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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
For over 100 years, theologians and scholars have debated the meaning of Mark Twain’s famous line. “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” Twain was making the point that the Bible is contradictory in some places, and remarkably lucid and straightforward in others. So often the Bible is left to the interpretation of the teacher and the preacher, and is used to support their theological perspective. Of course, Mark Twain wasn’t the only one to make that observation. The former Episcopal theologian and bishop, John Shelby Spong, felt the same way. “When I grew up in the South, I was taught that segregation was the will of God, and the Bible was quoted to prove it. I was taught that women were by nature in inferior to men, and the Bible was quoted to prove it. I was taught that it was okay to hate other religions, and especially the Jews, and the Bible was quoted to prove it.”
One doesn’t have to be as controversial and flamboyant as Bishop Spong or Mark Twain to see that there are unsettling, contradictions in the Bible, and nowhere is this more evident than is the Book of Act’s account of the decision of the Council of Jerusalem. One man, however, seems to understand the potential strife and discord in the decision and that is James. His four little prohibitions seem archaic today, but I would dare say, they are the four most important lines in the whole passage which continue to speak to the church even now.
So let us turn to the story of the Council of Jerusalem. We read that that no sooner had Paul and Barnabas returned from their missionary journey Asia Minor, where a great number of Gentiles were moved by the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ than, “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. Historians believe that the arrival of the certain men may have been the cause for Paul to write his Letter to the Galatians, where he said, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel, not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” So the two apostles appointed representing the saints in Antioch, along with some other believers, went up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders to discuss this question. “Do Gentiles need to be circumcised in order to become Christians?” This group that came down from Judea certainly thought so, and they were not alone.
In Jerusalem, there was a group of Pharisaic followers of the Way, known as Judaizers who believed that the Gentiles welcomed into the faith needed to keep the law of Moses? Why, you may ask? Because that’s what it says in the Bible. In the Old Testament, there were provisions written for Gentiles and God-fearers to convert to Judaism. In the book of Exodus 12, it was written, “A foreigner residing among you who wants to celebrate the Lord’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat it. The same law applies both to the native-born and the foreigner residing among you.” Yes, scripture was very clear. If Gentiles wanted to become a part of the tribe of Israel, they needed to obey the law of Moses. This was not written just once in scripture, but multiple times. The Pharisaic believers’ demand did not seem unreasonable. Abraham’s descendants were the blessed people and circumcision was the mark of such descent.
Now if Scripture was so clear, what was the problem? Why should St. Luke spend a whole chapter of the Book of Acts describing this debate? And how was it that Paul and Barnabas, as well as Peter, were arguing against following the law? Obviously, something was changing or perhaps had already changed.
Paul and Barnabas, and Peter, had had experiences that contradicted that very Scripture they knew and professed. And thus, they were brought face to with a major theological debate with day to day consequences. Scripture said one thing, while their experience said another. And suddenly, what once seemed so black and white, so cut and dry… wasn’t.
You may recall that earlier in the Book of Acts, when Peter was visiting the home of Simon the Tanner in Joppa on the Mediterranean Sea, he had a dream of table cloth descending from heaven filled with unclean animals. Three times he heard the voice of God demanding that he eat. A short time later, he was escorted by Gentile soldiers and servants to the home of the Roman centurion Cornelius in Caesarea Philippi. It was in that sequence of a vison and a personal experience with a Gentile that Peter understood that God’s showed no partiality. As Peter was preaching, it was visible to him and his companions that the Holy Spirit descended upon Cornelius and his family without first converting them to Judaism. Peter spoke about that experience at the Council in Jerusalem. “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and by cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.” Peter ended his testimony with these words, “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Then Peter sat down, and we don’t hear his voice again in the Book of Acts. Paul and Barnabas then began to offer their witness. On their missionary journey throughout the Gentile world, again and again, they saw how God acted in the lives of the Gentiles even without their conversion.
