Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
July 17, 2016
Yesterday, in a tweet, Timothy Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City wrote: “The Gospel shows us a God far more holy than a legalist can bear and yet more merciful than a humanist can conceive.” He’s got a point. We want God to think like us. We want to be in charge instead of letting God lead. It’s an old problem as we’re going to hear about in a minute.
For the next two weeks I’m in the pulpit, we’ll be exploring the Council of Jerusalem which is covered in the fifteenth chapter of Acts. This is the first great council of Christian leaders. Some suggest that there would not be another such significant council for nearly 300 year when Christians leaders gathered at Nicaea… There several important church councils in the 3rd and 4th Centuries such as Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon. Those councils dealt with many important theological issues such as the nature of a triune God along with the humanity and divinity of Christ. But the Jerusalem Council comes first.
In a way, the Council of Jerusalem is a response to the success of what we now know as Paul’s first missionary journey. All of a sudden there is an influx of Gentile believers and those who come from Jewish backgrounds feel threatened. Soon, the number of Gentile Christians will outnumber Jewish Christians. This is threatening to those in Jerusalem. Just who can become a Christian and what do they need to do in order to be considered a follower of Jesus? That’s what’s at stake. Read Acts 15:1-21
There are times, the church is its own worst enemy. One of the quotes often made about the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and attributed to the revivalist Charles Finney, who in the 1830s remarked that there is a jubilee in hell every year when the General Assembly meets.” I think it’s an exaggeration. But I also believe it’s true that any church meeting has the potential to create a celebration in hell. For that reason, we need to deal with one another, even when we are in battles over important issues, with grace and love. We need to be humble. We need to be willing to listen. We must not assume that we are automatically right and they are wrong. Let me tell you a few stories:
As the youngest elected Deacon at Cape Fear Presbyterian Church, I got to see the ugly side of the church at a young age. I was sixteen and in the Southern Presbyterian Church system, the Deacons did a lot of the building and ground work as well as managing the budget. One of the issues discussed in those days (under building use) was what we’d do if an African-American came to church. You’d think such a discussion would be a no-brainer, that we’d open the door and welcome them in. But in the mid-70s, that wasn’t not the case. A heated debate ensued. There was much gnashing of teeth before we could reach that decision. Ironically, this wasn’t really an issue. There weren’t African-Americans knocking on our doors. The debate, however, set a precedent and long after my time, the church adopted a family from Ghana. For the four or five years the family lived in Wilmington, they worshipped at Cape Fear and since then other families of color have been a part of the fellowship. Change is hard, but when we focus on God’s vision, we get through it.
When I was a pastor in Utah, we built a new church. There was a lot of labor put into the building by members. We helped out with the framing. With a number of qualified individuals within the congregation, we did all the roofing, painting, insulation, trim and plumbing work along with most of the electrical. We worked on the building for over a year. As you can imagine, there was a lot of ownership in the building. We took pride in it. I could point out parts of the roof that I had worked on, or walls where I had placed insulation, or had painted.
With so much sweat invested in the building, it didn’t take long for conflicts to rise over its use. Some members felt groups such as AA, NA, and a Saturday-meeting Seventh Day Adventist Church didn’t treat the building with the respect and care it deserved. There were those who wanted to “punish” the guilty for rather minor offenses. A few even called for restricting building use to official church events. But others had a vision for how this building (which was by far the largest non-Mormon religious facility in Southern Utah at the time) could be used to spread the gospel to our neighbors.
At a meeting in which the two sides came head-to-head, Brad, one of the members of the building committee made a bold statement. He said, “I hope this building is used so much that it wears out and we have to build a new one.” I agreed with Brad. The building isn’t an object of worship. We both viewed the church building as a tool, but his comment was like throwing gasoline on a fire. The church spent the next few months struggling to find itself and its purpose in the community. Thankfully, and what I feel is God’s guidance, the more open group carried the day. Yes, there continued to be conflicts, but not as heated. After all, we’re mortal humans with our own self-interest.
You know, the church has an awesome responsibility. Sometimes I wonder why God trusts us so much, for as I said earlier, we are often our own worst enemies. This can be true today as it was in the first century. In the days when Christians were stoned, burned and crucified, they didn’t any more enemies. They should have been excited about the growth experienced. But that’s not the human way… We don’t like change even though it is inevitable.
