GOOD TO THE HOLY SPIRIT AND TO US
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We’re into another story of conflict here. Another of those stories like the one told about Ananias and Sapphira. That kind of story that might not have made it into the annual report. But maybe this kind of story is exactly the thing that should be in the annual report. At the end it’s about a church, a group of followers of Christ who said let’s stay together.
Which really goes against a lot of what has happened in the Church over 2,000 years with conflicts. Oftentimes we ignore them and hope that they’ll go away. Other times we decide that we need to go somewhere else. What can we learn from this story which is not ultimately a story about conflict, but a story of grace? Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at it.
We have been talking about the spread of the good news of Christ in the Gentile world. God has taken the church outside its walls, as it were and this has led to new things happening. When the church goes outside its walls, we encounter people who are unlike us (and I would say that ideally we are encountering people unlike us within our church walls too). This is going to lead to questions of sameness and difference. We have talked through these weeks where the follower of Christ finds her or his identity ultimately. We have said that this identity is founded in Christ alone. What we have not said pointedly is that this truth does mean that our other differences are merely papered over. We live in them and we celebrate them and we recognize them ideally. God’s creation of a people for himself does not mean that what makes us different and unique is whitewashed. “I don’t see colour” can often be not the most helpful stance when it comes to questions of inclusion and reconciliation.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
This is a story of grace ultimately. It’s a story of how the church faced a conflict. Many in the Gentile world have been turning to Christ. Peter had a revelation in Joppa. A truth about God was made clear to him and he spoke it when he entered the villa of Cornelius and spoke to the friends and family of the Roman centurion who had gathered there to hear him. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (10:34) Yes. Barnabas and Saul have completed their first missionary journey. Cyprus. The other Antioch. Iconium. Lystra which we heard about. Derbe. Back to Antioch (the Syrian one).
Which is where the conflict comes in. Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the law of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Someone has said that the thing in question here was not racial exclusion but rather covenantal inclusion. This group of Christ followers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees were not against Gentiles becoming followers of Christ at all. What was in question was this – “What would inclusion look like.” Keeping the law, including being circumcised, was a mark of covenant faithfulness for Jews. It had been for hundreds and hundreds of years. People had died for this. It’s not hard to understand where they were coming from.
You can also understand the side of Peter, Saul and Barnabas who must have been thinking “I thought we had already settled this when we saw the Holy Spirit coming upon Gentiles.” Circumcision was no small deal. Requiring non-Jewish Christ followers to adhere to the law of Moses was no small deal in terms of it representing a barrier. No small dissension and debate is had.
They make a really good decision. They decide to talk about it. How many times can something be resolved or even headed off by sitting down and talking about it? The first ever recorded Church Council. Where we get together and talk about things. In later years this kind of gathering would become known as a synod – literally walking together. Which is a really good idea. How do we walk together through this or whatever issue or question is facing the church? Someone has said that “purity by schism has never worked well for the church.” How many times have we heard someone say how hard it is for them to grasp or get Christianity when it seems that there are so many different kinds of it? How many people have been put off by internal bickering or back-channelling or parking lot conversations after deacons meetings (I know cos I’ve had them) or any of the myriad ways in which we attempt to deal with disagreement or discord on our own (or not deal with it at all)?
They sit down and talk about it. They look to leaders. Christian leaders are not meant to be simply bureaucrats or functionaries or CEO’s overseeing an organisation (if we’re thinking of pastors). The same goes for any Christian leader though. Leaders are not to be chosen simply to fill a spot on a board or a seat at the table. Throughout this book we’ve seen Luke talking about Spirit-led leadership. About signs and wonders. These leaders are looked to but everyone is involved. Paul and Barnabas report all that God had done with them to the church, to the apostles, and to the elders.
Voices stand up and say “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” This is a question of salvation. Of being saved. Delivered. Remember throughout Luke’s gospel the use of “it is necessary” or “must” to describe God’s plan in Christ. Will these newcomers to God’s plan need to live their lives exactly like us? This is the question.
