26 May 2011Acts 15:7-21
"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." (vv. 10-11)
Today's passage from Acts continues the account of how the early
church resolved the question as to whether male gentile (non
Jewish) believers should be circumcised before they could become
fully part of the Christian community. We have a picture of a very
orderly and courteous debate. Feelings may be running high but we
are told that as Barnabas and Paul spoke about their missionary
work among the gentiles "the whole assembly kept silence" (v. 12).
No heckling or barracking but respectful silence. Certainly the
gathered Church leaders in Jerusalem create a different atmosphere
to some church meetings and to debate in the Houses of Parliament!
Peter had already set the tone for the conversation and also given
a lead as to his own mind, when he made it clear that no-one should
have to be burdened with a yoke that even the most devout Jewish
believers have found hard to bear. It was proving impossible for
people to fulfill every aspect of the law and salvation was not
possible by adding barriers that would get in the way of faith.
Rather it is through the grace of Jesus that both Jewish and
gentile Christian will be saved.
James sums up the debate after hearing a number of speakers by using the authority of the prophets to show that the new "dwelling of David" (v. 16) - the temple or Jerusalem or even Israel itself - would be rebuilt in a way that would help all people seek the Lord. He declares his decision that circumcision should not be a barrier to the gentile believers but does make some requirements regarding diet. The decision about a freedom of diet is one that will be dealt with later in the story of the early Church, made clear following a vision Peter had in which God declares that nothing God has made should be considered unclean (Acts 10:9-15).
Whenever Christianity is treated as a club with strict rules and entry requirements it becomes exclusive and a poor copy of the Body of Christ. No amount of jumping through hoops will ever be enough to bring us into the presence of God. Jesus Christ has already done all that is sufficient and through his grace we are all welcome and all able to know his liberating salvation. Yet human nature leads us to look for rules and barriers, which inevitably leave some on the inside and others outcast.
Who would be welcome in your ideal church? Are there people you would not want to welcome into the faith community? How might you change this?
Are there rules in your church that are helpful or unhelpful? What changes would you make?
What rules do you think people outside the Church believe we have that might prove a barrier to them? How might you overcome this?