Scripture: Acts 15:1–18
Michael and Jesse took a long time to make the decision. They loved First Church. They loved the people. They loved their Sunday school class. Their kids love the youth group. But it was a big decision for them to decide to put their names forward for membership. They knew it would be a controversial issue in the church when they decided to join…because Michael was black and Jesse was white.
They knew it would be controversial at First Church, because their relationship had been controversial at every church that they attended, and in both of their families. So they weren’t surprised when the business meeting turned contentious. Most people were polite in their concern, but some were downright nasty. “It isn’t natural.” “The Church has to stand for what’s right.” “The Bible is clear on this issue.” “If we keep watering down our faith, how are we any different than the rest of the world?” In the end, the family was voted in by a rather wide margin. But for Michael and Jesse, they would always know that there were certain individuals who didn’t want them there.
This homemade parable could have taken place in the unrest of the Civil Rights era of the 60’s. Or last week, in some of our churches. When questions of changing cultural expectations hit the church, it gets messy. It is complicated to try and discern how the church is to engage in these cultural debates. What does it mean to be faithful to the message of God, and when are we just raising up a cultural standard, assuming it is God’s Will? When are we watering down the faith, and when are we participating in a faith that is dynamic and ever-changing?
These were the questions that faced the early Church. Today’s Scripture passage tells the story of two of the early church leaders, Paul and Barnabas, and their work wrestling with these questions. They also had faced more than one contentious church meeting, and now found themselves in the middle of a fight between those who felt like the Holy Spirit was dynamic and creating a new way of living the faith…and those who felt like the “newness” was an abandonment of cherished values of the past. While the emotional processes are similar to Michael and Jesse, the issue in Acts is obviously a very different one.
In this case, the issue at stake is circumcision. All the way back, since Genesis 12, when God covenants with Abram, circumcision was a symbol of that covenant. It was the way that God’s people set themselves apart from the Egyptians and the Philistines and the Assyrians and Babylonians and Persians and Greeks and now the Romans. This symbol, alongside of a very specific way of living and eating and worshipping, was central to their faith. It was the way that Abraham and Moses and David and Ezra and Jesus and the disciples had lived their lives. These were symbols of their faith, and they were the signs that one had chosen to follow Yahweh. Like a wedding ring is a symbol of that relationship, or the flag a symbol of citizenship in a country. For generations these were expectations—indeed requirements—to follow the One True God. If someone is to join this community, circumcision is expected.
But now, those long-held traditions are being questioned. After the stoning of Stephen, the Church began to scatter, and reach out to Gentiles…those who had not held to these traditions of Abraham. But these Gentiles were falling in love with Jesus. And early church leaders, like Paul and Barnabus, began to see the Holy Spirit at work in these Gentile believers. These uncircumcised, non-tradition-following Gentiles seemed like they were demonstrating the presence of God. And exhibiting gifts of the Holy Spirit of God. How should the Church respond?
Let me suggest that we are about ready to find ourselves in a similar situation here in 2021. Not only are we wrestling with significant cultural changes and shifts, but the pandemic has caused us to have to ask a new set of significant questions about what it means to be Church. Consider these assumptions that have been held dear for a long time:
- Church is about being together, in the same physical space.
- Programming in the building is the only way to be Church.
- More activities means deeper spirituality.
- Church members have to live in the same community as the building.
And many more! We will be forced to ask ourselves, like those Early Church members, what is truly the work of the Spirit, and what is simply “what we are used to”? What is the way that Church needs to be in order to be Church, or when is it something more tied to our culture and personal history and the dreaded “we’ve always done it this way”? Now, after the pandemic, we haven’t always done it “this way.” And we find ourselves as shaken as some in the Early Church.
So, where do we go from here? What does this story have to teach us about the days ahead? Let me suggest that Acts 15 isn’t as simple as we have made it out to be sometimes. This passage is sometimes used to talk about inclusion of the outsider. The message goes something like this: “Just like those who insisted on circumcision for new converts, some in the Church insist on converting new church members not to the Gospel of Christ, but to their own narrow cultural expectations and personal way of living.” It’s a good message. And I would suggest that much of the book of Acts is exactly about that message. About inclusion and welcoming those who are different than us. Two weeks ago, we talked about the outsider Stephen, and how the Twelve made his voice central to their leadership. Last week, we talked about the outsider Ethiopian Eunuch, and the ways that he was included despite Scriptural reasons for him not to be. After that, Paul and Barnabas go on this missionary journey to include and welcome the outsider Gentiles. And in what is perhaps the most striking example of this message, Acts 11 tells the story of Peter and Cornelius, where the primary leader of the church comes to understand that putting up walls of exclusion based on old Scriptural interpretation was simply not what the Spirit was up to. Acts echoes this message of inclusion again and again.
