Who is In? And who is Out?

Acts 15:1-18

Listen along to the sermon here. About 3/4 of the way through a video is played. The link to that video is found further down in this post. You’re welcome. 🙂

1 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.” 2 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. 3 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. 4 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. 5 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.” 6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7 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. 8 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10 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? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 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. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15 This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 16 “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, 17 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 18 known from long ago.’

The questions that are central to today’s reading: what makes someone a follower of Jesus? Who belongs to the church? How are we saved?

These are foundational questions and it might bring you comfort or cause you distress to know they’ve been asked since the beginning of the church, which is where we are now in our story and God’s story.

Here are some connecting dots to string the story together.  At the end of chapter 7 we meet Saul who becomes infamous for his persecution of Christians. He has a conversion experience and his name is changed from Saul to Paul. Paul and Barnabas join up in preaching and teaching.

Meanwhile, Peter raises someone from the dead and in chapter 10 he has a vision and his mind is expanded about who is in and who is out. He witnesses to the household of Cornelius, a non-Jew, and his household is converted to faith. So then, as more and more non-Jews join, (they are called Gentiles), the questions start to arise about what this Jesus movement is all about.

So today, Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch where many Gentiles became followers of Jesus. A group of “certain individuals” visit Antioch from Judea. They are there to correct Paul about bringing in all these non-Jews to the movement. Their argument? Circumcision. “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom we’ve received from Moses, you can’t be saved.” It’s the first line of today’s reading.

They see that the law is not being followed. Yet, “…the law was never intended as a means by which to establish relationship with God; rather, it was given as a gift to those already in relationship with God to help them get more out of life by caring for their neighbors. God gives us law, that is, because God cares for us, and if I look out for you and you look out for me, we’re much better off than if we only look out for ourselves.”[1]

Circumcision was a sign of the covenant with God. God’s promise to be faithful to us. Yet, that sign was limited.

So, they argue and cannot come to agreement and so they go to Jerusalem to solve the problem.

And it’s in Jerusalem that the rubber meets the road.



[*pic]Things change once people’s stories are told. Paul and Barnabas begin to tell stories of how and where they’ve seen God at work in the world. It’s these stories that matter, these stories that involve people. Actual people and actual lives.


In the video we just saw, beer is what brings people together, and while I’ve seen that to be true, what I’d propose to us here today is that the Holy Spirit gets us caught up in each other’s stories. It’s the story of God alive and well in the world – when we can see that in living color, in actual people – well, that’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s where hearts are opened. It’s how lives and minds are changed.


It’s Paul and Barnabas telling the story of Jesus and how it matters – that’s what changes the crowd.


Our story and God’s story – it’s seeing that it actually impacts our lives, that it matters. It’s why we exist – to tell this story, to share the news, to see lives transformed through Jesus.


It’s what we send our seniors off with – words of promise that they belong, that this story defines who they are, not the story of the world.


10 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? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”


[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2012/11/philippians-3-17-19/