It’s the mid-30s AD. Somewhere in Jerusalem, in the middle of a Jewish religious festival, a group of Jews are praying. Nothing unusual about that. There is, however, something different about this group. Not much more than a month earlier, this group had witnessed the execution of their former leader in the cruellest way possible. Crucifixion was not meant to be nice or efficient. It was meant to take as long as possible, cause as much pain as possible and set an example to those who passed by.
See this man hanging here naked? That’s what it looks like to break the rules of Rome. Unless you want to be here next time, play by the rules.
Faced with such an unmistakable message, the group did what many do when faced with loss. They went underground. Now they pray in a locked room while the rest of their fellow Jews are enjoying the festival.
Then, in a flash of fire and a noise like a hurricane, all that changes. Suddenly the group, the church, goes from meeting behind a locked door and sorting out internal issues to bringing change to the world around them. In an Empire where learning one language, Greek, was seen as the way to ensure your place in society, the church is different. Instead of preaching only in Greek, the church preaches in Aramaic and Cushite and Cappadocian and Arabic and Cyprian and Cretan and other languages besides. Rather than forcing everyone into a box, the church reaches people where they are, in the language they speak, in a way they can understand. The church is one family, expressing one truth in thousands of different ways.
Only God could do this. In fact, it would seem that only God could even understand it. Not long later, Peter, a leader of the early church, would find himself in hot water for spending time in the house of a Roman soldier. Jews did not spend time with gentiles and especially not the Romans who had been oppressing them and killing them for years.
It’s as if God was showing people that it was acceptable, no, essential, to love and care about our enemies, those whose behaviour we detest, those whose culture we do not understand. Even though God showed up so powerfully in that soldier’s house, it would be a lesson that would be tough to learn. Years later, there would still be a need for the leaders of the church to remind people that following Jesus did not mean that you got stuck in a box but that you were free to be the real you.
It’s this vision to break the barriers of language, class and race that grabbed me as a teenager and then again in my early twenties. The idea that God could change attitudes and hearts and create a church that honoured and loved diversity was awe-inspiring. What would it look like to have a church that encouraged and enabled people to truly be the unique, inspiring, radical agent of change God had called them to be? What would it sound like to have a group of believers for whom language, class and colour weren’t barriers to be feared but markers of the sheer creativity of God to be celebrated?
I have seen a church like that twice before. Once in Acts and once in Germany. One day, I will see it again, here in Scotland. Until that day, I’ll wait for it, work for it and do the research needed to make it a possibility.