The question that is raised by the title of this paper corresponds 100% with the general theme of this year’s Readings [«The People of God in the 21st Century»]. It makes sense to be a little more precise: not “What do we mean by the people of God?” but “Who is included in the people of God?” We can be even more precise and put it this way: “Who may we (or should we) place among the people of God in the context of the 21st century?”
The very concept of “people of God” – as it became clear in our attempts to understand the terrible lessons of the 20th century – is a dynamic rather than a static concept. This means that in every century, if not in every generation, this question must be posed again and again: who today is included among God’s people?
The 20th century is remembered as a century of enormous, horrible tragedies for many, many peoples: the Jews, Gypsies (Roma), Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Kalmyks…. Many of them came to the very edge of total destruction. In any case, that was the intention of those who made the decision and worked out the technical details to accomplish this destruction.
I’m absolutely certain that, for the organizers and perpetrators of the policy of genocide, this whole horror was directly connected to the question behind the theme of this paper: If these specific people don’t belong to the People of God, are we obliged to consider them as human? Wouldn’t it make sense to classify them as “subhuman”, with all the consequences of that classification? Wouldn’t it be correct and even humane to wipe them from the face of the earth?
Of course this isn’t what those 20th-century people – such figures as Beria and Eichmann – actually said. They talked about the master race, about enemies of the people, and so on. But they undoubtedly thought this way. After all, the people who decided, planned, and organized the destruction of millions of people, were not themselves aliens from another planet; they were people who had been raised in, and were well acquainted with, Christian tradition, the language of the Bible, and the Church.
Thousands of people involved directly or indirectly with planning, organizing, and carrying out the destruction of those “subhumans” undoubtedly rationalized their decisions more or less along these lines, seeking to soothe their consciences.
We cannot argue that, when the 20th century ended, this way of thinking also came to an end. It is enough to take a look at contemporary publications, Web sites, slogans, to understand that even now significant numbers of people regret that the “great” European cannibals were not able to bring their “cause” to a successful conclusion.
Nowadays we can meet a good number of perceptive people who assume that the new 21st century might be just as bloody as the previous century. Indeed, it seems quite possible. All this makes the theme before us, “Who is included in the People of God in this new century?”, that much more relevant.
It goes without saying that we will attempt to understand this theme not from a political, ethnic, or any similar viewpoint, but from a biblical viewpoint.
For this we distinguish two criteria:
People’s relationship to God
God’s relationship to people
… which we will consider in that order.
1. The Bible shows that a community of people can be called the People of God if, in their lives, they believe and trust the One God and Him alone, considering Him to be their Lord.
Therefore we must consider that, first of all, Israel – as a people, as an ethnic group, as a state in the final analysis – have been, are now, and always will be the People of God to the end of the ages. Some people might be pleased by this, others not at all pleased, but neither attitude affects the reality: the promises of God are irrevocable. Nobody can cancel or replace them.
I’m not particularly eager to argue or even to theologize on a topic that remains so very pointed, even after the passage of two thousand years. It’s better to give the floor to the great apostle of tongues:
“Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.’ He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (Romans 4:16-17 [all English-language citations from NIV]).
“What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise” (Galatians 3:17).
“I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’ As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:25-29).
Israel is an integral part of the People of God, His historical and spiritual foundation, His rod, or “trunk”, following the apostle Paul’s imagery.
Secondly, of course, the People of God include Christians – formerly found among the lawless, but now grafted to the main trunk of the olive tree. It should be emphasized that we are not talking about some separate church existing in history, but about Christianity as a whole, about every Christian community that confesses Jesus as God’s son and acknowledges him as their Messiah, their Saviour.
We have a sufficient basis for this understanding in the confession of faith made by Peter, and the faith confessed by the whole apostolic community of disciples of the Lord – and in the very warm and decisive approval Jesus himself gave to this confession: “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’” (Matthew 16:16-19).
Over several centuries, Peter’s confession became a sufficient basis for identifying followers and disciples of God’s Son.
After almost a generation, John, the last remaining apostle, the great apostle of love, exhorts Christ’s disciples with these words: “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:9).
Thirdly, the boundaries of the People of God cannot exclude those who worship and confess faith in the One God to the exclusion of all others.
