Every Wednesday at 7:00PM, I attend a regular Bible Study at my church. Lately, we have been studying The Book of Acts, basically the collected stories and accounts of the early Christian church after Christ’s resurrection. And thus far, having studied chapters 1-9, I have come away with some pretty profound lessons about acceptance and tolerance.
Take for example the story of Paul… in the beginning of his story, we know him as Saul of Tarsus, a Jewish man but also a Roman citizen. He has Jewish roots and Jewish cultural ties but he is also loyal to the Roman governors and authorities. Saul, as we find out early in his story, seemed to make his living as judge, jury, and executioner of Christians. He is in some kind of position of authority and sets about persecuting and witnessing the executions of Christians. However, in a very profound encounter while traveling on the road to Damascus, Saul encounters the voice of Jesus asking him why he is persecuting Christians? Saul is stricken blind for three days until Jesus sends a messenger to him to literally, “show him the light” as well as expose the errors of his ways.
Saul becomes a new person. He swears allegiance to Jesus Christ and becomes a disciple, willing to experience the trials and responsibilities that discipleship entails. He is transformed by the Holy Spirit and becomes Paul. And while his past as a persecutor follows him wherever he goes, he boldly shares the teachings of Jesus and strives to do good works. He becomes a key person in the founding of the Christian church. His fellow disciples have to learn to see past this man’s history to recognize the good he is doing. His fellow disciples may distrust him, but they needed time to see his change of heart and his openness.
In another example, we read about the baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch who came to Phillip on a chariot, reading from the Book of Isaiah. The Ethiopian came to Phillip with no understanding of Scripture but a thirst and hunger for knowledge and wisdom. But culturally and historically, he would not have traditionally been worthy of baptism. He was a foreigner, a eunuch, and obviously he was non-Jewish and likely uncircumcised. Yet the Ethiopian insisted that he be baptized, seeing no reason or excuse for him not to be. All he required was a body of water and someone to instruct him in his readings of Scripture. He desired understanding.
In just these two examples thus far, traditions and stereotypes and cultural norms were challenged to produce loyal Christians and followers of Christ. By seeing past the labels of their past, Saul could be Paul and be accepted into the fold of disciples and this Ethiopian could be baptized and empowered to study Scripture and become a disciple himself.