Acts 21:17 – 26
When Paul arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood of the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”
The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.
We see Paul talking with the elders. The one in the fore-ground holds a large text, representing the Jewish law. He sits in an official looking chair, with the lion’s foot leg, and has a gold band on his head. The the middle-ground another man in yellow robes rests his left arm on more books.
Some episodes back, Paul changed his direction, from seeking Jewish communities to bring them the Gospel, to taking the message to Gentile populations in Asia Minor and Greece. Converting Gentiles begged the question of whether or to what extent they should follow the Jewish laws. Numerous letters from Paul will address this topic later, when he writes to them during his imprisonment in Rome. Here, Paul outlines the basic concepts that the Jewish communities should follow Jesus’ guidance as well as being purified by Jewish rituals. Gentiles have a short list: to not eat meat from sacrifices, blood from animals that were strangled, and avoid sexual immorality.
This dynamic has persisted in Christianity to today. To what extent do rituals and purification practices guide congregations? To what extent can cultural norms be incorporated into Christian behavior, or avoided to conform to Jesus’ basic principles for living. On one hand, much conflict has arisen from these debates, and even permeates our political debates as various candidates try to Out-Jesus each other with various proposals for how to incorporate Christian doctrine into federal and state legislation. On another hand, the flexibility of Christianity to incorporate local customs has allowed for a variety of worship traditions from Catholicism to Eastern Orthodox, to various Protestant denominations, to Contemporary worship services with praise bands and blue-jean pastors.