You're a Christian only if you do this

March 9th, 2015

Saul of Tarsus was the enemy. By his own account, he zealously persecuted the early Jesus movement. In his eyes, the followers of Jesus were a threat against both the Temple and the Roman Empire. As a devout Jew and a Roman citizen, Saul took it upon himself to stamp out this threat.

Then, as the story goes, one of the greatest reversals in history took place. Saul had an epiphany on the road to Damascus. He flipped from persecutor to promoter, started calling himself Paul (a Greek rather than Jewish name), and set out to grow the body of Christ among Gentiles (non-Jews).

James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, watched Saul/Paul’s transformation from afar with suspicion and increasing alarm. First, it was impossible for James and the disciples to trust a man who had previously been so dedicated to their destruction. Second, Paul preached a message of salvation totally disconnected from the Jesus they knew and loved. Finally, Paul was quickly building up a network of Gentile Christian churches without the blessing of the disciples. In James’s eyes, Paul the apostle was perhaps a more dangerous adversary than Saul the persecutor.

James and the disciples believed Jesus was the Messiah, God’s anointed King, who would save the Jewish people by overthrowing the corrupt empire. The Jesus movement was a Jewish sect, and followed Jewish laws and customs. Its conflict with Temple authorities lay not with the Temple’s Jewishness, but with the priests’ corruption. In their eyes, the Temple authorities were no more than puppets for the foreign Roman empire.

True, there were a few Gentiles interested in joining the Jesus movement, and how to include them was a matter of debate. Still, by and large, Gentiles were considered the enemy. They represented the foreign occupying presence. They were to Jews what modern Westerners are to many people in today’s Middle East: unwanted but persistently (even violently) present.

We can’t forget that Jesus was killed by the Roman government, essentially charged with being a Jewish rebel terrorist. It would be extremely difficult for his brother James and the other disciples to trust any Gentile after that, unless that person were to convert to Judaism and renounce the empire responsible for Jesus’s death.

And yet here was Paul, inviting Gentiles to join a church he actually had no place within himself. Instead of asking them to join the Jewish Jesus movement, he told them all they had to do was confess their faith in Christ. The Torah (Jewish law) that Saul had so vehemently defended before his conversion was discarded. In its place was only the risen Christ.

Paul’s actions set off an argument that persisted for centuries through Christian history: Are we saved by faith or by works? Threads of this controversy run throughout the books of the New Testament. The book of James asserts that faith without works is dead. The Gospel of Matthew depicts Jesus as saying that the way to get to heaven is by befriending the poor. (Matt 25:31-46). Neither Mark nor Matthew emphasize faith the way Paul and the Gospel of John do.

In his own lifetime, Paul had been preaching and establishing churches for nearly three years before he bothered to meet with the Jerusalem church’s leadership. And it wasn’t until another fourteen years had passed that Paul came to some sort of agreement with James, Peter and John. As he relates in his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul says that the three “pillars” of the church finally extended to him and Barnabas “the right hand of fellowship.” Their one condition was that Paul’s churches “continue to remember the poor”. This was, according to Paul, “the very thing he had been eager to do all along.”

In other words, even though Paul and the apostles were bitterly divided over their theological understandings of Jesus, the nature of his mission and what it took to be members of the movement, they all could agree on one thing: remembering the poor. For all parties involved, “remembering the poor” was a bedrock requirement.

What if we had that understanding today? What if we and our churches couldn’t be called Christian if we neglected the poor? How might our presence and our activity in the world change if we placed that priority above all other issues?

This isn’t to say we couldn’t still argue all we wanted. We can debate gay marriage and other LGBTQ issues. We can talk about just war and abortion and what it means to uphold a “culture of life.” We can disagree about biblical literalism vs. historical-critical interpretation. We might even revive some age-old controversies like trinitarian theology or the meaning of salvation and whether it is attained by faith or works.

But what would the church and world look like if — while we bickered — we always made sure to feed the hungry, free (or at the very least visit) prisoners, welcome strangers and tend to the sick? How might the world be transformed if all Christians everywhere knew that this was the one non-negotiable commitment, to befriend and remember the poor above all else? My guess is that this kind of priority would establish the kingdom of God on earth a whole lot more quickly and fully than any amount of right doctrine ever could.

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