Arguments In the Church - Acts 15
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Arguments In The Church – 03.27.2022
I moved the summer between eighth grade and ninth grade. I used to live in Oxford, and then we moved to Troy. And so I started high school with basically no friends. As you can imagine I was this awkward nerdy kid who played clarinet in the marching band and was in all the honors classes, and I sat in the back for freshmen Biology. Now, I should mention, I LOVE science. I love learning about the world God gave us – I think it’s so fascinating. So I was super into Freshmen Bio, like 98% in the class, I had the highest grade in the class. It was a year long class, and after the first couple months, my teacher pulled me into his office and he said, “I’m going to switch up your desk partner. I’m going to move you next to David and he’s going to be your lab partner.” And my teacher told me this from the start, he said “David needs to bring his grades up, and you have the highest grade – so I hope you will be a good influence on him.” Now, here’s what you need to know about David – he was one of the cool kids. Tons of friends, played guitar in a band, and at the time I had like one friend – my buddy Jack, who knew David and so we all clicked really well. David and I became the terrors of the science department. It wasn’t just dissect the frog, it was hey – do you think I could get fling this liver all the way across the room? Yeah, try it. We set a lot of things on fire that year. After another quarter the teacher split us up again. See what happened, was David’s grades did go up. He went from C-minuses to B’s, and I’m going to take credit for that. His grades went up, but at the same time – my grades went down. We were sort of pulling one another towards the middle, and the teacher didn’t like that. Plus, one of those fires got kind of big before we knocked it into the sink – so we were done as partners. You see, today we’re going to dive into Chapter 15 of the book of Acts, and we’re going to find this tug of war with good influences and bad influences in a community when you meet new people. Let’s take a look.
[read v.1-2]. If you remember last week Paul and Barnabas and a couple buddies are traveling around telling everyone about Jesus – and one of their home bases is the city of Antioch. They keep coming back to Antioch. But then there’s these OTHER teachers who are coming in and teaching something different, so they go to Jerusalem to discuss it. [read v.4-5]. Now it says, “believers who belonged to the “party” of the Pharisees” but they don’t seem like much of a party. The Pharisees are sort of a buzzkill. Paul and Barnabas are these Jewish guys, travelling around the world telling everyone about Jesus. and they’ve got all these new non-jewish believers. And they’re so excited because these people have the Holy Spirit in their lives and they’re accepting Jesus as lord and savior and it’s amazing. And then these Jewish pharisees come in and they sort of cross their arms and say, “those outsiders need to act like us.”
Okay, the best way I can explain this situation is imagine bringing someone new to church. Let’s say you have a friend, who never grew up in the church, they don’t know what to say or do or how to act “churchy” – but they just found out about Jesus. And they are just so on fire for Jesus – they want to live for him, and serve him as Lord. And you bring them in here – and they’re wearing the wrong clothes – you know, the shirts where they forget the bottom part of the shirt, or the jeans that have more holes than God intended pants to have, and they’re singing too loud, and they mess up the words to the Lord’s prayer, and they don’t know when to sit down and when to stand up and they sat in your seat. Or worse, they talk wrong. They say words that you’re not allowed to say. Maybe they will use a swears. They come in here and they have the audacity to be different. Maybe they’re talking during the sermon, loudly. Or they bring babies that are loud or messy or sticky – really just bringing any kids at all is bound to be disruptive. The Pharisees come in and say, “look, if you want to be here – you have to play by our rules. And our biggest rule is circumcision.” But Paul and Barnabas are pushing back. They say, “well now wait a minute. They’re different, but God is working through them. We’ve seen evidence of God’s holiness in their lives. It’s different, and it’s a little uncomfortable, but it’s also really beautiful.” And then Peter gets up and adds to it. He says in verse 7, [read v.7-9]
And so the next chunk of the chapter they have this big church leader meeting about it. Mostly Jewish leaders gather and ask the question, “alright, what are we going to do about all these new people. What are the ground rules for Gentiles?” And Peter finishes his speech with this, [read v.10-11]. Basically Peter says, “you’re mad about these new guys because they’re not perfect, but which one of you is perfect?” And I wonder if these words can echo through the centuries into our hearts this morning. Those of us who are regulars in the church building – do we expect visitors – whatever they are (non-Christians, questioning, baby Christians) – do we expect them to be perfect? Are we putting expectations on them that WE can’t even meet? Peter lays it out, he says, “none of us can live up to the standard, we are all saved through the grace of Jesus.” [read v.12]. So some new kids want to be Christians. The party of the pharisees, which does not sound like much of a party, the party of the pharisees wants to lay down some rules that they must follow – mainly circumcision. But Peter, Paul and Barnabas are making a case that we should be gentle with the gentiles. Look in the mirror, remember how hard it was for us when we were first starting out in our faith.
