There is a term often used in Christian theology in recent years: “the scandal of particularity.” It refers to the notion that God acts in history through a particular person or people at a particular time and place to effect his saving purposes for the world. Generally, the people, times, and places are not central to what the world considers important and powerful.
We see the scandal of particularity in the Jewish people. For example, we see this when God called Moses to free the Hebrew slaves from bondage. God’s liberating action in the exodus from Egypt definitively forged them as the people of God. Particular people at particular times and places: God acts in and through them to achieve his saving purposes. God says, “I choose you. I choose to be in relationship with you, and you to be in relationship with me. Thus I accomplish my good and holy purposes in the world.”
We encounter the scandal of particularity most clearly and most scandalously in Jesus of Nazareth. In human terms, he was a carpenter’s son – of questionable legitimacy, from an unimportant town in a backward, oppressed country. To seal the reality of his misguided irrelevance, he died an excruciating, ignominious death. Or so the Jewish and Roman leaders saw his life and death. Yet through Jesus, God redeems countless people and indeed the entire cosmos!
God comes to the particular to work toward the universal. This is good news, but a temptation follows it. The temptation is to hold God’s good gifts so closely – out of a sense of superiority, or ignorance (of God’s nature and purpose), or fear – as to miss, resist, or reject God’s continual movement to incorporate more and more of the world into his redemptive love.
This is what must have happened in Pisidian Antioch. After hearing Paul and Barnabas proclaim the good news about Jesus, the Jewish people in Pisidian Antioch rejected Jesus and incited violence against Paul and Barnabas. Those Jews knew God’s long-established favor for them, but they could not allow that God through Jesus extends his love beyond them!
We must take care not to commit the same mistake, which is really a sin. God acts in the particular – you, me, our congregation, our Anglican heritage – to love and save us. But he never stops with the particular. God embraces the particular to draw the universal within the compass of his redemption. We must not clutch what we have received in grace such that we do not share it with the world around us. God loves us, yes, but he loves the wide world as well. God wants to bring all people into his kingdom and the blessings of relationship with him. We must not only allow this gracious movement but participate in it!