The Jerusalem Council
Acts 15: 1-21
The Jerusalem Council
So we’re continuing our story of the church through the New Testament and it’s really focusing here in the book of Acts on the church at Antioch. We’ve seen this church be founded as some Jews went out and talk to the friends in the Gentile community, and the church grew exponentially with a bunch of Gentiles. We’ve seen the church in Jerusalem send Barnabas up to Antioch to see what was going on, and he give praise to God and helps teach the converts there with Paul. We’ve seen this church send Paul and Barnabas out as missionaries to the island of Cypress and southern Turkey; and they have recently returned. That’s where we found this church at the end of last week.
Now we see that a new group of people has come up from Jerusalem. This is a group of people that has come up claiming to be sent from the Jerusalem Church; and their message is that if you are a Gentile and you wish to be saved you have to become Jewish. In other words you have to be circumcised if you’re male. I want to take a step back for a moment as we consider what these people are doing and what they are saying. Because our immediate reaction in the church in the 21st-century is to immediately question how someone could be so brazen as to think this. How could someone possibly not realize that Jesus fulfilled the law, and so therefore you do not need to be incorporated into the Law through circumcision in order to be saved? How could they have the audacity to add an obstacle to reach Jesus?
But we believe that this is not required largely because we have the writings of Paul. Almost any argument that the law has been fulfilled comes from the letters of Paul. And there are many things that Christians for at least 500 years have pointed to to say you need to do this to receive salvation that have begun to really take on the level of requirements but which are not in Jesus’s words. I still think they are things that we probably should be striving for as we seek Jesus, but they are not our salvation. And reading this story always soberly reminds me that Jesus is the only thing that can save us. Ultimately the Spirit is going to remind us time and time again that the only thing that can save us is Jesus saying you are saved, and there will be people for whom Jesus says are saved but don’t go through any of stuff we expect. As the old joke goes: there is going to be some people in heaven that you wonder how they got there.
That’s kind of the lesson that this group is learning here. They’re coming in from Jerusalem to teach the “right” way to be a follower. Paul and Barnabas have taught something, but they haven’t taught the right way according to this group. So they are here to teach the right way. And Paul and Barnabas have just returned from the missionary journey where they watched the Spirit fall on the people of Cyprus and southern Turkey and perform all of his miracles. The Spirit has been working on their missionary journey, and they were not doing the whole “make them Jewish thing” on that trip. So they start arguing with these people from Jerusalem. And the people of Antioch cannot figure out which is right. So ultimately they try to appeal to the apostles in Jerusalem; and so they sent Paul and Barnabas, and some of the other side sent their leadership. And they hold what was called the Jerusalem Council.
I’m going to focus on councils in the church for the rest of the message today. This is the first council in church history, and it won’t be the last. There’s thousands if not hundreds of thousands of councils that have happened in church history. This is the first one. They are gathering the leadership of the church in the midst of prayer and discernment and reading of Scripture to figure out with reason and experience what the Spirit is trying to tell them in a certain situation or issue. That’s what a counsel is.
Now, in this passage the apostles speak. Peter and James are the leadership of the Jerusalem church; Paul of course will be the Apostle to the Gentiles. And these are the people who speak. No one else is recorded. And all of them side with the Gentiles, saying that they do not need to become Jewish in order to join the church or to receive salvation. Yet this group of Judaizers or Pharisees (the Scripture calls them both) had arrived in Antioch speaking as if they had the authority of the council. I am left asking why; and what lessons we might learn from them.
I think there are three most plausible reasons that they arrived in Antioch carrying the air of someone who has the authority of the apostles to make this message, yet ultimately the apostles don’t back them when push comes to shove. And each one of these three has its own lesson to teach us as we consider this possibility.
The first possibility is that when they left Jerusalem they had the backing of the apostles. If you remember, all of this kind of happens about the same point. It’s been about a year, granted, but all of this kind of happens about the same point with Barnabas going to Antioch and Peter getting the vision to go to Cornelius. Peter gets his vision because he doesn’t want to go because he thinks that the Gentiles are not included in salvation and that is only for Jews; and this vision from the Spirit comes to Peter in order to convince him otherwise. But he needs that vision from the Spirit in order to kind of push him in that direction. So it is possible that when this group left Jerusalem they had the backing of the Apostles, but after they left the apostles opinion changed because of this vision from Peter. That is a possibility. And that would be a lesson to us never to be so zealous in our beliefs, never to be so zealous in our preaching, that we forget to listen as well.
