Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 14, 2017
Acts 15:1-18 and Luke 2:29-32
A man is in a conversation with his friend, “I can’t take it anymore, it’s my wife. Every time we have an argument, she gets historical!” he says.
“Don’t you mean ‘hysterical’?” asked his friend.
“No, I mean historical, every argument we have, she’ll go, ‘I still remember that time when you…’”
Our passage from Acts has a wonderful way of calling us to humility. It cuts us back to size in the sense that we learn that when we experience conflict, controversy, or friction as people of faith that there must be something wrong with us. We could be thinking that our conflict is abnormal.
It is therefore helpful to be reminded that controversy in the Church is nothing new. We are reminded that struggling with differing understandings of what God is doing can actually help bring Christians together.
Since the early days of the church, there has been conflict in the church as it dealt with major issues. In today’s passage we are talking about this first meeting of what would be the church and how it guided the future of the institution. Who belongs in the church? That is what we are learning today.
The early church developed from the original Jewish folk who had been the definition of “God’s people” for centuries. Then Jesus came and He too was a Jew. But after Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, a new dispensation was born.
For the Jewish people circumcision is the illustration in this text of the way we try to manage the gifts of God into some kind of commodity we can control. Today, thank goodness, that is not a question anyone ever has, or will, ask in this church. I know we have other ways of ordering things so some people are in and others are excluded. They can be big ways, excluding people because of the way we interpret scripture, for example. Or they can be smaller ways, subtle things we say and do that signal to people that they are not welcome.
The thing is that there were people from Gentile background who were becoming part of the faith. There were those who expected the Gentiles, previously non-Jews, to be given this “format” of being circumcised as a mark of becoming part of the community of faith.
Therefore the controversy at this first church council according to Acts 15 was whether or not to make circumcision a requirement. Knowing this background, I sense, gives us some insight into how these people of faith dealt with working towards unity. In the recent past there have been issues that made it hard for Christians to stand together, such as slavery, racism, the role of women with regards to leadership in the church, and more recently gender diversity.
As we start chapter 15, we learn that the early church at that time was going through its first identity crisis.
Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch where many Gentiles became followers of Jesus. They are visited by a group from Judea. Their mission was to correct Paul. They were aware that Paul was bringing non-Jews into the church and for these visitors, this was a problem. They decided to set Paul right by telling him, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom we’ve received from Moses, you can’t be saved.” (Acts 15:1).
In essence, Paul and Barnabas had a successful time among the Gentiles. These Jewish visitors said that belief in Jesus as God’s Messiah was not enough to be saved. Salvation only came from circumcision.
We are told that Paul and Barnabas “took sides” which is a rather mild way of saying they had a heated argument with the Judeans.
The Judeans and Paul were not able to come to an agreement. The church elders and apostles summoned the two parties to Jerusalem to solve the problem.
With a process of talking to each other, listening to each other’s testimonies and bearing with those that want to pre-judge, the discussions were ongoing. We have no record as to whether this was resolved in one day, a week, a few months, or a few decades, but what we do know, is that they didn’t come to an agreement rapidly.
They took their time, they didn’t cast a quick vote and get done with it. Yes, this is hard for people that want to move on. Understandably, they don’t enjoy a tedious process.
According to Acts 15, there were the Pharisees from the Jerusalem church, who wondered how anyone could even dare think that circumcision wasn’t necessary. Then Peter echoes Jesus by saying, “Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear?”
Peter and Barnabas then share the signs and wonders that have taken place during their mission among the Gentiles.
James, the brother of Jesus and the “de facto” head of the fledgling church decided in the end that no circumcision was needed. He agrees with Peter and Paul, there should be no extra burden placed on these new believers.
Couldn’t we perhaps learn something from this early church? Did you notice something in the text? There was no vote on the issue. Instead, there was honest discussion and perhaps consensus. In our modern churches, conflict is dealt with in a few ways. Most churches unfortunately ignore the conflict. In other churches it is handled technically, with a vote following Robert’s Rules of Order. But there are other ways to handle conflict. Tony Robinson describes the value of testimony: In dealing with change and conflict, we should follow Acts in paying attention to the prehistory of the conflict and carefully defining the issues or questions for debate and discernment. In Acts the next move was for the body of apostles and elders to listen to the testimony of those involved. What had Peter, Paul, and Barnabas experienced? What did they perceive God to be doing? What was going on? Thus we have a deliberative body listening to the testimony of what people have seen, heard, and experienced. By definition, testimony is not primarily argumentation for a position. Rather, it is telling what we have witnessed, telling our story.
How does our church denomination handle conflict? What do we learn from today’s reading in Acts 15? Does the longer route of listening to one another eventually prove to be worthwhile?
Copyright 2017 – Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church
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