Scripture Reading: Acts 15:1-18
In case you haven’t noticed, we are in the middle of an election here in Nova Scotia. Signs are popping up on lawns. Parties and candidates are clamouring for spots in the media where they can get their faces in front of people who might choose to vote for them come election day. It’s all a bit of a circus right now as parties and candidates fight for position in a crowded election.
Parties are sharing their platforms on how they are going to save the province from the evil ways of the other parties. They are all going to fix our health care system, our schools, our out-migration, and our businesses are going to thrive while they do it. And at the same time, pointing out how their opponents will fail.
I’ll be honest with you, I can’t believe any of it, no matter what party they belong to. Here’s why: the problem is far bigger than the simple band aid solutions they are offering. You can’t fix the problems this province faces by throwing more money at it. I think the parties know this, but in order to make the real, the incredibly hard changes that are required…. if a party were to make them it’s platform… we’ll there’d be no chance they would be elected.
Change is hard. People resist change. We’re actually set up as a democracy right now where it’s incredibly hard to invoke systemic change. And the church is no different. We’re in the middle of voting on making very significant changes to our denomination, and it’s hard when you are looking at proposals which could be called “wireframe” at best. We’re voting on ideas of what the church could look like, not concrete details. This makes it even harder to determine if this is the right direction we need to take.
You may feel free to disagree with me, that’s ok. That’s the beauty of our country. We can disagree on many things, yet we can still get along just fine with one another, if we choose to. And I hope we do choose to get along and also honour, respect, and even celebrate our differences.
Disagreement is nothing new in the world. It’s been going on a very long time. Even in the church. Do you think we ended up with thousands of different denominations because we all get along?
Jesus started one church. He hand picked his disciples to get it started, and off it went from there. Growing, learning, proclaiming, praying, preaching, all good stuff. Yet somehow we now have communities with 20+ churches for a few thousand people. I’ve seen places like that here in the Maritimes.
How does this happen? It happens because someone is sitting in church, or at a church meeting, or even in the parking lot, and someone says something that offends someone else, and all of a sudden you have someone leaving to start a new church. And in some communities, that happens over and over and over again. That’s how you end up with a town with 20 churches for 2000 people.
It’s rather sad when you think about it. People choosing their own egos, their own pride, over sitting down to work out a mutual compromise. Or even better, trying to figure out where God is in the mess and follow Him instead of our own desires and feelings. And yet here we are, 500 years after the first major split in the church that we call the reformation.
Earlier this month I was at my annual Cruxifusion conference in Toronto, which was amazing again this year. It’s incredible that we are able to find top notch preachers and presenters every year, and we rarely have to look outside our own group to find them.
I love going to that conference. It’s full of people I love and respect. There are people there who mentor me, there are people who support and pray for me, and there are people who I support and pray for. We all work together as we seek to serve our Lord Jesus Christ in the United Church of Canada.
Now… do we all agree on everything? No, we do not. Our common desire is to serve Jesus Christ in the church. And even our understanding of what that means can vary greatly. We also disagree on actions taken by the United Church. We disagree on doctrine. We disagree on other theological issues. We all know this, yet, we still love to gather together and celebrate our Lord Jesus. And, in many cases, we are happy to discuss our differences and learn and grow together in what it means to serve Jesus Christ in the church.
To me that’s what church and being a Christian should look like. We gather in the name of Jesus, we learn and grow together, we support each other, we pray for each other, even in our differences.
Which brings us to our reading from Acts 15. This is an interesting chapter in the early church. In Acts 1 we hear the final instructions Jesus gives to his disciples before he returns to be with God. He says, “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
And when they receive the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, they immediately start doing this. They are out in the streets preaching, and quickly they begin to extend their influence outside of Jerusalem and into other communities and nations. They are working towards reaching the ends of the earth.
Now, the trick about spreading the Good News of Jesus to the ends of the earth is that they are going to meet a lot of Gentiles along the way. Gentile is a word to describe someone who is not Jewish.