Of course here we’re referring to Muslims. I know perfectly well that a great number of people would not like the inclusion of Muslims in the People of God, or would consider it completely unacceptable.
But in the end, our personal preferences, fears, prejudices, phobias, have no bearing on the subject.
If we use the language of the Bible – the Book of God’s Covenant with humans – we first have to name those people whose Covenant relationship came through Moses. Secondly, there are the people of God whose Covenant relationship was established through Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah; and then, thirdly, there are those who became the people of God through God’s covenant with Abraham, the great prophet and the chosen one of God.
But of course even this list does not cover all of the various communities that we must include among the People of God.
Fourthly, this family includes a great many people who accept and carry out the commandments of God contained in God’s Covenant with Noah.
This covenant covers a huge number of people, many of whom don’t even suspect the existence of such a Covenant but live in strict conformity to it.
Sometimes these people who live by God’s Covenant with Noah are simply called decent people – without hesitation they fulfill its basic commandments: they don’t steal (in practical terms this means they always pay their debts); they don’t commit adultery; they don’t kill; they honor their parents; they don’t drink blood; they respect the courts; they fulfill their promises to anyone and everyone.
The English are accustomed to call these kinds of people “gentlemen”. Here it’s worth recalling G.K. Chesterton’s well-known, oft-quoted, but too-rarely implemented thought: “Before baptising a man, you must make a gentleman of him.”
I think that we don’t dare cast these kinds of people out of the boundaries of the People of God. At least, that was the judgment of the ancient sages of the Torah, who asserted that “the people who keep the commandments of God’s Covenant with Noah will participate in the life to come.”
Beyond a doubt, the first Apostolic Council saw things the same way. In considering the basis for former pagans who had received Christ to become candidates for baptism, the Council decided to require that they should follow the commandments of the Covenant with Noah: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (Acts 15:19-20).
A little further along, this ruling based on the Covenant with Noah is stated once again: “As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” (Acts 21:25).
But we are not finished yet. So far we have used only one dimension as a criterion: “from the bottom up” – how people relate to God.
2. However we cannot forget that there is and always will be yet another criterion: how God relates to people.
And here we must not forget one of the most marvelous thoughts of the Church Fathers, a thought that Metropolitan Anthony Bloom so loved to quote in the very last years of his life: “Just think – what happiness it is to live among these people. It’s not important whether they believe in God or not.
“God believes in them!”
If we take this assertion seriously – and how else could we take it? – then it follows that every living person, every living being that God believes in, is in fact truly alive, which in the language of the Bible means that God hopes and relies upon that person. It is not possible to exclude any such person from the People of God.
Thus, it turns out that all of humanity, whatever essential features we might choose as classifications, must be included among the People of God.
Of course we realize that these features we have selected are not enough. This immediately raises the question – how do the various parts of the People of God (families, branches, offshoots, in the final analysis) – relate to each other? In other words, in addition to the “vertical” criteria, we still have to consider the “horizontal” criteria.
It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine this kind of picture, or visualization: In the center, as the trunk of the tree – Israel. Placed around Israel would be those who are included in Christ’s Church. Around them in turn – strict monotheists, Muslims. And around them, people who live by the Covenant with Noah. We end up with a sort of system of concentric rings.
And, finally, on the periphery, all other people in whom God believes, regardless of their faith.
The resulting picture is beautiful, but, alas, clearly inadequate. If we can put it this way, it’s too flat. It lacks volume, amplitude – something our “vertical” criteria cannot provide, but the words of the Son of God Himself can.
It’s impossible simply to bypass Matthew chapter 25; these are the direct words of Jesus himself.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:31-45).
These words of Jesus ask precisely nothing about anyone’s faith, theology, dogmas, or canons, but only about the simplest, most vital actions that are possible for anyone to carry out, rendering any correlation of the various families included in the People of God, by whatever model or pattern, simply out of place.
The Lord has His own understanding of who belongs and doesn’t belong among the People of God. And to argue with this understanding seems, to say the least, unwise.
In conclusion, let’s pose this quite reasonable question: why, after all, are these considerations even needed?
Here’s how I answer: If I know that this person (or community of people), whom I find repulsive, is a part of the People of God just as I am, then I do not have the right to throw a stone at him/them, or even to speak insultingly about them.
And then there is hope that the 21st Century will not be the last in the history of humanity.