In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles we see the early Church struggling with an issue that is still present today, namely whether Christianity is a bounded set or a centered set. Let me explain.
In the 1970s there arose the idea of looking at church communities through the lens of mathematical set theory. One way of describing a community is as a bounded set. This is a group of people who have drawn a boundary around themselves. You are either part of the “in” group or the “out” group. In religions, and particularly in sects of Christianity, the boundary consist of certain practices, beliefs, moral behaviors, etc. To be within the boundaries you need to hold to those beliefs and practices. Alternately, a centered set is defined by what is at the center. People are seen not as either in or out but rather, as either moving towards the center or away from the center. In addition, you could be moving sideways past the center. You could be moving towards the center in one part of your life and away from the center in another area. In this model, Christ is the center towards which we are moving.
So what does this have to do with our reading? The church in Jerusalem had drawn a hard boundary around the community. To be a part of the church you needed to be circumcised. But Paul and Barnabas found people that they judged to be very much moving towards Christ and yet were not willing to cross the “boundary” of circumcision. Through prayer and discernment the early church heard the call to be Christ centered, not rule-bound.
But how does this reflect on today’s gospel? Jesus talks about those do not remain in him being fruitless branches that will be thrown out. But this too seems to follow the Christ-centered set model because by not remaining in Christ we turn away from the center. It is our choices that determine whether we are moving towards Christ or away from Christ. As we continue our stumbling movement towards the center, Jesus tells us that God will help us by pruning away those dead parts in our lives so that we may give more fruit.
My prayer today is that I continue to turn towards the true center of my life, Jesus the living Christ.
In addition to being an independent teacher (now online!), Talib Huff is on the retreat team at Christ the King Passionist Retreat Center in Citrus Heights. You can contact him at [email protected].