The story of the early church as told in the book of Acts testifies to the tenacity of tribalism as a major force in human society. A prominent strand of biblical tradition traceable to the call of Abraham and his descendants to serve as the means for God to bring blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3), through the prophetic call for Israel to shine as light to the nations (Isa 42:6), and including the divine promise that even Ethiopians and eunuchs will one day have a place in God’s house (Isa 56:3-5) makes clear that God does not reserve God’s grace only for some. Yet, according to Acts, the disciples misconstrued even an event as unprecedented and momentous as God raising Jesus of Nazareth from the dead and Jesus’ explicit command to carry the Gospel to the world as limited in scope and effect to only segments of humanity.
Commentators on Acts often note that it narrates the prodding of the Holy Spirit more than it does the “Acts of the Apostles.” Well before the political situation forced the church to abandon Jerusalem, deep-seated biases against Diaspora Jews surfaced in the treatment of widows in the church (Acts 6:1-6). Significantly, the church solved the problem by selecting (the first?) deacons, all with Greek names (therefore, probably from the Diaspora themselves). One of them was even a proselyte. Peter, James, and John did not pioneer in bearing testimony to the world beyond Palestinian Jews. The deacon, Philip, did, and even he needed angelic direction at one point (Acts 8:26). Peter did not conclude from scriptural evidence and the promise of the Resurrection that god-fearing Romans, too, could believe and be saved. Even after a vision and an invitation resulted in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all in Cornelius’ household, Peter expressed astonishment that, apparently, “God is not partial” (Acts 10:34, my trans.). Paul’s missionary journeys took him first to synagogues in the Diaspora. Another vision was necessary to motivate him to cross over into Europe (Acts 16:9). The Gospels reached the ends of the then-known world (the Roman Empire) only because of the relentless Holy Spirit; the early church came to understand God’s mission in the world, but only because of God’s persistence.
Today, in the West, the church faces an altogether different set of circumstances (post-modernism, post-denominationalism, the “none” phenomenon, etc.) that many think spell the demise of the church as we know it. Scholars study the situation; church leaders and ministers offer analyses and propose solutions; I have touched on the subject in other posts on this blog (3/28/16 and esp. 1/19/16). In those posts, I speculated among other things that the attitudes of the American church, especially in the South, during the height of the civil rights struggle in the 1960’s and early 1970’s exposed the institutional hypocrisy of the church and may have contributed to the disaffection manifest by people who came of age during that period. Their children are now the millennials who mistrust the institutional church. Is the church now suffering the consequences of this ancestral sin?
Until recently, I thought so. My Hebrew class is currently finishing the book of Jonah, the first OT book that they will have read in the original language. During a discussion of Jonah’s posture toward the Assyrians and his anger at God – was it hypocrisy (God can forgive my sin, but not yours) or pure hatred? – a student mentioned a recent episode at the church she serves as an associate minister. In a Vacation Bible School planning meeting, her proposal to advertise VBS in the local paper met surprisingly strong but initially unspecific opposition. After several attempts to uncover the logic fueling it, one member of the planning group finally expressed fear that “it might attract the wrong kind of children.” My student was astonished. Hearing her account of the incident, I was flabbergasted.
Since that class discussion, I have been thinking. It may well be that in the seminary classroom I am insulated from the current mood in local churches. A self-selection bias probably influences the churches who invite me to speak. In any case, I visit for a Sunday or a brief series of Sundays and have no opportunity to sit in VBS planning meetings. I belong to a congregation that reflects my sensibilities. Thus, it may be that churches around me are full of people who can classify children as the “right” or “wrong” kind and who are willing to erect obstacles to prevent some children from hearing the Gospel.
I have been thinking further. Can the sub-text of racial rancor evident in current political rhetoric and the degree of its acceptance among people who claim to seek the restoration of the US as a “Christian nation” be interpreted as anything other than evidence that the hypocrisy of Jonah and of the civil rights era church lives on? I do not want to fall into the error of judging the quality of another person’s faith, but I know that Jesus recommended that one pay attention to the fruit of the tree. I also know Jesus’ love commandment and John’s warning that if we do not love one another, we walk in darkness (1 John 2:11).
I have thinking. The early church was hesitant to reach out to the nations. Today, globalization brings the nations of the world to us. With all its challenges, could the influx of immigrants, legal and illegal, be the work of the Holy Spirit, prodding the contemporary church to bear witness to its new neighbors? Has the “foreign mission field” become our neighborhood?
I have been thinking. In fact, it may be that the church does not need primarily to become more relevant in its worship style, less traditional, or more socially active. The church needs foremost to fulfill Jesus’ commission to be his witnesses, to love God supremely and our neighbors – Assyrian, Samaritan, and all “kinds” of children – as we love ourselves. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.”