Acts 15 has been called the turning point, the center piece, the watershed and the central hinge on which the book of Acts turns. And biblical scholars say that no chapter in the New Testament is more difficult to translate and understand. It’s a story about growing pains in the early church as Gentiles, non-Jewish believers, begin to share in the promises to Israel. As the gospel moves out in ever widening circles, the young, untried Church has to come to terms with the challenging realities of a more global faith.
Read Acts 15:1-12
Acts 15 opens with a story about a group of powerful, well-educated Judaic-Christians who argue that Gentile males who want to be saved have to be circumcised. They need to wear a physical mark as a sign of inner change. Jewish law is clear about this. Circumcision is a mark of the covenant. And you can’t just set aside some of the rules to accommodate a few people, right? It’s that old slippery slope. If you give way on one part of the law, you risk losing the whole thing.
The Church leaders convene a council in Jerusalem. All the apostles are there, along with James, the brother of Jesus and head of the church in Jerusalem. And they have a good ol’ church fight. Let’s call it a debate. Does God save people because they follow the rules, or does God save people through grace?
Before I tell you what they decided, let’s just stop and acknowledge that churches still have this fight … er, debate . . . all the time. Can you drink and swear and smoke and be a Christian? What if your body is covered in tattoos and body piercings? What if you struggle with addiction? Can you still be a Christian? Do you have to be conservative or liberal? Catholic or Protestant? What if you are an environmentalist? Or a logger? Do you have to read the Bible literally? Do you have to claim Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior? Do you have to be baptized? Is there a place for you in the family of God? Do you have to change in order to fit in? Do you have to rewrite your song in order to resonate with someone else’s tone?
Some people struggle with the false belief that we must meet certain standards in order to please God and feel good about ourselves. Consider these laws that people hold themselves to:
- The law of church attendance. Some say to themselves, “If I attend every worship service, and work diligently in the church, then God will be pleased with me. Those who only show up at Christmas and Easter are not as committed to their faith.”
- The law of morality: “If I can just behave well enough I will be acceptable to God and others. Those who don’t behave according to my moral standards must change if they want to join us.”
- The law of perfectionism: “If only I can keep my house spotless, my family looking good, and my social life in order – if only I can keep tight charge over every area of my life, then God will smile upon me and I will be happy.”
I have a feeling that Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, tells us the story of the Council of Jerusalem to make a point. There should be no division among the people of Christ. Luke uses a special Greek word get this across: homothumadón. The word is used only 11 times in all of the New Testament, and 10 of those times are by Luke in the Book of Acts. It means “of one accord,” “of one mind and purpose,” “shared commitment,” or “united action stemming from united concern,” “harmony,” “together.”
The Council of Jerusalem realizes there are people out there who do not want this kind of unity. There are some who want to stir up, disturb, unsettle, throw into confusion.
The leaders of the earliest church had a different vision. Homothumadón . Together. That’s what the church was supposed to be. That’s what the church IS supposed to be. Together.
Like good church people, the Council of Jerusalem writes a letter. And like a good church letter, it has a compromise. Male Gentile converts do not need to be circumcised. But, they do need to let go of the customs associated with idol worship. The Council wants Gentile converts and those who follow the Law of Moses to join together in worship. It’s not about Gentiles becoming Jews, or Jews caving in on their values. Gentile converts get the promise that believing and being baptized will grant them membership in the people of God. Their Jewish sisters and brothers get the reassurance that fellowship with Gentiles will not cause them to drift from their new-found faith in Jesus the Messiah. It’s all about being gracious and vulnerable with one another. It’s about building trust instead of suspicion. Good News connects people. It proclaims faith through loving action.
Think of the racial, economic and social barriers that mark the terrain of our daily lives. Think about those with whom we see, touch and share our lives and those we keep away. Think of the gender barriers between us, how we think and talk about each other; how we relate to one another at work and at home. Think of the way we classify each other at church — the liberals and conservatives, the “old timers” who built the church and the newcomers with their innovations. Think of the boundaries built by ongoing racial tensions as we remember the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this week. We all build walls, and these walls direct our footsteps -- where we go and where we stop.
What might happen when, instead of ignoring, dismissing, or labeling people because they look or believe differently, we build a space of welcome? What might happen when, instead of offering confusion, we find ways to be unified . . . in one accord . . . together? Imagine proclaiming a faith that doesn’t try to change people, but allows everyone the freedom and breathing room to change at their own pace in their own way as God leads them.
I’m reminded of a story. There was a man who was well known for his compassion for others. He was not a wealthy man. He was not a native of the predominately Christian village. He did not attend the village church. He was never baptized. In fact, he showed little interest in religion. But if a stranger came to the village and needed a place to stay, this man would offer a cot in his little home. If a village family ran out of food, he was the first to offer a loaf of bread or some flour from his own meager supplies. When the occupying army swept the village to collect young men for imprisonment or forced military enlistment, he helped hide the men in the woods outside town. The villagers loved him very much.
The man eventually died from some cause or other. The villagers prepared his body for burial and proceeded to the village church where they asked the priest to perform the burial service in the church cemetery. The priest, knew and loved the man as much as the rest of the villagers. He agreed to conduct the funeral service. However, the priest insisted that he could not bury the man inside the church cemetery because he was not baptized. “I cannot bury him in our cemetery”, the priest said, “It is hallowed ground. He must go where the unbaptized are buried. Those are the rules of the church and I cannot change them.”
The villagers appealed earnestly to the priest. The reminded the priest that the man was a good person and surely loved by God as much as any of the baptized, perhaps even more on account of all the good that he had done. The priest agreed with them about the virtues of the man, but insisted that the rules of the faith were clear and could be not be broken. But he did make one compromise. The priest said, “In recognition of your love for him, and his love for you and all of God’s people in this village, I will bury him on church land, near to those who have gone before. But it will have to be beyond the fence that surrounds the consecrated ground of our cemetery.”
On the appointed day a grave was prepared just outside the fence that surrounded the church cemetery. The villagers brought the man’s body and buried him in his final resting place. That night, something very beautiful happened — something that became apparent when the priest went to the church next morning to conduct morning mass. The fence that surrounded the cemetery had been moved by some of the villagers. It now surrounded the grave in which the man had been buried.
I like to think God is like those villagers. God keeps expanding the boundaries of the sacred to include those who have been excluded by religious rules or polite society. What might happen if we simply said, “God loves you just the way you are. That’s it. Nothing else to add. No pre-qualifications before you’re really welcome. You are welcome right now. Now please tell us your story so we can learn from you.” We can come together in a church to share those beliefs, and also find value in the spirituality of others. We can be a church that leads others without the stigma of guilt or coercion. Now wouldn’t that be something worth proclaiming, in word and in loving action!?
Doug Pagitt, Evangelism in the Inventive Age,
Murray Bodo, The Way of St. Francis.