July 26, 2020
I imagine we’ve all come across people who have figured something out in life and want to share their “wisdom.” They know the best way to get your baby to sleep through the night and your toddler to stop throwing tantrums and your teenager to stop sulking. They know how you should look and how you can get there—with a special diet or a new exercise program or the right hair and makeup products. They know how you can be more productive and get your sermons written by dinner time on Thursday every week.
When people give this advice, I think it’s generally well-meaning. And it may even be helpful sometimes. But often it’s not. Because my kids are different from their kids. And my body type and metabolism and standards of beauty are different from theirs. And I can almost guarantee my ability to procrastinate is beyond anything considered by their time management hacks.
But maybe it’s just human nature to believe that whatever has worked for me will also work for you.
In the story of the Jerusalem Council from today’s reading, I’ve generally considered those who said the Gentiles must be circumcised to be the “bad guys”–the closed-minded people who didn’t want outsiders to be part of their community. But reading through Acts 15 again, I’m not sure that’s fair. These Jews were open to receiving outsiders. In fact, they were inviting outsiders to participate in a sacred aspect of their own faith. Circumcision had “worked” for the Jewish followers of Jesus, so they assume it will “work” for the Gentiles as well.
Paul and Barnabas, however, disagree. Probably because these two actually know some Gentiles. So they understand what a burden circumcision would be for them. They realize that what worked for the Jews won’t necessarily work for the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas understand what works for faith at a deeper level than those encouraging circumcision.
Think about people who share their weight loss advice—what worked for them. Maybe the exact diet they use won’t help you drop the pounds. Maybe you aren’t able to run the 5 miles a day that they insist helped them slim down. Maybe you don’t even need or want to lose weight because your body is magnificent. Still, there is wisdom in paying attention to what you eat and making healthy choices. Pretty much every body will benefit from some sort of exercise. And we can all strive to be healthier even as we reject unhealthy weight-based ideals.
It’s the same with advice about raising children and advice about time management. The particular strategies and methods people suggest may not work for you, but—in all but the most extreme cases—the underlying principles are generally solid. Love your kids; pay attention to them; guide them to make good decisions. Try to use your time in ways that are helpful and healthy for you.
And, it’s the same with faith. At least according to the leaders gathered in Jerusalem. The requirement for circumcision is not for everyone (obviously) and not all Jesus-followers will follow the same dietary restrictions. But the basic concepts that underlie these practices—those are relevant to everyone.
Paul and Barnabas and the others realize that it wasn’t the act of circumcision that had led to the salvation of the Jewish believers. It was the act of obedience to God. It was doing those things suggested in our first reading this morning from the book of Deuteronomy: fearing—respecting—God, walking in God’s ways, loving God, serving God. I love the phrase in here in Deuteronomy: “Circumcise your heart.”
That, in essence, is what Paul, Barnabas, and other early church leaders are saying: obedience to God, faithfulness to God, is a matter of the heart; it’s not about demanding one particular physical act that would be a painful burden for many—and physically impossible for about half of the community.
The council in Jerusalem comes up with a pretty clear list of what rules are important—and thus, which ones are not important—to follow. Circumcision is not necessary. The believers are not to eat food sacrificed to idols or blood or meat from animals that have been strangled, and they are to avoid “fornication”—sexual immorality. Of course then, as now, there is much discussion to be had about what constitutes sexual immorality. And in a letter to the church in Corinth, Paul tells them that they can eat food sacrificed to idols, though they should be careful. And, in the next chapter of Acts, we will read how Paul has his companion, Timothy, circumcised “because of the Jews who lived in that area.”
So even though the church leaders in Jerusalem understood some important things about faith and inclusion and obedience and salvation, even they didn’t get it exactly right for all times and all places. What “works” for faith, what salvation looks like, will not be the same for all people—it certainly won’t be the same across countries and cultures and time.
I want to be clear that I am NOT saying “anything goes.” I am NOT saying that anything anybody does if fine and faithful and obedient to God because who are we to judge? There are clearly things people do that are against the will of God. I won’t give you the list, you can read the paper. I am saying that following Jesus is not as easy as following a prescribed list of rules. It’s harder than that. It’s more complicated.
Which, I think, is why the church is so important. Because the work of figuring out faithfulness is hard. The book of Acts shows that an important part of the church’s role is to help believers figure out what it means to be faithful in a particular context at a particular time. I don’t think we can take the list directly from Acts 15 and say that as long as we aren’t eating food sacrificed to idols or blood and as long as we aren’t fornicating—whatever that means—then we are good with God.
But I DO think we can take the principles used by church leaders in this decision and apply them as we work together to figure out what it looks like to follow Jesus today.
–Paul and Barnabas shared stories of how the Spirit was acting in their ministry—and others listened. We can pay attention to what the Holy Spirit is doing in our world and honor that holy activity. Who is God speaking through? What is God doing? How can we participate? What is our role in the holy movements happening today toward creation care and racial justice and restorative/transformative justice and church growth and vitality?
–James looked to scripture to understand how the current call they felt to include Gentiles was, in fact, faithful to the Word of God throughout history. This biblical and theological interpretation is important work. We know that people have quoted scripture to justify evils such as slavery and its continuing legacy of racism, the Holocaust, oppression of women, and violence toward LGBTQIA people. I believe that, as the church, part of our work against those evils in the world is our insistence on faithful biblical interpretation. How can we understand the express the deepest principles of God’s love and justice in scripture? How to we read the Bible through the lens of Jesus’ teachings?
–Finally, the Jerusalem Council shows that this work of figuring out faithfulness is best done in community. Are we listening to each other’s stories? Are we seeking out stories beyond our community? Based on the wisdom of these stories, the truth of scripture, and the guidance of the Spirit, what does obedience look like for us right now? And when we get it wrong—because we will—how can we encourage each other to re-evaluate and try again—together?
At Peace Mennonite, we’re journeying through the book of Acts this summer because, as the ways we gather and learn and worship are different due to COVID, it seems a good time to consider what really makes us the church.
Just as people give advice on child-rearing and diet and time management, there is no shortage of advice coming my way these days about how to do church during COVID. Tips on Zooming and live streaming and preaching to the screen and social media engagement. I’m sure some of that advice I get could be helpful for our church. I’m equally sure some of it would not work for us at all.
But Acts—and particularly this story in Acts 15–can help us set aside the external details—the things that will vary from church to church, from COVID time to non-COVID time—and focus in on the deeper level, the underlying principles of what it means to be a faithful church: in all that we do, however we do it, we should strive to worship God, pay attention to the Holy Spirit, follow Jesus, and remain in community with each other.