They wanted to know his views on the Jewish Law: Should a follower of Jesus follow the rules and regulations of the Jewish religion? It was a reasonable question. Paul was Jewish, as, of course, was Jesus himself. And many of them were too. And they knew that Jesus had seemed to create an ambiguity about the law. On the one hand he said that it would stand forever unchanged, and on the other hand, that, for example “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath,” which turned everything round. Again, his constant transgression of Jewish food laws made one of the earliest commentators remark “By this, he declared all foods clean.”
So in the first gatherings of Jesus-followers, across the Mediterranean world, the same ambiguity persisted. Luke even records some kind of “church conference” (Acts 15) to discuss whether circumcision or food laws were to be insisted upon.
They decided that to keep the peace with Jewish believers, a certain amount of tact and compromise should be observed, but that the Law should not be insisted upon. In a lovely phrase, Luke recorded that the conference decided that “It seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to us.”
In his letter to the Corinthian believers, Paul takes very much the same line, not insisting on the rigour of Jewish law, but rather insisting on mutual regard. “If causing meat makes my brother stumble, then I will never eat meat again.” That is to say, my relationship with you is the foundation of our gathering together, not our intellectual agreement on a set of rules and regulations. This is not a closed nation with tight passport control and a strict immigration policy, but a family, linked by love.
And so, it is with enormous surprise that we read in 1 Cor 9:20 that Paul goes on to say “But to the Jews I become a Jew, that I might win the Jews.” Is he going back on his previously quite liberal attitude? And, if he is, what does that mean for us? We are accustomed to say to non-Christians that “Of course it’s not a matter of rules and regulations. We are in God’s family because of God’s love and graciousness, not because of our performance or moral excellence.” As if!
So what did he mean?
He meant to insist that the same love that goes inwards into the community to accept and forgive one another, despite all our differences, should go outwards too, to cross every boundary, rank, religion, colour, creed, status, class… He was very radical about this. There can be no distinction between slaves and free people. Imagine saying that in a world run on a highly organised –and legalised- slave-system. Again, there can be no distinction between men and women. Such a statement still has to be fought for to this very day. There can be no caste system of higher and lower classes. Or religious divisions. Try saying that in Orissa, not to mention Detroit or Bradford.
No barriers at all.
It sounds very idealistic, doesn’t it? Because you have to admit that there are barriers all around us. I live in the Republic of Ireland. It would be foolish for me not to acknowledge the barriers between Catholics and Protestants, or to deny the boundary line just a couple of hours north of me, that separates Ulster from Eire. And within the communities of people who seek to follow Jesus, the divisions are strongly drawn, as Paul acknowledged in this very letter, all those years ago.
Here’s modern translation of that passage: “Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!”
Well, that’s my heart. I know I’m going to make mistakes in the way I live and in the choices I make, but I want to make my mistakes on the side of being too loving, too easy-going, too” believing the best” in people, rather than drawing up the hard line and insiting on a rigorous obedience.
I just don’t want to ever write a single person off because of their behaviour. I don’t want to just talk about grace, I want to see it enacted, lived out in my own life.
By the grace of God.
- Why I Follow Jesus. . . (heraldmagazine.wordpress.com)
- The edge of faith (frscott94.wordpress.com)
- Follow the Lord (pastorbenk.com)
- What do we do when we follow Jesus? (followingjesustogether.org)
- If Jesus Said “Follow Me,” Would You? (domsickich.wordpress.com)
- What it looks like to follow Jesus (stuartmccormack.wordpress.com)