Then James stands up, down in verse 19 and he says, [read v.19-20]. Now that probably sounds really weird if you don’t have the backdrop. After Peter and his homies get up and talk about grace, and we don’t want to add burdens to the new guy – then James gets up and says, “yeah! We should not add burdens, so here’s three rules.” Don’t eat food polluted by idols, don’t do sexual immorality, and don’t eat strangled animals. And it’s confusing because it feels like James is going the wrong way. I thought we WERE NOT going to add rules to people. Let’s be people of grace, why is he out here creating guidelines? How is that any better than the guys who are pushing for circumcision? But here’s the backdrop you need to understand – we have to remember ancient middle eastern temple practices. In this time period – the method of worshipping other gods were offering sacrifices that were eaten as meals, temple prostitution, and rituals that involved eating strangled food. The guidelines James is laying down are a direct response to the common sins in a gentile’s life. Basically what James is saying is that we should be welcoming to the new guy. You don’t have to follow all the Jewish customs. You don’t have to become Jewish to follow Jesus – but you do have to stop worshipping other things. There’s a difference between gracefully extending a welcome to a new person, and just letting someone do whatever they want. So they set up some guidelines for the Gentile believers to start living the way Jesus taught.
And I do want to pause for a second and point out – that would have been a huge deal. These gentile believers are going to have to radically alter their lives to live Jesus’ way. No more big feasts or parties at the pagan temples – ah man. No more sleeping with the temple prostitutes. Wait, what? I can’t sleep with the temple prostitutes anymore? The Christian sexual ethic was extremely restrictive to the ancient Roman world. The idea of one man and one woman, committed to one another in marriage BEFORE you get to have sex, with no extra people on the side – that was a radical idea in that world. And what I hope you’re picking up on this morning is that welcoming new people in love is really tricky. There are two extremes that a lot of people fall into. On the one hand – wishy-washy grace. That’s where we are so full of grace that people can do whatever they want. We are so focused on being loving and welcoming that we fail to be transforming. Christianity doesn’t help anyone if it’s just a nice label you slap on the sinful life you were already living. But on the other hand – there’s legalism. Here’s our set of rules and you have to meet them in order for us to accept you. If you don’t fit inside the box, we will not love you. And both extremes have the same problem – they fail to be transforming. They fail to actually change someone’s life. But there is a middle way. James proposes specific guidelines that apply to that persons life.
Like, think about this, these guidelines don’t make any sense to us. I have no problem not eating food offered to idols, and it’s very easy for me to NOT sleep with temple prostitutes or eat strangled food. What I’m trying to show you is that this passage is very contextual. James and Paul and Barnabas and all those guys – they want people to be transformed by the presence of Jesus in their life. Circumcision doesn’t mean anything to them – so they put together guidelines that will actually cause transformation. So the elders love it, and they say, “this is great plan. Write it down in a letter, and then Paul and Barnabas can deliver it.” And that’s exactly what happens. Verse 30, [read v.30-31]. Here’s some guidelines of what it looks like to grow closer to God, and everyone is so excited and they rejoice.
Now there’s one more story in this chapter, and it’s kind of out of left field – but we’ve got to talk about it, because it’s a pretty famous moment. [read v.36-38]. So basically, Paul looks at Barnabas, and he says, “hey, let’s go visit all our old friends at all the places we’ve already been.” Like, let’s do a victory lap and go visit and see how everyone’s doing. And Barnabas says, “yeah, that sounds awesome – let’s bring John Mark.” Now, you might not remember but back in chapter 13 (verse 13), John Mark was travelling with them, but he left early to go back to Jerusalem. And apparently Paul is a little sore about it. Barnabas says, “let’s bring John” and Paul says, “no, I hate that guy.” Well, okay – he doesn’t say that, but he really doesn’t want John to come. [read v.39-41]. Paul and Barnabas, who up to this chapter have basically been like the Batman and Robin of Evangelism, but now they have such a strong disagreement that they parted company. They broke up the band. John Mark is the Yoko Ono of the story. Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement, and what I want to leave you with before we move on is simply this. When Paul and Barnabas split up – did they go around smearing one another and gossiping about how terrible the other guy was? No. Did they write nasty scathing letters and post them on bulletin boards for the entire community to read and comment on? No. They disagreed. So they parted company and got back to work. And I’m not saying you should run away from your problems – they didn’t. They were still buds, but the work they were doing was the focus. The most important thing was the mission of sharing God’s love.
