The fifteenth chapter of Acts might is most likely one of the most important passages of scripture that Christians rarely read.
It might be categorized under the label "the unintended consequence of success". The mission is expanding, the movement is flourishing, we have witnessed the Pentecost for the Jews (Acts 2) and the Gentiles (Acts 10). Bill Jeffries has led us through the dream of Peter that changed the course of his life; Tara Bain has reflected on the conversion of Paul. The outsiders are becoming insiders, the gentiles, the pagans are coming to faith. Now the unintended consequence: they are not circumcised, which is the mark of faith and the tradition. And yet they have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord. So: do they need to be circumcised? According to the custom of Moses, some would say, the answer is yes.
And so we discover in verse two that there is "no small dissension and debate" among them. It comes as no surprise to us that there is sometimes dissension, conflict, and debate in the church. Do you think people ever disagree in the church? Yes. It has been happening for a very long time!
What is significant about Acts 15 is the subject of the disagreement: who can be saved, who can be a Christian? We have moved from the utopia of the conclusion of Acts 2, where everyone shared all things in common, to a conflicted and divided community. And this often happens, even today. Someone has an experience of God, the inner knowledge that she is saved by grace. And then she comes into contact with a real church, and there is bickering, or, can we even say the word, politics!
And the politics produces disillusionment. We go through an election, we send folks into political office who are going to change things, the solutions are conservative or liberal, your choice, but we don't see much change---just more bickering and noise and name-calling---and the needs go unmet and perhaps the challenges increase! The only thing that changes is that one side goes on offense and one side on defense.
Well, you say, that's politics, we expect that from politicians, it is their business, but we do not expect that in the house of God. And yet it is true, as the wisdom has it, that "everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics". It took only a few chapters in the Book of Acts to arrive at this reality. There are two sides of the aisle: one the traditionalists, the other the innovators. The traditionalists are looking back on at least one thousand years of history. It was central to the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17). One had to be circumcised in order to take part in the Passover feast or marry into a Jewish family. To be uncircumcised was to be heathen, unclean. Along with the Sabbath, circumcision was one of two primary symbols of the Jewish tradition. Even in the first century, however, there came to be a common disagreement within Judaism; some said that circumcision was a necessary requirement for inclusion; others said that immersion in a ritual bath, a mikveh or baptism, was enough; there are mikveh pools to this day outside the temples of Israel.
It was natural this that disagreement would be passed on from Judaism to Christianity. Do the converts need to undergo circumcision? I realized in working on this sermon that I probably do need to define circumcision, and this is where the conversation might go from being "pg" to "pg13" or even "r". Circumcision is the removal of a portion or all of the foreskin a part of the male anatomy. It has almost universal roots as a tribal mark, it is related to hygiene, and is a rite of passage into the status of a warrior.
So there are traditionalists and innovators. The traditionalists are clear: "this is non-negotiable, this was the commandment of God, this was passed on from our fathers and mothers to us". There is much that is valuable about our traditions. Years ago I was a part of a group of ministers who met early each Tuesday morning for support and conversation. We assembled in a barbecue restaurant in Lexington, and some of us drove over thirty miles each way to be there. It meant a great deal to us. We had been meeting for several years and we arrived so early in the morning that we had our corner booth, which held all of us. One morning we walked through the doors and someone was in our booth...I started to say, our pew! We did not actually own the booth, we did not have a permanent booth license, but it seemed like it was ours. It had become a tradition. We found another place to sit and all morning it felt....strange. I could not keep myself from looking at the people who were sitting in our booth! The getting together each week---that was life-giving! But the externals of how it actually happened....well now it seems trivial, and yet we are creatures of habit.
So imagine a one thousand year old tradition, one that is fundamental to your identity, and the question becomes: can we set this aside? Tradition is essential. It is also true that sometimes we grow up in a tradition and we accept it without thinking. It helps to question our traditions. I heard a story about a young couple, newlyweds, preparing a meal together. At one point the husband asks the wife, "Why do you cut the ends off the ham?" She thinks for a moment, and responds, "because my mother did it." "Why did she do it?", he wonders. "I don't know", she says, "I'll ask". And so she does, and her mother gives her the same reply: "I do it because my mother always did it." Finally the young woman asks her grandmother, "why do you cut the ends off of your ham." The grandmother answered, "because my pan is not wide enough."
