Christians from a Jewish background had extreme difficulty accepting and trusting non-Jews (and visa-versa). Each group brought an entirely different worldview with them into the church including a long history of racial tension between them. (Spend some time in the NT books of Romans and Galatians to get a feel for this struggle.)
Then there was the economic divide to overcome. Masters and slaves worshipped together. Rich and poor both were called to follow Jesus. Politicians and patrons were invited to come to Christ along with common laborers and prostitutes. Even though they lived in the same communities the daily life experience of these groups was incredibly inequitable. (Revisit the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 to catch a glimpse of this difference.)
Gender roles also added to the overall challenge. Men had the monopoly on calling the shots in first century culture. Women were a long way from anything resembling equal rights. (Check out 1 Corinthians 11 to understand a little more about this.)
Yet into this mix Paul would write:
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus for all of you who were baptized into Christ Jesus have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28)
Among their cultural realities, Paul wanted God’s people to strive for something better—a true belonging place where relationship with Christ trumped everything else and created a wonderful kingdom alternative that erased all of the political, racial, class, and gender barriers.
Notice his use of language and image to this end.
Clothes say much about our identity. In Paul’s culture it would have been easy to spot the wealthy in their purple attire and gold jewelry. Most slaves would have been identifiable by their simple garments. Jews dressed quite differently than Greeks. Women literally wore their social and marital status on their clothes. The poor had to get by with whatever they could find.
Paul’s expressed desire for God’s people was to subvert these societal norms through the transforming power of Jesus Christ. His message was to “wear” Christ—to allow their identity as Christians to supersede everything else. In so doing they would destroy the divisive social, racial, and gender barriers and become one in Christ.
In this way their Greek identity; their Jewish tradition; their expensive (and prideful perhaps) displays of wealth; their shame of poverty; and even their gender status would melt away at the foot of the cross. All that meant everything outside of Christ would mean nothing in him. (Paul personally modeled this- read Philippians 3:4-17.)
This was Paul’s vision of God’s church. It was to be a belonging place where everyone was not only welcome, but also able to freely and equally enjoy the blessings of God’s mercy and grace—a place free of the divisiveness and tension of the harsh world.
And how did this all work out?
Well, just read through his New Testament letters. God’s ideal and human reality clashed. There was a learning curve here. Folks entrenched and indoctrinated in the worldviews that created the tension had to learn a new way of doing and being in Christ—actually an entirely new way of conceptualizing the world and viewing one another. (Which puts his statement of no longer regarding anyone “from a worldly point of view” in 2 Corinthians 5:16 into context. That entire text is very informative to this overall discussion.)
It is no different now.
In our factious culture still so defined by class, race, gender, and other layers of social and economic status and so polarized by the pandering of our political party system— God’s kingdom alternative of a welcoming place that eradicates all of those divisive labels and allegiances through the unifying force of Christ is both desperately needed and refreshing.
That place is God’s church. Here there is neither black nor white; Republican nor Democrat; rich nor poor; male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. (If this statement increases your blood pressure then you are relating to the challenge of the NT church.)
Wearing Jesus trumps all the rest.
What an undeniable witness to heaven this truly is.
Are we up to the challenge?
Is your church a true belonging place?
To genuinely follow Christ do we really have any other option?