Did you notice? Our liturgical reading cuts 20 verses from today’s Acts passage. I suggest you go back to your bibles and read those verses. We really won’t understand Luke’s insight into the all-important Jew/Gentile issue unless we do him the favor of listening to what he actually wrote on the subject.
Except for Jesus’ delayed Parousia, nothing creates more problems (and dissension) in the early Christian community than the question of Gentile converts to the faith. Are these non-Jews obligated to keep the 613 Torah laws which the original Jewish converts to the faith observed? Or can they be baptized without assuming such an onus?
Our liturgical text makes the solution seem even more simple and definitive than even Luke - the great “simplifier” - describes it. One of the key lost verses (7) begins with the dependent clause, “After there had been much debate. . . .” We know from Paul’s letters that this is a terrific understatement. The Gentile issue automatically fomented more than debate. Feelings ran so deep that Paul worried about the possibility that Jewish churches would actually refuse to accept much needed help from Gentile churches. And, according to scholars like Raymond Brown, the dispute probably led to Paul (and Peter’s) martyrdom. Ultra-conservative Christians most likely turned them over to the Roman authorities in an attempt to rid their communities of the duo’s liberal theology.
The historical Jesus never seems to have said anything about Gentile converts. He simply was a reformer of Judaism: someone who encouraged his own people to return to their Jewish roots. The Gentile question only surfaces after his death and resurrection when non-Jews show an interest in his teachings and life-style. Was it possible to separate both from the Judaism in which they originally were embedded? All authors of our Christian Scriptures answer “Yes!” to that question - even Matthew who writes for a Jewish/Christian community. But they don’t always offer the same reason(s) for their affirmative response.
John, for instance, relies on the Holy Spirit working in the community when such issues come to the fore. In today’s pericope Jesus tells his Last Supper guests that the Paraclete will not only “remind you of all that I told you,” but also “will instruct you in everything.” Then, in the next chapter, John’s Jesus gets even more specific. “I have yet 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 . . .” In other words, “Spirit-led Christians should anticipate constant development in their faith.”
Luke agrees with John’s trust in the Spirit’s guidance, but he also zeroes in on the Christian’s personal experience of the risen Jesus present and working in his or her life. The omitted verse 12 places such experiences front and center. “All the assembly kept silent; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” The big question is, “What happens when something new is attempted?” The clinching argument here is that people who can’t tell a lox from a bagel are still living Christian lives. Gentiles, along with Jewish Christians, make terrific other Christs.
It’s comforting to hear the author of Revelation assure his community that the new Jerusalem they’re creating has “no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God gives it light, and its light is the Lamb.” But even before that city is built, do each of us really try to live our lives guided by the Lamb and his Spirit? Or do we presume such divine guidance is restricted to just certain tradition-oriented people in our church? If the early church followed that reasoning, no Christian would ever have tasted a BLT!