We humans are good at the game of “us and them.” We set ourselves apart from each other, often without much conscious thought.
It’s not surprising. Learning to distinguish differences is a necessary human skill, and we make a point of teaching it to our children. Remember the Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the others?”
It would be silly to pretend that there are not differences between people. However, we can decide not to let differences become divisions.
That’s exactly what happened with the advent of Jesus on the religious scene in Israel. Prior to his ministry, it had all been pretty clear-cut: to be a Jew you had to be descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You could join, but it was hard, requiring years of study, and it was physically painful if you were male.
Judaism has never been an evangelical faith, seeking converts. Their understanding has been that there is only one God, and that they have a particular covenant relationship with God. Despite being named a “Chosen People,” it hasn’t always been an easy relationship, and it includes the burden of responsibility for being an example of justice for all the other nations of the world. It has not included an open invitation to the other nations to join up.
Jesus was willing to ignore that distinction and was willing to find faithfulness in a Roman Centurion, a Canaanite woman, a Samaritan woman at a well, and a Gentile man living naked outdoors in a cemetery because he was tormented by a legion of demons in his mind.
Jesus shared God’s healing and love with all these people and others who were outcasts in terms of the strict rules of his society and the interpretation of his faith by many leaders of that day and age.
Jesus’ followers took this even further. In the Apostle Paul we have a leader who made a point of reaching out to the Gentiles (non-Jews) of the Roman empire, often starting with those who were already attracted by the ethical life of the Jewish communities in their midst.
This reaching-out to the Gentiles was a conscious choice by the early church, but it wasn’t easy, or even unanimous. Paul had to go to Jerusalem to argue with James, the brother of Jesus and the new head of the church, and Peter, the chief of the apostles, who were both reluctant to abandon their traditional interpretation of the relationship between God and the people of the world.
But Paul followed the example of Jesus and reached out to these strangers: people from other languages, other cultures, other faiths, and offered them full participation in Christianity without having to convert to Judaism first.
It was a radical change in approach: a profound willingness to cross ancient and traditional divides. And it became immensely popular. It helped hugely in the rapid spread of Christianity through the Roman empire.
The word “Gentile” means anyone who isn’t Jewish. My family is from Denmark: we are obviously Gentile. If the early Christians hadn’t followed this example of Jesus and had not reached beyond their own comfort zones, then who knows what sort of religion I might be following?
A thousand years ago, when Christianity first came to Scandinavia, my ancestors weren’t living in a very nice society. Sure, there were good people there, but violent death was not uncommon in a society that blended the worship of fertility gods and war gods. These were the people who went out Viking when the farms didn’t need their attention.
Eventually, after some really tough missionary work, the various regions decided to become Christian. Sometimes it was at the behest of a king, sometimes it was by vote. In Iceland they abandoned Heathenism through an act of Parliament.
The Lutheran church in those countries still celebrates the fact that this conversion was what allowed that part of the world to become peaceful after centuries of bloody violence. In fact, the Lutheran church got Dik Browne, cartoonist of Hagar the Horrible fame, to draw a Sunday-school colouring book called “Good Ol’ Ansgar” to celebrate that early missionary’s influence on making the vikings peaceful.
That wasn’t an easy job. If those people 1000 years ago hadn’t been willing to reach beyond their comfort zones to us Heathen gentiles, I wouldn’t be a minister, and I suspect the world would be a very different place.
So what now? I think that we need to consider a new application for the word Gentile: we need to imagine ourselves as the traditionalists and figure out who are the Gentiles in our lives; the people we identify as “other.” We need to figure out the edges of our own comfort zones if we want to follow Jesus’ example and reach beyond.
Jesus healed the slave of the Roman Centurion (Luke 7:1-10). The centurion was a man who represented the oppressive and murderous occupying army. Jesus was practically consorting with the enemy! What he did would be considered treason by many. Further, there is good evidence to suggest that the servant healed was the centurion’s same-sex partner. And Jesus healed him.
Jesus healed a Canaanite woman’s daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). Jews and Caananites were ancient neighbours, once enemies but mostly irrelevant to daily life apart from some trading for import goods. They were not friends: as Jesus himself said: they were dogs, which was a deadly insult.
Jesus dealt as an equal with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-43) despite numerous obstacles. The Samaritans claimed (and still claim) the same exclusive religious truth as Jesus’ own community, and both groups rejected each others’ claims. She was female in an age and culture when men and women weren’t supposed to deal with each other outside of strict rules, she was dishonoured in her own town as having loose morals. Jesus let none of that stand in his way.
Jesus healed the man with the legion of demons (Mark 5:1-17). This was a complete stranger, distressed, deluded, self-destructive, living naked in a place of death.
How far outside Jesus’ comfort zone do you suppose all that went?
It’s not like Jesus went into all of this with a divine version of Teflon protecting him. He called the Canaanite woman a dog, after all, and only helped her after her clever reply moved him deeply. Jesus went on to help each one of them without demanding anything: no conversion, no concessions. He helped them across all these differences that should have separated them.
Jesus wasn’t a pushover. He expressed his opinion and said what he believed to each of them. Then he let them make up their own minds about him and what he did and said.
To me, this is an absolutely brilliant example of how to create peace. To me, this alone earns Jesus the title of Prince of Peace.
Jesus gives us examples of how to bridge the gaps created by difference, so that those differences would no longer have to be divisions keeping us apart.
He didn’t abandon what he believed or hide his own faith. Neither did he put a price on his help.
Jesus made it clear that the people in front of him were not strangers, aliens, enemies, or weirdos wearing funny clothes (or no clothes at all). He made it clear that they were people who were loved by God, even if their idea of God didn’t match his at all.
Jesus lived in a multi-faith faith age just as complicated as ours. His approach to others created an environment that made Christianity a source of respect and peace.
So we must ask ourselves: Who are the Gentiles that make us nervous?
Are they refugees? Are they Trump supporters? Are they in non-traditional relationships? Are they people from other faiths, other languages, other countries? Are they people in prison? People living on the streets? Drug addicts? The mentally ill?
Who are our Gentiles today? Who do we call “them?”
If we want peace on earth, and if we want to follow the example of the Prince of Peace, then we need to overcome our own discomfort. We need to reach outside of our comfort zones to help, to offer a sense of respect and humanity, and to try to bridge the divisions that keep us apart.