As I mentioned last week, we must be careful not to employ Luke’s Acts of the Apostles as an accurate historical record of the earliest Christian church. Luke’s a theologian, not an historian. His goal is not so much to tell us what happened as it is to give us the implications of what happened.
One of the two most significant things to happen in Christianity’s first 70 years was that a movement which began 100% Jewish in 30 CE, became almost 100% Gentile by 100 CE. Luke, writing about 85, tries to give his readers the “why” of this transformation. On one hand, he must deal with those Jews who claimed this “sell-out” of Judaism was Jesus’ plan from the beginning. On the other hand, lots of conservative Christians contended that this opening of the faith to non-Jews was the work of Satan, completely against Jesus’ wishes.
One way Luke attacks the Jewish objection is to arrange his gospel in such a way that before the Passion Narrative, Jesus never talks to a Gentile. (Notice how Luke redacts the story of Jesus’ cure of the Roman centurion’s slave in chapter 7 to avoid Jesus ever coming face to face with the Gentile officer. Check Matthew 8 to see what was probably the original version of the story.)
But in today’s Acts pericope, Luke shows that the church’s reaching out to Gentiles as Gentiles is rooted in God’s plan, not the devil’s. The Spirit not only directs Peter to go to the Gentile Cornelius’ house, but, after his arrival, fills all the Gentiles in the room. Peter proclaims Luke’s key belief as he accompanies Cornelius’ servants to the Roman soldier’s house. “I begin to see how true it is that God shows no partiality. Rather, the person of any nation who fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”
Yet it’s clear from Paul’s letters, especially the one he wrote to the Galatians, that the early church’s unanticipated acceptance of Gentiles wasn’t resolved just by someone receiving a heavenly vision on the subject, then carrying through on it.
In such a problematic situation, the first question to be asked and answered is, “If one no longer must be a Jew to be a follower of Jesus, what actually is essential to discipleship?”
John both expands and concentrates Luke’s concept of “upright.” In one of the Bible’s best-known passages, John’s Jesus states, “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love that this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. The command I give you is this: that you love one another.” People are no longer to be judged on how well they keep the 613 laws of Moses, whether they’ve been circumcised, or how frequently they participate in Sabbath synagogue services. Love of others is the only criterion of faith. And Gentiles can be just as loving as Jews.
Obviously, not everyone in John’s community got his gospel message of love. The author of I John must reiterate the point. “Beloved, let us love one another because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten of God and has knowledge of God. The person without love has known nothing of God, for God is love.”
No matter how often we quote these words, it never seems enough. I again remind you of the mid-60s poll which asked Catholics, “What’s the more important law; giving up meat on Friday or loving your neighbor?” More than 50% opted for meat on Friday.
Perhaps we need a IV John.