For those who don’t know, our denomination of the United Methodist Church is in the middle of a “sharp disagreement.” And Paul is going to walk one way, and Barnabas is going to walk another way – and I haven’t spent a ton of time talking about it because I want us to stay on task. I don’t want us to get off mission. Those are important conversations, and we will have them. But we have a mission, we need to keep our eyes on Jesus. And no matter what name is on the outside of the building – we need to be telling people about Jesus. I’m not going to waste precious time that God has given me for the ministry of sharing Jesus with the world by attacking Paul or attacking Barnabas. Now, if you have questions or you want to vent about something, or if you heard rumors and you’re confused or scared – please know that our leadership is discussing these things and we will do everything we can to keep you informed. Like next week, we’re having a Pizza With The Pastor. It's a Q&A session where folks can come, eat pizza and ask me any questions they want. Paul and Barnabas parted company and blessed one another on the way out so they could get back to work, and I think that’s a pretty great model for “sharp disagreements.”
Community is so messy, right? It’s easy to get along when you hang out superficially, but if you dare to dive deeper, if you’re not afraid to let down your guard and let people get close to you – the reward is exponential. The level of love you can experience in messy community is absolutely incredible. But the people around us, affect us. If we go deep, community will transform us. This community, this gathering of Jesus followers – our goal is to be transformed to be more like Jesus. The good news today is that the Holy Spirit brings together a diverse community. Verse 28 says, [read it]. Way back in the early church it was Jews and Gentiles trying to figure out how to live together and honor Jesus with their lives. IN the modern world we’ve got young people, old people, city kids, rural folk, traditional style, contemporary style, introverts, extroverts. We’ve got abundantly grace filled people who need to learn how to be firm in love, and we’ve got strict legalistic folks who need to learn how to be softer in love. Our church family is a kaleidoscope of different types of people. The Holy Spirit brings together a diverse community and our job in this place is the push people closer to Jesus.
I look at this chapter, and I think about the Pharisees who wanted everyone to get circumcised. Like, if you were circumcised that’s all we care about – regardless of what’s going on in your heart. Like it was a membership card, which – how do you even check for that? Like an usher at the door or something? Ew, worst job ever. Don’t think about it too much. Circumcision doesn’t get at the heart. But when James gets up, and all those guys – and they lay down some guidelines that apply to the specific struggles of the people in front of them. It’s like, if you know someone struggles with pornography – and so to help them, you lay down some guidelines specific to their struggle and then you walk with them. Or if someone struggles with drug abuse, their walk is going to be different – but you lay down some goals, and you walk closer to Jesus. Or if they struggle with pride, generosity, gossip, idolatry. Maybe someone spends too much time on their phone – lay down some guidelines and walk closer to Jesus.
Because here’s the thing – real people are three dimensional. God has taught me this lesson over and over and over, and yet I keep forgetting. People are more complicated than the categories the world uses. We don’t fit into the little check boxes on the form. People are diverse. Everyone’s story and struggle is a little different. I have some friends who are deeply affirming of LGBTQ relationships, and yet they draw a staggeringly hard line on abortion. And the world told me that those things are suppose to go together – LGBTQ affirmation and pro-choice are like peanut butter and jelly in the political world. But real people are three dimensional. Some of my strictest and most traditional friends love contemporary music. Because people are not two dimensional. We have been taught by politics that people fit into two categories. Categories with big platforms and uniform thought. But people are more complex than that. Most of the time, if you drill down, there will be some facet of personality that doesn’t fit. And it can be jarring, when people of this world don’t match your assumptions. But it’s also beautiful. There is a deeper diversity to the human experience. We are so much more complex than red or blue. This or that platform. Real people are three dimensional.
So what we need to do with that is see the whole person, and walk with them towards Jesus. Each of us struggles with something that keeps us away from Jesus. If you want to help transform someone’s life, find out their specific struggle and walk with them. James looked at the new gentile believers and he thought, “I know you’re struggling with temple worship – so this is what you have to cut out. This is what you need to work on to grow closer to God.” So my challenge for you this week is to ask two questions. What is your growth area? What do you need to work on – where do YOU need help? Find someone who will help you grow in your spiritual discipline. The second question is who can you help with their growth area? See the whole person, and offer to walk with them closer to Jesus.
When I was in high school my teacher tried to help me be a good influence on my new friend David. And it worked, but it also affected me. Community is messy. When you put new groups of people together – it’s challenging. We influence one another and if we use it right. If we are intentional with our community – we can help one another grow. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you remember that in this place the Holy Spirit has brought together a diverse community of three dimensional people. May you look at the people around you, and see the whole person. Maybe you see them, take their hand, and walk with them closer to Jesus. Amen.