For some reason, whenever I hear the term “circumcision party”, I picture the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice and Wonderland. I’m not completely sure why. Perhaps it’s the overall absurdity of each statement that is somehow laced with just enough reason to make it somewhat comprehendible. Reason turned on its head, but reason nonetheless.
From the genesis of the church, from the moment Jesus gave his disciples their commission and ascended into heaven, we’ve struggled to get some things straight. Sometimes we have gone so far as to turn them completely on their heads. Jesus commands the disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), which sounds great as far as we’re concerned today. But as Rev. Joel Hess points out in this week’s Ringside episode, this was likely a scandalous charge for the disciples because Jesus was referring to the goyim, the Gentiles. To the Israelites, the goyim were not just “not Jewish”, they were unclean and completely outside the scope of the promises and people of God. This distinction plays out throughout Scripture and leads to one of the earliest schisms within the early church that needed to be dealt with.
The issue comes to a head in Galatians, when Paul and Peter clash over Peter’s hypocrisy in bending to the will of the circumcision party. (I know…worst party theme ever, right?) The circumcision party was the group of Christian Jews who believed that everyone needed to be circumcised as a sign of their faithfulness. Peter, who was initially out preaching to the goyim, withdraws from them under pressure from this party, and for this Paul rebukes him. “It’s that issue of the foolishness of attaching righteousness or sin to performing or not performing a ceremony,” says Rev. Ross Engel. For this party, the fact that the goyim were outside of Israel and the fact that they aren’t circumcised are all rolled up in one major issue.
Jonah is a great illustration of this long-standing sentiment. God calls him to go preach to the Ninevites, some of the worst goyim around. When Jonah finally gets there, after a brief detour in the belly of a fish, he prophesies the destruction of Ninevah. The people repent, and God relents of his judgement, sparing the city…and Jonah is capital “A” angry. He calls God’s mercy a great evil. What? Since when is mercy evil? But here’s the thing, the Israelites were THE people of God, the chosen ones. To them were given the laws to follow, and therefore to them alone were given the promises. Now, there were these heathens who obeyed none of the laws, yet warranted God’s mercy? As Rev. Paul Koch put it, “the indiscriminate mercy of God is offensive.”
The crux of this issue is the tendency of the Israelites and early Christians alike to put the law before the gospel. But they are not the only ones. Paul believes, “we still struggle with this today in the church, with who gets to control the gospel.” We see instances of Christians trying to join their own “circumcision party” more than we would like to admit. How often do we see Christians today placing demands on those outside the church? How often do we lead with the correct behavior, what should or shouldn’t be done, and make that behavior a prerequisite for attaining the gospel? As Ross questions, “if righteousness is attached to a certain action or task, then why do we need a savior?” Hint, the answer is, we wouldn’t.
The apostle Paul reminds Peter and the circumcision party,
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Christ Jesus, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:15-16)
And so, I would like to formally uninvite you to the circumcision party. Put aside what you think a good Christian looks like. Stop demanding that the people you have classified as the goyim conform to your behavioral standards. It is faith that bears good fruit, not the other way around. The law is a good thing, and it has its uses, but one thing it can never do is be a path to attaining righteousness for yourself. “The solution,” Joel asserts, “is to remind yourself, ‘I was the foreigner, and God reached out to me. I am alien to God in my words and my actions, and I am a recipient of God coming to me in my sinfulness.”
“…for while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
This article is a brief examination of one of several topics discussed on this week’s episode of Ringside with the Preacher Men. Listen to Rev. Joel Hess, Rev. Ross Engel, and Rev. Paul Koch duke it out over the importance of Bible Study, the supremacy of the proclamation of the Word as per the Smalcald Articles, whether aliens need Jesus too, and more on the fight between original Ringside Preachers St. Paul and St. Peter, on the latest full Ringside with the Preacher Men episode, “Racism & the Church.”
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