Become What You Are: God’s New Reconciled Humanity
Published by Calvin Seminary
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier,the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Eph. 2:14-18 TNIV)
How timely and powerful these words sound in a polarized political climate in the US that is exacerbating hatred, racism, divisions, hostility and phobias towards “the other,” i.e, Mexicans, women, Afro Americans or Muslims. Even more disturbing is that a large part of the American population, coincides with and supports these attitudes and actions. If something good has come out of the present political campaigns is that they have brought to the surface a reality that many claimed was non existent, a thing from the past. Sadly, those ugly attitudes are still alive and well in our society, our churches and institutions. They are entrenched in our hearts as well as in the systemic, structural realities we have created in North America. But we can and must do something about them, if we, as God’s new humanity, are going “to live worthy of the calling we have received” (Eph. 4:1).
Two New Testament books set the foundations and ethos for God’s people with the best and pertinent ecclesiology needed to become what we are: Matthew and Ephesians. Both books can be reduced to basic categories that are central marks of Jesus character and ministry: humility and service (see Eph 4:2, 12). These have profound and transforming effects in those who are called to be imitators of Jesus the Messiah. When they are embodied by the ekklesia, the very presence of Emmanuel and God’s Kingdom becomes a powerful reality (salt and light) in the world.
Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew teaches the Church what it means to be the Church (16:18; 18:17). What is expected from Jesus’ followers is incarnated by Jesus: humility (11:29; 21:5) and service/diakonia (20:26-28). Both are defined and illustrated by Jesus in every chapter of the Gospel. He was the disciple par excellence and the master disciple maker. And he commissioned his disciples/apostles/ church to “make disciples of all the nations teaching them to obey” (28:19) Jesus’ example and teachings.
Humility and service are sine qua non realties to become God’s new community. They result in reconciliation (5:23-26 and ch. 18) and in the everyday practice of being artisans of shalom, makers of peace (5:3, 5, 9). This was essential particularly in a moment in salvation history when this was a burning question, both for Jews and Gentiles: Who belongs rightfully to the ekklesia? How can we become God’s people, under the New Torah, in this crucial moment?
For the Jewish people and even for the early Jewish-Christian Church, to be an inclusive church, a church for all the nations (Abraham’s vocation) was an enormous task that, in many ways, was never fulfilled, at least in the Jerusalem Church. Judaism was a self-contained religious group serving the religious needs of its own people, with little or no concern for others, particularly Gentiles. We just need to read carefully Acts 8 to 12 and 15 to see how difficult it was even for the early Jerusalem church to be open to aliens and foreigners and to accept them as co-heirs and citizens of the people of God. Jesus’ commission to disciple the nations (Mat 28:18-20) was quite a challenge and required a conversion (metanoia) in the apostles and early leaders that occurred in a very slow and painful way. The Jerusalem church remained in its ghetto and after one generation she was gone (AD 70).
Today, churches whose ethnicity has played a major role in defining their identity have to go through a similar process of conversion and change of mentality and attitudes if they want to live according to God’s calling and to become shalom makers among the nations. Particularly if we remember that we are not Israel, but Gentiles who also have been received and redeemed by God’s grace. It is amusing that in a first reading of the biblical texts, people in CRCNA churches read the command “welcome the stranger” as if they were Israel welcoming Gentiles! Paul would say to us: “Remember, that formerly you were Gentiles …and have been brought near” (Eph 2:11, 13). Furthermore, in a nation of aliens, we must welcome other aliens remembering that “we were also aliens and foreigners” (Lev 19:34) not a long time ago, and suffered discrimination and abuse from others who got here earlier.
Two groups of people are highlighted in Matthew as touchstones for the composition of God’s new family: WOMEN and ALIENS.
They were alienated from the holy community of Israel (or if you prefer were second or third class members) but now in Matthew they are vindicated and placed in a prominent place in God’s new humanity. “The last will be first” (20:16).
In the opening of the gospel four women are included in the genealogy, all of them Gentiles (1:3, 5, 6). And all of them were shalom makers.
“they are examples of higher righteousness” … they demonstrate Matthew’s recognition of those removed from positions of power. Judah, the king of Jericho, David, and Boaz—all of whom had the power to act but who either failed to empower others or succeeded in exploiting them—are taught the lesson of higher righteousness by Tamar, Rahab, Uriah, and Ruth.” (Levine, Matthew. 1992:340).
Jesus’ encounter with the Gentile woman (15:21-28) establishes a sharp contrast between her “great faith” (v 28, like that of the other Gentile, the centurion in 8:10), and the disciples’ little faith (6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 15:16; 17:20); the contrast is even stronger with the Jews’ lack of faith (13:58; 17:17, 20). In other words, the top examples of true faith in Jesus in the whole Gospel are this Canaanite woman and the centurion in chapter 8. For Jewish Christians in those days it was hard to accept these realities as it is today for many Christians in “advanced” North Atlantic societies to realize that the center of Christianity has shifted to the South and that the fastest growing churches in the world are in poor countries. Those churches from the South are already present in the US and Canada.
