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Sunday, July 22, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.

All the Tears

Matt Helms
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 145:1–9
Jeremiah 23:1–6
Acts of the Apostles 15:1–12

The church of Christ in every age,
beset by change but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage
and keep on rising from the dead.

Fred Pratt Green, Hymn 320, Glory to God Hymnal


Well, it’s a good thing that was cleared up! Adding Gentiles is fine; they don’t have to be circumcised to be Christian; it’s time to move on. Or at least that’s the succinct conclusion that this Acts passage seems to come to—that this gathering was nothing more than a small speed bump on the road to church unity, before calmer heads like Peter and Paul and Barnabas intervened and reminded everyone that they were united by the Spirit. Case closed.

Except we also read in one of Paul’s letters—his animated, angry letter to the Galatians—that Paul remembers this scene a bit differently. In the second chapter of Galatians, Paul recounts traveling to this Jerusalem Council to make the case that his mission to the Gentiles was not in vain. Though he was ultimately endorsed, Paul’s frank assessment of those leaders in Galatians 2:6 is astonishing: “From those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality), those leaders contributed nothing to me.” Ouch.

The rhetoric gets even harsher as Paul describes an encounter that he had later with Peter in Antioch: “When Peter came to Antioch,” he writes in verse 11, “I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned. Until certain people came from James, Peter used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate. . . . Others joined him in this hypocrisy. . . . They were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel.” Although today we have the benefit of hindsight as we look back on this debate—we don’t believe that circumcision or following Jewish dietary law makes one a Christian—we can still marvel at Paul publicly calling out James and Peter in this letter, arguably the two most important figures of the earliest days of this new church movement. Just as Jesus saved some of his harshest words for the religious leaders of his day—the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees—reading letters like Paul’s scorched-earth anger at the Galatians shows us the passion and urgency of those debates taking place within the early church.

We tend to think of the early church movement as a unified one—indeed, that is how Luke (the presumed author of the Acts of the Apostles) presents the early church throughout the text. “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul,” he writes in chapter 4 of Acts, “and there was not a needy person among them.” But from other early church documents like Paul’s letter to the Galatians or archaeological discoveries such as the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt, which gave us a window into some of the theological and religious diversity within the early church, or even if you’ve ever had a personal experience of being in a room with a group of people trying to make a decision on something, you know that unity can be a fleeting concept when surrounded by opinions and differences.

Although the topics being debated between Paul and James and Peter and others during this Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 are long settled issues for us, I can’t overemphasize how important they were to that early church community as they tried to understand their own relationship with Judaism. Jesus grew up Jewish, frequently taught in relationship with the Torah, and famously said during the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” But Jesus was a frequent critic of how the Law was being used and once compared his teachings in the Gospel of Mark to that of new wine: “No one puts new wine into old wineskins otherwise the skin will burst and the wine will be lost. One puts new wine into new wineskins.” This tension being played out in Acts 15 is crucial for understanding what Christianity will be moving forward—and the stakes could not be higher.

On one hand you have a group stating that these “new” Christians like Paul and the Gentile converts are leaving the essential traditions and practices of Judaism behind—things like circumcision, Jewish dietary law, and other aspects of the Torah that historically distinguished the people as set apart. Jesus did not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them, they argue. And on the other hand, Paul and others argue that these practices aren’t truly at the heart of what it means to be Christian. The arrival of the Spirit in Pentecost was a game changer, and much of what they grew up knowing no longer applies in this post-Pentecost world. All that matters, Paul writes over and over, is that we will be saved through God’s grace through Jesus Christ. That is what he is called to practice and preach.

This dichotomy is essentially every single church fight that you’ve ever witnessed—and honestly even outside of church as well. There is a side that sees traditions and practices eroding and they lift up a call to renewal—a call to the way that things were. And there is a side that sees those traditions and practices as stale or rote and desires for a different sort of renewal—one in which God’s Spirit brings about something new in their midst. These arguments have occurred throughout our history—a cursory look at the church through the years sees this cycle play out over and over again—but the reason that this debate is so evergreen is that both sides are correct in their own way. Maybe this is just me trying to be like Luke as he’s writing Acts by smoothing things over, but those who advocate for tradition and decades, centuries, or even millennia of church practice do have an important point. Our traditions not only ground us, but they can inspire us. Although often given a bad rap, the legal codes found in the Old Testament contain proclamations that still read as radical and refreshing today: commands to care for the orphan, the stranger, and the widow in our midst, to care for the creation that we have been blessed with, to not chase wealth as our ultimate life’s aim. But it’s when the law turns to legalism, when tradition ceases to inspire, when practice becomes perfunctory, that we must call it into question. That’s exactly what Paul was doing with these debates over circumcision and dietary law; both were created not just to help set the Jewish people apart, but with practical concerns around hygiene and health. Useful, perhaps, in the time period of the early church, but essential to following Jesus? Paul and we today clearly side with no.

