Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” - Acts 11:1-3 (NRSV) When white slaveholders required enslaved Africans and African Americans to attend pro-slavery worship services, their intention was to maintain the status quo of slavery through Bible stories and the name of Jesus. Enslaved people interpreted a different message from those stories: freedom. Jesus became both the faith and the code for freedom. “Steal away to Jesus,” they sang. Steal away to freedom. Freedom was not the slaveholders’ intended message. To the slaveholders, the name of Jesus was supposed to teach obedience to the enslaved; freedom was reserved just for the slaveholders. But freedom just for a few is not freedom. Just like the good news of Jesus just for a few (or its counterpart, the-good-news-of-Jesus-for-all-but-exactly-like-we-tell-you) is not the good news of Jesus. “Why did you go visit them, Peter? Why did you affirm that they can have the good news of Jesus, too? We thought Jesus was just for us.” Why do they get Jesus? Why do they get freedom? We thought it was just for us. Just for us to determine and distribute the good news of Jesus. Just for us to have and assign freedom. Just for us to receive grace for our sins and crimes. Just for us to grocery shop without being terrorized. Just for us to legislate the capabilities of a uterus. Just for us. Not for them. But “just for us” is not justice. “Just for us” is not freedom. “Just for us” is not Jesus. “We thought Jesus was just for us,” said the believers to Peter in ancient Jerusalem. But when Peter explained his experience in Caesarea—how God gave visions to all people, how the Holy Spirit baptized circumcised and uncircumcised alike—the believers silenced their complaints … and they rejoiced. Prayer God, have mercy! We cling so tightly to “ours” and anger so quickly over “theirs.” Forgive our possessiveness over freedom, over grace, over life, over Jesus himself. Multiply goodness for all on earth as it is in heaven.
Rachel Hackenberg serves on the national staff for the United Church of Christ. She is the author ofWriting to Godand the co-author ofDenial Is My Spiritual Practice, among other titles. Her blog is Faith and Water.