We ended the 14th Chapter with Paul and Barnabas kicking back in Antioch. They were there for some time, and we can assume they nursed their wounds and sore feet. At some point, Paul’s bruises from the stoning faded. Life was going on well. But then, at the beginning of the 15th Chapter, everything changes. Visitors pop in from Judea. They teach a doctrine contrary to what Paul and Barnabas had been teaching. For a Gentile to become a Christian and to have the hope of salvation, they have to first be circumcised, according to these dudes. In other words, the Gentile has to first become a Jew. Now, if you think back to the 11th Chapter of Acts, you’d recall that this issue was already settled. I’m sure none of you are this way, but sometimes it’s hard for people to change. It’s hard to let go of the past! (None of you are this way, right?)
These outsiders created a lot of dissension within the church. Imagine, you’re a Gentile believer and all of sudden someone suggests that you need surgery to continue to belong. (I don’t think so!) In order to solve this problem once and for all, Paul and Barnabas along with others from Antioch head to Jerusalem. They’re welcomed, but when they report on all that is happening, we learn that some Pharisees (remember those guys who gave Jesus a hard time, they’re even in the new church) insist that Gentiles be circumcised and keep the Jewish law.
Peter is the first to address the gathering. As he had done earlier, which is recorded in Acts 11, he speaks of God doing a new thing and how they shouldn’t be limiting God. Then Barnabas and Paul speaks, giving a report on what God had done through their missionary efforts. Finally, James addresses the crowd and, interpreting what God is doing through a passage from the prophet Amos, suggests that they don’t need to be putting stumbling blocks in front of Gentile conversions. Instead, they ask that Gentile Christian refrain from things that might create confusion in a pagan world. They’re not to eat meat dedicated to idols. They’re to abstain from fortification, in other words they’re to keep themselves pure. Furthermore, there’s a linkage between extramarital sex and pagan temples. Finally, they’re to avoid eating strangled meat, which probably has to do with a belief that blood belonged to God and was to be returned to the earth.
It’s interesting that although we’re told there was another group who wanted make it more difficult for one to become a Christian, the book of Acts doesn’t give us about their side of the argument. Thankfully they didn’t carry the day and God’s mission of spreading the Gospel to all people was supported. And, as we continue to look at Paul’s missionary efforts, we’ll see that the church continued to grow.
There are a couple of things we should learn from the Council of Jerusalem. First of all, there are people who dislike the idea of compromise and suggest that to engage in such efforts is to show a lack of backbone. But here we see there was a compromise. No, the Gentiles didn’t have to become Jews, but they did have to change and stand apart from the pagan culture in which they lived. What’s important isn’t that they keep doing what the Jews have been doing but that they come into a relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s Christ’s glory, not the glory of the past, that’s important. We have to remember what’s essential.
A second thing that we should realize is that the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, by accepting that God opened the door to the Gentiles, essentially marginalizes themselves. It wouldn’t be long before the bulk of the church would consist of Gentiles. The decision of this council changes the nature of the church. But what’s important, the council understood, isn’t that they stay in the position of power, but that the Gospel gets out into the world. Sometimes I wonder in our own church debates if we’re more interested in holding on to the past because we are afraid of losing power.
Finally, we need to understand that both sides of the debate at the Council of Jerusalem had valid points. Both were speaking from Scripture. For this reason, we need to approach any such conflict with humility and grace. I came across this quote the other day from a writer that I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with a lot:
In any sort of conflict, we always assume that our motives our pure, that our cause is just, that our moral ground is higher than those we face. We so very rarely entertain the idea that we could be mistaken or dangerous. In our narrative there is usually a clear villain and conveniently it’s never us. Someone else is always brandishing the black hat.
You know, one of the things I like about Christianity is that we admit we’re a part of the problem. We acknowledge, every Sunday, our own sinfulness. Because we are sinners, saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, we should be gracious toward others who might disagree with us. Yes, we should be passionate about what we believe, but we should also be willing to show, to use an old Presbyterian term, “mutual forbearance” and to acknowledge that two people of good intentions might come down on different sides of an argument. Be gracious in all that you do. That’s the Christian way. Amen.
 Amos 9:11-12
 See Leviticus 17-18.
 See Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Order, F-3.0106