The great faith and vitality of those churches who struggle daily against all kind of inhuman situations are outstanding models for the mission of the Church. They do evangelize us, as the faithful women on Easter, who received the good news from the angel and later from Jesus himself and were commissioned to be the first and privileged witnesses of the risen Lord (Mat 28:1-8).
“Among the Gospel’s specific demands, Matthew emphasizes the importance of service (23:8-12). In particular, women frequently represent both the ideal of service that Jesus requests of his disciples (20:26-27) and the model of fidelity that the church requests of its members. But this service is not equated with women’s stereotypical duty as servant to spouse or children. Rather, women who appear apart from husband, father, or son assume positive, active roles in the Gospel (8:14-17; 9:20-22; 12:42; 13:33; 15:21-28; 21:31-32; 25:1-13; 26:6-13; 27:5561; 28:1-10)… the Gospel recognizes the contributions made to the growth of the church by women as well as by others removed from positions of power (foreigners, lepers, the possessed, and the dispossessed.” (Ibid. emphasis added).
Indeed, in Matthew’s Gospel “the last are first.”
The four women in the genealogy were Gentiles. An immediate lesson to the early church and to us is that Jesus was not a pure blood Jew. He was a mestizo, mixed blood. Matthew is telling us that the coming of the Messiah was not possible without these Gentile women. God included Gentiles in God’s people since the beginning.
According to Matthew, the first people who recognized Jesus as King were the wise men—Gentiles (2:112). With the preaching of John the Baptist a key teaching emerges in the Gospel, namely, the nature and identity of the true people of God. The true sons of the covenant are not the “sons of Abraham” according to the flesh, but those who do the will of the heavenly Father. They are the family of God (3:89; 5:1920; 7:1314, 2127; 11:25ff; 21:2832; 23:3). In this way the exclusivist claims of the Jews start to fall down. The emphasis is placed on doing justice (5:19-20), over against the false confidence on election and ethnicity as “children of Abraham.”
In Jesus’ encounter with a centurion (8:5-13), another Gentile, he declares that “many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown outside.” He is one of the two key examples of what faith in Jesus is (“I have not found anyone in all Israel with such great faith!” (8:10), in sharp contrast even with the little faith of the disciples. Jesus makes a sharp contrast between the iniquity of the Jewish people and the sensibility of pagans in the past and in the present (11:2024; 12:4142). At the same time, Jesus reveals clearly the identity of the true family of God: those who do the will of his father in heaven (12:46-50). Faith in Jesus and obedience to God’s will define who belongs to the people of God, not ethnicity or religion.
Again, it is a Gentile who during Jesus’ crucifixion declares, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (27:54). At the end of the Gospel, the Great Commission is aimed to the Gentiles (28:1620)!
The society in Jesus’ days labeled people considering their ethnic, social, political, religious, and moral background, and treated them accordingly. Thus, we hear in the gospels different people speaking in a derogatory way of “Galileans,” “publicans,” “Samaritans,” “women,” “children,” “sinners” and of course “Gentiles.” Modern societies, even those who are proud of their religious background, are no different.
One of the best ways by which today’s alchemy transforms human beings into disposable “objects” is by placing on them labels that degrade them and turn them into non persons, heretics, and enemies (the old tactic of politicians of inducing fear to the “other,” that always works in times of crisis). Once this ideological process is completed, even the most pious, moral, and even “biblical” language is used to dispose, without remorse, of these enemies and erase them from the map. Jesus’ own religious society is an ancient and painful example of this strategy (read in this light Matthew 23, particularly vv. 34-39).
How different was Jesus’ attitude toward his enemies, even for those who rejected and crucified him (compare 5:43-48 with Luke 23:34). Jesus saw and valued people with a different perspective and served them with compassion and love. This was the hallmark of his life and ministry and should be ours. He not only saw their sins but also the consequences and suffering caused by them. This was Jesus’ deepest pain (Matthew 9:35ff), and the urgent reason for sending his disciples into their first missionary trip. This was the clearest way to illustrate what humility and service mean.
As we read Matthew’s gospel (or any other Gospel), we discover that Jesus had a deep and genuine appreciation for all kinds of people regardless of their social, ethnic, political, religious, or even moral background. And he treated and served them accordingly. He knew that every person was created in the image of God and had a value, worth, and dignity given by God that did not depend on relative and frequently degrading human categories and taxonomies.
