The Scripture reading this week is Acts 15:1-21.
The Sermon title is Included
Early Thoughts: Who gets to be part of the community? What rules need to be met?
These are questions that the church has wrestled with from the beginning (and continues to wrestle with today).
The earliest church was a Jewish group. Jesus was Jewish, Jesus' disciples appear to have all been Jewish, the people who were flocking to the community in Jerusalem appear to have all been Jewish. But that only lasts so long.
In Acts Chapter 10 Peter has a dream, a dream in which he hears God challenging him to broaden the circle of belonging to includes Gentiles. In Chapter 11 Peter has to defend this action to some others in the community. As Paul begins his work he seems to have more success among the Gentiles than among the Jewish communities where he visits.
Which leads us to Chapter 15. Some people come to Antioch (where Paul is present, it is his "home base" at this point in time) and insist that all these Gentiles who have joined the Christian community need to be circumcised [and presumably follow the rest of the Law, though the text only talks about circumcision -- maybe a free pass for the female members of the community?]. The Christian community of Antioch discusses the question (Paul and his compatriot Barnabas appear to have led the argument against requiring circumcision) and are unable to resolve it. So a group are sent to Jerusalem to discuss it with the heads of the church. Probably a modern equivalent would be for a Roman Catholic group being sent to the Vatican to discuss and resolve an issue, or a United Church Congregation making a proposal to the next meeting of the General Council.
In writing Acts, Luke has chosen not to tell us how the debate goes. We are left to guess how virulently the opposing sides made their arguments. He does say there was "much debate" and some of us in the church might have our guesses about how the debate might have gone --- based on our own experiences of the church discussing hot, divisive, topics. But really we jump to the decision. Peter reminds the listeners of his experience from Chapter 10. He reminds folk that at that time God showed Peter that God calls Jew and Gentile alike to the Spirit-led community of Christ. Paul and Barnabas share what they have witnessed God doing in their work among Gentiles. And then James, commonly believed to have been the leader of the Jerusalem church, speaks from the stories of Scripture. Interestingly, it appears to be James that makes the final decision, as listed in verses 19-21. The full Law is not required from Gentile Christians, only some very specific things.
So what does this have to do with us?
The church is often described as a family. Which works to a degree. The comparison reminds us to love and care for each other. And on the shadow side, church splits and disagreements can be just as hurtful and deep as some family estrangements. But the church is not a family.
Family tends to suggest a fairly homogeneous group. Family are those people who are related to us, for most of human history this has tended to mean that the members of our family are largely like us. Humanity being the tribal species that we are (or at least really tend to be), family can be a pretty closed circle. God might have different ideas.
I said above that "These are questions that the church has wrestled with from the beginning (and continues to wrestle with today). ". We continue to wonder where the boundaries of the faith "family" should lie. The challenge for us is to find where God is leading us in those discussions.
The gathering in Jerusalem does not decide that God has made a sudden turn. The acceptance of the uncircumcised is not a new thing God is doing. The gathering in Jerusalem determines that God has been at this work all along, God is just now calling the church to get with the program. They made that determination after considering Scripture, past practice, and lived experience. And it took time.
Luke tells the story in a few verses, accomplished in one meeting. But by the time of this one meeting it is likely that the discussion has been going on for years. [If we assume that Peter's dream in Chapter 10 was in the first year after the Easter experience. Paul tells us that after his conversion experience he went away for two years to be instructed in the faith, and now Paul has made his first journey so we know that time has passed.]
To follow God is a long-term proposition. To live in the the Kingdom of God takes time. Change does not happen as fast as some would like it to. It requires us to listen to each other and to hold each other in prayer. And sometimes we find out that God has a much broader understanding of grace and community than we once believed.