“Who is the Church For?” – Acts 15
Epiphany 3 – January 21, 2018
- Church Conventions
Three months ago, delegates from across Canada met in Kitchener, Ontario for the Lutheran Church – Canada Convention. A couple of significant things happened there: we agreed on a new structure for our church body, and we elected a new president. That new president has already begun his work, but will be officially installed next Sunday.
Church Conventions are not a new thing. In our church body we have been having them for 30 years now… since the founding Convention in 1988. Before that, our predecessor church body was holding Conventions back into the mid-1800’s. A really significant church Convention took place in Nicaea in Turkey in 325 A.D. At that Convention, our belief in the Trinity was fleshed out and heresies were identified and set aside. But Acts 15 is the record of the very first church Convention. It took place less than 20 years after Jesus’ resurrection, and it, too, addressed a vital theological question.
- The Context
Let’s remember the context for this Convention. Last Sunday, we heard how Paul and Barnabas had been sent on the first missionary expedition of the Gospel outside of the milieu of Israel where the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus had taken place. They were sent from the church in Antioch, Syria to present-day Turkey, and they returned to Antioch to give a report on their missionary activity. At about that same time, in 49 A.D., some men came from Judea, probably from Jerusalem, but not necessarily from “Headquarters,” and they were teaching the believers in Antioch that unless a man was circumcised he could not be saved. Paul and Barnabas disagreed in principle with such a statement, and debated with those from Jerusalem. When no agreement could be reached, the church in Antioch sent the two to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the apostles and elders of the church at “Headquarters.” They were welcomed by the believers, by the apostles, by the elders of the church, and they gave a report about what God had done through them during their journeys.
- The Catalyst
But then again some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees put forward their position: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.” Let’s review who was who. The Pharisees were a group of politico-religious leaders in Israel that exerted power and authority over the people. They were strict in their obedience to the laws of Moses, and often came into conflict with Jesus over His teachings and His actions. They were among the groups who called for the crucifixion of Jesus, labelling Him a trouble-maker, a law-breaker, a boat-shaker.
However, some Pharisees – like Nicodemus who came to visit Jesus one night, and like Joseph of Arimathea who was secretly a disciple and who buried Jesus’ body – were intrigued by Jesus and followed Him. Early in the book of Acts, it is noted that a large number of priests became believers, and obviously some Pharisees had come to trust in Jesus, too. Because of their background in the laws of Moses, they were the ones who were requiring circumcision of the Gentiles. According to Jewish people there were only two kinds of people in the world – Jews and non-Jews / Gentiles, and one of the obvious distinguishing marks was… you guessed it… circumcision. These Pharisees were saying that Gentiles had to undergo that painful surgery and they also had to obey the law of Moses. In other words, they basically had to become converts to Judaism and then they could be saved by faith and included in the still relatively new Christian Church.
So that was the catalyst for the very first Church Convention, and that’s the issue that needed to be discussed and resolved. Who was the church for? Was it only for those who became Jews first? Was it only for those who obeyed the ancient laws and traditions? What did a person have to do to become part of the church?
This could have become a very divisive issue. It could have broken the fledgling church apart at the seams. It could have created two camps – both of which would have been weaker without the other. Let’s see how they dealt with this dilemma at what is sometimes called the Jerusalem Council.
- The Council and the Counsel
First of all, when this teaching challenged Paul and Barnabas in Antioch, there was a sharp dispute and debate about it. But the two parties did not prolong the fighting. That would have been destructive, too. They quickly resolved to go to Jerusalem to discuss it and resolve it with the advice of the apostles and elders.
Second, they gave both sides a respectful hearing of their position. You know how, in any dispute there are always two sides to the story and usually the truth is somewhere between the two. Both parties needed to be able to put forward their views. The challenge that Paul and Barnabas heard at Antioch was restated here in Jerusalem: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.” The law of Moses would have been much broader than just circumcision. It would have referred to the various sacrifices and offerings that were described and prescribed especially in the book of Leviticus.
Acts 15 tells us there was much discussion about this question. I can vouch for that happening at church conventions. Someone presents a resolution, and then several people get up to offer their views and opinions about the matter. When enough debate has taken place, a vote is taken.
After the discussion, Peter, one of the apostles and certainly a leader in the early church, got up to share how his very own experience addressed the debate. He told the group how years earlier God had sent him to proclaim the Gospel to the Roman centurion, Cornelius, and his household in Caesarea, and how they had come to believe, and how God had even sent His Holy Spirit on them. In Peter’s experience, there was a simple observation of what the Holy Spirit was already doing.
Peter reminded people what a difficult burden the law had been for the Jews for the last 1,000 years or so. The Jews had struggled to obediently keep all of those rules and regulations about offerings and sacrifices, and cleanness and uncleanness. Peter encouraged the group not to weigh down these new believers with such a responsibility. His final remark was powerful: “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
Then Paul and Barnabas got to say their piece and they told of the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them and how many had come to believe.