Why do we continue to do what we have always done? We take the summer off from school so that we can help on the farm....only, most of us do not live on a farm. An eleven o'clock worship service also allowed dairy farmers to milk the cows before arriving at worship. All of us are creatures of habit who value tradition, whether we are talking about our favorite college football team or how we prepare our food or....how we come into the presence of God.
Here we shift our thinking from the traditionalists to the innovators. They are witnessing something pretty dramatic: the conversion, the turning of individuals toward God. It is a new thing, maybe even the new covenant that Jeremiah has promised, the circumcision of the heart. It's not bad news, the innovators are saying; it is good news!
One of the problems with tradition is that we can see it as an end in itself: we embrace the tradition but, like the newlywed, we cannot quite tell you why; we forget the purpose of the tradition in the first place. The human traditions related to how we access religion or God or salvation may change, the medium changes, but the message does not. The innovators remind us that the tradition always points us beyond ourselves, to God. And so the conversation among the core leaders of the Christian movement, including Peter and Paul, goes to the heart of the message. Who can be a Christian? Can anyone be a Christian? Or can only those who have been circumcised be Christians? They met together, there was much debate (verse 7), finally Peter speaks, then Paul and Barnabas, and then James, the brother of Jesus. What about the Gentiles and Circumcision? What about the tradition? What about the new thing we are seeing in the world? How do we make sense of it? What are we going to do?
Their decision? Peter begins: " Why do we put a yoke on the neck of the disciples that our neither nor we have not been able to bear?" There is humility in those words----the recognition that we have not always lived up to the ideals of our traditions. And then a powerful affirmation: " We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." We are saved by the grace of God. Salvation, right relationship, acceptance, wholeness, however you name it or frame it or claim it, it is a gift. And so Peter, who had been among the inner circle of the disciples of Jesus, called by the Lord himself, present on the day of Pentecost, does not claim any of this tradition as a privileged status.
An astonishing statement: "You mean, this church belongs just as much to the person who walked through the door for the first time today as it does to someone who was there from the very beginning?" Peter puts it bluntly: we are all in the same boat! And then James reinforces the decision: we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God (with circumcision), but there are some ground rules: avoid serving food to that is offensive to your brother and sister Jewish Christians, and keep from immoral sexual practices (verses 20, 29). There was a specific context for these instructions: the pagan practices of temple prostitution (and the Greek word used here is our literal word for pornography) and the violation of feasts that were related to Israel's long history of family meals.
Will Willimon writes in his commentary on Acts, "converts into the church are welcomed, but not without limits." What are the limits? They seem to go to the heart of what it means to honor one another in daily lives, and to honor our bodies in our sexual relationships. And so the disagreement is resolved; as the resolution is read to the missionary community, the letter expresses that " it seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit...that we impose on you no burden beyond the essentials".
When Christians disagree, we err on the side of mercy toward one another, and we leave the final judgment to God. Richard Baxter, a Puritan minister in 17th century England who had lived through the religious wars that moved many to seek a home on this side of the ocean, summed it up well:
In necessary things, unity.
In doubtful things, liberty.
In all things, charity.
This sentiment would inspire another church later, a century later. John Wesley would write:
"Is your heart right, as my heart is with yours? I ask no farther question. If it is, give me your hand. For opinions or terms, let us not destroy the work of God.
Do you love and serve God? It is enough. I give you the right hand of fellowship."
So, who can be a Christian? Anyone who accepts the grace of Jesus Christ and is willing to treat our brothers and sisters in Christ with dignity and respect. For the one who has been a part of the tradition for a long time, this means being flexible, and remembering that the ground is level at the foot of the cross; we are all sinners, saved by God's amazing grace. For the one who is new to the tradition, for the one who desires innovation, it implies honoring our fathers and mothers in the faith, in a family story that stretches back now for thousands of years, filled with creeds and parables and hymns and practices and rituals and meals.
Once the decision was made, and I do believe the Holy Spirit was a part of it, the gospel was free to move beyond the boundaries of ethnicity and family and, it is not a stretch to say, political partisanship, to fulfill the promise of Jesus: the spirit was and is moving from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and now, to the ends of the earth (Acts 1. 8). And very briefly, why does that matter? It matters because God loves the world, not just a particular race or tribe or class of people. And it matters because you and I are the beneficiaries of this decision, we are the gentiles, for in the fullness of time we would come to be included in the grace of Jesus Christ.