Monday 16 May 2011

An unfinished work ...

I was very struck by my Bible readings for today.  The first was from Acts 11 where Peter returns to Jerusalem after baptising the first non-Jews into the Christian faith - and wow, was he in trouble!

In the version I was reading from, it was particularly well put, "News came to the Apostles and the bothers & sisters in Jerusalem that even foreigners had received the Word of God"
Peter faced a barrage of protest on his return and he was accused with the words - "You went to the home of uncircumcised people and ate with them!"

This was a big issue for a 1st century Jew - even a Christian one.  It was simply not done - it made you unclean - it crossed a line that it was not permitted to cross - it went against the Word of God!   And more than that, Peter hadn't just eaten with them, he had baptised them!  How could he possibly defend himself?
I began to think about this, and unless I am wrong, I can't think of any time when Jesus is recorded to have gone to the houses of Gentiles (foreigners) and eaten with them.

So the Apostles, brothers and sisters in Jerusalem had a point.  I can almost hear them now saying "Jesus didn't go and eat with foreigners.  You are not following His example. How could you do such a thing?"

And the facts speak for themselves.  Jesus' relationship with 'foreigners' was ambivalent at the best of times.  When he healed the Centurion's son, he did it at a distance.  When he talked with the woman of Samaria, it was outside the town.  When a Phoenician woman begged him to heal her son, he replied that it is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs!  (But he did heal him, just in case you don't know the story).

Surely Peter should have limited himself to following the example of Christ?

Peter, of course did try to limit himself in such a way.  It took God a fair amount of work to open Peter to the possibility of 'foreigners' becoming part of the Church.  Three times, we are told that God showed him a disturbing vision, telling him to kill and eat unclean animals.  Three times Peter said "No Lord!"  (a contradiction in terms).

But there was more to learn about the inclusive love and purposes of God.  More than Jesus could teach in those 3 brief years of ministry.  More than Jesus' hearers could bear to listen to in their culture bound vision of God and the world.  More than the early church was ready to accept, even after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Reaching out to, and welcoming in foreigners was the first step made by the Church in the completing the unfinished work of Christ.  There were many others to follow.

Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch;  Pauls mission to the Greco-Roman world; Thomas' journey to India which must have seemed like the 'ends of the earth'  to him as he continued that growing understanding of what it meant to "Go and make disciples of all peoples".
There were pointers of course, like that final command to go - but we can always find ways to interpret these things in the way we want to.  I can imagine the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem thinking "Yes but Jesus didn't really mean all people - he meant all people like us!"  It took the continuing work of the Holy Spirit to break open what remained firmly closed.

The truth is that there is an unfinished work of Christ.  Paul referred to it when he said, "and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church."  (Colossians 1:24).

Our understanding of the Word of God and the teachings of Jesus is not yet complete.  There are boundaries that we have not yet crossed.  There are people we have not yet embraced.  There is yet more to do, to bring in the Kingdom which Jesus talked about in parables and riddles - because it is beyond our understanding.

Peter did get the message, even though 3 times in his vision he refused to do what God told him to do.  He did go to those outside - to those beyond the pale - to those considered not worthy of the grace of God.
And we still have our boundaries to cross - to complete the unfinished work of Christ.  He may not have eaten with foreigners - but we can.  He might not have appointed women as Apostles - but we can.  He might not have publically embraced gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people - but we can.

The Gospel reading for today had one of those pointers which the early church was slow to understand - "I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also."

The work of Christ is not set in stone - it is there for us to complete.


  1. I think Peter's vision is very powerful, and speaks volumes into our human tendency to cling onto the letter of the law rather than the spirit or intention of it. No cultural wrapping is simply to be understood at face value, but as part of an unfolding gospel narrative. We know from Acts and Galatians that Peter was not quite sorted out himself by this experience, but I wish we could be!

  2. Thanks Alan: The other scripture which came to mind while reading this was, of course, John 16.12 onwards...

    “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

    I beleive we are still working that out today...