The ancient Greeks thought of themselves as the only truly civilized people; anyone who was not Greek was considered to be “barbarian.” The ancient Israelites called those who were not a part of their tribe “people of the nations,” “ethnos,” “gentiles.” Defining who is in and who is out has been happening for much of human history, but even so our cultural stories have always included tales of “outsiders” whose character and courage upended “insider” expectations.
The good Samaritan.
The hooker with a heart of gold.
Wisdom out of the mouth of babes.
I call Job a “faithful Gentile” because his story is not told within the context of the Abraham-Isaac-and-Jacob tradition, not understood within the circumstance of Moses and the Exodus; he seems to have existed apart from the claimed lineage of Israel. Job’s tale is its own, set outside of time: “There once was a man in the land of Uz…”
There are few stories as powerful as the drama of Job. A righteous man, blameless and upright, “no one like him on the earth.” And then his loves, his living, his life were all placed in jeopardy by an odd divine wager: mountains of troubles, oceans of despair and miserable comforters; blessing and cursing and eloquent searching; assertions of innocence and guilt; calls for judgment and justice.
Growing up, the conventional wisdom from my childhood praised the “patience of Job.” But as I came to read the story for myself instead of just hearing it in Sunday School (a very important phase in the growing up process!), I realized Job didn’t sound at all “patient.”
Like some of the psalmists, Job doubts, complains, criticizes, argues, proclaims his righteousness and challenges God to a contest of integrity.
What a relief it was for me to discover that doubt is a crucial part of faith! Arguing with God is a time honored biblical tradition and Job’s example shows us what faithful, honest, passionate engagement with the Divine can look like. Rather than describing Job’s faith as “patient,” it is more accurate to say it was “enduring.” It is the endurance of Job that places him on my list of biblical heroes.
In the thoughtful book, The Spirituality of Imperfection, the authors say this:
Spirituality begins in suffering because to suffer means first “to undergo,” and the essence of suffering lies in the reality that it is undergone, that it has to do with not being in control, that it must be endured.
Job is an ancient story, part of the Wisdom Tradition and–as is true in many stories that ponder life’s mysteries–it leaves us with more questions than answers. The Creator who speaks to Job from the whirlwind does not bother to answer Job’s questions and explain why Job has been required to endure this suffering. But God does honor Job’s struggle by revealing his place in the big picture of heaven and earth. Job discovers that he is part of the wild unfathomable mystery of life; knowing this is enough.
There is another story of a faithful Gentile as told in this week’s Living in The Story companion readings from the Acts of the Apostles. Cornelius is a Roman Centurion from Italy who was stationed for duty in Palestine. Cornelius was not a typical Roman army officer, not the stereotypical brutal occupier, oppressor in the conventional practice of the Roman Empire. Instead for some reason,
this man had a sense of responsibility to others—the poor, the unfortunate and the under privileged who lived all around him.
And for some reason, Cornelius had a sense of Someone Bigger than himself. The anthropomorphic gods of the Roman Empire were small and petty; Cornelius had a hunger for Something More. He didn’t know what that “More” might look like, but he entrusted himself to the asking-seeking-knocking-yearning-waiting that is so often required of faith. His piety was gentle and humble, demonstrated with both prayer and practice.
The story in Acts is intriguing. God honors this Gentile’s faithfulness by sending a Jew to proclaim the good news of God’s redeeming love made known in Jesus Christ. This man Peter was eyewitness to the bold and inclusive welcome Jesus offered to the unwelcomed, the outsiders, the dispossessed. This man Peter had proclaimed in his Pentecost sermon that God was doing a new thing, an unconventional and surprising thing. Even so, it still took Peter and other insiders a while to comprehend how very radical, unconventional and surprising this new work of God actually was.
The way Peter read his own Scriptures there was an unbridgeable chasm between Jews and Gentiles. While Cornelius was looking for Something More, Peter seemed to believe he had already encountered enough “More;” Jesus the Messiah had already upended Peter’s previously settled religion but now Spirit was calling him to embrace an even larger world of faith that included the faithful Gentiles. It was only when Peter actually was in the company of real people who also had been touched, changed and redeemed by God’s Spirit that he finally was able to see what the prophets of Scripture had always envisioned: the emerging shalom-wholeness-unity of all God’s creatures within all God’s creation. Scripture gives witness to this evolving faith and faithfulness of the people of God. Scripture is the story of God’s people – slowly but surely – growing into God’s Story of amazing grace.
While the story tells us of Cornelius’ “conversion,” it was clear that Peter and the early Jewish Christian Church needed continued conversion as well.
Peter and Cornelius make me think of a current situation within our modern day Church.
Like Peter, there are many Christians who believe they have encountered all the “More” there is. Some people have belief systems that are set in stone instead of expecting faith to grow and change. Some people see the unsettling of religion as a sure sign of unfaithfulness rather than as a sure sign of faith. Today’s Church also needs an ongoing conversion; God surely is not done creating new things. We would think God’s people should be on the front line of welcoming newness, but as is often the case, it is the “faithful Gentiles” who are revealing God’s work of mercy and justice to the staid and settled institutional Church.
Like Cornelius, there are many unchurched people who are “spiritual but not religious.” I think of these folks as “Gentiles” living faithfully outside the parameters of the institutional Church. Some of them might be called “Nones” – people with faith who refuse any allegiance to any formal religious organization. Some of them might be called “Dones” – people with faith who have had it with organized religion; they have been hurt, criticized and rejected one time too many and they may never be back. Like the arrogant certainty of Job’s “comforters,” too often modern day church folks shut down seekers, judge doubters and criticize questioners; thus the spiritual but not religious folks are walking away in droves.
But within many of these honest, thoughtful people, there is a deep spirituality that, in its own way, is asking-seeking-knocking. Sometimes they are Cornelius. Sometimes they are Job. Always they are precious to God and they ought to be precious to the Church.
Peter finally understood what today’s Church needs to understand – that the community of Christ, this new family of God is boundless – embracing ALL whom God is calling and redeeming. The divides are gone, the barriers are removed, the distinctions between holy and profane are blurred, the differences between Jew and Gentile, male and female, gay and straight, rich and poor, black and white and brown and red and blue are pointless. Only when Church figures out how to actually BE this kind of diverse, loving, welcoming fellowship will it have any chance whatsoever of enticing faithful Gentiles to show up and share in this real community of Christ.
Job’s friends remind us that conventional wisdom and easy answers are miserable comfort. Efforts to define God or defend God are useless and even detrimental to faith and witness.
Job reminds us that faithfulness does not always come with a pretty, peaceful piety; sometimes authentic faith demands questions, argument and fierce honesty.
Cornelius reminds us that God honors every act of faithfulness and graciousness; God will respond to even the slightest breathing of hope.
Peter reminds us how understanding and awareness grow gradually, often one personal encounter at a time. “Anthropology trumps theology,” a wise friend has taught me.
Cornelius and Peter and the faithful Gentiles among us remind us that we should never be surprised at the people God is bringing together in order to create shalom in God’s own time, in God’s own mysterious way.
Images: A183PR A destitute man complaining. Addis Ababa. Ethiopia. Image shot 2006. Exact date unknown.
A UK soldier hands a bottle of water to a local child on a routine patrol of the area surrounding Kandahar Air Field. Such patrols help to prevent rocket attacks on the base. (Photo: ISAF by U.S. Navy Specialist 1st Class John Collins)
The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning. Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition (2009-12-18, page 21).