Ink And Identity…
(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Acts 15:1-21
Last week, we found out about a cake shop that had changed its selling policy, much to the chagrin of the Jones family, who had previously been the sole consumers of their delectable goods. Now, this family have been around for quite a while. In fact, one of their number, inspired by the TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?” has traced their ancestry right back to before the time of the Crusades. As they are such a sizable family, there is no surprise that there are Joneses everywhere. One branch of the Jones family is making trouble in a small hamlet in the Cotswolds…
This community, numbering about 600 people in their beautiful traditional honey-coloured cottages, is inundated with tourists every year. From the golden age of motoring, with day-trippers replete with wicker picnic basket and straw boaters, to today’s Instagram-obsessives taking selfies with the local ducks and Old Ned, the token yokel, for their image-hungry audiences, the village is well-used to welcoming in outsiders (even more so this year, with staycations at the fore).
The local tea rooms (5 at the last count) do a roaring trade, while the gift shops (4, if you don’t count those in the tea rooms) are always willing to take anyone’s money in return for a tea towel, fridge magnet or, even in this digital age, postcard. Even Old Ned takes time on Sunday to refresh the straw in his boots in anticipation of a new week’s intake of curious tourists.
There is a branch of the Jones family in the village, who have been there for almost as many generations as Old Ned’s infamous hat. A visit to the village cemetery will introduce you to over three hundred years’ worth of Joneses, from Jedediah to Mabel. They’ve always been a funny lot, the Joneses, but they are very much part of the fabric of the village. Indeed, where would the village be without Shammua Jones and her knitting group? Or Shaphat Jones and his devotion to Neighbourhood Watch? Yes, they may dress a little bit oddly, but there’s always Old Ned for comparison.
But this current crop of Joneses are causing a stir, which is generating a lot of disquiet across the close-knit community. Posters have been springing up beside the roads leading into the village and a campaign has started appearing on the village’s Facebook group. “Tattoos for Tourists” is the Jones-backed slogan that is concerning the community. The family go on to explain that each visitor should be made to have a tattoo etched onto their bodies. The precise location of the tattoo is left to the individual, and it could be hidden behind clothing if requested. But the design is not up for debate. A complex symbol that from certain angles looks like an eagle riding a milk float, this is the Jones family crest. A familiar sight for anyone wearing one of Shammua’s scarves and hats, or likewise woven into the badges of Shaphat’s group of diligent observers.
Everyone intending on spending time in the village would be required to stop at any of the laybys on the approach roads and wait in line at the pop-up tattoo parlours for their inking. The crest would be everywhere; not just in the town but spreading across the country as tourists returned home, still bearing the permanent mark of their visit.
There are benefits to this, the family are keen to stress. Anyone visiting a Jones family business anywhere in the country will be allowed to buy their goods from them. None of the cake shop exclusions of last week’s story for them – as affiliated “Joneses” these tattooed people would be afforded the rights and privileges of any natural-born Jones.
The Jones family are so keen on this campaign that they are even bringing in cousins Caleb and Igal from Birmingham who run the family tattoo business “Bostin’ Ink Inc”. And they’ve got their cousins Gaddiel and Gaddi from Grimsby to co-ordinate the policing of the tourists; woe betide anyone found strolling around the village sans tattoo. But the rest of the villagers aren’t about to take this lying down, even Old Ned, for whom lying down is an occupational necessity.
The parish council convene a meeting to address this. We can only guess at the exchanges that went on behind closed doors as events unfolded. Suffice to say, Shammua Jones has put away her knitting needles, Shaphat Jones’s curtains aren’t twitching as frequently, there is no sign of the offending posters and any tattoos adorning the bodies of visitors are their own…
There’s trouble brewing not just in the sleepy Cotswolds but also in our reading today. For the disciples, as for those concerned residents of our village, the question was rooted in identity. The Jewish contingent, identified by Luke as specifically from a Pharasitical branch of the church, were pushing ahead with plans to build a “gate-keeper” criterion for anyone who wanted to join this community of faith. To be a Christian, first you had to adopt the identity of its Jewish roots, characterised by circumcision. As always, the devil is in the detail, and though the headline-grabbing command is one that will cause any male reader to wince, the full requirement was to adopt all Jewish laws and customs (Acts 15:5).
