We only have two more weeks in our series following the adventures of the early church in the book of Acts. In August we are going to follow the story from the book of Acts to the book of Ephesians. But before we go there, I want us to glean a few more important lessons from our ancestors in the faith as they navigated how to do church and be church in new contexts.
When we take something that we already know and apply it to a new setting, it’s going to be rocky. It’s going to be confusing. And because nobody’s ever done it before, we are going to disagree. We must remember that Christian unity does not mean unanimity. We don’t all have to agree, the vote doesn’t have to be unanimous in order for us to be in loving, supportive, redemptive community with one another. In fact, one of the most historically Christian things to do is to disagree. We’ve been doing it for centuries. This morning we are going to look at the church’s first big disagreement. The key here is not that we should never disagree but how we should handle it when we inevitably do disagree with one another. That’s what you should listen for in the story.
To set the stage, remember that last week we heard about Peter’s divine revelation that no one is unclean, which means that the Gentiles, or non-Jews, were also included in all of God’s promises to the Jewish people. Peter saw it first and then in the following chapters we see that Paul and Barnabas also saw wonderful joyful conversions of Gentiles being brought into God’s Kingdom.
But this causes some confusion because at this point the church of Jesus Christ is still a Jewish movement. The leaders are Jewish. Many of the followers are Jewish. The rituals and spiritual practices are Jewish. The whole ethos is Jewish. Jesus-following Jewish, but still Jewish. So the question is, “How Jewish do these Gentiles have to become in order to follow Jesus, who was, himself, a very devout Jew?” And people disagree about this. They disagree about the essentials of following Jesus. Do they have to follow all 613 commandments in the Jewish law? It’s a big question, especially for Gentile men who have a strong desire NOT to be circumcised. And the church disagrees about this. Even the ethnically and traditionally Jewish people in the church disagree about what Gentiles have to do. The church as an institution must make a decision about this. So here is the story from Acts chapter 15.
“Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the Gentile believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much debate, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Peter has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
“‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’—
things known from long ago.
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
Then the apostles and elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your fellow believers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul—men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.Acts 15:1-35
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Did you notice some things about how they disagreed? Much debate, no small dissension, meeting together to discuss the matter, listening respectfully to those who have experience and are wise, and finally consenting together on a decision.
The problem is not that we disagree on things. The problem is HOW we disagree on things. Especially how we disagree with those who also claim the name of Christ. We know this. We know that we are called to love one another and leave the judgment to God. And yet it’s so hard to actually do that when someone thinks differently than we do on something we really care about. We long to be right, and so we use Jesus, or our faith, or the title of Christian as a weapon, as a label to bolster our sense of rightness. The important question is not, “Which of us has the most Christian approach to this issue?” but “How can we disagree in a Christian way?” How can we express our dissension without maligning someone else for whom Christ gave his life?
This has been rattling around in my head a lot in the past several weeks especially as the level of dissension continues to heighten within our culture. We seem to be getting more and more angry and less and less willing to listen respectfully to people who disagree with us. And we aren’t having real debates; we are not having honest face-to-face conversations. We are dropping opinion bombs on social media and then walking away. We are judging other people’s faith based on what they say, not allowing for the possibility that someone could genuinely love Jesus and see things very differently than we do.
I am working to be less afraid and avoidant of conflict. As as Sam often reminds me, Christians should be the best at disagreeing. With Christ as our common ground, with a desire to do God’s will on earth as it is done in Heaven, with the many resources in the stories of our sacred text, we should be better at this than we are currently demonstrating ourselves to be. It is a poor witness to the world when those who claim the same savior spend our time and energy berating one another instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to inspire us to new ways of dealing charitably with our differences.
We want to claim “what would Jesus do?” to support our opinions. But the real question for the health of our own souls is “how would Jesus treat this person who disagrees with me about what Jesus would do?”
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have opinions about what is happening in the world. Our faith calls us right into the middle of the hard stuff. And so if we want to be part of the solution, we must ask ourselves “What is God doing? and how can you tell?” What is God doing in the world, in us, and in me, and how can I tell? According to the Scriptures we know that God is at work when we see and feel and experience more love. Love is God’s mark in the world. Therefore if what we are doing is not leading us to be more loving and generous, then it is not of God.
And it must be more loving to all. More loving to some is not enough. It must be more loving to all—to the oppressed and the oppressor. Remember that loving doesn’t have to include condoning someone’s actions or making yourself unsafe, but it must include affirming their humanity and their divine image and their inherent worth. That is what makes Christianity so revolutionary. Loving our enemies, and acting in tangibly loving ways towards them, is the only thing that is going to change the world. Love those who are voting for the other guy. Love those who believe differently than you do about masks. Love those who believe differently than you do about owning guns. Love those you can’t stand. Loving our enemies is the leading edge of the real revolution.
Is this a hard word? YES!!! But this is what the gospel does to us: it calls us forward to be more than we currently are. If in this moment, you are like me and you are recognizing all the ways that you have not been loving, thank God. That recognition is the conviction of the Holy Spirit calling us to repentance, which is the first step to change. Do not feel ashamed. Shame only makes us want to avoid our shortcomings, and if we avoid them we will never change. But instead let’s allow ourselves to feel a healthy guilt that lets us know we have violated our values, and we don’t want to do that again. Welcome the guilt that leads to repentance. Reject the shame that leads to avoidance.
Our faith and our identity are not defined by big bold actions. We live our allegiance to Christ in our seemingly small everyday decisions, such as how we treat people. If you want to change the world, there is nothing more radical and more disruptive to the system than to love your enemies and to disagree in respectful ways. And it’s even more revolutionary if you do it when the other person isn’t doing it. Anyone can fight fire with fire. Jesus calls us to fight fire with snow: small, gentle, utterly relentless acts of compassionate resistance. The large acts will come as a natural result of the small ones, not the other way around. Love your enemies, and watch the Kingdom be revealed around you. Amen.