Since June we’ve been looking at life in the early church as told in the Book of Acts. There has been persecution and imprisonment, even death of some of the apostles (Stephen and James). Paul, former persecutor of the church, has become a valiant evangelist and traveled all over Asia Minor with the Good News. Many Gentiles have been converted by his witness and most of the church rejoices. However, “certain individuals came down from Judea [to Antioch] and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” (Acts 15:1)
This demand creates dissension in the church. “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.” The men travel to Jerusalem where they are welcomed and “all that God had done with them.” Then “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.’” (Acts 15:4-5) These believers were upholding the ages-old Jewish tradition of circumcision as a sign of being a member of the saved. Wisely Peter and the other leaders met together.
Eventually Peter says, “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.” (Acts 15:7-11)
After Paul and Barnabas tell of the conversion of many Gentiles, James offers his view. “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts 15:19-21)
The leaders write a letter that is delivered to the church in Antioch by Paul and Barnabas with representatives from the Jerusalem council, Judas and Silas. “When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation. Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. After they had been there for some time, they were sent off in peace by the believers to those who had sent them.” (Acts 15:30-35)
Soon Paul and Barnabas decide to “visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” (Acts 15:36) However, there is a disagreement between the partners over John Mark. “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches." (Acts 39-41)
We often think that the early church was always in agreement. This chapter shows that there was disagreement among the leadership and even the busiest evangelists. Through it all the Gospel was preached and the church grew. I recently learned that every September 21 is the International Day of Peace established by the United Nations in 1981. As citizens of the Kingdom of God and of the world, we should work for peace rather than dissension. Seeking to get along with one another at work and home may not seem to have much global impact, but each act of peace is an antidote to violence and anger.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul counsels "Live in harmony...so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all." This is part of his chapter long appeal to the church at Rome to live as One Body. (Romans 12)
We can easily get distracted by the superficial disagreements between people in our churches. Someone wants to try doing something a different way and we become fearful and angry like the party of the Pharisees at the Jerusalem council. “That’s not the way it’s done,” we may fume. However, like Peter and James, we can also look at the change as a place and way God is acting.
Have you ever felt threatened when someone started a new ministry or changed the way an existing ministry is done? Did you refuse to participate or did you look for the presence of God in the change?
God is ever changing. I recently read a quote by Choan-seng Song. (Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology and Asian Cultures at the Pacific School of Religion and acting minister at the Formosan United Methodist Church in San Leandro, California) He said, “God moves in all directions: God moves forward, no doubt, but also sideways and even backwards. Perhaps God zigzags too … God goes anywhere a Redeeming Presence is called for. “ -. Perhaps we need to be willing, like the early church, to go in the direction God is going, even if it appears to be backward or in a zigzag route.
Next week, we’ll see what happened to Paul on his further journeys. When we join God's plan, your lives will not be dull.