God in Christ revealed that the purpose for which he had chosen the Israelites was to make his presence known to all the nations and offer all people an opportunity to share a relationship with him. This would all happen in a new kind of Israel, called the Church, which would simultaneously be the means by which God in Christ would be known and the also the way he would share a relationship with him.
In other words, the relationship the Israelites enjoyed with God, the gifts that he gave them, was not just meant for them exclusively, but was given so that other people might know and experience for themselves friendship with the one, true God.
Christ revealed that he had come precisely to gather all the nations into a new kind of fellowship, a new kind of Israel. This is what the Church is and it is the mission of the Church to continue the mission of Christ to draw all the peoples of the world into a relationship with God.
In our scripture today from the New Testament Book entitled Acts of the Apostles, we heard about a debate that caused a great deal of consternation among Christ’s first disciples. That debate was about what those people who had not been born and raised as Israelites, but who accepted from Christ a relationship and became members of the Church, were supposed to do about the Law of Moses. Remember, the Law of Moses was a codification of the beliefs and practices of the Israelites. Were the new Israelites who accepted Christ and became part of the Church expected to keep all these laws? Was it the Law of Moses that made one an Israelite? Or because of the revelation of God in Christ, was it now something else?
The conclusion of the Apostles is that God in Christ had created a new way of being an Israelite, and as such, much of the Law of Moses had been brought to its fulfillment, with the essentials remaining, but with worldly customs relative to time and circumstance, no longer serving as necessary criteria for being an Israelite.
Many Christians whose lives had been defined by the Law of Moses found this upsetting. Many Christians who knew nothing about the Law of Moses found the situation confusing. The Apostles had to help the Church think all this through. None of this was easy.
What the Apostles did know was that God in Christ wanted people to know him and as the way of a disciple was demanding enough, he didn’t want customs relative to time and circumstance imposed in such a way that those customs became a block, rather than a bridge to knowing him.
The Church has over time developed many beautiful customs that are intended to evoke curiosity and serve as routes of access to knowing Christ. These customs are at their best when the express who the Lord Jesus really and truly is and lead us into a deeper relationship with Christ. They are meant to be bridges, not blocks, routes of access, not walls.
How these customs serve the mission is up to those disciples who treasure them, but one thing is clear, our customs, which can be legitimate ways of coming to know Christ, are supposed to draw people into the Church and not drive people away.
Customs are helpful, but they are not essential. What is essential to our relationship with God in Christ are commandments. Commandments indicate our way of life, a way of life that is meant to make us ever more like Christ. Christ indicates in his Gospel that God’s commandments are intended for the sake of love, which is not merely a sentiment or emotion, but an act of will by which we desire the good for another person.
This good which we should desire for the other is not simply what someone perceive to be good, but the good that God wants- and it is in this regard that the commandments of God teach us. The commandments of God show us the good that we should desire for other people.
Custom and Commandments will always be a part of the Christian way of life, and in their regard we must always be discerning, that in our practice of both, we are serving Christ’s purposes, not our own, and are through our way of life, we are leading people to know Christ and inviting people to share the gifts Christ wants to give in his Church.