Last week we talked about the strange event that took place 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus: Pentecost. Among Jesus last words to his disciples was that he would be with them always. Yet ascended to heaven so how could that be? On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in a miraculous way (Acts 2:1-21). In the mystery of the Trinity, Jesus is always with us because the Holy Spirit continues to be present in the world and in the lives of those who believe and are baptized into Christ.
We also have come to call the day of Pentecost, “The birthday of the church,” because the Holy Spirit has not just come to us as individuals, but to a community of people. We talk often in confirmation about God’s “solution” to the problem of this world: a Covenant for a Holy People. We are made this Holy People by the Covenant God made to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a Covenant sealed with the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives… and in the church.
Most often we think of “church” as a place: a building where we worship. The true meaning of church though is not a location, but a community of people. The book of Acts is the second volume of a two part document written by Luke (the first is the gospel of Luke). It tells us of how the church began– what were the first decades after Christ like for his followers?
According to Acts chapter 2:41-47, the first church looked like this:
- They devoted themselves to learning the Apostles’ teaching
- Fellowship (they hung out together)
- Breaking bread (they ate together and took communion together)
- They sold their possessions to take care of the poor
- They worshipped at the temple and prayed constantly
- They were happy and growing
It sounds great! But within just a few chapters later in the book of Acts, this peaceful and idealic community runs into controversy. First, there appears some signs of ethnic antagonism when Greek widows feel like they are not being treated as well as Jewish widows (Acts 6:1). Then the question becomes: do Greek and Gentile (non-Jewish) people who want to follow Jesus need to follow all the cultural customs of Judaism (e.g. eating Kosher foods and circumcision)? This was a very controversial question with the Apostles Peter, James, and John lined up on one side and the Apostle Paul on the other. Most Jewish Christians at the time felt like anybody who wanted to follow Jesus should become Jewish, but Paul made the case that God has always intended for Gentiles to know Jesus as well. What God wants of followers of Christ is not cultural custom, but faith in Jesus in our hearts (Acts 15:1-29).
The question of how Gentiles fit into a Christianity that came from Judaism is one of the biggest in the New Testament. How should people from different cultural backgrounds come together in the church? What does it really truly mean to be a Christian in your heart? The Apostle Paul writes about this all throughout the New Testament, but especially in his letters to the Galatians and Romans.
2000 years later, this is still a struggle in the church. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “the most segregated hour in American life is 11am on Sunday.” Meaning, the church is still very divided by race and culture, despite the teaching of scripture that God is drawing people from all races and cultures to the church to worship together, as one (Colossians 3:11).
- What makes it hard to understand people from other cultures?
- What is the “dividing wall” Paul is talking about to the Ephesians?
- If we are all “one in Christ”, why is it churches seems so segregated? Why is unity so hard?