t conform to our ideas of who should be welcome in our communities. The sin for which Paul holds people accountable is the sin of exclusion and division. We continue to struggle with this challenge. Any time we tell someone that they are unwelcome, we sin because it breaks the body of Christ. It is easy to point to others and say that they are sinners and should be unwelcome but neither Christ nor Paul would support that attitude.

This video from the United Church of Christ shows what happens when we believe we are better than others and want to maintain a closed community without sinners.

When you watch this video, where do you see yourself? Do you think you are one of the ones who might get ejected or would you be the person who moves further down the pew so as not to be in the way when people are tossed out? If would could eject people from this congregation, who would you eject? Where would you stop? Perhaps someone would eject you. If you were the one being ejected, how would you feel? We need to have compassion for each other.

The point of this story is that in God’s eyes we are all equal. None of us is more or less worthy to be a part of the community. None of us should live in fear of being ejected because of something we have said or done or because of who we are. We are all special and we are all loved. The church is Christ’s body and all of us are members of the body. All of us are welcome.

 

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Who Can Be Part of the Faith?

A few years after Jesus’s death, a man named Jewish man named Saul was travelling around the Roman Empire trying to stamp out the Jewish Christians. At this time most of Jesus followers were Jews who saw Jesus as fulfilling the role of the Messiah who would save the people from oppression and, specifically, from the Roman Empire. The Jewish Christians were trying to reform Judaism and Saul—along with others—was trying to maintain the Jewish faith as it was. The early Christians were afraid of Saul. They had all heard the stories of this man who was trying to capture or kill all the Christians.

As Saul was travelling, there was a moment when he saw a bright light. He fell to the ground and a voice said, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul was blinded and the people travelling with him took him into the city of Damascus. A disciple named Ananias came to him after three days and healed his eyesight. This experience was one that changed Saul’s life.

Saul became the missionary we now know as Paul and spent the rest of his life travelling around the Mediterranean. He started many churches and as Christianity split from Judaism he was an advocate for the non-Jewish Christians. One of Paul’s strengths was his vision of communities of faith where people were welcome regardless of their differences.

Paul started the church in the Greek city of Corith. Because Paul was a Jewish Christian he would go into the Jewish Synagogue to try and convince the Jews who were worshiping there that Jesus fulfilled the scriptures. Some people were convinced and joined the Jesus movement. Some were not convinced.

After a time, Paul left Corinth and continued travelling—still setting up churches. While he was travelling Paul would write letters back to places he had already been. Corinthians is one of the letters that he wrote to the church in Corinth. He writes to the church there and tells them to get along. Some of the Christians in Corinth were claiming to follow Paul. Some claimed to follow Apollos or Peter. Paul points out that it isn’t about the individual leaders but about how those leaders help people recognize the Risen Christ and in experiencing the Risen Christ they experience God in their lives.

And Paul should know. Part of what made Paul’s ministry so powerful was that he spent the first part if his life trying to get rid of the Jesus followers. It wasn’t that he just didn’t like them. He tried to kill them. He was filled with hatred and violence towards followers of Jesus. Why should the Christians accept him as one of them? Why should he become someone that others looked to as a great leader? Why should he become someone recognized as wise? By our standards Paul should always have remained as an outsider in the faith. How can you trust someone who was out to kill your group of people?

And yet, there was something about Paul’s experience of the Risen Christ on the way to Damascus that changed his life. He had a mystical experience which opened him to God and then he went and learned from other Christians and from people who actually knew Jesus when he was alive.

We don’t have the benefit of being able to learn from people who actually knew Jesus. What we have are imperfect stories and letters recorded in scripture. What we have are the stories of many generations of faithful people seeking to follow Jesus in their lives. What we have are the stories of our own lives. All of these stories help us to recognize God in our own lives and the lives of people around us.

Paul has an unlikely missionary and yet the world was changed because of his ministry. Paul was imperfect. He didn’t get the first part of his life right but his life was more than his mistakes and more than it could have been on his own. We come to our own faith as we are in any given moment. We come with all the mistakes and imperfections of our lives but we trust that God can transform our lives and work through us. We come with all of who we are.

Part of what was happening in the Corinthian church was that people were wanting to create a unified group. They wanted a group of people who looked the same, acted the same and believed the same. But that wasn’t the reality of Christ’s body then. It isn’t the reality of Christ’s body now.

 

The Christians in the early church were squabbling over who followed the correct leader. They were squabbling over whether you could be Christian without being Jewish. They were squabbling over correct doctrine and practice. As people of faith, we continue to squabble over doctrine and faith. We continue to squabble about who is welcome and who is not. The details of who we are or how we come to the faith are ours and they are unique to us. Paul shouldn’t have been welcomed. He shouldn’t have led the early Christians because of his background—because of what he was before his experience of Jesus. In his letter he was reminding the church that we will always have difference among us and that God can work through imperfect (and all of us are imperfect) people. What holds us together in spite of our imperfections and our difference is the centrally of the Risen Christ in our lives.