A sermon based on the Council at Jerusalem as described in Acts 15:1-18
It would be really hard to overstate just how important this particular episode in the early history of the church is. I mean, up to this point, the Spirit has been leading the disciples to do exactly what Jesus commissioned them to do:take the good news out from Jerusalem, farther and farther away from that upper room.
And as they traveled into Judea and Samaria and around the region, the Lord first added to their numbers people who spoke all kinds of languages, people who looked very much like the disciples and some who looked very different, people who would have claimed to be Pharisees, Saducees, Essenes… many different streams of Judaism.
It was pretty heady stuff.
Every where they went, the apostles (and some others) were part of God’s work: there signs and wonders, healings, visions, transformations, narrow escapes and miraculous interventions.
And then, about ten years before this particular gathering, Gentiles like Cornelius began to hear and respond to the Jesus story.
These Gentiles are people who had not grown up looking for a Messiah.
People who had never been part of the Hebrew culture.
People who came to understand God ONLY by way of Jesus.
And they, too, were folded into the body of believers who worshiped and prayed and cared for one another and the communities in which they were situated.
As you might expect, gathering people from many different backgrounds and traditions into a unified worshiping community wasn’t easy. There were more than enough arguments to go around in every city the where Christ-followers founded a congregation. Questions about how what it meant to be Gentile and part of the Jesus movement popped up pretty regularly… and now it was coming to a head.
The church in Jerusalem was made up primarily of Jewish believers. Which makes sense, really. Even though the city housed other people groups, the majority of those who responded to the good news in Jerusalem were folks who worshiped at the Temple.
About 300 miles away, in Antioch, Paul, Barnabas and others had built up a thriving worshiping community that was primarily made up of Gentiles. They were teaching and preaching, and all seemed to be going well. Until these “certain individuals” from Judea arrived.
These individuals argued, from a deeply held personal conviction, that all followers of Jesus were meant to be Jews… that in order for the saving work of Jesus to be effective on their behalf, the gentile believers would need to be circumcised. They would need to follow the law in all ways.
After all, Jesus was a Jew. He taught from the Torah, and the early Christ-following communities studied the Hebrew Scriptures.
The question being raised – which is actually a fair question – is this: can Jesus be the Jewish Messiah and offer salvation that was somehow disconnected from the Law?
Now – we need to remember that the rabbinic tradition is based on debate and discussion. Get a bunch of theologians together and they’ll talk forever, often disagreeing. This is true of most rabbis, who tend to be ok with a broad range of interpretations. That is why Jesus was generally unfazed by the leaders of the synagogues and in the temple challenging him to explain his authority and give more details about how he interpreted the scriptures.
Paul, being a Pharisee himself, would have entered into these lively conversations with passion and maybe a little pride in his expertise and knowledge.
I would imagine that Peter’s passion would have equalled Paul’s, given what we know about his passion for Jesus, so he would have felt compelled to argue his position, even if he had less formal training in the scriptures themselves.
Anyway… when Luke tells us “there was no small dissension and debate” in Antioch, I feel safe in assuming Luke was being funny. Anyone who has shared their experiences in contentious meetings (church or otherwise) knows how effective a little understatement can be in setting the tone for a story.
There was no small debate… not only because Paul was passionate, but because this was a really big deal.
Paul’s worlds were colliding
his role as defender of the purity of the faith,
keeper of all laws,
crosser of t’s and dotter of i’s….
was crashing smack into his current ministry…
finding the nuance and the balance between the law of Moses and the law of love.
Seeking the way of Jesus, which was not about jots and tittles, as much as healing and reconciliation.
Paul knew what was at stake.
This was not an argument about circumcising the male gentile Christians in Antioch.
This was about understanding the grace and mercy at the heart of the saving work of Jesus.
It was well worth a 300-mile trek to Jerusalem.
It was worth engaging in yet another round of debates.
Of course, like debater, he makes stops along the way, telling his stories and building his case. Perhaps he was even doing a little market testing – finding the best words and stories to help others see what he was seeing, to understand what he was arguing.
You know what I love about this story? The one thing that really kind of surprised me. When they got to Jerusalem, they were welcomed. They were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, who wanted to hear all that was happening among them.
These folks knew why Paul and Barnabas had come up from Antioch. They could have put up their defenses and been wary of conversation. But they opened their hearts and arms and welcomed them. They listened to the stories of Paul and Barnabas; they heard about the ministry in Antioch.
