Including the Excluded

In this final sermon on Christian Beginnings: a journey through Acts the theme is including the excluded. This is easier to illustrate from part one of Luke’s two volume work, that is Luke’s gospel, than it is from part 2 of his work, that is the Acts of the Apostles.

The way in which Jesus throughout his ministry included the excluded is apparent in all four gospels, but it is especially marked in Luke’s gospel. We can see this when we look at material which appears only in Luke’s gospel. A constant theme in these passages is including people from all nations and the poor and excluded.

Chapter 10:29–37. The parable of the good Samaritan, possibly the most startling example. The Jews and the Samaritans hated one another guts. It was every bit as vicious as the current Israeli Arab conflict or Protestant against Catholic in worst years in Northern Ireland. The animosity ran deep and had done so for centuries. Even worse from the perspective of an orthodox Jew, the priest and the Levite appear in a very unfavourable light in stark contrast to the good Samaritan. No single story in the gospel illustrates more eloquently Jesus’s inclusion of absolutely everyone including, and perhaps especially, those from whom we differ most profoundly.

Chapter 13:10-17 Jesus healing “a woman who had had a spirit of infirmity for 18 years: she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself.” A poor, sick, unimportant, insignificant woman, easy to ignore and Jesus healed her.

Chapter 15:11–end. The parable of the prodigal son – the story of the thoughtless, pleasure seeking, extravagant wastrel whom his father welcomed home with open arms. God’s refusal to reject anyone.

Chapter 16, 19–35. The parable of Dives, the rich man, and Lazarus, the poor beggar. Clear evidence of God’s bias to the poor.

Chapter 17:11–19. Today’s gospel the healing of the 10 lepers. First the healing of the lepers who were total outcasts from society and then Jesus rubs in the point that the only one who gave thanks was, once again, one of the hated Samaritans.

Chapter 18:9–14. The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (tax gatherer). It is the self-righteous Pharisee who is put down and the despised tax gatherer who “went down to his house justified.”

Chapter 19:1–10. The story of  Zaccheus who is not only a tax collector but a chief tax collector making a packet out of exploiting his fellow Jews and  collaborating with the hated Romans. We are told of his conversion. “Today,” Jesus says, “salvation has come to this house.”

These passages show Jesus’s (and Luke’s) bias pretty clearly, though perhaps there should have been more about Jesus valuing of and including women.

Then came the earthquake of Jesus’s arrest, trial, death and resurrection and everything changed. This radical change is reflected starkly in Acts. I found it an interesting experience reading through Luke but missing out the whole of the Passion narratives and then reading Acts. It made me realise anew the staggering change and a completely new approach following Jesus’s death and resurrection.

It has been said with some truth that Jesus preached the kingdom of God (as is clear from passages to which I referred) and the early church preached Jesus.

It is a radical transition from the story of a fascinating, compelling, spellbinding, inspiring, itinerant charismatic preacher to the growing pains of the movement he inspired.

Acts is a, if not the, key document for understanding how the transition succeeded . The tone of Acts is set by the story of Pentecost and the extraordinary outburst of the spirit, of those 1st Christians being empowered and compelled to talk about the good news of Jesus in a way which was obviously so infectious. It is an astounding story–why should the rag and taggle, followers of a Galilean peasant, executed in the most shameful way possible. have had any impact at all? but they did and as result we are here this morning.

But in the process of making that transition did some of what Jesus taught get lost? In particular did the early Christians find it convenient to forget what Jesus did and said about including the excluded?

There was, however, one absolutely vital inclusion/exclusion issue which could not be avoided–that was whether non-Jews, the Gentiles, could become Christians without having to become Jews first. On the answer to this question depended whether Christianity became a sect within Judaism or spread its wings to embrace everyone so that no one was excluded.

The hardliners in Antioch said, in this morning’s reading from Acts (chapter 15:1), “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas had a major row with these hardliners and so it was decided that Paul and Barnabas and some others should go to Jerusalem to the mother church to thrash it out. Once again the hardliners spoke up (verse 5) “some of the believers who belong to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said: “it is necessary to circumcise them and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.” In the vigorous discussion which followed, Paul and Barnabas (verse 12) related the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

Then James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, who might have been expected to support the hardline approach, quotes Amos 9:11–12.

“After this I shall return and rebuild the fallen dwelling of David;
from its ruins I shall rebuild it and raise it up again: so that the rest of humanity may seek out the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who are called by my name.”

The Hebrew version of verse 17 reads “so that Edom may seek out the Lord” but the Greek version of the old Testament Scriptures, the Septuagint made in about the 2nd century BCE, reads “so that the rest of humanity may seek out the Lord.” The word translated Edom is obviously Edom but the Septuagint, instead of reading EDOM has read ADAM or Adam which has been translated, fairly enough, as humanity.

James (and Luke) find in this passage from the Greek Bible an affirmation of an unhindered mission to the Gentiles. stage one in Amos was the restoration of the tribes of Israel and stage two the reception of the Gentiles (the rest of humanity).

After all the discussion, James says: “My judgement is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” And then he mentioned some minor conditions which may just mean “make a clean break from your pagan past”.

This was the critical step and enabled the rapid and extra-ordinary expansion of the early church, but was anything lost of Jesus’s radical inclusion of the excluded? It is something with which the Church has struggled throughout the ages but

1. The Gentiles were included.

2. Though it may be true that Jesus preached the kingdom of God and the early church preached Jesus, nevertheless the Jesus whom they preached and followed was the Jesus who preached and acted out the kingdom of God. We should remember that the tone of part 2 of Luke’s book is set by part 1 the gospel, and that leaves us in no doubt at all about Jesus’s inclusion of the lost and excluded. It was hard for the early church to work out what life for a community trying to follow Christ obediently involved – just think of all the problems that the church at Corinth had –  but the combined witness of both parts of Luke’s book shows us how those early Christians struggled with the issues and managed to maintain that exhilarating and transforming openness that Jesus displayed.

Maybe we be faithful in our continuation of that struggle.

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