The central issue of the early Christian church centered on identity. Before Christianity emerged as distinct from Judaism, the question of observation of Jewish law was largely null. Jesus and his followers, observant Jews, occasionally made exceptions to the law to make a point, but they were reared and steeped in contemporary Jewish culture.
However, Paul was one of a wave of missionaries who brought the gospel to new lands. Through his activity, Gentiles will experience conversion and baptism into the body of Christ. The questions begin: Do the Gentiles require circumcision? Should the Gentiles observe Jewish law, including dietary and sabbath regulations? A single, urgent issue lies at the root of this quandary: Are the Gentiles, along with God’s people Israel, heirs to God’s promises? And at what cost?
Paul makes his point succinctly, writing to the church at Galatia: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Within the body of Christ, there may be difference and distinction, but identity cannot be disputed. “Christian” becomes the foremost marker of identity among those who are baptized into Christ. Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave, free—all are important varieties of human experience. But they no longer serve as the defining characteristic of those in the body.
In the Christian church of our time, we continue to struggle with issues of identity. What comes first: liberal or conservative, rich or poor, black or white, male or female? What defines us? Our faith and membership in the body of Christ becomes our identity; all the rest comes behind—not unimportant but not the central fact.
God of grace and truth, allow us to see our membership in Christ’s body as the central fact of our existence. Amen.