My first thought, when I read through this passage last Sunday evening was, “I’m supposed to preach on a church meeting?” Because essentially that’s what this passage is… a report on a gathering, it’s called the Council of Jerusalem.
To set the scene, we need to know a bit about what happened after last weeks reading of the encounter between the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip and today’s reading.
After that encounter, the book of Acts goes on to tell more stories of the followers of Jesus who had left Jerusalem because of the persecution led by Saul, who is also called Paul. Soon, however, Paul had his own personal encounter with the risen Lord that changed everything for him. His heart and mind were changed, and his way of life followed suit. He began to proclaim the good news of Jesus, even to people who were still afraid of him as he had been their persecutor until just a few days ago! Around this same time, Peter was praying on the rooftop when he saw a vision of many animals, and heard the voice of God say, “What I have called clean, you must not call unclean.”
When his vision ended, a knock on the door brought messengers from a Gentile family asking him to come and speak to them, and while he was telling the story of Jesus to them, the Holy Spirit filled them all just as it had on the first Pentecost morning. Peter then explained to anyone who would listen that God was at work among the Gentiles and he would be following God’s lead in that mission. We pick up the story today in Antioch, where Paul was leading a new church community made up mostly of Gentiles who had come to follow Jesus. (adapted from an intro written by Rev. Teri Peterson)
It’s written in Acts 15: 1-18 and pay attention, because I’m going to ask you some questions! 😉
Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”
The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.’”
I wonder who took those minutes! 😉 And while we could think of this passage of having no relevance for today, we could also take the opportunity to think about the way we make decisions. In many ways, the meeting of the Council of Jerusalem has a pattern to it which is remarkably close to the way in which matters are discussed at Regional and General Council meetings: reports were given, scripture was quoted, theology was discussed, experiences were shared, and a decision was made. (Summarized from Revgals)
What did you notice about this text? Write in the chat box or if you’re on Facebook, in the comments.
Women! – Despite the fact that Jesus counted many women among his followers, and that he appeared first to the women on Easter Sunday, none of them are present, or at least if they are, their comments were not deemed worthy enough to be recorded.
Genitals! – We are talking about male genitals again! Last week it was about whether a eunuch could be baptized. This week it’s whether a gentile needs to be circumcised in order to become part of the new community.
Gentiles! – All of the gathered men were Jewish; they were making decisions about and for people who weren’t even present.
So, what does this have to do with us? When we think about the things that the church has wrestled with over the years; I mean the universal church, it often is around those three things:
How many denominations still won’t allow women to be clergy? The Roman Catholic church is the probably the largest, but there are many others that do no ordain women either. Or where women’s voices are absent unless the discussion is about women’s or children’s ministry.
Did you know that while the United Church has been ordaining women since 1936, when the Rev. Dr. Lydia Gruchy was ordained, she was denied ordination 13 times by the General Council!
Arguments against her ordination ranged from
• she was not representative of other women because she was the only one requesting ordination, proving that women did not want to be ordained;
• ordination would discriminate against married women who could not properly fulfill their duties to their spouses and children and simultaneously pastor;
• ordination would cause women to lose their “womanliness”;
• and that ordaining women would undermine the ability to attract male clergy. (Wikipedia)
Did you know that up until 1964 a woman had to give up her ordination if she got married?
And while Stairs has had women clergy for well over 20 years, as far as I can tell, you’ve never had a woman chair the Official Board or Executive.
Why is that? Don’t try and tell me that there aren’t any you have the gifts and skills for leadership. 😉
Why are religious organizations so hung up on genitals and what people do with them?
From purity culture that is alive and well and rituals for women to undergo to cleanse themselves after menstruation, to religious beliefs about who you can live with in a loving relationship, religious institutions seem to spend a great deal of time and energy trying to control sexual energy and expression.
In the time our text was written, male circumcision was a sign of the covenant with God for Jewish people. For Gentile converts not to have to undergo this ritual was a massive break with their understanding of covenant.
For them to include Gentiles in the faith communities that were growing up that were based on the life, ministry and resurrection of Jesus, meant leaving some of their past rituals, customs and understandings behind.
And they didn’t do it without question, debate, and listening to one another. I love the words in verse 12: The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.
I wasn’t part of the United Church in the 80s when all the debates about human sexuality were taking place which ultimately led to the decision in 1988 that, “all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, who profess their faith in Jesus Christ are welcome to be or become members of The United Church of Canada” and that “all members of the United Church are eligible to be considered for ordered ministry.”
I remember my mentor, the late Rev. Stew Clarke telling me of going to that General Council intending to vote against that resolution, but instead voted in favour of it.
Somehow, in the midst of painful, sometimes hateful debate, the Holy Spirit filled his heart with a more expansive love than he had imagined.
One of the overarching themes of my ministry is hospitality, how to welcome the outsider. This stems in part from my growing up years as an air force brat where we had to adjust quickly to new schools and new communities every few years. I went to school in 6 different communities by the time I was in Grade 7! Now military bases are really good at integrating new people, because there is always someone coming, and there is always someone going. AND, they are all part of the same culture.
Churches can demonstrate both the best of community life and the worst. It’s important to have core values, but the way those core values are lived out changes over time. At their worst, church are places where in order to fit it, you have to conform to a certain set of beliefs and norms. At their best, churches are places where people are welcomed, faith is nurtured and the whole community is transformed. And we must be careful about making decisions about and for groups of people who aren’t represented.
So, what’s the message for us in all of this?
- Make sure the entire community is represented in decision making.
- Stay true to your core values, but don’t get hung up on the outward trappings of custom and tradition.
- Don’t make decisions for groups of people who aren’t present.
Just like those first Christian communities were transformed as they gathered the people together, as they told the stories, as they broke the bread. We are transformed, when we gather, when we share the stories and when we break the bread.
Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity of following Jesus in our time and place, amen.
May 3, 2021 – SMUC