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Call to costly acceptance

29 July 2004

Paul’s call to Christians to receive each other is a call to move beyond the boundaries of our security, according to a major presentation given today to the WCC Faith and Order Commission, meeting in Kuala Lumpur 28 July - 6 August.

Addressing the meeting’s theme "Receive one another therefore, just as Christ has received you (Romans 15:7)," Rev. Dr Judith McKinlay referred to the context in which the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, with Jewish Christians expelled from the city returning to find a church transformed by Gentile leadership.

Quoting British scholar James Dunn, she said that the challenge facing them was "to recognize that God accepted people whose views and practices they regarded as unacceptable".

Drawing on examples from the life of Christ, she said: "In Jesus we are seeing God the host, who offers hospitality to all who are open to receiving it."

Such hospitality, however, is costly. Israel’s history as God’s people contained examples of acceptance being problematic, she said, and there were New Testament tensions evident in the stories of Jesus and the Syrio-Phoenician woman and the centurion’s servant.

The issue, she said, was "Who is to be accepted into the new Gospel community?"

Paul’s letter to the Galatians "indicates that this same struggle of Christian identity and acceptance was present in the earliest Christian communities".

Her conclusion was that "Once the fundamentals have been agreed upon, different interpretations, different practices and different ways of ordering are to be respected as we take each other alongside in our Christian journey."

However, what is fundamental is itself open to question, and "the work is never done". And this scope for interpretation, she said, was itself problematic for some. Citing the work of the Jewish rabbi Daniel Boyarin, who described Paul’s work as the "eradication of the entire value system which insists that our cultural practice is our task and calling in the world and must not be abandoned," she said that it "highlights the fact that any widening of identity boundaries poses problems for those whose distinctiveness is tied to what is being altered in the process of redefinition".

Citing the fifth World Conference on Faith and Order in 1993, McKinlay concluded with a call to kenosis, a humble self-emptying which itself is "faithful to the ministry of vulnerability and death of Jesus".

In another well-received paper, Rev. Fr Frans Bouwen also spoke about Christ’s kenosis, and asked: "Do we truly realize what that means for the way in which we meet, welcome and accept one another, as persons and as communities?"