And so the church elders in Jerusalem debated the question, “Should Gentiles be required to keep the law of Moses in order to be saved?” Do they need to first become Jews in order to receive the gift of God’s salvation?” It is important to remember that at that time there was still no Church. The Way was a movement within Judaism. Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem worshiped in the Temple and debated with their religious contemporaries. Some historians believe that it was well into the 2nd century that Christians and Jews still gathered together in the synagogues. The Council in Jerusalem needed to resolve this theological and practical question for the sake of good relationships with their neighbors.
Finally, James the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem stood up. According to tradition he was a powerful figure in the apostolic church. He is assumed to be author of the Epistle of James which was already in circulation at the time of the Council. According to Josephus, James was stoned to death in AD 62. He was very Jewish, but not a Judaizer. He agreed with the principle of justification by grace through faith, but he was also conservative Jew who wasn’t totally comfortable with the liberty Paul took in disregarding Jewish traditions. So having heard from Peter, and from Paul and Barnabas, James spoke up in the Council and proclaimed, “In light of what we’ve heard from Peter, Paul and Barnabas as well as what Scripture says in the prophets, Gentile believers should not be required to keep the law of Moses.” But then he added the four prohibitions. They needed only to refrain from certain activities that were associated with blood and meat offered idol worship in pagan temples. So the apostles in Jerusalem wrote a letter to the church in Antioch with their decision and said, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials.” No doubt, Paul would have preferred a simple statement that all are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Period. But he could accept the decision of the Council-even with its restrictions.
Unfortunately, the compassion and empathy James demonstrated in this Council has been terribly overlooked by time. James was trying to reconcile two understandings of Judaism that were heading in two different directions, and he was desperately trying to hold them together. He understood what was at stake. The Way which he had guided would no longer be same. The decision of the Council of Jerusalem in the year 50 AD would dramatically alter the direction of Christian movement. The church would inevitably become less and less Jewish, and more and more Gentile. The faith would no longer be defined adherence to the law of Moses, but by the principle of believing in Jesus. There was freedom and liberty in this belief, but how could this be reconciled with the traditions of the past?
The four prohibitions regarding blood, and the animals associated with idol worship in pagan temples, may seem odd to us today, maybe even unimportant, but James understood that these were the very practices that defined Jewish faith in the 1st century. They were also prescribed in the Law of Moses and written in the Book of Leviticus. To abandon them was to abandon the authority of scripture. Please note that decision, for this may come to you as a surprise, but that day in Jerusalem, the church elders chose to live by a principle of faith, instead of the word of scripture. And we have been guided by the spirit of that principle ever since. The elders and apostles choose to abandon the law of Moses, which was dear upon their hearts and lips, and live by the principle that all who believe in Jesus Christ will be saved. James’ response that day was insightful for us. It was a plea for tolerance and patience. He understood that breaking these specific laws was viscerally repulsive to traditional, devout Jewish Christians. They were prohibitions that were understood by God-fearers as well, and had been taught them all their life. It was why he added, “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.”
James’ pastoral response to the church in Antioch and all of Asia Minor was a plea. “Gentile Christians,” do not flaunt your freedom and liberty. You have been saved by grace through faith, as we have. But in exercising your freedom, remain sensitive to the convictions of your Jewish neighbors about these matters. Honor these prohibitions. If you can keep yourselves from these, you will do well” And he ended his letter, “Farewell.”
As the Council of Jerusalem chose to abandon the authority of the Old Testament traditions of Scripture and embrace the principle of faith in Jesus, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” But my friends, do not forget the plea of James on behalf of those earliest followers who still lived by the law of tradition and faith. The church today is facing major changes as well. The struggles are cultural, political and economic. We are torn between the traditions and authority of the past that have supported and nurtured us, and the freedom and liberty of the future which, without tempering, can destroy us. We must listen to the voice of James, and his plea for all the followers of the Way, not just the new, and certainly not just the charter members. God alone will let us know what is truly good for the Holy Spirit and for us. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.