And then, the moment they had been braced for…
Some believers – just to be clear here, these are people who followed Jesus just as faithfully as Paul – some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”
It’s all well and good that they have heard about the Messiah. It’s wonderful that they understand his teachings and that this gathering of believers looks and sounds a lot like ours.
But a statement of faith is not enough. If they are going to be in… they have to be all in. They need to be circumcised and instructed in… and held accountable to the Law of Moses. You have to order them to do so.
There it was.
The people’s concerns had been voiced.
The Apostles and elders gathered.
The debate begins.
And this time Luke skips the understatement.
They went on for quite a while, the apostles and the elders. And then it was Peter who reminded the council that it was God who made clear that he was to preach among the Gentiles.
It was God who poured out the Holy Spirit on those who believed… and the Spirit was clearly at work in and among the Gentile believers, just as clearly and powerfully as among the Jewish followers.
And sounding an awful lot like the Paul we meet in his letters to the fledgling churches in Corinth and Galatia and elsewhere, Peter reminds his Jewish brothers that none of them had ever been able to keep the law perfectly. Nor had any of the generations of Jews who handed down the faith to them. In fact, the saving work of Jesus is based on his fulfillment of the law on our behalf.
Why then, Peter asked, would we place burdens on these believers that we cannot carry ourselves?
The silence that followed must have been thick.
Thick with the tension that comes with inner turmoil and shifting balance of influence.
Thick with the palpable energy that marks the Spirit at work.
And into that silence, stories were told.
Then prophecies were remembered and scriptures were consulted
And after no small amount of time… they came to agreement.
The council came to a place of consensus and were ready to spread the word.
Not that everyone was happy. Not that everyone in every congregation agreed. In fact, this would come up again and again.
But in that gathering, the apostles and elders had discerned together that this was the will of God.
And because they came together
Because they did the hard work of listening to one another and God
Because they trusted the work of Spirit as evidence of God’s desires
Because of the way they enfolded Gentile believers…
Generations of Christ followers have come to understand that God’s grace and mercy – not ritual or law-keeping – are the basis of our salvation.
There is nothing you or I can do under our own power that will get us in
There is nothing you or I can do under our own power that will keep us in
We – you and I – are a part of God’s family, God’s people because God made a way, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
That is good news, indeed.
But there is more good news.
There good news in this story for the church – for the Body of Christ.
The church can live through hard conversations.
The church can live through conflict.
The church can find its way from deep division to unity of vision
Because it has, from its very beginnings.
But the process is important… and is critical for our elders and deacons to understand
These leaders demonstrated what it means to be spiritual leaders
They were seeking to grow in their faith
They were willing to gather and listen to others with great respect – even when they knew they disagreed
They made space for silence, because it is in that space, in that quiet, that God is likely to speak
They looked back to tradition
They looked out into the world
They looked for and trusted what God was doing right then, even if it contradicted what they expected to find
They went to scripture, looking for confirmation of a new decision, not just to shore up old arguments.
And when the decision was reached, they spoke honestly about the process (Luke lets us know it was hard and long!) and they moved forward together to help others get on board.
In other words, they allowed the Spirit to move them toward unity
See, there is nothing we can do under our own power to lead the church
There is nothing we can do under our own power that will keep us (all of us – together) in the will of God.
We can only attempt those things if we live in dependence on God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
When I talked to Flo on Wednesday evening, she mentioned being a little relieved at not having Sunday School this week- that she was not excited about having to tackle this passage… I get that… Really, I do.
I wasn’t super keen on preaching this passage. It’s all about conflict.
And let’s be honest, this congregation has experienced plenty of conflict over the years. What happens if we mention conflict? Will that bring back to the surface all the stuff that has been neatly stashed away? Or will it make people push it farther into the shadows? It just seems a little fraught…
So, yeah, I get why this seems like a downer.
But the more I looked at this passage, the more I see it as a message of hope. For us, for the whole of the church.
If we place Christ at the center of our relationships
If we believe that God in our corner (not mine, not yours, but ours).
If we open our hearts, minds and eyes to the work of the Spirit…
There’s not a conflict we can’t work through
There’s not a barrier we can’t tear down… so that all might experience grace of God in Christ Jesus and become a part of the family of God.
And that right there?
That is what we are talking about when we say “Christ is Risen!”
He is risen, indeed.