Jesus trained his disciples for mission with his own example and teachings. He wanted a church where there is room for all kinds of people, where hospitality is practiced towards everyone, where the hungry, the foreigner/alien, the homeless, the sick and the delinquent (25:31-46) have a privileged place in the community of saints.
God’s new humanity, the Church, is composed of Jews and Gentiles, no distinctions made. Faith and obedience are the key to belonging. The inclusion of the disenfranchised is a mark of the new ekklesia:
“I was a stranger (xenos –an undocumented alien) and you invited me in (Matt. 25:35-36).
By his death in the cross, Jesus, our peace, destroyed the wall of hostility and created a new humanity, reconciling all nations to God and with each other (Eph 2:14-18). That is the Gospel. Notice how the Belhar Confession seems to have been written today for us. Belhar continues to challenge us:
• that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Cor. 5:17, 21; Matt. 5:13, 16; Matt. 5:9; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21-22)
• that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world (Eph. 4:17, 6:23, Rom. 6; Col. 1:9, 14; Col. 2:13, 19; Col. 3:1, 4:6);
• that the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred and enmity;
• that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.
THEREFORE, we reject any doctrine which, in such a situation, sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ. (Belhar confession CRC, #3).
In light of these clear teachings, I dream that in my church, the CRCNA, we will all learn and practice some basic skills to become God’s New humanity (Eph 2:15; 4:24):
• To learn a new language. We do not even know how to call each other and are still trapped in unprecise and poor language: We speak of “ethnic leaders” (as if any human being could escape being ethnic); “people of color” or “colored people” (as if we were colorless or as if being “white” is a different, superior category. Of course, that is the implication). We speak of welcoming and being hospitable, metaphors that reveal a paternalistic attitude of doing something for the others. “The house is ours but we welcome you.” Instead of “we all have been welcome in God’s house and we honor and affirm each other as co-heirs, comembers, co-sharers of the Gospel.” (Eph 3:6). Let us learn how to live with each other in this new family of God!
• To become color blind and relate to each other not through the labels and stereotypes systematically and historically we have manufactured for “the other”. Rather, we need to learn how to treat with dignity and respect our sisters and brothers, regardless of their color and race. Service and humility in our life together (Matt 18:4) means not to “cause to stumble” others (18:6) nor to “look down on the little ones” (18:10). The fact that we are so concerned of fulfilling minorities’ quotas, shows how we are still captive of worldly mindsets. Notice how we love to have “people of color” in our posters, publications, and institutional promotion, but we avoid to hear what they have to say or follow their leadership.
• To be aware of the institutional and systemic ways by which we express our sense of superiority and keep zealously our privileges. (Our denominational, organizations, and church budgets show clearly where our heart is (Matt 6:21.) How much do we assign to the education, empowerment and growth of “ethnic minorities” in our educational systems from kindergarten to Seminary? With few exceptions, our Christian educational system remains closed and inaccessible for the majority of our Afro American and Spanish speaking sisters and brothers. How committed are we to include minorities? Are we conscious of how our racial, educational, and economic structures have kept them marginalized until today? Are we really serious when we speak so loudly of being a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural church?
• To dignify and really invest in the formation of our own pastoral leadership. The challenge of the fast changing demographics in the US and Canada demands from the denomination a huge investment in the solid formation of at least CRC Church leaders. Fifty years ago the Grand Rapids diocese required of their priests to learn Spanish! We still want people to learn English and be like us, to be assimilated into our sub-culture. Our own way of “admitting” “ethnic pastors” into our denomination, is a fast way to create second and third class clergy, since they can only aspire to be commissioned or associated pastors, and not Ministers of the Word and Sacraments.
• To become a Church where “ we all (regardless of our gender and ethnic origin) are united by our faith and by our understanding of the Son of God. Then we will be mature, just as Christ is, and we will be completely like him.”[4 In such a church my grandchildren will flourish and God will be honored. Is this an impossible dream?
By Mariano Avilla
Professor of New Testament
 “Already here in the genealogy, Jesus is presented as the one who will ignore human labels of legitimacy and illegitimacy to offer his gospel of salvation to all, including the most despised and outcast of society” (Bloomberg Matthew, 1992, 56; see also of the same author 1991, 145-50).
 They were involved in what Prof. Michael Williams in his study on Genesis calls positive deception, that is aimed at “sustained situations of wrongly induced disadvantage (or, shalom-disturbing situations) in order to restore shalom” (“Deception and Shalom,” p.3, lecture class notes, 2007).
 See how labeling people works in the book by Jack G. Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs. How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Northampton, MS: Olive Branch Press, revised and updated edition 2009. In this case, the video with the same title is better.
 The Holy Bible: The Contemporary English Version. (1995). (Eph 4:13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
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