Jews in antiquity had lived for so long in exile, as a diaspora in foreign lands, that religious practices and other identity markers came to occupy a strong place in Jews’ sense of who they were as God’s people.
So what did it mean for outsiders, for people from a very different culture, and a very different sense of what it meant to worship, what did it mean for them to start to call themselves God’s people, too? They all were worshipping a Jewish savior, studying and abiding by and spreading his teaching, teaching that was deeply rooted in the Torah. But these new followers were not abiding by any other traditional Jewish practices. It was, understandably, confusing to Jewish folks who’d held those practices as such a core part of their faith for thousands of years.
What Paul is trying to do here is free Greek and Roman would-be converts from the kinds of religious practices that would feel like barriers to outsiders. Outsiders who probably weren’t too keen to go get circumcised or give up bacon or not be able to visit their buddies on Saturdays.
Paul brings this new idea, that members of other cultures, of any culture or heritage can become part of the community that celebrates, follows, and worships this revolutionary Jew. And Paul didn’t want them to have to change who they were to be welcome in that community. Greeks could still be Greeks, they didn’t have to change their bodies or diet to be worthy of acceptance in the community of Christ. And Jews could and should (according to Paul) still engage in Jewish practices as they always had.
Paul wasn’t going for uniformity, he was going for unity.
I think he makes an important distinction here. Uniformity wants conformity, sameness, but unity, not only leaves space for but invites us to each bring our individual gifts and perspectives and heritages to the faith community. Paul didn’t want those cultural differences to become barriers to people, to “outsiders” who otherwise stood ready to take up their cross and follow Jesus.
In ancient Greece and Rome, society was organized into deeply codified hierarchies. From the private household to the structure of governance, every function operated according to a strict power structure, with heavy barriers in between every level. The culture was brutal and violent, and those with any kind of power had every legal right to use any human they outranked in any way they wished, with no possible legal consequences.
Greco-Roman legal systems even favored the wealthy, because, they reasoned, wealthy people had no reason to need to break laws. Why would a rich person need to steal or assault? They already had access to everything they could possibly want. They reasoned that only a poor person might, out of desperation, feel the need to take advantage of some unsuspecting upright citizen.
This is, of course, nonsense. That’s not how the power dynamics work, or how crime works. But it was the logic of the time, and it did what it was supposed to. It upheld the structures that insulated the powerful and kept the disenfranchised under their heels.
It is impossible to overstate the extent to which one’s place in the Greco-Roman hierarchy defined their identity. Where Jews derived their sense of identity from their ways of worshiping God, from their Hebrew heritage and identity as God’s chosen people, gentiles (that is, Greeks and Romans) derived their sense of identity from their position in society. The various named and unnamed barriers that existed between genders, classes, and ages were how people understood who they were, what they were expected to do, and what their life meant to one another and to the divine.
Upward social mobility was literally impossible. Only male children of wealthy men were allowed an inheritance. Women and enslaved people could not inherit, and enslaved individuals were legally considered orphans because they had no legally recognized connection to their parents or even their children.
But, to this culture with its deeply entrenched hierarchical divisions and state-assigned identities based on class and gender, to all this, Paul says, “enough”: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, you are heirs according to God’s promise.”
In Paul’s eyes, these individuals who society saw as orphans were not only equals to royalty, but members of a great and loving family with a rich support system and an inheritance. And many early churches put their money where their mouth was. This equality Paul talks about, it wasn’t just a metaphor, or some vision of heaven. They built their communities upon this idea of radical equality in the present tense.
One early criticism of Christians was leveled by a Greek philosopher named Celsus. He thought he was insulting Christianity when he called it “nothing more than a religion of old women, slaves, and children.” That’s the reputation Christianity had in one of its earliest iterations. A religion that centered the marginalized. Those are the people in whom the Spirit was moving. And they are why Christianity began to spread so rapidly in that first century.
Even today, this teaching sounds radical. Too many people today live without hope of inheritance, or support from a loving family. Paul looked and saw the sin baked into the segregated structures of his time… because his encounter with Jesus changed him.
It made him see the sin that everyone around him was resigned to accept as “just part of life in a broken world.” It called him to name the brokenness in that system which devastated the bodies, minds, and souls of everyone participating at every level of those hierarchies, and then he built a community of welcome for them. Paul’s letters are in fact the first piece of writing historians have that truly sees, names, and convicts these evils of Greco-Roman society for what they were.
Inspired by the teaching of Jesus and led by the Holy Spirit, Paul saw what was going on around him and said, this isn’t ok. This isn’t the world God wants for any of us. God sees each and every one of us as royal heirs, as beloved children of the sovereign Creator.
And he asked himself, how do we invite more people in? How do we build upon Jesus’ vision of the beloved community? How do we make participation in this new church easier, more accessible, more supportive for those who need this kind of real, active love the most?
How do we become one, while still holding on to the things that make us unique? We break down the barriers. We invite people to be who they are, together, as equals.
And today, we try to look at our world, with Paul’s eyes. What divisions does our society have that are excluding children of God from full participation in the beloved community? How do we do what Paul did, how do we apply Jesus’ teaching as a balm to our contemporary communal brokenness?
God sees all of us as siblings with one another, and calls us to care for one another as siblings do. We’re each still allowed to have our own “thing,” like siblings do. Jocks, geeks, artsy kids—all are welcome. We won’t have to stop being who we are to follow Jesus.
Paul called Jews to celebrate Jesus in their own, uniquely Jewish way, and he called gentiles to continue building their own new, ground-breaking way of growing into their membership in the Body of Christ. No matter who we are, how we worship, or how we celebrate God’s love as made known through Jesus, we are called to remember, always, that we are made one in our love of Christ and our commitment to his teaching.