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Acts 15:1-18, Council at Jerusalem

Debate for Growth or Division?

This is no small debate Paul and Barnabas engaged in with their Christian siblings. For thousands of years God’s people had circumcised as a mark that God had claimed them as God’s own. And all that time they believed God repeatedly commanded that they remain pure of blood. Suddenly, now, Gentiles were being welcomed into the faith. It would have been quite a dramatic shift for believers who had been taught their whole lives not to consort with Gentiles. But Paul and Barnabas knew that the strength in the new covenant was not in humanity’s ability to live faithfully, but in God’s faithfulness to humanity. If God has deemed Gentiles worthy of God’s love and salvation, then who were they to command how they should express their faith?

It reminds me of the debates that happen in the church today. From the small things, like whether or not to use urinal cakes (true story), to the big things, like whether or not to perform gay marriages, debates in the church will always exist. The hardest thing about these debates is that the people on both sides believe to the core that they are right. They also believe that their opinion on the matter is crucial to the well being of the church. So divisions exist, churches split, members leave and join other churches, or the in-fighting continues year after year.

Consider how strongly the early disciples felt about a matter as central to faith as circumcision. Yet now, people don’t care about circumcision at all. It’s done for medical reasons. Or it isn’t. Nobody blinks an eye, and it has no effect on the Christian community whatsoever. I wonder which of the debates that we care so strongly about today will be completely irrelevant in 100 years? Or 500 years? Or 1000 years? Why wait? Maybe we could stop letting those things divide us today.

Narrative Lectionary Text: Acts 15:-18

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.’”