Every church group seems to have an “us” and a “them”.
Families or Singles. Youth or Adults. English speakers or Spanish speakers. Hymn singers or Happy Clappys. Infant or Adult Baptizers. Often, one group sees themselves as being in the “outer circle” of the church, looking from a distance at the holier-than-thou “them”.
Often, neither “we” nor “they” are sure exactly where “they” belong. Belonging in church is a tricky business, and feeling like you (or someone else) is a second-class citizen is a dangerous thing.
I think the “us” vs “them” issue was the single biggest issue the early church faced..
I’m trying to imagine just exactly how awkward the Council of Jerusalem must have been. Acts 15 tells the story of an emergency meeting called by the early church. Jesus hadn’t even been gone for twenty years and already they were having Serious Logistical Problems.
In a nutshell, the problem was this: for hundreds of years, the Jews had held the title of being “God’s people”. They were “in” with God. To them were the promises of God, the prophets, the sacrificial system, the law (Romans 9:1-5). They kept themselves distant from the sinful nations, keeping the “holiness boundary” firmly as a sign of their faith in God.
Now the Messiah had come, fulfilling all of God’s promises in his death and resurrection. Wonderful! Jesus had compeleted a new covenant on behalf of God’s people, and anyone who put their faith in Him could be justified (legally pronounced to be part of the accepted, forgiven people of God – for yesterday’s whopper of a post on this, click here).
But the catch for the Jews was the ANYONE part.
After centuries of keeping their distance from, washing their hands from, passing judgment on, refusing to eat with and being forbidden to marry Gentiles – the belief that they were lesser, dirtier, and less worthy was bone-deep. The gospel proclamation that ANYONE, Jews or Gentile, could have EQUAL status and benefits in God’s new community, was a massive adjustment. The fact that Acts and many of the Epistles recount story after story about Jew-Gentile conflict testifies to the fact that this was a deal-breaker issue for the first Christian’s witness.
The Jews didn’t feel the Gentiles really “belonged”.
And the Gentiles felt judged as second-class citizens.
The apostles themselves struggled to figure this out. Peter and Paul duked it out in private, and then the Jerusalem Council had to put the “play nicely” rules into practice, for the bottom line truth was this:
If we are right with God PURELY on the basis of what Jesus has done (another way of saying, if we are justified by faith in Him), then there are no second-class citizens.
Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one-who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (Romans 3:29-30)
The ground is level at the foot of the cross: there are no pedestals, no hillocks, no trough . There is only ONE circle, and that is the circle of those “in Christ”. No inner or outer circle. No “us” vs “them” within God’s community.
So here is how this shakes down:
That irritating, gum-chewing teenager whose underwear is visible above their jeans and who loves Jesus? She is one of US.
That guy whose BO is offensive and who loves Jesus? He is one of US.
That couple who seem so self-righteous and put-together and annoyingly shmarmy who love Jesus? They are part of US.
The pastor, who seems to know so much when you feel you know so little? He is one of US.
Those hymn-singers? They’re one of US.
Those drum-crashers? They’re one of US.
That complaining Mary-Jane who seems to give you a disapproving look across the worship service? She’s one of US.
THEY (whoever THEY are), are one of US if they love Jesus.
And YOU, if you feel you don’t quite belong, aren’t quite understood, don’t quite agree, aren’t quite comfortable – YOU, if you belong to Jesus, are one of US.
Justification means that if we belong to Jesus, we belong to each other. And if the early church had to work it out to make their witness effective – ooooh boy, so do we.
Let’s have our own little councils of Jerusalem, friends – let’s talk about it, make peace, get this right, so that “they will know we are Christians by our love.”
This is Day 9 of the 31 Days of Belonging writing challenge. For a complete list of posts, click here.