Our story today begins with a conflict. It is a disagreement between Jesus followers over what is required for salvation.
The story last week about the Ethiopian eunuch marks a dividing point in Acts. Between the ministry that, to this point, has been primarily to Jews and those who worshipped the God of Israel, and the ministry to the Gentiles, which, in the Jewish perspective, is everyone else.
In between last week’s and this week’s reading, we see the beginning of the church’s ministry to the Gentiles. These chapters include the conversion of Saul, who will change his name as he begins his own ministry with Barnabas, his colleague and companion. They travel to Antioch, which is a town, north of Judea, in present-day Syria.
But, it’s not only Paul and Barnabas who are preaching the Good News of Jesus to Gentiles. In Acts 10, Peter has a transformative experience. A vision that leads him to Cornelius, a Gentile, God-fearing centurion who belongs to the Italian Cohort - a unit of archers, that is based at the Roman administrative center in Caesarea. In his vision, Peter receives a message - that he is not to call anything “unclean” that God has made “clean.” It is a genesis moment for Peter, who will then, like Paul and Barnabas, begin in earnest to share the Good News with Gentiles.
But, there is a problem. A conflict. A theological question around the issue of circumcision. “How could a Gentile possibly participate in the blessings promised to the covenant people?” In short, how can Gentiles be saved, without being circumcised? The concern is not about exclusion because of race, but inclusion within God’s covenant.
Our reading is from Acts, chapter 15.
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.” 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. 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. 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. 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.”
The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 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. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 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? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
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. After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
‘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,
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 known from long ago.’
--Acts 15:1-18 (NRSV)
The disagreement begins in Antioch. Other apostles, presumably in good faith, have come into the community and have begun to preach that, in order for Gentiles to be saved, they must be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas get into it with these apostles. We can only imagine the argument that must have occurred.
It is agreed among church leaders that Paul and Barnabas and a few others should go to the elder apostles of the church in Jerusalem, bringing this question. They recognize that, to require circumcision of every male believer in the Antioch church would be viewed as culturally inappropriate - an act of mutilation.
So, Paul and Barnabas and the others go. As they travel south, going through other Gentile countries, they begin to witness how broadly the Holy Spirit has been at work. By the time they reach Jerusalem they are overjoyed with what they have seen on their travels. The council in Jerusalem also rejoice over this news. Except for a few, who continue to insist that the Gentile believers must be circumcised.
Notice what happens next. Paul and Barnabas and Peter don’t simply write off the council in Jerusalem. Instead, they honor this relationship. And together enter into dialogue about what to do.
Peter begins. Reminding them of his earlier revelation from God and his experience with Cornelius. He argues from a position of grace - of inclusive grace - that there is no difference between “them” and “us” - between the Jewish and Gentile believers. That, if the leadership requires the same yoke of circumcision on the Gentiles they will not simply be burdening them, but will be putting God to the test. Because it is clear to them that God, through the Holy Spirit, has been at work among these believers.
The leaders are silent. They do not interrupt or disagree. They simply listen to Peter’s argument. Then, Paul and Barnabas share their experiences. What they have been witness to in their ministry. The signs and wonders that God has been doing in the midst of these Gentile communities.
When they finish, notice what happens next. Each side makes concessions for the sake of unity. No longer will circumcision be required for Gentiles believers. Yet, these same believers will be required to engage in certain practices that all believers - Jewish and Gentile - will be compelled to follow.
What’s the lesson for us in this text? Perhaps it's that none of our own experiences are better or worse than any others - they are just different. We all come to faith in our own ways. We come with different histories, perspectives, and expectations. These different perceptions are not right or wrong - they just are. It’s part of the joy and the frustration of bringing people together. Yet, when we learn to listen to each other, to our leadership, and to the Word of God, and we are all working on the same goal - sharing the Good News of life through Jesus - we can learn to work together, despite our differences.
What are the yokes we need to shed? How are we constraining the work of the Holy Spirit? As we begin to move out of pandemic life, these are questions that we must be asking. And, like the early church, may we err on the side of grace, inclusiveness, love, and unity. Because these are the markers of the church. These are the markers of God. Yesterday, today, forever. Amen.
Preached May 9, 2021, online with Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, KY, and Third Lutheran, Louisville, KY.
Readings: Acts 15:1-18, Luke Luke 2:29-32