If anyone hasn't heard of J.K. Rowling or her fictional hero, Harry Potter, welcome back from your coma.
Harry Potter is a fictional orphaned boy who discovers he has magical powers and is enrolled in a school to learn how to use this power. Suddenly he is plunged into a struggle between good and evil and finds himself at the center of this struggle against the evil and once defeated Lord Voldemort, whose talisman is the serpent.
This struggle centers on an issue that runs through human history--racism and prejudice. The evil ones, "Death Eaters" are out to rid Harry's school of all the "mud bloods", children of mixed parentage. Mixed means magical parents married with non magical muggles. Their goal is a pure unmixed community and they will kill to achieve it. And it seems to be Harry's lot in life to thwart their plans.
Take out the magical terms and the murderous conspiracy and you have one of the themes of the Book of Galatians. The early history of Christianity is how it emerges from the Jewish community as a Jewish sect, but with the apostle Paul as its champion, is transformed into a universal faith embracing Jew and Gentile; and using Paul's own language, male and female, bond and free, among whom there are no distinctions.
It was a hard won fight. The first major church council was called to settle the matter.
The issue was this:
Jesus came to proclaim the fulfillment of God's promises through the covenant with Abraham. That meant through Abraham's descendants...the Jewish nation and religion. Jesus was Jewish. The first apostles were all Jewish. So were almost all His followers.
Jesus was proclaimed as Messiah, the promised One of God.
That was the hope of the Jewish nation.
But Jesus offered more than just renewal of nationalistic hopes or purification of the Jewish faith.
He offered God's forgiveness and a new covenant.
Jesus commission was to proclaim His message and make disciples of all peoples and all nations.
But the rub came on the last point. When gentiles heard about Jesus and wanted to respond, what were the apostles to do with them? Did they have to become Jewish converts first, then followers of Jesus?
For these people it was a huge issue because they had been raised to maintain a distinction between themselves and gentiles. The strictest Jews could not even eat at the same table as a gentile, or be defiled. You can imagine having a church picnic under those circumstances.
The early church had a huge controversy when first Peter was told by God that it was fine to baptize a gentile named Cornelius and have fellowship with him because in God's eyes he was now purified. Then Paul took it one step further and taught that once gentiles came into faith in Christ and were baptized, they had full acceptance by God and should have full acceptance by Jewish Christians. But Peter backed down under pressure from other stricter Jews in the church and would not sit at a meal table with Gentiles. This made Paul furious and he says he told Peter as much to his face.
The strict Jewish believers were prepared to accept gentile converts, as long as they became Jews and observed all the Jewish laws about food rules, festivals and so on. For them, Jesus was Jewish and for Jews. Others could come into the new covenant, but only if they became Jews first.
Paul is saying that when a gentile becomes a follower of Jesus and is baptized into faith in Jesus then everything that the Jewish law and rules was trying to accomplish is completely fulfilled by being a follower of Jesus.
But they did not have to become Jewish converts first to be followers of Jesus and they did not have to follow Jewish food and festival laws.
The council at Jerusalem agreed with Paul.
I had a similar controversy in my first year in ministry even before I was ordained. I went to the church in Manitoba that was my first charge. I no sooner moved my books into the office than I was informed of a controversy brewing.
While the church looked for a pastor, a man in the congregation had been serving as interim pastor.
He was a very godly man working for the school district. He and his wife were of Mennonite background and wanted to become members in the church. But not everything was so simple.
There were several Mennonite families in our congregations but these were the first to ask for membership.
Henry had been a teacher at a Mennonite Bible school in Manitoba before coming to Dauphin and he and his wife Lorraine had been very active in our church. He had been interim pastor and she was our Sunday School superintendent.
They had teen aged children who were showing interest in baptism and church membership.
The rub was this: Henry and Lorraine had been baptized as adult believers but by pouring and not full immersion.
The strictest Baptists in our midst insisted they be re-baptized first. Others were not so sure.
The problem for Henry and Lorraine was that the strict insistence on rebaptism was that some in the church would not recognize their baptism as confessing believers as valid because it was not by immersion.
It is ironical that it was the Mennonites who taught English Baptists immersion in the first place.
So here I was a young graduate out of theological college with this controversy square in my lap.
What's also amusing in hind sight is that Henry and Lorraine did not really approve of me straight off because they thought I was too liberal. I had just graduated from a Southern Baptist school and someone thought I was too liberal!
What I did was side immediately with these folks. My reasoning was that anyone baptized as an adult confessing believer in Jesus should be totally acceptable as a member, and I staked my career on that decision and defended it at my ordination examination. It was not an easy task, I must tell you. Not everyone agreed and several families left our church. But as I look back on it, I believe it was one of my best hours as a minister of the gospel and I am proud of the stand I took. And I was passed for ordination.
And Paul's principal still stands.
Anyone who follows Jesus as Lord has equal standing with anyone else in any church on the face of the planet.
This has not always been an easy matter. Race, social standing, gender and other issues have had to be dealt with.
A word of note: The council did specify some requirements. One of their requirements was sexual purity.
We are equal in Christ, and we do not find salvation in keeping each and every law of the Bible. We find salvation in our faith in Jesus.
The ethical commandments are still in force however. The ten commandments are just as binding today as they ever were.
But the great equalizer is when we find we have a common parent.
It is one thing to feel estranged from someone because of their language or their nationality or even their church affiliation.
But it is a world changing moment when you discover that the other person is your brother or your sister because you have a common parent, God our Father and a common brother, Jesus our Lord.
According to some experts in church planting and church growth, churches grow fastest when the people in that church are similar. One church growth leader told the people in a seminar I attended that we had a choice of who we would alienate and lose. In his opinion it was an impossible task these days to try to have a church that met the needs of people with widely different backgrounds. But we look around here at this church and we see people with different backgrounds, and I asked one person recently, "so which one of these people that you see here is expendable?" My answer is no one.
There is not one of you who is less important than any other one here. And that will be just as true for any poor, broken or other person of any race or background who comes through these doors looking for a place in God's family and acceptance at His table.
In Manitoba, I was willing to let some people walk away because they disagreed on what we all thought was a matter of principal.
I would do the same today.
But as long as you choose to hang your hat with us, you are as important in God's eyes as Billy Graham, mother Theresa or the Queen for that matter.
And that is a fundamental principal I would tie myself to the tracks over.
You are not expendable because Jesus died for you.
And neither is anyone else.
All believers will have equal standing before God and will receive equal acceptance from us.
We all stand before God's word and are all accountable to it, and that is the only way we will determine who stays and who goes. If you are willing to put yourself under the authority of God's word and Jesus as Lord you are welcome. We will hold you accountable for that, but you will be loved as a brother or sister.
And that is the gospel for this day. Amen
Preached June 20, 2004
Dr. Harold McNabb
West Shore Presbyterian Church
Victoria, British Columbia