What makes me a Canadian? Is it being born here? I wasn’t. Is it having a Canadian accent, eh? Many don’t. Is it living here in Canada? Many Canadians don’t even do that. So what makes me Canadian? We can also ask, what makes us God’s people?
In the earliest days of Christianity, before there was something known as the New Testament, the answer to that question for some people was very simple; if you are part God’s people you will act like God’s people as laid out in the only Testament available, the Old Testament. You will therefore be found keeping the covenant, keeping all the customs and traditions including dietary restrictions, festivals, and of course the mark of belonging for the males, circumcision. In other words, to be part of God’s people in Christ you must become a Jew, though a Jesus-believing Jew of course.
After all, some would have said, as God’s old covenant people we are considered to be the righteous ones, the ones in right standing with God, while the rest are the unrighteous ones, the ones not in right standing with God. Through Jesus you can duck under our Jewish umbrella.
But is that it?
This became a very important question among the early Christians. There was a discernment process which we read about in Acts 15. Here is the conclusion of the matter as written in a letter to Christ followers of non-Jewish background:
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.Acts 15:28-29 (NIV)
Short, sweet, and to the point! You don’t need to become Jewish to be part of God’s people. But neither can you worship who, what, and how you once worshipped before walking with Jesus. This is why food, blood, and sexual immortality are mentioned, these all being part and parcel of the worship of the gods commonly worshipped in that time and place.
The early Christians realised that in Jesus God was not inviting people to get under the Jewish umbrella, but that there was now a bigger umbrella that now included non-Jewish people, just as they are, but now focusing their lives and their worship on Jesus.
Paul, knowing that it would only be a matter of time before the non-Jewish Christ followers in Philippi would be under pressure by some to become more Jewish, warned them very strongly:
Watch out for those dogs, those people who do evil, those mutilators who say you must be circumcised to be saved. For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us.Philippians 3:2-3 (NLT)
Paul is reiterating here very strongly what was already recognised: you don’t need to become Jewish in order to become part of the people of God. Whatever makes us God’s people, keeping the customs of God’s old covenant people isn’t it.
If it was it, Paul could boast of the things that marked him out as truly belonging to God’s people:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.Philippians 3:4-6 (NRSV)
If being Jewish is what makes you righteous, if it is what gives you right standing before God, then Paul can boast of his Jewishness. But that’s not it:
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.Philippians 3:7-9 (NRSV)
Paul knows that God doesn’t relate to him on the basis of his fitting in with Jewish society. God relates to him through Christ. Being God’s people is about “knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord,” and being “found in him.” It is about “faith in Christ.”
There is a challenge in translating “faith in Christ.” Some Bible scholars point to the possible translation of “faith of Christ,” that is, the faithfulness of Christ. So we could paraphrase it like this: “Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness from God based on God’s faithfulness to us.”
The focus is on the faithfulness and obedience of Jesus
who, though he was in the form of God,Philippians 2:6-8 (NRSV)
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
We should each ask, am I part of God’s people? Am I included? It is not by taking up religion. It is not by figuring out the right rules and keeping them really well. It is not by picking a Christian sub-culture and trying to fit in with what you wear and how you speak or what kind of music you listen to. It is by being “found in” Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law,” but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ. It is by responding to the invitation of God and walking with Jesus. What makes us God’s people? God’s love and grace.