At the very beginning the church is full of converted Jews. But as they grow and continue bringing people to Jesus, they are starting to encounter entire communities of Gentiles who are coming to follow Jesus as well.
Paul and Barnabas have come back to Jerusalem after spending a lot of time telling people about Jesus all over the place, and they return to tell of all the amazing things God is doing among the Gentiles.
This is great! The church in Jerusalem is excited by this. They want to see the church keep growing. At this point they are starting to see their growth among Jews slow, so to hear churches taking off in other areas gives them a lot of hope.
But then there’s a question asked.
What about circumcision?
Which is really just one part of the question. The actual question is “what about the laws?” Of which circumcision is one of. But it’s circumcision which takes the attention, because in some ways it’s the easiest to police. Maybe not the most convenient, but it’s more visibly demonstrable than some of the other laws. Sort of. I’m not sure who gets to go around checking on the laws. I’m sure it’s not the most fun job in the church.
So, what about these laws? The laws are the tradition of the Jewish people, who are the first founders of the church. They have brought with them the traditions and laws of their ancestors into the Christian church. And of course they would. Who wouldn’t?
If you were starting a new church, or even a new club, you are going to make your by-laws reflect the values you think are important. And as people come to your group, you will expect that they will follow those by-laws.
But what happens when thousands of people have joined the group and they don’t want to follow the by-laws you have in place? Are they part of you or not? What are you going to do?
This is what the early church is facing. Thousands of Gentiles, who have been traditionally called unclean by Jews are being transformed by Jesus Christ, and God is doing great things in their communities. But they don’t follow all the laws.
So the church has a meeting to figure out what to do.
Oh how things change right? Nothing has changed for 2000 years. Got a problem? Call a meeting!
And what’s at the heart of the discussion is whether or not the Gentiles can be part of the church without taking on Jewish traditions. Namely, the law of Moses as we find in the Old Testament.
Now, just because Paul and Barnabas have returned telling stories of great things happening among the Gentiles, it doesn’t mean this is the first time it has happened.
Philip spent time in Samaria preaching and converting in Acts 8. He also met with an Ethiopian eunuch and baptized him into the church.
In Acts 10, Peter had an encounter with the Roman Centurion Cornelius, who we’re told feared God. This is when Peter sees a vision from God that it is God who decides what is clean and unclean as he directs Peter to go and minister to this man and his household. From there, Peter changes his focus to preach much more to the Gentiles.
And it’s working. Paul and Barnabas also start preaching to the Gentiles and the church is taking off in those places much like how the church began in Jerusalem.
So then the discussion becomes in this meeting in Jerusalem, “What are our by-laws?”
They are trying to decide what is most important in the church. In some ways this becomes much more serious, much more crucial for the church to settle on than what we see churches fight over today.
Churches today like to fight over things like the type of music they have. They fight over how to spend their money. They fight over what groups are allowed to use their church halls. They like to fight over how the minister dresses (yes I have seen it). They fight over seemingly little things.
Here, in the first century after the death and resurrection of Jesus, just a very short time after Jesus was with them, they are facing a huge theological issue.
What laws do we need to follow?
We’re told there is a lot of debate going on, and Peter stands up and gives a great speech. He recounts what he has been seeing amongst the Gentiles as he preaches to them. He tells of how God is moving in their hearts in incredible ways. In verse 10 he says,
“Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:10-11)
Hmm… good point there Peter. If our ancestors have been unable to follow the law of Moses with any consistency, and if we haven’t been able to do it either, then why impose it on newcomers to the church.
It’d be like us at Carman saying, “If you want to be part of our church, then you need to pray 5 hours a day.”
Does anyone here pray 5 hours a day? Would it be nice if we all did? Sure! But we need to be realistic about it. If we can’t do it, then why should we expect someone else to do it as well.
After Peter speaks, Paul and Barnabas share what they have seen as well. And I’m sure all these stories of testimony of what they have seen and heard is very moving for those who are part of the discussions.
