Let’s talk about the early church.
I mean, the really early church.
What did this community that we are a part of today, look like in the years immediately following the death of it’s founder? What was the source of all the strife among Jews and Gentiles? Why is it such a big deal that Paul was founding churches in Asia Minor, Greece and Europe?
And why do we care?
Let’s answer that last question first.
We care because the story of God is the story of barriers breaking down.
It is a story of God breaking the barrier between heaven and earth by coming into personal relationship with God’s people. It is a story of the definition of “God’s people” expanding exponentially. It is a story of God standing in solidarity with creation in the suffering all mortal beings life with everyday. It is a story of all the barriers that prevented that experience of God from spreading far and wide being obliterated.
And nobody break down barriers in the early church better than Paul.
So, Jesus just died.
His disciples are scattered.
His movement is seemingly dead, just as the Jewish temple authorities and the Roman governing power were hoping for.
And then (as I explained earlier), Peter came along. I know I’ve been over this all ready, but please bear with me, because this idea about Peter is one of the ideas that excites me most of all thinking about the early church.
I strongly believe that what pulled Jesus’ community back together, the act that we now term Resurrection, was the force of personality of a reinvigorated, convicted Peter. Out of the shattered remains of a community crushed by the death of it’s leader, Peter was able to pull together a new church.
This really one of the most amazing examples of community organizing in human history.
Now, I say “church,” but church doesn’t really describe what was happening accurately. It would be better to say, “Jewish sect.” Because that’s really how the early church (there’s that word again) saw itself. They thought of themselves as reforming the Jewish faith, as moving it forward into a new era behind a new liberator and king. Jesus, in their eyes, was the latest incarnation of Abraham, of Moses, of David; a leader and nation builder for the Jewish people.
And yet, he was so different, too.
He wasn’t a great military leader like David.
He wasn’t a law giver like Moses.
He wasn’t their father, like Abraham.
He was so much more.
He was ushering in God’s Kingdom,
one personified in the example of
grace he lived with.
So, those early leaders made a choice. They decided that this message was one intended for God’s chosen people only, just as all the others had been. They made a conscious choice to spread their new take on Judaism by way of local synagogues, and avoid the gentiles loving among them and all around them.
But then, something funny happened.
This message of love and humility and compassion and grace: it started resonating with gentiles, too. In fact, in some places, it started resonating more with gentiles than with Jews, who were fairly resistant to this idea of reforming the faith of their fathers in the example of some peasant upstart who had been crucified by the Romans.
Not exactly a convincing leader to rally around.
And then came along Saul of Tarsus.
He had been a Pharisee, one of the most zealous, who had made a career and a name out of persecuting these guys who were disturbing the Temple faith in the name of some “Jesus” guy. Then he has a vision and disappears for a while, and comes back a Christian. And not just a regular Jewish Christian, but a guy who is famous among Jews, a guy who is a Roman citizen as well and can travel wherever he wants in the empire!
Peter and James and the guys must have thought, what a PR coup is this! Who better to work among the Jews than Jewish rockstar Saul of Tarsus? And, he can visit the diaspora communities across Asia Minor, Egypt and Greece!
And then Paul (that’s what he’s calling himself now, post-vision) drops a bomb: he’s not interested in converting Jews. He feels called to Gentile ministry.
This is the origin of the first major division in the Christian church. Paul, this upstart guy who just recently was killing Christians, now comes striding into the room and wants to change the whole direction of the movement! He wants to subvert the authority of super-leader Peter and James, who is only the blood brother of Jesus. He wants to be more than a Jewish sect; he has a whole eschatological view of Jesus that requires the establishment of a new faith tradition, in opposition and over the Jewish one. He wants to do away with Jewish law and custom and culture in general, and start over.
This isn’t what Peter had in mind.
But, Paul is persuasive and convincing, and Peter is willing to show the grace he is teaching as part of the Good News. Most importantly, Peter is smart, and he realizes Jewish outreach is not exactly going gangbusters, and gentiles are actually genuinely interested in learning more about Jesus.
So they commission Paul to go out into the gentile world and start planting Christian communities. And he does, and then there is the whole clash we saw explained back in Galatians, and eventually, Paul fully wins out, the result of both his own force of personality, and the strong push back of Jewish temple leaders that eventually quashes an inter-Jewish Christian sect. This Christianity thing is going to be it’s own standalone thing.
So let’s wrap this back to our passage from Romans today.
Paul has spent a good portion of Romans grounding the ministry of Jesus firmly in the Jewish tradition, via Adam and Abraham. He then touched on the special place of Israel in God’s creation in chapter 9. But then, in chapter 10, he recounts the rejection of Jesus and the church by Israel and the Temple leaders. Remember, all this is written to a church that is half gentile, half Jew, and he is trying to appeal them all.
So he makes a linear argument here in chapters 10, 11 and 12, one that is easier to understand now that you understand early church history a little better. Here is that argument in short:
God provided salvation for all people, Jew and Gentile alike.
Men like Peter and Paul were commissioned by God to spread the Gospel to both these groups.
Israel, however, rejected them.
But, Israel’s rejection is not the final word on the viability of Christianity.
God has provided universal salvation, breaking down the previous barrier that restricted it to Jews.
After the gentiles are made believers, then the Jewish people will follow en masse.
This is what I’ve found over the course of this study that is so cool about Paul. He was definitely the progressive, universally-minded guy in the room. Peter may have been the big type-A leader, and James may have been the fire and brimstone preacher who who could make you feel this faith, but Paul was the one telling them to think bigger, to think outside of the Jewish box they were in. Paul saw that God’s freely-given grace was for all people everyone in all times. Paul was truly the first universalist. Paul was the guy breaking down barriers whenever and wherever he found them.
We should be like Paul. Walls, border, boundaries, barriers: none of them belong in God’s kingdom. We are one people, following one God, in the example of one man.
Paul ends chapter 12 with a wonderful meditation on what it looks like to be a Christian. He never once mentions restrictions on this community; he doesn’t recount what a Christian doesn’t look like; he isn’t interested in setting up barriers to entry. He only cares about what it does look like when you are living a life in true imitation of Jesus. It’s beautiful, and it’s what this whole big thing is all about. Take these words to heart.
Let love be genuine;
hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;
love one another with mutual affection;
outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not lag in zeal,
be ardent in spirit,
serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope,
be patient in suffering,
persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints;
extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you;
bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice,
weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another;
do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;
do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil,
but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
If it is possible,
so far as it depends on you,
live peaceably with all.
never avenge yourselves,
but leave room for the wrath of God;
for it is written,
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
“if your enemies are hungry,
if they are thirsty,
give them something to drink;
for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Do not be overcome by evil,
but overcome evil with good.
Next: Romans 13-15
For a PDF of the 30 Days of Paul reading plan, click here.