Peter stands up and begins to speak. He speaks of what has been experienced. He speaks of what God has done. “God made a choice among you,” he says, “that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us.”
This is God’s doing. Putting something of our own on God is essentially putting God to the test. The last people who put God to the test were Ananias and Sapphira. Don’t be putting your own thing on God, in other words. We were unable to bear the yoke of the law, it was too much for us. Does this mean it was all bad and we should renounce it? Neither Peter nor any other Jewish follower of Christ makes this assertion. The law was part of their identity as the people chosen by God through whom God would work His saving plan. “Look at what has happened,” says Peter. We have seen God pour out his Spirit on Gentiles without any requirements regarding circumcision (which again was a very sensitive subject) or the other laws. Which leads to Peter’s wonderful doctrinal statement of the passage. This is what we believe – “On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
The whole assembly kept silence. Silence can be a good thing. Someone has said that “Inside of silence – especially extended silence – we see that things find their true order and meaning naturally. When things find their true order, we know what is important, what lasts, what is real, what Jesus would call the reign of God or the Kingdom of God, or in other words, the big stuff. All the rest is passing. All those things you were emotional about last Wednesday that you cannot even remember are… emptiness.” Paul and Barnabas then add their voices to Peter’s. Telling the group of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. It’s always about what God does.
Then James speaks. The brother of Jesus. He’s taken on a leadership position in the Jerusalem church. “Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name.” This idea that God in Christ and through the Spirit is creating a people. This agrees with the words of the prophets, or the words of the prophets agree with this. We look to the authority of Scripture which relies on the authority of God.
The prophets who told of what God would do. God who has been making these things known from long ago. The prophet Amos put it like this – “On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom all the nations who are called by my name, says the LORD who does this.” (Amos 9:11-12)
It’s happening. We have had a common experience of the Holy Spirit. The prophets agree. Let them not be troubled. The end.
But not quite.
It’s a case of not necessarily the law, but the law if necessary here. Paul will pick up the same idea writing to the Corinthians – “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” (I Cor 10:23-24) The law if necessary, but not necessarily the law. As one of my brothers so wisely told me when I was younger, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.” We should write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. You don’t want to cause needless offense. Part of this could apply to table fellowship most definitely. When you’re having Jewish friends over for dinner, it might not be the night to go with the crab legs or the peameal bacon sandwiches for lunch while they eat something else. Where Peter was speaking of something doctrinal – We believe that we will be saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus, just as they will – James is speaking of a matter of discipline. Of a matter of what it looks like to be a disciple of Christ. Just because something is lawful does not mean it’s beneficial and may God help us to discern such truths so that we’re not causing needless offence.
Of course it’s not just about not causing offence. The essence of the law is love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Love your neighbour as yourself. Love for God. Love for one another. Love for oneself. Last week we talked about idolatry as misdirected worship. Misdirected love in other words that gets in the way of love of God and love of others and love of self. The thing about fornication is not simply about not causing offence but rather making an idol of sex (or money or addictions or power or fame or popularity or fill-in-the-blank) so don’t do it and by the way don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols either because – well… idols. It’s not about a prescribed set of rules but it’s more about asking what does love look like in any given situation – meaning love of God, love of neighbour and love of self – remembering that love is not simply nice feelings but that love is a verb and the action implied is the seeking of the other’s highest good and that is how God loves us (because it always starts with God). The Christ following life is meant to look like something, and bearing a family resemblance in the family of God looks like something, and Jesus’ command to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect or be merciful as your Father is merciful is to be taken seriously because we are the recipients of our heavenly Father’s mercy.
The message goes out. A letter is written describing what “has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” This is what walking together looked like for the early church. May God’s Spirit help us to do the same thing as we walk together. May this be true for all God’s people of every nation.