Genesis 12:1-3 | Acts 10:9-16, 24-36
The Christian Church began as a Jewish sect. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement; it’s really just a fact of history. Jesus was a Jew. The initial disciples were all Jewish. The vast majority of those who heard Jesus speak were Jewish. Even the non-Jews who are mentioned were Jewish sympathisers, god-fearers, or at very least, “righteous men”, as Cornelius is named. The multitude of nations represented at Pentecost were Jews and God-fearing people from around the ancient world. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, who came to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the people of Israel.
But within one generation, or perhaps two, Jews would be a minority within the Church. The followers of Jesus broke beyond the walls of their nation, their people, in a way that countless other Jewish sects and movements, before and after, didn’t. And today’s gospel reading takes us to the crux, the turning point, where something Jewish becomes something universal.
For this was far from a foregone conclusion. If you read the different gospels, you find very different attitudes to the Jewish-Gentile divide. Read Matthew, and the emphasis is very strongly on Jesus the good, righteous Jew, the culmination of the tradition of the prophets. He comes to stand for the spirit and heart of Judaism, to overthrow the religious corruption of the day, and call the people of God back to right worship of the one true God. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus doesn’t go the homes of foreigners – those foreigners he interacts with come to him on Jewish terms: the Syrophoenician woman (you remember, the whole, ‘dogs under the table’ story) approaches him with the words “Son of David” – she, a foreigner, approaches him with a Jewish title. She comes on Jewish terms.
It’s probably safe to say that for the Jerusalem Church, the birthplace of the Church, being a follower of Jesus was about being authentically Jewish. And to change this perspective fell to one of their leaders, Peter. The rock. The impulsive, enthusiastic, often slow to get the point, solidly Jewish disciple.