The second possibility was that when they left they thought they had the backing of the apostles because they had only spoken to one or two. Maybe they spoke to Andrew and Simon the Zealot, and they agreed with them, so they left thinking they had the backing of the apostles, but when the bigger apostles like James and John and Peter come in and say otherwise, the lesser ones never challenged them. That would be a possibility. If that was a possibility than the lesson here would be to remember the importance of getting together in as large of a body of believers as possible when making big decisions and debating the big important issues. It is possible that the Spirit speaks and only a section of the church can hear it. That’s why we need to be gathering in as large of a group as possible, and listening to each and everyone of their experiences with an open mind for the spirit to be able to nudge us in the direction it wants.
Finally, it was possible that they were so convinced and convicted in their believes that they never actually checked with the apostles at all and they just left for Antioch. Barnabas had been sent to Antioch, and maybe in their mind Barnabas had been sent to reign the people of Antioch in. And when they heard that Barnabas instead doubled down and baptized the Gentiles, maybe they were so convicted in their belief that they just left to fix it without checking in with the leadership. Remember, they’re called the “Pharisee faction” in this Scripture, and Pharisee is not really a term of endearment in the church. The lesson for us in this case would be to remember the strength of our conviction does not correlate directly to its correctness; that it is possible to be extremely convinced of a belief that is entirely wrong. For example, the belief that slavery was OK.
The best defense we have for any of this is to meet together with as many Christians as we can if we’re looking to discern and discuss all of these things; and to intentionally meet with people who don’t agree with us, and have those hard conversations in prayer. Because hard conversations are where the Spirit can refine us. That’s one of the reasons that I love being in a denomination. That’s one of the reasons I love being in the United Methodist Church and not a nondenominational church. I, as the pastor of this local church, do not have the authority to change our official stance on any issue. It has to go through the General Conference, recommending all of the 7 to 8,000,000 United Methodists. I think that’s a good thing; it allows the Spirit to work. If I have an opinion that the Spirit doesn’t agree with, the Spirit can work on me through the other disciples. It’s why I love the denomination and why I love Annual Conference.
That was supposed to be this week. And even though because of the virus we are not we didn’t hold General Conference, so we won’t be having all the tough discussions that we could be having, there’s always some amount of tough discussions. But up until this point we’ve always done that together. And when we get together, it is a time where I can sit down with other leaders in the church and talk through what I’ve been thinking about these issues, and discern with them, and conference with them, and pray with them. It’s also a time of celebration. We celebrate those retiring. We remember those that have gone on. We rejoice with those who are just beginning their journey. It is a time of worship, it is a time of learning, it is a time of discernment, and it is a time of grieving and remembering. That’s what we do when we get together.
Of course this year I’m here in Spring Hill. On Saturday of this week we have a conference call. One of the few things on the agenda to vote on whether to accept the request of 15 churches to close, whether or not to accept the request of six churches to disaffiliate with our denomination and leave with blessing as a result of the general conference that was held in 2019 in St. Louis, and whether not we accept the sale of one of our six camps (not in Kansas). And we’re holding that vote one day before Pentecost Sunday. We’re voting to close 15 churches and to disaffiliate six churches a day before Pentecost.
I worry that our conferencing has broken down. I worry that our councils are no longer able to hear the Spirit speak, and our churches are suffering as a result. It has only been maybe two or three years since the resurrection here, and we are already meeting together in Council to try and figure out an issue. There has never been a period in the church that was free of conflict, but throughout church history (largely) we have gotten together and been able to work through that conflict by listening to the Spirit and each other.
This week I call upon you to listen to the Spirit. Listen to the Spirit when we meet together for worship, when we meet together for a conference, when we meet together in prayer. Speak what you believe, don’t be timid; but at the same time be ready for the Spirit to speak a word to you (rather than waiting for the spirit to speak the word to them). One thing that both Scripture and our history teaches is that the spirit continually teaches and molds the church into the Kingdom of God on earth. So that's the lesson for this week: listen. Listen in your prayers, listen in your worship. Listen in your conferencing; whether it’s an annual conference or whether it’s just talking on the phone to another member of the congregation. Whatever it is, listen to the Spirit. And may the Spirit teach us. Amen.