Today’s devotion is written by Cameron Garrett.
Music for Meditation: “Brothers” by Phil Cook
Focus: “Three days later he called together the local leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans” (28:17, NRSV).
Reflection: I would not be at First Church today if not for the Interfaith Center at the University of North Florida. As a twenty-year-old student navigating the unique, right-of-passage challenges of college in an unfamiliar city, I found myself in the deep, chaotic ambiguity of my
first significant identity crisis. I wasn’t sure who I was, what I wanted, or how I ought to live – and I was scared. It felt like I was untethered, unmoored, without solid ground to stand on. For most of my life, I’d woken up as me, a person with an identity that bore some binding consistency, some basic familiarity, to who I was the previous day. Then, I turned twenty and I
suddenly wake up as a stranger in a bed that is somehow in the middle of the desert. I still had my name, my family, a revolving cast of friends, and my reflection in the mirror, but these realities seemed to add to my discomfort – how could I make sense of my inner confusion about my-self when I was still known and recognized as Cameron? I couldn’t assume much anymore;
and I mourned the loss of who I’d been before.
This is how I stumbled into the Interfaith Center. The purpose of UNF’s Interfaith Center is not limited to the facilitation of dialogue between folks with different, and often competing, worldviews. Rather, the Center’s basic (and enormous in scope) mission is the promotion of pluralism, defined by Harvard religious studies scholar Diana Eck as: “not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity. Pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. Pluralism is
not relativism, but the encounter of commitments.” Within the safe environment intentionally built by the Interfaith Center, I encountered
commitments that helped me to tentatively name some of my own. Over coffee and conversation with Muslims, Atheists, Buddhists, Secular Humanists, New-Age Nones, Agnostics, Evangelicals, Intellectuals, Baptists, Hindus, and anyone else with enough courage, desperation, or curiosity to drop by, I found myself identifying as a Christian. I didn’t claim Christianity in
order to find safety and security in the stability it could give to my identity crisis; I didn’t claim Christianity because I became convinced of the Truth of Christianity over and against the perceived inferiority of other capital-T Truth claims. I named myself as a Christian because I was moved to claim my story through the encouragement of stories different from my own. These stories helped me to find comfort in an aspect of my identity that I was wrestling with – that Jesus and Christianity were intimately bound up in the fabric of my life; that my faith, hope, and belief are rooted in Christianity because of who I essentially and dynamically am. And I discovered that’s not just okay. That’s something I can celebrate and safely share.
The context of today’s scripture is one rife with the sort of fear that is born out of identity crises. Paul is arrested because he’s committed to evangelism of a story that is fundamentally different in important ways to the story of his Judaic heritage. Paul was telling everyone who would listen that: (a) salvation is in Jesus Christ, (b) that through Jesus, God’s promised
covenant and Kingdom is expanded to all nations, and (c) that Gentiles shouldn’t be required to observe certain Jewish customs in order to be included as members in the newly forming Christocentric community of believers. Some believed Paul’s story, others did not, and a few of the local Jewish leaders were threatened by his difference.
As Christians, we need to be careful here to not wade into anti-Semitic waters by insidiously suggesting the small-mindedness of observant Jews. I rather mention this conflict to highlight an increasingly important consideration for us in the 21 st century: Where fundamental matters of
identity are involved, we’re called to approach each other with charity and care. “Brothers” is the first word Paul uses in his address to the folks responsible for his imprisonment. Paul identifies himself as a brother in his appeal to the Jewish leaders at least in part because of their shared Judaic heritage; (indeed, Paul is more accurately understood when we remember to view him as the culturally literate Jewish apostle to the Gentiles). But I also believe that there’s a deeper, Holy Spirit-breathed reality in Paul’s confession of brotherhood – a reality that ultimately transcends the ways in which Paul is similar to his Jewish sisters and brothers. I’ll conclude with encouragement to sit in some of the questions that this this already-too-long blog may have brought up. Perhaps the Spirit would like to help you safely process some discomfort or fear?
What are your thoughts, comments, questions?