The last one to speak was James, and although the Catholic Church points to Peter as the first pope, James may have actually been the one presiding over this Convention. This James was not the disciple James, the brother of John. Acts 12 records that he had been killed as a martyr by King Herod. This James was actually the brother – the half-brother – of Jesus. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus’ own brothers did not believe in Him. But after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven, they were counted among the 120 believers in Acts 1. So, this James got up to speak, and whereas Peter gave the testimony of his own experience, James adds the authority of God’s Word. James points out that the words of the prophets agree with Peter’s experience that God was including the Gentiles as His people. James points to a passage from the prophet Amos, but in the book of Romans Paul would use passages from Isaiah, Hosea, Samuel, Deuteronomy and the Psalms to make the same point – God intends to save the Gentiles, too. James final point was persuasive. He said, “It is my judgment that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”
The outcome of that Convention was to listen to, respect and accept the wisdom and the decision of the leaders. They agreed that the Gentiles did not need to be saddled with circumcision or any of those Old Testament ritual laws, and they sent a letter to that effect back to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. The letter kind of apologized for the spiritual trouble that had been caused over this whole issue, and simply asked that the new believers abstain from two things: sexual immorality (which really had nothing to do with the issue at hand but was part of the moral law of Moses) and food that had been offered to idols (which may lead a new Christian to wonder about the difference between their new God and the idol).
When the message was delivered to the church in Antioch, the believers were glad for its encouraging message. Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, and ended up having their own disagreement about whether or not to take Mark on their next missionary journey. A couple of weeks ago we heard that God works all things for good, and God used even this disagreement for the good of doubling the missionary effort as Paul now took Silas as his missionary partner, while Barnabas and Mark went out together.
- Take-Home Points
So, what are the take home points for us, as a congregation, and as individuals?
a. It’s OK to disagree
It’s OK to disagree… in a family, even in a church. We don’t all have the same background or experiences, and that means we don’t all end up at the same place. We want to be able to agree to a great extent on the chief theological positions, but we may differ on the practical living out and implementation of those doctrines. Fighting for the faith doesn’t mean fighting with the faithful. We may disagree about the practical things related to our faith, but we always want to remember that when we are on Jesus’ side we are on the same side. We are not enemies with one another. The enemy is external. Remember you’re on the same team, and work toward unity of faith and practice.
b. Listen Respectfully
The second thing we notice and do well to imitate is to listen respectfully. The believing Pharisees presented their view. Peter shared his personal experience. Paul and Barnabas told what God had done through them. James summed things up with some words from the Word. There is a summary statement that we need to read between the lines of Acts 15: “When everyone had spoken, the believers were united in their conclusion that people with Jewish background and people with Gentile background are both saved by their faith in Jesus.” What comes from respectful listening to one another even in a situation of conflict is growth, learning, clarification, change.
c. Watch for the Spirit
A third take-home point is to watch for the leading of the Spirit. In some ways, the whole idea of God is subjective – we can’t see God. In some ways, God is objective – we can see what He is doing, what He has done. Peter’s words in Acts 15 are a great encouragement to look for and listen for places where the Holy Spirit is working and leading, and to just join Him in what He is doing. That was a pretty common refrain for those who were involved with the Joining Jesus on His Mission study a year ago. Look for where Jesus is already at work in a person’s life, and just jump in and join Him in what He is doing.
d. Accept the decision of leadership
Finally, accept the decision of leadership. This is what the fledgling church did. They heard Peter’s experience, they listened to James’ Biblical advice, they responded with a united decision. Accepting the decision of leadership happens a lot. We accept the decisions political leaders make, the decisions judicial leaders make, the decisions medical leaders make, the decisions educational leaders make, the decisions family leaders make. They have a lot more expertise and experience in those spheres of life than does the ordinary citizen. In times of disagreement in the church, as we listen, and watch, it is wise in the end to trust that our spiritual leaders are using their God-given wisdom and experience to make decisions (as they are in harmony with the Word of God) in the best interests of the Kingdom of God.
As I was reading through this chapter of Acts, I was reminded of our December Voters’ meeting. We, too, had some sharp debate. I believe that we gave both sides of the primary issue a respectful hearing. I hope that you could recognize the leading of the Spirit in the comments that were made from the floor of the meeting. Ultimately, we did respect and accept the prayer-bathed advice of our duly elected leaders. There wasn’t unanimity but there was agreement in the decision by the end of the meeting. And thankfully we are still God’s people together here at Hope.
- Who is the church for?
I guess we could ask why this chapter of Acts is one of the 100 Essential Bible passages. The reason is that it addresses the significant question: Who is the church for?
Is the church for those who have been part of the church their whole life long? Is the church for those who follow the traditions and rules? Is the church for the good and Godly people?
The Church Convention in Acts 15 makes it clear that the church is not only for them. The church is also for outcasts and sinners, for those who are emotionally fragile, and for those who are rough around the edges. Jesus made that pretty clear in his own ministry. Our Gospel reading featured Jesus saying “The Kingdom of God is near,” and then going out to call some brash fishermen to be part of that Kingdom. He also brought the kingdom to a Samaritan woman, a cheating tax-collector, a woman caught in adultery, to lepers, to children, to a man blind from birth, a Canaanite woman, a Gentile centurion, a dead girl. They were definitely NOT the good and Godly, religiously acceptable people. There was no group of people that Jesus’ ministry did not touch. Oh, yeah, he even had meaningful conversations and interactions with pharisees and priests.
The church is for sinners – the Pharisee-like sinners who think the faith is all about keeping the rules, and the more rebellious sinners who have apparently broken all the rules already!!
Who is the church for? It’s not just for us who are here. It’s not just a club where we serve and help one another. The church is for those who are not like us, for those who need to be served and to be loved by us. Oh, and that gives us a sense of our God-given purpose – sent to serve and love.
God’s plan of salvation wasn’t just for Jews, it was also for Gentiles. It wasn’t about race… it was about grace! Grace in Jesus. Like Peter said: “It is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Any person who walks in those church doors – no matter what they look like, no matter their past lives, no matter their race, their gender, their size, their age – any person who wants Jesus as their Saviour is welcome here! As Jesus said, “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near”… and it’s here… in Him! Amen.