Thursday, July 12, 2012

It Seemed Good to Us and to the Holy Spirit

Listen to advice and accept instruction so that you may gain wisdom for the future.
The human mind may devise many plans but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.  —Proverbs 19:20-21

The Jerusalem Council debates the "Gentile Issue."
As depicted in stained glass at the
Cathedral of St. Helena, Helena, MT

Photo Credit: Jeff Gardner
As the Message of Jesus began to spread beyond Jerusalem issues began to arise.  Jesus was of course Jewish, and all of his original followers were Jewish.  However, in the decades following Jesus’ death and resurrection, believers began to “take heat” for practicing their faith.  Some of the Apostles (e.g., Philip) were forced to flee Jerusalem, but they took with them their new way of living.  It didn’t take long before non-Jews were attracted to the way of Jesus.

The good news is the church starts to grow exponentially, but with that growth comes new challenges. Prior to this, the Church has been almost 100% Jewish, but now non-Jews are starting to become “Christians.”  How should they integrate these new believers into the church? Do they need to be circumcised before they can be baptized—i.e., do they have to “become Jewish” before they “become Christian?” It was an issue that polarized the leadership of the young church.  (Luke presents his version of these events in Acts 15 and Paul gives another perspective in his letters—e.g., Galatians 2:1-14.)

The man who would become the Apostle Paul had an encounter with the risen Lord on the Damascus Road that turned one of the faith’s greatest enemies into its greatest advocate.  Barnabas, called “the Encourager,” went “out on a limb” for Paul when he first came to Jerusalem, and bought him before the Apostles.  Paul disappears from the story for a while; we aren’t sure why.   Some say he was in seclusion while others say he went on a failed mission to Arabia.  Whatever the reason, after three years, Paul returns to Antioch and he and Barnabas are “set apart” for a special mission to the Gentiles.  Together, these two friends embark on a mission to take the message to the non-Jewish world.  Paul and Barnabas would have represented the more “liberal” view that God-believers did not have to be circumcised before they could be part of the fellowship. 

Meanwhile, the faction back in Jerusalem, including Peter, James, and John, is much more “conservative.”  As we noted above, the Church in Jerusalem is a much more homogeneous population mainly comprised of Jews, so the question of circumcision never really came up—at first.  But little by little, these “pillars of the church” begin to hear the stories of what is taking place beyond the boarders of Jerusalem in Samaria and beyond, and are intrigued, and, probably a little afraid, of the new Spirit winds that seem to be blowing through the Church.

Then, Peter himself has a powerful experience of the Spirit.   Peter is in Joppa when he has a vision that opens his mind and spirit to new possibilities. Simultaneously, in Caesarea, a man named Cornelius has an encounter in which he is compelled to summon Peter to his home.  Peter complies and goes to Cornelius’ home—and the stage is set for the Spirit’s next move.

As Cornelius explains the remarkable circumstances that led him to summon Peter to his home, Peter finally puts all the pieces together.  He realizes what God was trying to communicate through his vision.  No one is unclean in God’s eyes—no one is excluded from God’s Kingdom!  Gentiles should no longer be denied access to the fellowship.  Even before he can finish proclaiming his revelation, the Holy Spirit falls upon the group assembled in a similar manner to what happened in Jerusalem on Pentecost.  Peter is obviously moved by the Gentile Pentecost experience and returns to Jerusalem to share it.  Even the most “conservative” of the Apostles are forced to admit, however begrudgingly, that: “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Despite Peter’s experience and revelation, however, there is still substantial disagreement over whether Gentiles should or should not be integrated into the fellowship—and if so how. Luke reports that when some individuals come down to Antioch from Jerusalem, they teach that unless one was circumcised, one could not be saved.  The issue is so controversial that eventually a meeting is convened in Jerusalem, and Paul and Barnabas are among those chosen to attend. 

Acts 10:10-11
The Jerusalem Council was a very contentious meeting, with both sides presenting their positions with passion.  The issue seemed destined for deadlock until an unlikely ally rises to speak for Paul. With his Gentile Pentecost experience no doubt still fresh in his memory, Peter vouches for the Apostle to the Gentiles.  He speaks eloquently about his own experience.  His argument against circumcision essentially boils down to,  “We can’t expect them to live up to something that none of us have ever been able to live up to.”

The words of the one Jesus called, The Rock, seem to have impact on the others, and perhaps help to break the impasse over this issue.  James, the leader of the Apostles, agrees to let Paul and Barnabas tell their story to the whole council—previously they have shared it only with a select few. 

Eventually a compromise was reached and the "conservatives" agreed that circumcision would not be required for Gentile converts. Luke reports that the letter sent to the Church at Antioch included a phrase: "It seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit"

There's evidence to suggest the issue of "what to do with Gentiles" was far from settled when the delegation left Jerusalem.  According to Paul, the issue led him to a public confrontation with Peter—Galatians 2:11-14. Paul and his longtime friend and mentor Barnabas eventually decided to go their separate ways, possibly due to Paul’s lingering hard feelings over this issue.

Nevertheless, at Jerusalem, we get this sense that the Spirit was allowed to be a part of this conversation, and the result is that the participants were able to find a solution that seemed "good" to all parties involved. In essence, the agreement reached was that if the churches outside Jerusalem would help support the struggling church in Jerusalem, then the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised.  It seems to have been a win-win for both sides.

What’s our Jerusalem Council debate today?  We could easily compile a list of similar "hot button" issues that divide Christians in the early 21st century, issues that seem to us every bit as thorny as the "Gentile inclusion" debate in the Early Church.  We could extend the conversation to the larger world around us where society faces a host of vexing and complex questions that try as we might, defy simple, one-size-fits-all solutions.

When these issues arise—and they inevitably will—we would do well to remember the example and wisdom of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. We shouldn't be so bound and determined to preserve an illusion of unity among believers that we are afraid to admit that there are issues on which people of faith hold differing views. No, we've got to allow ourselves to engage in dialogue and wrestle with "tough" issues, just as the Apostles did in Jerusalem.

Unity doesn't require uniformity; in fact, diversity, handled well, actually helps to deepen our sense of unity and opens up new ways of experiencing God.

Our true unity as followers of Jesus is based upon our mutual love for God. The cords of divine love that bind us ALL together as believers should be stronger than any human issue that divides us. That love should be enough to sustain us even when we engage in contentious debate over these divisive issues.

We should be willing to trust one another even when we disagree with each other. We should respect our brothers and sisters in Christ even if we don't fully understand their point of view—we should be slow to judge others and open to what someone different from us can teach us about God. (It seems that was true of the in the case of Peter and Paul; Paul clearly showed respect and reverence for Peter even though they vehemently disagreed on some issues—and vice versa.) Most of all, we should trust in God’s power, a different kind of power that surpasses our limited human perspective, sees the complete picture—the Kingdom perspective if you will—and is the world’s best hope for finding answers.

If we can manage to lay aside our personal stake in these issues (the outcome we want/desire) and instead put our trust in God’s power and kingdom perspective (what God wants/desires), we may just find answers to some of the harder questions that, up until now, have eluded us. We too might discern a way forward that leads us toward a hopeful future that seems: "good to all of us and to the Holy Spirit."   Lord, let it be so!

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