At the Boundary of Holy and Unclean: Grace as Community

In the last two posts I have reflected on how hospitality brings holy and unclean into contact.

In light of that topic it might be good here to remember some of the insights I shared last February about the book Paul and the Gift by John Barclay.

According to Barclay, in the writings of Paul grace was very much about a social revolution, a revolution that brought holy and unclean into contact to create a "new humanity."

As Barclay argues it, the Apostle Paul's great theme concerned the incongruity of grace, that God gave the Christ-gift to the unworthy.

That understanding of grace--grace is for the unworthy--seems obvious to us today, but this was a revolutionary idea in the first century. The incongruity of grace was Paul's great theological innovation. But it's hard for us, thousands of years after Paul, to recover the shock of what he was saying.

The other problem we have understanding Paul's doctrine of grace is that we fail to attend to the social and corporate implications of grace.    

As Barclay argues in Paul and the Gift, Paul's message about the incongruity of grace is less about psychology--stirring up feelings of guilt and gratitude in our hearts to prompt an altar call--than sociology. Barclay wants us to appreciate how Paul's gospel of incongruous grace functioned in his mission to the Gentiles.

Specifically, God's incongruous grace justified Paul's mission to the Gentiles. Grace had been poured out upon the unworthy, upon the Gentiles as Gentiles. Further, Paul's message of incongruous grace was the supportive theology that allowed Jews and Gentiles to come together in table fellowship, the first, tentative social experiments on the road to becoming the church (see: Acts 11.19-26; Gal. 2.1-21).

This is the point I want us to appreciate, how grace brings holy and unclean people into contact.

How did the gospel of incongruous grace facilitate these social experiments, where clean and unclean people come into fellowship?

According to Barclay, these new and revolutionary communities were able to form as the fruit of Paul's gospel because the message of incongruous grace displaced social and cultural standards of value and worth, standards that had previously separated people as either "holy" or "unclean." In the face of the cross all those standards of social evaluation, significance and worth had been "crucified" and thrown away. Freed from these systems of social and cultural worth the Christian community was able to extend fellowship and love across social lines that had been taboo.

As Barclay writes (p. 394-395):

The cross shatters every ordered system of norms, however embedded in the seemingly "natural" order of "the world"... the cross of Christ breaks believers' allegiance to pre-constituted notions of the honorable, the superior, and the right...Paul parades the cross as the standard by which every norm is judged and every value relativized...

[As used by Paul in his argument in Galatians] The enormous creativity made possible by this vision of reality is immediately obvious: "For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but new creation."... Paul announces the irrelevance of taxonomic systems by which society had been divided in subtly hierarchical terms: old "antinomies" are here discounted in the wake of a new reality that has completely reordered the world..[I]n context the primary focus is the social novelty of communities that disregard former boundaries by discounting old systems of worth. The "new creation" is indifferent to traditional regulative norms and generates new patterns of social practice. 
We can clearly see the social effect of grace in Paul's famous declaration in Galatians 3.28:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 
What's important to remember here is how the distinction between Jew and Gentile was between the "holy" (the Jews) and the "unclean" (the Gentiles). Recall Peter's vision of unclean animals in Acts 10.

In all this we can appreciate the sociological impact of Paul's gospel as he attempted to plant Christians communities that violated social taboos throughout the Greco-Roman world. Jews and gentiles, slaves and masters, men and women crossing taboo social boundaries and discarding hierarchical systems of social capital. All these systems of social valuation, distinction and worth were rendered null and void, crucified with Christ in baptism, so that a new creation, tangibly incarnated in the new social reality of the Christian church, could be realized and enjoyed. As Barclay summarizes toward the end of Paul and the Gift (p. 566, emphasis his):
Paul's notion of the incongruous Christ-gift was originally part of this missionary theology, developed for and from the Gentile mission at the pioneering stage of community formation. Since God's incongruous grace dissolves former criteria of worth, it forms the basis for innovative groups of converts, by loosening their ties to pre-constituted norms and uniting them in their common faith in Christ.
Grace is a community, a sociological revolution where holy and unclean came together in love. Grace creates communities where cultural and social systems of worth are thrown away so that "new creation" can be experienced through surprising, boundary-crossing fellowship. As Barclay writes (p. 567):
Ancestry, education, and social power are subordinated to a common "calling" that disregards previous assumptions of worth (1 Cor. 1:26-31). Novel communities are encouraged to relativize the differences in culture, welcoming one another on the unconditional terms by which each was welcomed in Christ Jesus (Rom. 14-15).

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