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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Visions, dietary laws and Inclusion

This past Sunday's readings were amazing. The first was taken from Acts 11:1-18. It includes a vision. Peter, the gruff fisherman and disciple of Jesus, was being criticized for the decidedly "unJewish" behaviors he was engaged in (eating with the uncircumcised). The transition from a Jewish sect to a global mission movement was difficult for the early church. The Bible (OT) was not clear on exactly how they should proceed. There were lots of places where Gentiles were to be included. The specifics were hazy.

Jesus obviously gave them some instruction. Mark 7:1-23 is important here. However, if you are like me you do not read the Bible reflectively enough. You fail to pick up little shifts in the voice of the text. [My theory is because we have been misled to view the Bible simplistically as "an answer book" and we tend to read it for the "bottom line" and do not engage it as a guidance book, a book for the journey to struggle with and grow.]

In Mark 7 Jesus is blasting the misguided practices of His contemporaries. They had criticized Jesus and His disciples for their religious practices (having to do with ritual cleaning and eating). Most Christians (arrogantly) assume a superiority because we are not acting like the Jews. When I read the books of Maccabees I got cured of my 'superiority complex' pretty quickly. Reading stories of Jewish woman watching their sons martyred or their babies murdered because they refused to eat pork or stop circumcising was stunning. Martyrdom for the Jewish faith and practice was a brutal reality. It was still fresh in their minds. We must remember that when hearing Jesus' words. His constant teaching was sin is an interior disposition, first and foremost, and the acts which flow from it are the fruits of sin. Sinful acts matter, but sinful desires and choices matter even more. We need to be careful about dismissing Jews obeying the GOD-given Law on dietary practices.

7:19 "Thus He declared all foods clean" is a post-resurrection assessment. How do I know this? Because Peter has a vision about foods. If the church already knew, clearly, then the practice should  have long been in place, since the time of Jesus. When Peter hears the words, "What God has made clean do not call unclean," it is another step in the process. Revelation in the Ancient Covenant (OT) is fully-filled in the Jesus Covenant (NT). The place of dietary laws and Jewish identity are understood in the new context of Jesus (Messiah, King, Lord, Incarnate God). It took a long time, years after Jesus, to figure out all the details. It was not in place in Jesus' time.

In Acts 11, the connection is made between dietary law and mission to Gentiles. This is key. Peter understands that the Gentile mission is God-ordained. It is God's intent that god-fearers (techinical term for Gentiles who were associated with Jewish worship while remaining outsiders) not be the end goal. God wants to integrate Gentiles into His people. There are many OT references to the integration of the Gentiles.

In contemprorary debates about "tolerance" it is customary for "Progressives" to argue that "the Bible also condemns eating shellfish." Such people always take strange delight in the power of this argument. They do not seem to realize how silly it is. Christianity dealt with the "shellfish" issue in the first generation. It is not relevant at all to current problems. What Acts makes clear is that Gentiles are expected to be sexually moral (which is relevant). Jesus is the source of that. There is a reason why sex and violence are primary concerns of the New Covenant moral teaching: Jesus. While the church can, and has, gone overboard repressing sex, from time to time, the contemporary progressive is just as consumed, if not more so. I never heard as many "thou shall not" sex talks growing up as I have heard "thous shalt accept this or that" in recent years. The people advocating "the tolerance" agenda also regularly pull out the shellfish argument. They act as if Jesus never talked about food or Peter never had the vision. They act as if Jesus never addressed morality Himself.

Maybe they do not know what Jesus said or Acts says. Perhaps reading the Bible is not a big part of their spiritual exercises. Maybe they know and are intentionally lying, sort of the political power behavior we see in the secular world. It is not for me to judge. My task is to teach. Hopefully, no one who reads my blog will ever hear the shellfish argument again and naively think it is of any value for the discussion. Jesus took care of it, long ago. There are other arguments to be made, so make them. If you pull the shellfish argument out, however, you betray yourself as unprepared, Biblically illiterate, and merely an advocate for a political position, not a Christian sincerely discerning God's will.

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