In the end, James stands up and he acknowledges the work of God, and that God even looks favourably upon the Gentiles. And then he quotes scripture as part of his decision.
He quotes the prophet Amos of all people when he says,
“‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’—
things known from long ago.” (Acts 15:16-18)
And then he follows that up in verse 19 by saying, “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God…”
When you look at what was facing the early church, that they were facing a big decision which would change the way they would not only function as a church, but also how this church would look in terms of following well established laws which have been held up for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, this is a remarkable outcome.
Tradition should have won this debate. There were Pharisees who were converted to Jesus, and they were treated as the theological elders of the church. They were the ones who brought up the question, “What about the law?” They are the experts and their voices should have won at the end of the day.
I’m not saying the Pharisees are the bad guys, they are simply followers of Jesus who have an expertise in Biblical laws. They are expected to ask such questions by the church. That is their role. They are now disciples of Jesus and are seeking to protect and honour what they know.
This is not a Pharisees versus Jesus battle like we saw so often in the accounts of Jesus life captured in the four Gospels. This is a discussion about what it means to be a Christian, no matter your background. Gentile or Jew, what does being a follower of Jesus Christ mean in your life and your actions.
As Peter and Paul shared their experiences of God doing great things among those who do not follow the law of Moses, they started to see that maybe God is beyond their expectations and rules. Maybe, like Peter said, “… it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
Maybe that’s all that matters? Could it be?
What’s interesting is that in their response James quotes scripture. They relied on what they know of the nature of God to form their decision. And how do they know the nature of God? It begins with scripture.
One of the things we learn in our Hearing God course is that God will not contradict His written word. God won’t go against what we read in the Bible. So when James and the rest of the council in Jerusalem hear of all the good things happening among the Gentiles, they go back to scripture and see that it fits. They check to see if it’s contrary to God’s written word.
James quoting Amos is just one place he could have looked. And I’m sure when he quoted it, others in the room had visions of their own scriptural references regarding God’s vision of being known to the entire world. Maybe they remembered Jesus giving them their final instructions to spread his Good News to the ends of the earth.
Maybe they remembered how Jesus walked into a Samaritan village, following a widow, and taught them as their Messiah.
Who is welcome into the kingdom of God? Who deserves to hear the Good News and be transformed by the love of God brought to us all in Jesus Christ our Lord?
All of us.
Think about it for a moment. If the council had decided that the law of Moses applies to all Christians, then would we even be here today? Would forcing new believers to conform to a certain lifestyle, would that have kept the Gentiles in the church? Maybe, maybe not.
A life transformed by the love and grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour of the world… that’s good enough for God, so it certainly is good enough for us.
It’s not a political game. It’s not about fitting in to the practices and procedures of the church. It’s about receiving the love and grace of our God.
God will do the rest.
If we need to change anything in ourselves to be disciples of Jesus Christ, then we need to let God reveal those things to us as we read our Bibles and as we listen to His voice through prayer.
Standards are fine, but only if they are the standards of God, and if we can be absolutely sure they are from God and not our own desires.
It’s not an easy thing, which is why is easier to just let God work in us, transforming us into His children, co-heirs with Christ in the promise of eternal life with Him.
Who belongs to this church, the church of Jesus Christ? That’s easy. Anyone who wants to know him as Lord and Saviour of their lives.
Anyone at all.
Would you pray with me?
You are doing great and wonderful things in this world. Including the lives of people in our community and even here in this church.
We thank you that we are able to submit to your will for us. That we can invite you into our lives to help us see how we can be the best Christian we can possibly be, but we can only do it with your help.
So help us Lord Jesus. Help us see the plans you have for us. Help us see what we need to do in our lives that we may live joyfully for you and so that others can see this joy and come to know you as well.
Help us to put aside those things which cause us to judge others and push them away, and instead show us how your love can be extended through us, though this church, and through any other way you wish to reveal yourself to this world.
Lord, we know you will do this. And so we ask humbly for your guidance and direction in our lives.
We pray this in your most holy name. Amen and amen.