But even though we have sympathy for the view that Paul was trying to advance, it’s easy to have sympathy with James and others on that Jerusalem Council as they wrestled with what they might have in common with the converts of Rome, Greece, and other countries that Paul would travel to. The truth is that we will almost certainly find ourselves on either side of this debate throughout our history—the radical reformations of one era become the traditions to be questioned and wrestled with. They are questions that we’ve wrestled with as a denomination and a congregation: What does it mean to be Christian? Or Presbyterian? What are acceptable forms of worship and what aren’t? Is one type of music more sacred than another? What are the essential tenets of faith? And who has the power and ability to decide these things?

Although we often think of Christianity through the lens of Western Christianity, you might be shocked to learn that more than 60 percent of Christians globally live in the southern hemisphere, up from just 20 percent in 1910. Christianity in the twenty-first century is perhaps as diverse as it has been in its entire history—and so once more these questions about what unites us, what traditions and practices should we hold to, and what traditions and practices should we be willing to let go of are coming to the fore.

That’s at least a years’ worth of sermon material, and even then I don’t think we’d have any definitive answers, I do want to close by reflecting on a few lessons that we can take away from Paul’s mission to the Gentiles and the transformation of the church’s mission that he helped to usher in through the Spirit’s help. Paul’s critics saw their position of being one of bringing law into disorder; Paul instead saw it as interfering with God’s reordering. The movement of the Spirit and the disorienting chaos of Pentecost wasn’t one of permanent disruption; it was a call for the early church to reorder its priorities around what God’s Spirit was calling them to be. Paul writes often of the Spirit, as do Acts and the Gospels of Luke and John, and it is consistently in reference to things like proclamation, service, empowerment, and, most importantly, transformation. The church that emerges out of those early debates is built on those things and, I believe, is the church when it is at its best: proclaiming not only the good news, but proclaiming and prophesying when our world has gone astray; calling each of us to serve according to our gifts—and reminding us that we have been empowered by the Spirit to serve, using these gifts of proclamation and service to transform ourselves and to transform the world. When I think about what unites us as a global church other than our faith in Jesus Christ, I think about those things: proclamation, service, empowerment, and the transformation of not only ourselves, but the world around us.

As the early church grew, many believe that the most powerful evangelical tool of those early Christians wasn’t the public preaching of church leaders or attending church services. It was neighbors witnessing a powerful change for the better among those around them who had chosen to follow Christ. By living out the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—these new Christians advocated for their faith far more than Paul or Paul’s letters ever could. By holding a love that bore all things, believed all things, hoped all things, and endured all things—by rejoicing in hope, being patient in suffering, persevering in prayer, contributing to the needs of others, and extending hospitality to strangers—their lives testified to the transformative power of being a follower of Jesus Christ and became an invitation for others to follow as well.

I came across a startling study a few days ago as I was preparing this: a survey of 60,000 households showed that only 25 percent—1 in 4—of those households had volunteered within the past year and, sadly, that overall percentage has been in decline for several years. As we wrestle with what Christianity might look like in the twenty-first century, sorting through what among our traditions and practices continue to inspire us, I believe that the Spirit may once again be calling us to be a church built around proclaiming our faith through service, empowering not only ourselves but others out of a desire to collectively transform into the people that God has called us to be—and that our service will be an example to a world in need.

Like the early church, there will always be debates to be had about who we are and what defines us—a question that will never be solved due to the ongoing work of the Spirit—but being grounded in service and empowerment for the sake of transforming ourselves and our communities takes us back to the mission of the earliest days of the church. By reclaiming this aspect of our identity and making it core to who we are, we are both claiming our heritage as the servant church and allowing it to reorder our priorities once more. May it indeed be so for all of us as we move into our shared future together. Amen.