There is nothing new under the sun, but....
1 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." 2 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. 3 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. 4 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. 5 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." 6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7 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. 8 And God, who knows the human heart, testified tso them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10 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? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." 12 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. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, "My brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15 This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 16 "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, 17 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 18 known from long ago.'
Imagine a world, long ago and far away, in which people are divided along ideological lines and each is sure that they hold the truest of truths, where there is no small dissension and debate among them. I know, it’s a stretch. There’s something at least a little disheartening in knowing that, ugh…people have always been plagued by our propensity for division. Yet, there is also something hopeful in knowing that our own experience of conflict is not entirely unique. We are not alone in our struggle to navigate life together. This is not a new phenomenon. Certainly the chasm between people can be exacerbated by events and extremes, but at its root it is a common part of being human together. The people of God and communities of faith are not immune.
What this text offers us is not a surefire way to quickly and easily dissolve disagreements or how to “win every argument for Jesus.” But it does give us a glimpse at how God can and does work in and through such complex conversations for the sake of the Gospel. For me, it’s helpful to focus in on a few things that help us sort through the forest and the trees. We have to take into account 1)the heart of the disagreement, 2)the manner in which we seek resolution, and 3) the implications of our spiritual inheritance.
The heart of the disagreement. Paul, Barnabas, Simeon Peter and others are not arguing about what color to paint the sanctuary trim. Nor do they highlight any time spent on deciding what constitutes appropriate acolyte attire. What is brought forward is presented as a question of ritual, but really it’s about something else. These teachers say that Gentile members of the church must be circumcised (and presumably also observe the rest of the Law) in order to be saved. The question facing the church is if the saving work of Christ is effective for those who are not Jews and who will never become Jews in the same way that everyone else at that meeting table understood themselves to be Jews? Is the cross enough to cover those who do not keep the laws of Moses as it has been understood for generations? What the church invests its time and energy into discussing is that which reflects our understanding of God and grace and shapes how we will relate to one another and the world. The matter is one that goes beyond surface-level sanctimony and explores the expanse of God’s very promises. The heart of the disagreement is God’s promise and the church’s capacity to reflect those promises in its life together.
The manner in which we seek resolution. What we see exhibited in this text is a larger conversation that is communal, scriptural, and experiential. Paul and Barnabas make the trip to have this talk face to face. They don’t hole up in their little corner of the world to make a decision with their own divine wisdom. They head out to gather with others and to wrestle together with these complex questions. They came together for true dialogue, a back and forth discussion.
Paul didn’t take to Twitter blasting those sad certain individuals in Judea. Rather the response was more like: “This seems really important to you, and it’s important to me to. Can I come over so we can talk more about this?” The topic is approached not with the goal of winning, but of understanding the other, of sharing where and how they are experiencing the movement of the Holy Spirit.
They are open to the ongoing movement of the Spirit. The experience of others is not just dismissed because it doesn’t align with their worldview or their current understanding of God’s promises. It is not belittled because it comes from a source other than the bible. They listen to each other. Verse 12 says, “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.” God is doing something here, it is worth taking notice. God is still on the move, why else would we be called followers of Christ unless there was going to be motion involved. We were created in the image of one who is still living and breathing and speaking and creating.
This sparks their memory of scripture, the sacred stories that anchor us. Oh yes, says James…now I remember. “James replied, "My brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15 This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 16 "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, 17 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 18 known from long ago.'
The people of God talk about the stuff that really matters. They don’t pontificate in isolation, but come together so that they keep each other accountable to the truth that is bigger than any one expression of the church. They recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in ongoing experience. They anchor themselves in the sacred words which have been passed down in order to reveal the arch of God’s promise throughout time and place.
The result is our great spiritual inheritance. Together with the Holy Spirit, they create something more than either would be alone. The apostles in Jerusalem didn’t respond by saying “can’t we all just get along and continue on pretending that everything’s fine or at least fine enough, and these kinds of differences don’t really matter.” They didn’t respond by saying, “well…you go your way and we’ll go ours but in our hearts we really know who’s right and we’ll always think a little less of you.” They don’t give up because the decision is too daunting. In the end, Gentiles like you and me are welcomed into the fold. Through no small debate or dissension they proclaim that if the cross is true for any of us, then it must be true for all of us. It’s not that we are being gracious in opening the church to second-class worshipers, but we are recipients of God’s grace to include any of us at all. You are a beneficiary of God’s grace.
The argument is not that God is doing a new thing but rather that God is doing what God has always done: showing mercy, and creating a people for God’s self where no people existed before. This is not about god doing something new, but what god has always been.
Kindred is a community for those have been told “you’re out,” or you can only be “in” if you tick all our boxes or get with our program. Even if they never heard those words explicitly, it came through loud and clear when they got that look from the person in their pew, which was probably intended innocently enough but essential says “who is that? And what on earth are they doing here?” It was spoken in between the lines from the council that suggested the church just wasn’t ready for someone like them in leadership. It is subtle and pervasive in the ways we claim that we love our neighbor, we just don’t really like when they’re loud, or messy, or flamboyant in displaying that which is not the norm for us.
In its intention to be faithful, the church had inadvertently put on blinders that restricted their view to just one way of being church, or at least a best way of being church. It took a faithful voice from the fringe challenging that view in ways that were likely uncomfortable, in ways that probably sounded heretical. Pews and committees aren’t the only way of being church, dinner church isn’t the only way of being church. But I don’t think that means we just agree to disagree and then go our separate ways ignoring each other. Once we’ve heard that God loves and includes those people too….it can’t be unheard. These kinds of experiences reveal the Gospel to us, they reveal that God is doing so much more…that the promise is so much bigger…
We Gentiles who, by the grace of God, are grafted to the tree of Christ, can rejoice with a profound sense of gratitude today for the advocacy and education efforts of allies like Paul and Barnabas and Simon Peter and James. Without them, our people might never have come to know the joy of all believers. And then, with gratitude as our starting place, we might look around and have some discussion – maybe even some dissension and debate! – about who in our neighborhood, community, nation, and world needs us to be their advocate and ally today.