Love is a central word in the theology of John’s community. Indeed 1 John 4:16 says “God is love.” It’s a love that gives of itself, is hospitable, generous, accommodates difference, and upsets those who like clear boundaries. It is a free and disturbing spirit.
I discover this love all around us: in acts of inclusion, in acts of selfless giving, and in acts of making room for dissent. In these actions I experience God.
If however love, and love alone, is our guide and goal as a church, what status do the received traditions and biblical laws have? If revered traditions and laws don’t measure up to what we think love demands are they to be ignored or discarded? St Paul made love so central to his understanding of the Gospel that he took license to set aside even biblical laws when new cultural contexts made them inappropriate.
These questions are as current today as they were in biblical times. The passing of Marriage Equality Amendment Act was reflective of this struggle between what some think love demands, what some think tradition advises, and what some think biblical law dictates.
In Luke’s Acts of the Apostles it is not same-gender marriage that is at stake but the inclusion of gentiles [non-Jews] in early Christianity. This was the big issue of the first 80 years of the Christian movement. This divided people as much, or more, than the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the church today. At stake was whether gentiles could also be counted among God's people. Was the good news also for them? There were many different answers.
The problem was complex. Beginning with Jesus' ministry, it is clear that he claimed that something was beginning which would in future come to full reality. Its impact would be good news for the poor and hungry. Jesus addressed these hopes to his own people [Israel]. At the heart of his message was the generosity of God, whose goodness reaches out to all, including the marginalized and the wicked.
What happens though when the message of Jesus’ ministry reaches gentiles, as it did when the Hellenists in Acts 8 & 9 had to flee from Israel to places like Damascus in modern day Syria? Does the generosity of God include gentiles?
Jesus appears to have embraced a big vision for Israel which probably included gentiles, based on prophetic hopes that they too would come to Jerusalem and all nations would live in peace. This ‘come to Jerusalem’ motif persists in early tradition.[i] Yet would gentiles be spectators or participants? Was not this universalistic coming together just on the spiritual level rather than on a practical level?
Those who wanted to follow a rule book, indeed the sacred rule book [the Bible], could follow the clear provision made in Genesis 17: to be accepted gentiles needed to convert to Judaism and men undergo circumcision. This was biblical and unequivocal.
But there was no precedent for gentile conversions to happen on a grand scale. Most such conversions were incidental or through marriage, not through mission. Christian preachers, all of them Jewish of course, had also to decide whether, beyond picking up gentile converts incidentally, they should actually seek them out.
It was not that Jews and gentiles never mixed. Most Jews lived out in the gentile world of the empire. Some were in the army. As with most things, where people became ritually impure, there were provisions for purification. It was no more sinful to become unclean by entering a gentile's house than it was to become unclean through menstruation or dealing with a corpse. Becoming unclean and then undergoing purification was as natural a part of life as literal washing away the dirt of the day.
The general rule, however, was that where possible one should avoid becoming unclean. So, most Jews would avoid entering a gentile house. This explains why both times that Jesus heals at a distance entailed healing gentiles – it was partly to avoid entering their houses. Likewise most Jews would avoid eating with gentiles. To be careless about purity issues was sin, but the impurity itself was not sin.
Given this context how could Christian Jews make entering gentile houses a regular feature of their behaviour? Would they be able to eat with gentiles on a regular basis? Their cultural and biblical tradition clearly said ‘No’.
It is striking that Paul, writing 30 or 40 years before Luke, tells us in Galatians 2:11-14 that along with Peter, Barnabas, and other Jewish Christians he had indeed decided to share in table fellowship with gentiles at Antioch until people came from James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem congregation, who asked them to desist. Which they did. All, except Paul! Paul justified his behaviour by insisting that Divine love now overrode all such requirements, just as he and others had agreed that it overrode the requirement of circumcision.
Paul's defense was on the basis of an approach to scripture which discerned what mattered most, and then was courageous enough to declare some things unnecessary or redundant. Naturally enough, more conservative Christians hated him for it and nearly all of his letters show how he had to struggle with the fundamentalists of his day.
The first hand historical material in Paul's letters sits somewhat awkwardly with Luke's account in Acts. Luke is writing at a time when these issues had been largely resolved, including the tensions between Peter and Paul, and where showing unity was paramount. Accordingly, Luke has Peter become the hero who first affirmed that it was okay to enter gentile houses and eat with them! Luke had to rely on the sources available to him, which are not always reliable, as this instance shows.
There are some further peculiarities about Luke's account. The vision really does sound like it is telling Peter that the food laws no longer apply and should never have applied, for nothing which God made is unclean! That had been Mark's understanding of the incident about washing hands in Mark 7:1-23. Jesus declared that all foods are clean (7:19). Such a setting aside of biblical law contradicted what Luke had said in his gospel and so he omitted the passage.[ii] Here, too, he seems to understand it not as denying biblical laws about unclean animals but as symbolic. It symbolizes that human beings are all to be considered clean.
Later we find Luke asserting adherence to the Law in ways that assume the biblical laws remained intact. So, on Luke's understanding of Peter's vision, which he found in his sources, not animals but human beings are now clean and so Christian Jews should feel free to mix with all human beings and eat with them.
One way or other, both Paul and Luke reach the conclusion that no discrimination, no matter how biblically based, can stand in the way of that generous boundary-breaking spirit of love which we call God.
Of course, Jews and Christian Jews who remained strict adherents of biblical law also affirmed such love for all, seeing circumcision and other provisions as God's gift of guidelines to sustain and protect the special relationship.
Luke is close to them, needing divine interventions from heaven to contemplate change, but Paul goes all the way in arguing that one needs to recognize the unintended consequences of some biblical laws which stand in tension with what should be seen as at its heart. Making love so central that it gives us freedom to set aside even biblical laws where and when new cultural contexts make them inappropriate was the insight which Paul brought. It is still at the heart of much conflict about use of scripture today.
Determining what are central beliefs and what are peripheral beliefs is an ongoing task for any church. To meet the challenges of a changing world we must be prepared to change everything about ourselves, except for those central beliefs.
Today’s Gospel reading underlines our most important belief - what really matters - namely: that we love one another.
To love another is to desire the best for them, help them to achieve that, and endeavour to make sure it’s never your achievement but theirs. To love another is to give away something precious, and never expect it back. To love another is to respect and trust them. To love another is to understand the importance of freedom, even if the expression of that freedom is painful to you.
For this reason, like St Paul and St Peter, we set aside biblical traditions and laws, and follow the greater law of love.
[i] For example Matthew’s Gentile Magi.
[ii] Note the discussion in Luke 11 is about unclean hands rather than unclean food