It seems that many of our Christian churches are going through a fragmented experience as they confront many issues that at times seem to tear the churches apart. There are internal institutional problems as well as divisive social stances that challenge our churches as we struggle to be a community of faith in these changing times. We perhaps can find solace in the divisive struggle that our early church community experienced as they went through their own identity crisis.
I have recently been reflecting on the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he offers his account of the famous Council of Jerusalem. Many of us would like to imagine the early Christian church as a tight and loving community with an amazing clarity of faith that was shared by all its members. In Acts 15 however we are told about a controversy that rocks the identity of the early church within the episode of the Council of Jerusalem. Paul gives us his account of this in the second chapter of Galatians.
While the specific issue of circumcision and diet restrictions may not concern many of us today the way those issues impacted and shaped the early Christian community may resonate with many of us. The impact becomes a question of identity. Will they continue to subscribe to a traditional way of being a Jewish community or will they allow the Jesus movement to become inculturated within the broader gentile experience. Our current struggles again have us wrestling with issues that impact our identity as we address what it means to be church within a global and pluralistic society. As Paul indicates, the end result was never fully clarified as the tension continued even after they seemed to come to a resolution with this council. But amidst the diversity Paul identifies a common ground:
They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do. (Galatians, 2:10)
Our concern for the poor and the marginalized has been a central tenant of our faith from the very beginning. It is an integral part of the Jewish prophetic tradition and Jesus makes it a cornerstone of his own “Kingdom of God” message. Paul reminds us that amidst the tension of being community the early church nevertheless kept alive this fundamental social value. Our churches will have to struggle with the issues that confront us. We cannot expect the conversation to be a simple one and we must be patient with the process as our churches wrestle with the global and pluralistic situation that we find ourselves in. However, in the midst of this, we cannot forget our moral responsibility to tend to the poor and marginalized in our society. Our global reality has created an economic situation that currently is oppressing our poorer brethren even further and our churches ought to take the opportunity to keep this common cause front and center during these difficult times.