We are a Question – Not the Answer

As I mentioned in the preview-podcast episode with Bo and Katie, one of the reasons why I am excited about Progressive Bible Study is to read the book in community as a Gentile Christian amongst other Gentile Christians.  I want to attend to the dynamics of my own people’s (Gentiles) entry into the story of what God has done in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

During our study on Galatians 2 last week, I introduced one of my favorite concepts that I received from a seminary professor (Dr. Willie Jennings).[1]  He used to tell us that the Gentiles, in Galatians and especially in Acts, enter as a question and not as an answer to Jewish inter-dialogue and Israel’s self-understanding.  I was trying to feel my way into this concept of being a question as I heard the third chapter read aloud in our small group last night.

There are many questions involving us Gentiles that lurk in the background to the book of Galatians:  What does it mean to be a follower of Israel’s God?  What do the Jews do with Gentiles upon whom the Spirit has fallen and been given?  Did we (the Gentiles) need to be circumcised and obey all the Mosaic laws?  Did God plan this (the Gentiles receiving faith and the Holy Spirit) all along when God chose Abraham as the person from whom the blessing of all nations would come?[2]

The answers given by Paul are truly astonishing!  NO ONE who had been around Jesus doubted that the Holy Spirit had been given to the Gentiles!  That reality was agreed upon by these early believers. There was great debate, however, over what the proper response was for Gentiles receiving the Spirit. Did we need circumcision and to begin observance of the entire law? As Paul makes his case, let’s rejoice that there was no question about whether we received the Spirit.  What an amazing and humbling truth!

Pressing deeper, this means that my own entry (and yours?) as a Gentile into this story of faith happens in the midst of controversy and a boundary-razing action by the Holy Spirit that Jewish believers (like Paul, James, and Peter) had to answer.  At our faith beginning, our own Gentile Genesis if you will, a massive wall between two people groups was torn down! (ps. Can you imagine this profound theological insight guiding a progressive political vision?)

I thought I was trying to approach the Progressive Bible Study with an attitude of humility, but hearing the Scripture itself, feeling these dynamics produced a gifted humility last night – something I could not achieve by a right posturing.  Hearing/reading Paul argue on our behalf, in support of the Spirit’s outpouring onto us as Gentiles, in making a theologically inclusive argument that locates our entrance as children of Abraham (faith) instead of children of Moses (under the entire law) is incredibly moving.

I think there is a temptation as a Gentile to make both too much and too little of ourselves (ourselves meaning a collective crowd of Gentiles from every tongue, nation, and tribe) in relation to the Scriptures.  Growing up, I was on the side of too much, where I was discipled to literally read into the Scripture my own name wherever I saw the word “Israel,” falling into the trap of individualistic supercessionism (believing that I as an individual was a site of God’s original choosing and everlasting favor).  However, if I react against this reading strategy and go to the opposite extreme by not imagining myself at all in the Scriptures, I can miss a moment like I had last night where I witnessed not only God’s love for my representatives, the Gentiles, in giving them the Spirit, but also Paul’s passion and love for Gentiles in arguing for our place as receivers of the same faith of Abraham alongside Jews.

I think a way to avoid either extreme is to follow the leading of the Scripture itself – let’s try looking for Gentiles in Galatians, THEN read ourselves in, THEN find our place as both the people in question AND as objects of God’s desire. The Holy Spirit will give the answer about us to Paul, Peter, and the other Jewish disciples of Jesus.

Further Reflections:

-What does it feel like to be looked at as a question in the midst of controversy?

-How does it feel to be included by another racial group? (I know I use “racial” here anachronistically, but hopefully you get the point).

-Who is this God of Abraham, Paul, Peter, and James that has crossed a tremendous boundary for us Gentiles in pouring the Spirit into our bodies?

[1] Dr. Willie Jennings is currently the Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School. He mentioned the concept of Gentiles entering the scene as a question rather than an answer during his time as Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School, where I took several classes with him from 2014-15.

[2] Cf. Genesis 12:1-3

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