by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca) Kingston, Ontario, October 2005
In the Old Testament the Messiah’s kingdom flourished in the seaport city of Ur. When the ancient Sumerian civilization was taken over by the language and culture of the Babylonians, Abraham moved with his family to what is now north-western Iraq. From there the King of kings called him into the pagan culture of Canaan, and there he lived by the same faith in the King he had served back in Ur. Another move into Egypt brought the Jewish people into a long period of slavery in Egypt. Moses believed that the Messiah would bring them out in the Exodus, and he led them for forty years in the wilderness. There again they adapted to a culture suited for their journeys.
After entering the promised land under Joshua, there was a period of terrible wars in order to settle the land. When the people kept turning away from the Lord (Yahweh), there were invasions and merciless occupations by Ishmaelites, Philistines, and other nations. But as soon as they cried out for help, the Holy Spirit empowered judges to regain their freedom.
There was a totally new cultural situation under the monarchy which flourished under David and Solomon. This ended with seventy years of national uprooting and bitter exile hundreds of miles away to the north. During the four centuries from Malachi, the last of the prophets, to the coming of John the Baptist, the Pharisees developed a rigid legalistic culture based on the minutiae of Mosaic law. The Sadducees did not believe in life after death, but they lived by a culture of priestly traditions using animal sacrifice in their temple worship.
When the Messiah had taken birth among them, he explained that the new wine of the Holy Spirit would need fresh new wineskins. He did not deny the flavor and beauty of the traditional Jewish culture (Luke 5:37-39), but huge changes would be needed for the Kingdom to flourish among other nations all over the world. The kosher food laws (Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14:1-20) had been required for the journey through the wilderness and entering the promised land. But he told his disciples that all kinds of food could be eaten. "Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach, and goes out in the sewer." And the Gospel writer added ("thus he declared all foods clean"). And Jesus said "It is what comes out of a person that defiles" (Mark 7:18-23).
Peter, the leader of the apostles, had not been able to stomach the cultural implications of this, and the Messiah had to give him a vision that forced him to change his mind. "He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean (kosher), you must not call profane.’ This happened three times." As a result, Peter was freed to share in the hospitality and totally different culture of a Roman Centurion (Acts 10:9-48).
After his conversion, the Messiah gave Paul the task of integrating Christians into sharing table fellowship in the Greek, Roman and Barbarian cultures. In our day, Hindus cannot share with beef eaters, and Muslims are nauseated by those who eat pork, but we are freed from any food restrictions. We may voluntarily avoid offending vegetarians (Romans 14:2-6) and those who do not touch wine (Romans 14:21). And we may impose certain restrictions on ourselves for health reasons. But Jesus’ teaching, and the powerful wisdom of the Holy Spirit, has made it possible for Christian churches to take birth in the cultures of every city of the world. "The kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17).
Similarly, the New Testament opened the way for women to serve in church gatherings, and in due course enter all the professions which had been closed to them. "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus the Messiah" (Galatians 3:28). Jesus’ welcome to little children (Matthew 19:14) has in our day made it possible for them to share in the communion services of my Canadian Anglican family gatherings.
Soon there were Hebrew, Greek and Latin speaking churches, and Christians then translated the Bible into hundreds of other languages. This enables the Holy Spirit to use the rich forms of music and worship of every tribe and nation. For a time, Jews continued their temple worship based on Aaronic priests conducting special daily, weekly and annual rituals based on animal sacrifice.
As churches have spread, Africans have discovered that they can retain and wonderfully enrich their musical and tribal cultures. This has happened in hundreds of nations all over the world. We can worship the Lord under a dictatorship or a democracy, in prison, a concentration camp, under slavery, or terrible persecution, in a cathedral or house church, and in every form of disaster. Some suggest that within a generation a majority of Chinese people will be enriching their culture while enjoying our Christian freedoms.
Obviously the Messiah rejects rigidity and bondage to tradition. He delights in a great variety of cultural expressions. If we imagine that there is only one acceptable form of music, worship, social norms, and ours is the right one, we are still missing what he has in mind.