Strife among Christ's apostles prompted 'new' commandment
     By Paul Prather


Two of the original apostles Jesus called to his service were Simon the Zealot and Matthew, a tax gatherer.

We who try to follow Jesus' teachings today could learn a lot from those choices, as well as from other early Christians.

Jesus' initial disciples were all Jews, but Judaism wasn't then, any more than now, a unified religion. The Jews were divided into several distinct sects.

The most extreme faction was the Zealots. Violent nationalists, they sought to overthrow the Roman occupation government that ruled first-century Judea. They assassinated foreign officials and attacked Jews they suspected of collaborating.

Three decades after the earthly ministry of Jesus, Zealots led the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome, an incredibly brutal war. In 73 A.D. at Masada, militant Zealots and their families committed suicide rather than be taken as Roman prisoners.

I think of them as the ancient world's equivalent of the Taliban. Not pleasant people. Not beacons of tolerance.

Simon was a Zealot. Matthew was the type of Jew the Zealots loathed most. He was a tax collector, and tax collectors were collaborators. They gathered levies placed on their people by the Romans, and prospered by overcharging their brothers and pocketing the difference.
In selecting his inner circle, Jesus included both Simon, the Zealot, and Matthew, the tax gatherer.
The arguments between those two must have kept Jesus awake many nights. It's a miracle they didn't kill each other.

Maybe that's why Jesus issued his disciples what he called a "new" commandment, "That you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you love one another." [John 13:34] Loving each other couldn't have come easy for Simon and Matthew.

Later, as the apostles carried Christianity into the broader world, differences within the church became even more plentiful.

Jewish Christians, for the most part, had grown up in a religious milieu that tended to be exclusive and rigid. Observant Jews kept dozens of laws governing everything from the mandatory circumcision of boys to the proper preparation of food.

But Jesus' message quickly spread among people the Jews despised as libertines and pagans. That is, to Greeks and the hated Romans.

Greco-Roman society was polytheistic, politically corrupt and morally licentious. Jews considered gentiles the devil's spawns.

So, when God instructed St. Peter to go preach to a Roman army officer named Cornelius, Peter initially refused, on the grounds that entering this infidel's house would contaminate him.
St. Paul, in his writings, says that even after God had made it clear he'd accepted non-Jews, Peter wouldn't sit at the same table to eat with them.

Problems developed among the gentile converts, too.

Rich Romans had to worship alongside their slaves. Greco-Roman society was misogynistic, yet the new Christians discovered God was imbuing women with the same spiritual gifts as men, and couldn't agree on how to handle that.

On and on went the disputes and divisions. Christians argued about everything from the path to eternal salvation to the composition of Jesus' physical body.

Seemingly, the only things they held in common were their belief that Jesus was still alive and loved them, and their confession that they, by their various lights, loved him in return.

Paul had to remind them that God had invited each of them to join his household. He said God made no distinctions among them. They were all equal before the Lord.
Equally sinful. Equally forgiven.

What has this to do with us today? Everything.

Christianity is as diverse in 2007 [2017] as two millennia ago.

The contemporary faith has Roman Catholics and Pentecostals, men and women, Hawaiians and Haitians, blacks and whites, teetotalers and winebibbers. It has hipsters and country clubbers, Ph.D.s and 10th-grade dropouts, CEOs and janitors, artists and engineers, Hillary Clinton and George Bush.

It doesn't stand to reason we're going to agree on much. It's not likely we'll always be comfortable socializing together on Saturday nights.

And yet it seems possible, given his history, that Jesus called us all.

Why would he do such a thing? For lots of reasons, perhaps. Grafting us into one spiritual family gives the church an opportunity to touch every kind of person in need. An artist can reach folks an engineer never could, and vice versa.

Also, having to deal with other Christians who differ wildly from us forces us to hear their points of view. It humbles us -- and enlightens us. We can learn from one another, if we're willing. The benefits of diversity are innumerable.

True, we won't automatically like or understand one another. But we are commanded to love and accept all, just as we believe Jesus has loved and accepted us. Just as we are. 

Paul Prather formerly was the Herald-Leader's religion writer and now is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling.