Acts 15:1-21


Pastor Donna Olsen

August 5, 2018

Acts 15:1-21

This passage from Acts is about a church argument. The early church was arguing. It just goes to show that the church has been disagreeing since its beginning. That’s not to say that disagreeing is always bad. As church people we do argue. Over what, do you think? Parsonages. Finances. Pastors. Sexuality. Worship style. Communion reception. And on and on. Church arguments are not always negative things. It depends on what the disagreement is about. A pastor tells the story of her congregation getting into a heated argument about pew cushions. That’s right. They contracted to have new pew cushions made. One of the women became so angry about the chosen color – that on the first Sunday the cushions were used, she brought her lawn chair! How our sinfulness and egos get in the way of being the Body of Christ together. Church disputes can be constructive – there are such things as good disputes. They can lead to insight, improvement, and stronger bonds between church members. They can lead to faithful witness to God’s glory. In Acts 15, there is a church argument going on. And it’s not over pew cushions! It’s about something very important to this early Church – something crucial to its survival. It has to do with – how we are saved. The early Church in Jerusalem, made up of Jewish believers, was facing an argument that began this way. In the Church at Antioch (biblically: of Syria; now in what is Turkey), was welcoming Gentiles (non-Jews) into the Church fellowship. These Gentiles were being baptized – and welcomed into the Christian church – without first being circumcised. That is to say, these Jewish Christians strongly believed that the new believers, the gentiles, needed to first become Jewish to be part of Jesus’ Church.  A group of Jewish believers, who were Pharisees, said:  “You cannot be welcomed into the Church without first being circumcised. You cannot become a Christian unless you also become a Jew. If you don’t follow the Law God gave to Moses – Jesus will not accept you.” If what some of the Jewish Christians say is true, then salvation comes from Jesus – BUT –  that’s not enough. You have to ADD to Jesus – you have to add the Law of Moses. Peter, on the other hand, a Jewish believer himself, was wise about his issue. Peter reminded the believers: “We are saved by Jesus Christ. Period.” These Jewish Christians surely did believed in grace. They accepted the grace Jesus offered them. But they were so bound to their own faith customs that they were confused. In their effort to act faithfully, and to keep faithful to their traditions, they needed help understanding what God would have them do. So, they were confusing what was essential to the faith – with what was not essential to the faith. These Jewish Christians were making it difficult for the gentile believers to become part of the Church. They did not intend to make it difficult – but they were new at this faith in Christ, and they needed to voice it.  And they needed to accept God’s revelation to them about the new thing God was doing among the gentiles. It was not easy for them. And some Jewish believers were giving the Holy Spirit a hard time, too! So, it was surely not easy for them. So, what happens in the city of Antioch, which is baptizing and welcoming gentiles into the Church of Jesus? Does it ignore the concerns of the Jewish Christians from the mother Church in Jerusalem? Does the Antioch church split off and become a lone ranger church? Not at all. That would have been easy, but it wouldn’t have been faithful. People ask about what that word “catholic” means in the Creeds. But, I have never gotten this question, “Pastor, what does the word ‘apostolic’ mean? It means that the Church of which we are a part – is  the Church the apostles left to us. We would not be the Church without the faithful work of the early Church leaders, the apostles, the ones who were with Jesus. The early Church would never have heard the gospel truth – without the apostles. And neither would we. So, the Antioch Church sends a delegation – to the Jerusalem Church. They send leaders: Paul and Barnabas, and others. And the Jerusalem Church welcomes them! There is mutual respect between these brothers and sisters in Christ. Jerusalem is the mother Church, but it doesn’t ignore or disown the Antioch Church. The Antioch delegates are welcomed – and the meeting was called to order. At that first ever Council meeting, everyone had a voice. And the Church took time to listen. That’s still important, isn’t it? The Holy Spirit directed that meeting – when Peter came up to the microphone (so to speak). He reminded the council members that God wanted the pagans to hear his message of salvation – and accept it, straight from the mouths of the apostles. God treated the outsiders exactly as he treated the Jews who first heard the good news. And Peter continued, “Why are you Jewish believers trying to add burdens to God’s salvation message? Aren’t we saved only by Messiah Jesus?” It was hard for the believers in the Jerusalem Church to let God be God. It was hard to trust grace alone! When Peter and Barnabas told about the signs and wonders that God was doing in and through the gentile believers, everyone got quiet. And they listened for God’s Holy Spirit to lead them. Then, James took the microphone (so to speak). James is a brother of Jesus – and the leader of this Jerusalem church. James was not even a believer during his brother, Jesus’ lifetime. Not abeliever – until after the resurrection, according to Paul’s telling in 1 Corinthians. James now listens to the testimony of Peter and Barnabas. And he lays their testimony – against the Holy Scriptures. It was clear to James – that the gentile conversion was a fulfillment of prophecy. So, then what happens? The council members do not take a vote. Spiritual leadership doesn’t take a vote; what God reveals does not require an opinion poll.. Spiritual leadership discerns God’s will through Scripture; and the experience of God’s faithful people. James speaks again: “We will not trouble these gentiles who are turning to God. Grace is enough!” James would later write: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to impose this burden on you.” It seemed good first – to the Holy Spirit. This council had its priorities straight. James wrote to the church at Antioch – that God’s grace is enough. And James urged those gentile believers about several things. These urgings were for the sake of the fellowship between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians. James urges: please abstain from fornication; please abstain from meat offered to pagan idols. Don’t abuse the freedom you have from Christ by offending other people with these actions, or you will look more like a pagan than a Christian.”   This letter went from James’ hands in Jerusalem – to Antioch. The letter was accompanied by some members of the Jerusalem Church. Unity and joy. That’s what this council produced – with the – Holy Spirit’s movement.

The Christian gospel burst on the world as an explosion. Its preachers had a message so exciting and so urgent that they took every opportunity to pass it on. And it surely cost most of them – in hardship and suffering.

+ It was not a religion.

+ It was not a morality.

+ It was a story – a story about the most wonderful person the world has ever seen – Jesus of Nazareth.

This story began with the Creator who made humankind to know him and enjoy him. But humankind turned the other way – wanting to be their own gods – thank you very much. So God chose a man, Abraham, and his family which became the people of Israel.

+ They were chosen by God to show a rebel world what the true God was like.

+ They were chosen by God to show a rebel world what God offered to us, and what God expected from us.

But this was a story in search of an ending. The Jewish people, chosen to bring healing to the world – were themselves in need of rescue and restoration. The first Christians were Jewish. The Church was first Jewish. They were united in their belief that the great story of God’s relationship with his people – had reached its climax in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. These first Christians were convinced that Jesus was Messiah; that this Jesus was misunderstood – and delivered up to the Roman authorities for execution What’s more – these first Christians were convinced – that this Jesus was not only the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but the Lord God himself – who had come as a man to rescue not only the Jewish people, but all of humankind. We all are in need of rescue from our own sinful rebellion. Jesus’ death – dealt with the guilt of us all. His risen life supplied the power for new life in us and among us. His risen life supplied the power for companionship throughout this mortal life of ours. And his risen life gives to us the pledge of life everlasting with God – from our baptism and forever more. The early Christians saw themselves as living in the first days of the new age – which dawned when Jesus rose from the tomb on Easter morning. Because of that, they saw everything in a new light.

They devoted all their energies to understanding Jesus better. They studied the Hebrew Scriptures, of which Jesus is the fulfillment. They made him real to people who had never met Jesus.The core of their proclamation was the Risen One whom many of them had known personally and had followed for years while he had been their rabbi.They proclaimed, “Jesus was born of David’s family, and died on the cross in accordance with the prophecies of Scripture, in order to deliver us from this present age. He was buried and rose again the third day, as Scripture has foretold. He is now exalted to God’s right hand as Christ (Messiah) and Lord of the living and the dead. He has given his Holy Spirit to his followers as an assurance of his Lordship, and as the foretaste of his return to be the Judge and Savior of mankind on the Last Day.” This pattern of preaching was developed early in the life of the Church. You know this as our Creed – the faith in which we baptize. There was a call to repentance and faith, baptism into the Church of Christ, and reception of the Holy Spirit. There were an amazing many ways in which the apostles went about making Jesus known. The book of Acts shows them preaching in the streets, in synagogues, and Temple. They preached when they were arrested; when they were in debate; when they were visiting; when they were performing acts of mercy; and especially they preached in homes. The Good News of Jesus Christ was shared by men and women; by people of many cultures and backgrounds. The believers demonstrated the gospel’s power by their transformed lives, and their willingness to accept hardship and death. To some onlookers, the idea of a One true God became more acceptable to them, as they watched the early Christians – and thought: Jesus must be God – look how his followers love each other. Nothing could keep them quiet. Their life became the story – about the work of the divine, crucified, risen and ascended Jesus. He is both the Lord they served – and the message they so freely proclaimed. Our work as believers does not have to do with what we “have to do.” Our work is about what we GET to do. What we are willing to do. We don’t have to. We want to. What these willing witnesses have done for the spread of God’s kingdom is simply amazing. It’s the reason you and I are here. Amen!