Acts 15 v 1-35: God breaks down divisions-30th June 2013 9.45am - John Cooper

Reading: Acts 15:1-35

            Our passage today is primarily on one subject: what to do about the Gentile believers who were entering the Church? Up to then it had been mainly composed of  Jews. Was Christianity basically a variant of Judaism? On a wider canvas how much are we accountable to other Christians?

            In the First Century the great evangelistic religion before the advent of Christianity was Judaism. In the synagogues there were three groups of people: Jews by birth, Gentile proselytes who had fully accepted the Jewish rules which included circumcision and pilgrimage toJerusalem, and the Gentile God-fearers who, whilst believing, had not accepted the conditions of full acceptance.  Because women did not hold the family purse strings they were unable to go on pilgrimage and they did not have to be circumcised! So perhaps, understandably, it was mainly women in the proselyte group. It is thought that the majority of converts to Christianity came from the third group, the semi-committed. Of course successful churches should also have people attending who are seeking rather than fully committed.

            But how were these Gentile converts to be absorbed into what was then a fully Jewish sect? The Church leaders decided to hold a meeting to discuss it. 

            In the Seventeenth Century a new school of Philosophy arose inEurope. It was called the Enlightenment. The name comes from its basic idea that religion was redundant. It said that we are essentially good so we can safely maximize freedom and abandon morality, religion and tradition. Only the individual could decide his own path in life. He could formulate his own morals and was answerable to no higher authority. He thus had perfect freedom. The goal in life was to be pure pleasure seeking. This has been the driving force in Europe ever since. Contrast it with Asia where the tendency has been unswervingly to follow charismatic leaders such as Chairman Mao or the North Korean dynastic leaders. In Japan the loyalty to the boss is incredible.

            The Enlightenment, with its concept of absolute personal freedom, has proved a disaster for us. Many schools have to concentrate more on keeping discipline than education. Many children do not eat with their parents and disappear to their own rooms. Conversation breaks down. The divorce rate spirals upwards so many families are single parented. Soon we will have marriage amongst homosexuals because that is seen as an equally valid life-style. Who is there to say it is wrong? The individual has freedom to choose. Criminals are seen as victims, not as wrongdoers. When the riots occurred in London many leaders were saying that it was not bad behaviour but a lack of facilities for the young to enjoy. Prisons are for rehabilitation rather than punishment. Crime is not because of immorality, but bad parenting or a lack of opportunity.

            The Church is not exempt from this. Everybody wants to make his own decisions. The judge of a good church is what gives the individual a sense of worship, which usually means some form of  subjective ‘spiritual high’. And an individual will go through a whole series of churches to find the ‘correct’ one and many Christians never settle in a church. Worse still,  some Christians will try to change the church they are in. How many attending Anglicans churches really want their church to be Baptist or Pentecostal? The sense of ‘call’ is something the individual feels rather than agreed by the Church hierarchy. Mohammed also believed he had a personal call from God. 

            But the Church leaders in our passage resolved to hold a meeting together to try, unanimously if possible, to decide on a way forward.Firstly they acknowledged that God was indeed active among the Gentiles. He was bringing them into His Kingdom, into His Church. Praise God! And that is something I will personally be eternally grateful for. 

            But what to do about following the dictates of the Jewish rules? These are found in the Old Testament Law. After all it had been handed down by God on Mount Sinai. As I have already said for a Gentile to become a full member of the synagogue he had to obey the religious Law. Was that true also for joining a church? 

            I know a Christian who very much objected to her Christian flatmate keeping to the kosher and Sabbath laws of his Orthodox Jewish background. But why was that wrong? God through Moses had given the Jews the rules to follow. The problem came when those not following these rules came into Christian fellowship. Above all the relationship between Christians is all important. This is why it was decided that the new Gentile converts had to follow the eating habits of their Jewish brothers when they were together so as not to offend. Many years ago I had some Muslim friends around for a meal. Having very limited culinary powers I served them a sausage casserole. I used beef sausages but, unfortunately they did not know sausages could be made of anything other than pork. As you can imagine it was a social disaster! It is just such a problem that the Jerusalem Council was striving to avoid. Of course a Gentile Christian does not need to eat kosher food but as it says in Corinthians with regard to food sacrificed to pagan deities, “be careful…that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor.8:9). 

            This was particularly important in the Early Church because the service of worship was held around a full meal called an Agape feast. The bread and wine were part of it unlike our communion service where they are divorced from a meal. Of course it was important that all the Christians, irrespective of their backgrounds, could eat the feast together.

            Contrast this inclusiveness with an American church I heard about in the 70s. It did not allow Jews to be members. Thus they even excluded Jesus Himself! 

            We too easily make our faith legalistic. For example: do we need to have a quiet time? These times with God are extremely helpful but we must remember our faith does not in any sense depend on what we do. Some Christians can be very critical of others on how they spend Sundays. Leaving aside the question of whether Sunday is the Sabbath ultimately does it matter? In the great missionary endeavours of the Nineteenth Century we exported our culture along with our faith. For the most part that was not such a bad thing but it did have some strange results. I remember a missionary magazine that had to get bras for the New Guinea converts so their photos could be taken. I was told of a Home Office questionnaire supposedly assessing the Christian faith of refugees from countries where our faith is outlawed. It asked how they would cook a roast turkey for Christmas lunch. Jesus never ate that North American delicacy!

             At the heart of this passage is a call to love one another. That is what ‘Agape’ means. The Agape meals were about showing their love for God and each other. That is why we say the peace in our Communion Service. The Apostle Paul has a lot to say about this in Romans chapter 14. He writes: “Let us…make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (v19); “Whatever you believe about [disputable matters] keep between yourself and God” (v22) and “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment…”(v1).

            The heart of our faith is that we can do absolutely nothing to save ourselves and that makes our faith unique.”It is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved” as it says in verse 11. But He did give us a command to follow: He said “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will all men know that you are my disciples…”(Jn.13:34f).