But not Chapter 15. At least not the way that I read it. In my reading, this is not a story of inclusion of the Gentiles. I think by Acts 15, that is a closed case. This is not a story about how to convert the outsider. The question of Acts 15 is how to convert the insider.
Look again at how the passage begins. Luke tells us that there are “certain individuals” who make their way to the Antioch church and begin telling the Gentiles that they are doing it wrong. They are “watering down the faith.” They need to read their Bibles. But by the time that Paul and Barnabas report this to the leaders in Jerusalem, the question is not whether or not these “certain individuals” are correct in their requirements for new converts. Paul and Barnabas don’t think so. Peter doesn’t think so…ever since Cornelius this is a closed case for him. Not even James, the brother of Jesus and rising leader in the Church, agrees with these people. The question by the time we get to Acts 15 is not “What we are going to do about these Gentiles?” The question is “What are we going to do about these ‘certain individuals?’”
Because these early Church leaders know that the insider can be more of the problem than the outsider. Insiders who are more worried about making clones of themselves than opening their eyes to new expressions of faith. Insiders who cannot see the Spirit at work because the Spirit-filled Christians right in front of them don’t fit their narrow personal experience of the faith. Insiders who are more worried about “watering down the faith” than about handing out invitations to the pool party. These early Church leaders know that the failure of these “certain individuals” to open the door to others simply means that they are shutting themselves out from the work of the Spirit. Paul and Barnabas don’t show up looking for permission to convert the outsider, they are looking for advice to convert the insiders who don’t think that they need to be converted.
So, again, what about us? What happens when our insider status becomes a hindrance to the Gospel? What do we do next? What was the game plan for the Church, and what is our game plan moving forward for converting the “certain individuals” in our midst? Three parts from the passage make sense for us today:
First, double down on grace. Look at Peter’s words, starting in verse 6. Remember that all of these folks: Paul, Peter, James, have all been insiders, but have all come to realize that that insider-ness can be part of the problem. Those who can lead 10-part Bible studies on who we are supposed to leave out, stand in the way of the Church. They had all done it, but have now learned how to get over it, and have become converted themselves to the Gospel to the marginalized. Peter reminds the Church to be a place of grace. These “certain individuals” are just trying to figure it out. Biblical scholar Craig Koester suggests that what people fear most is not change, but loss. These “certain individuals” are losing what has been dear to them, and so some grace is required. Peter reminds us to be gracious to those who think that their insider status matters more than the love of Christ. By verse 11, he makes it clear: “on the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (not by whether or not we can name the books of the Bible in order, or our perfect Sunday school attendance since we were born). Outsiders and insiders alike will receive the same grace.
The second word is this: shut up. In verse 12, it says “the whole assembly kept silence.” What this seems to mean is that they sat in the room together, quietly, intentionally. No one said a word. All learned to listen to the whispers of the Spirit. How often do we talk ourselves to death? Debate and discussion and conversation are important parts of the life of the Church. But sometimes, we need to sit. And listen. And be silent, before one another and the Holy Spirit. Conversion is a matter of the heart, and trying to talk one another into our position is a cognitive work. Sometimes, we need to shut up. And in the silence, we all find ourselves converted.
Finally, a third word for us today from the Church leader James: Read your Bible! Again, this is a double-edged sword, since there is plenty of Biblical evidence for exclusion…these “certain individuals” were experts on it. But here in Acts 15, James uses the prophet Amos to teach that the overarching story of Scripture is that of inclusion. In the passage, the insiders are grieving the loss of the Temple, the traditional, physical space that mattered so much to them. But in the face of grief, the prophet foretells a time when even the Gentiles would seek the Lord of Israel. When God would call all peoples together. So how do you convert the insider? The Bible. Help them to see that their sacred text is not a license to exclude, a reservation book at a fancy restaurant that lets them in while others stay outside. The Story of Scripture has overall been a story of inclusion, of invitation, of welcome. To all of us…insider or outsider. James goes on to say that these outsiders should follow some of the rules of the insiders, a compromise to keep the “certain individuals” from getting too riled up. “They’ll come around,” James seems to say. “Just humor them for a while and they’ll figure it out eventually.”
And it works. The Church business meeting concluded with consensus. The text says that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” There was unity in the end, where there was once division. And just a few chapters later, in Chapter 20, Acts tells us that Paul, ministering to a new community of outsiders, gathers around a very different symbol, the table of Christ. Here, Acts tells us that the Jesus-followers gathered on the first day of the week to share in the unity of the breaking of the bread. Insiders and new converts…together. A new symbol of unity and inclusion, where all are welcome.
Church of 2021, we face a changing world, with confusing cultural expectations and divisions. But we face that world armed with grace, with quiet prayer, with Scripture to guide us, and a table to unite us.