In fact, the cry put up was for them to absorb the Jewish identity wholesale, as laws and customs included dress code, the dos and don’ts of language, even beard length. Now, what was behind this is not stated, but it isn’t going too far to see this as an attempt to reclaim the Christian faith’s Jewish ancestry amidst the clamours of the mixed traditions and cultures that were being introduced into the church as it spread further across the Roman Empire.
We see this play out in today’s church as well, as there are calls for guitars to be banned, for the good ol’ King James Version to be the only permitted translation, or for pews to be preserved for the discomfort of future generations (though a great place for children to play unseen by adults). We may think that we live in a happily progressive age, or throw our hands up in horror as someone dares to suggest that we do away with the “Thees” and “Thous” of liturgy (if we use liturgy at all). Sometimes these are driven by a desire to hold onto the past and the comforts that we get from these associations, sometimes we are starting to feel lost and overwhelmed by the newness of everything.
We certainly understand this at the moment, with COVID-19 still continuing to blight our lives and force us to accept a “new normal” that is constantly changing. The closure of the church buildings in March sent a lot of services online, or over the phone, or they stopped completely. There was a global drive to “adapt or die”, with businesses sending staff home to work if possible, or putting people on furlough that added strain not just on the businesses but also those left behind in the office who weren’t given more time to spend in the garden. And there’s no light at the end of the tunnel at the time of writing; in fact, it seems like the person carrying the lamp is moving away from us rapidly…
This is all very unsettling and unnerving, which leads people to hark back to the heady days of the glorious past. It’s no surprise that one of the televisual hits of recent weeks has been the excellent Channel 5 revival of “All Creatures Great And Small.” A bucolic, idealised view of 1930s Yorkshire veterinary life, it has heart and soul in abundance. It also has good news at the heart of the warm glow, with young James Herriot frequently coming out on top in his struggle against the health woes of the local livestock. Even his one failure to save the life of a prized racehorse was a triumph of medical knowledge over traditional methods. Maybe there’s more that resonates in that vignette than meets the eye – it is progress, painfully borne at the time, that saves the day as the old ways are seen to be outdated and not suitable.
But with our longing for the nostalgia and warm fuzzies of yesteryear, we’re hopefully not so naïve to think that all was well in the sepia-tinged gardens of yore. The Pharasitical Christians were glossing over the fact that it was their immediate Jewish predecessors (maybe even they themselves) who had clamoured for Jesus’ death only a few short years ago. They were also usefully forgetting that it was sections of the Jewish people who had rejected not just the Messiah, but also the prophets who had foretold of his arrival.
The Pharisitical Christians wanted to make the non-Jewish arrivals become like them as a way of protecting their heritage in the face of change, but there was something else going on. The Jones family in our own bucolic story also wanted to make visitors to the village adopt something of their identity, but this was to give them access to all the benefits of being a Jones-alike. The same was true in the first century. By adopting the rituals, customs, dress and rules of the Jewish faith, anyone entering the Christian faith would be deemed acceptable, not contemptible.
And isn’t this true of our own churches? How guilty are we of applying the same requirements to anyone who might deign to walk off the street and come to church on a Sunday (or at least once they are booked in). Do we frown at what they are wearing? Do we wish their language was a bit more reverent, like ours? Do we want them to conform to our rituals, customs, dress and rules?
At this time of struggling to come to terms with the enforced changes, this might be too much for us today. But at some point in the future, when we start to consider what the church might look like in the future when we’re back in charge of what we do, how we do it and what number of people can be crammed in, how much control are we going to claim? And where are our lines drawn? What does God want us to let go of, as these Jewish Christians had to let go of, in order for the Holy Spirit to work in everyone’s lives?