30 May 2016
How did the news that God is there for all nations, that God jumps cultural and other human barriers leap out of the Jewish people who were one of the more exclusive religious groups in the first century?
Let alone how did they get to share it with the people down the road who were the hated, despised and in fact defined as non people and excluded by current Jewish customs which were considered to define who was in and who was out with God.. - The Samaritans.
The Way that Christ shows us is all about barriers breaking down. First those ones between us and God. The holiness of God comes breaking into our world in Jesus not to condemn us but to give us life.
That inner voice which tells us that we can't be worth it, that we are useless is challenged by the fact that we are told God, the only one who really matters as far as worth is concerned, thinks otherwise. That no one is expendable and that includes you and me..
Then we have this good news to share with others. We discover that we too define those others and are confronted by the barriers we may consciously or unconsciously put up. Jesus tells many stories that we are to see others as God sees them. That is where things can get hard, where we are moved out of our comfort zones and have to sometimes choose whether we let go of cherished beliefs about people and who they are. .
The church was faced by this right at the beginning. Matthew challenges the monopoly of the Jewish people over knowledge of the one true God with the story of the Wise ones , the Magi from another land and culture, kneeling at the cradle of the baby Christ.
And thoughout the gospels there is another group always on the edges, the outsiders down the road with the shonky theology and of mixed race. Worse they mix their worship of God with practices from other places and races don't they?.
Back in History, 700 years before the time of Jesus, when the Assyrians destroyed and scattered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, . [the "lost tribes of Israel disappeared forever.] and they planted settlers to occupy Samaria the capital of Israel, like the settlement in of Scottish settlers in Ireland. .The settlers brought with them Assyrian gods. Within a short time, the Assyrians in Samaria were worshipping Yahweh as well as their own gods; within a couple centuries, they would be worshipping Yahweh exclusively.
The Samaritans, who were Assyrian and therefore non-Hebrew, or part Hebrew, adopted almost all of the Hebrew Torah and cultic practices; unlike the Jews, however, they believed that they could sacrifice to God outside of the temple in Jerusalem.
The Jews looked down on the Samaritans. They were the stereotype people whom you could always hate. They told Australian jokes about Samaritans. A good Samaritan was like an honest lawyer, Yeah right. More seriously, they denied that a non-Hebrew had any right to be included among the chosen people and angered that the Samaritans would dare to sacrifice to Yahweh outside of Jerusalem. There are still Samaritans alive today around the city of Samaria. The Samaritan mission was important in the early church, but was also resisted because of the old prejudices. Should we make them jump through more hoops, can they be real Christians without being more Jewish? One of Jesus' main parables was in answer to a question from a lawyer about who is my neighbour. This challenged the view that the Samaritans could be ignored, ill-treated and certainly could not be one of the chosen ones. Jesus firmly put the lawyer in a position of having to admit that a Samaritan could be included in the definition of being his neighbour. . In John the mission to the Samaritans is shown as starting when Jesus had the conversation with a Samaritan woman at the well, who ran and told her village to come and see this man. So the Samaritan mission was well underway early and had Jesus' own stamp of approval.
The Jewish Christian had to really examine their prejudices and stop considering the Samaritans and also the Gentiles as not fully kosher and it was the kosher part that had to go, the customs which ensured that Jews were keeping God's Law.
They had to pull down their barriers, like rules about who they ate with, what others ate, the rules about the Sabbath and to replace circumcision with baptism. The church discovered these were in fact cultural customs not as essential as they had thought for transmitting the gospel or worshipping God..
So the church sifted out what was really essential from the clash of cultures and ever since, when dealing with new situations, the church has carefully critqued its present practices. This has often meant that it has had to reform, to shed cultural overlay and power differentials to reach new peoples. [eg Mission to China]
Following Christ should not change whether a person is part of the their own culture but it will change practices of that culture which are harmful or act as barriers.
One commentator points out that [Sorry lost reference for this] "throughout history groups of people have downgraded the humanity of neighbours who were different in some way. The Greeks described those who couldn't speak their language as "barbarians" The white Australians considered their Aboriginal predecessors to be unintelligent and sub-human. Over the years in many countries, but especially in so-called "Christian" Europe, many of those who called themselves Christians despised the Jews in their midst.
So when Samaritans began to turn to Christ, something interesting happened. Rather than welcome the new converts with open arms, the first thing the Christian leaders in Jerusalem did was to send two of their most authoritative figures, Peter and John, to check on the truth of their conversion experiences (the Jerusalem church treats the Gentiles converted under Paul's preaching similarly at a later date).
Today's passage is often misused to give special powers to the leaders of the church, or to say that there is a group which is somehow, spiritually more elite than any other group in the church. In context and in the light of wider scripture, it is maybe saying the opposite. "
Lets also realize that baptism is described in many different forms and ways in the New testament. It is a seal of the spirit and in the name of Jesus, but the spirit and baptism are inseparable. in Acts 10 in the story of Cornelius, the Roman centurion and his household, the Spirit came and Peter could not withhold baptism and had to explain to Jerusalem.
If you have been baptized in faith you have the gifts of the spirit, it is the promise of the spirit to act in your life. . At times we are reaffirmed in our faith and direction but that same spirit of Jesus is continuing to be with us -.in the community we are part of .
Acts says that the Holy Spirit came to the Samaritans when Peter and John arrived. It seems unlikely that God waited so that the Samaritans could see the incredible power that Peter and John had, much less that Peter and John, as official representatives of the Jerusalem church, were the official bearers of the power of the gospel, they could not be real Christians until the official people had acted. But here, Peter and John--and implication the Jerusalem church--needed to witness firsthand that God had chosen the despised Samaritans as equals, they were fully accepted by God and therefore the Jerusalem church had to know it couldn't call the shots as far as God is concerned. .
The Samaritans also would know that they were accepted, in this new family they were no longer the unwanted black sheep. The early church was making that leap across the barriers. Realising that the spirit is free to move where it will, God acts within and without the church.
They, and us, are all challenged about any that we would condemn as being outside God's sphere of action and what are we really doing when we consider someone worthless or expendable or disposable.
Those early conflicts and challenges of seeing who one's neighbour is remind us that the spirit of God can work miracles in us and in them. Its not by waving a magic wand, but through the faithfulness of those communities and individuals who see themselves and others as worthy in the sight of God and act in faith and love.
Baptism, immersion into the life of Christ, is by the spirit of God., grafting us into Christ's body, to be people of the spirit of Jesus.. God with us working for the reality of God's kingdom to be known for all..
Ref William Loader, Conversion and Baptism - A cross cultural perspective in the light of the encounter between Judaism and Hellenism
Also excerpts from PRCL list - discussion
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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