Acts 13-15: The Horror of Group Projects; or, Lessons in Expanding a Circle

sermongraphic-01-01 (14)

DELIVERED 20 OCTOBER 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

This morning, we are starting a new series which is really a continuation of an old series. Back in February of this year, we started reading through the book of Acts, which details the first years of the Christian church in Jerusalem, and the expansion of the network of Jesus followers out from that city and throughout the Roman world. For the purposes of a recap, the first half of Acts focuses on the fallout from the miraculous arrival of the Holy Spirit among the disciples at Pentecost. After the Spirit is made manifest among them when they speak to a crowd simultaneously in a multitude of languages, the ministry of the church Jesus commissioned is established: visitors to Jerusalem who had known nothing of Jesus were amazed by what they saw and heard, and they committed–right there on the spot–to staying with the disciples and learning more about this man they followed and worshipped. The numbers of the church grew, and the essential tension at the heart of the book of Acts emerged. 

What is that tension? Put simply, it is the challenge of holding fast to the Truth you have witnessed when the size of your circle is expanding. 

For the rest of the first half of Acts, we saw the disciples wrestle with the tensions of an expanding ministry and movement as the “Jesus cult”–or “the Way,” as it began to be called–spread throughout the Jewish community of Jerusalem and came time and time again into conflict with the leaders of the Jewish temple and the Roman authorities who sat in power over the region. As the followers of Jesus went about the work of sharing their story and performing miraculous acts of kindness and healing throughout the city, the drama they stirred up for those in power led to their perpetual arrest, interrogation, and mistreatment. It even led to their murder. And yet, nothing seemed to be able to stop the spread of Jesus’s ministry of love, repentance, forgiveness, and generosity. 

saulBut the second half of the book of Acts branches off from this story to tell an even bigger tale. In the 8th chapter of the book, we are introduced to a new figure, a man named Saul, who was a devout Jew from a priestly sect known as the Pharisees, and who initially despises Jesus’s teachings and Jesus’s followers. In fact, Saul is a leader among those who persecute and even kill early Christians. But in Acts Chapter 9, while on his way from Jerusalem to the city of Damascus to bring to trial a group of Christians who were preaching there, Saul has a direct encounter with Jesus himself, who tells Saul he is persecuting those who follow the real messiah, and that he not only wants Saul to turn and follow him but also that he has a special mission for Saul to share the story of the “Way” not only with the Jews throughout the region but even to the Gentiles, or non-Jews, from Jerusalem and to the very ends of the earth. To condense a long story into as short a story as possible, Saul–whose name becomes Paul–accepts Jesus’s commission, repents to Peter, James, and the other Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, and after learning more about Jesus’s life and death, sets out to share the Jesus story with the rest of the Roman world. And this is where we pick things back up.

Whew! That was a heckuva recap! So, what in the world are we talking about today? And how are we going to study the stories of Paul’s three missionary journeys as discussed in the second half of the book of Acts over the course of this series? And perhaps most importantly to some of us, why is any of this worth talking about on Sunday mornings? What are we learning here? And how does any of this affect how or why we do church the way that we do it in America in 2019?

To answer that last question first, throughout this year, our teaching time on Sundays has been centered around an essential theme question, and that question has been WHY CHURCH?

sermongraphic-01-01 (8)Why do we do this? What does this thing called the church exist for? And what would Revolution look like if we took a step back, tried to answer those first two questions carefully, and then reimagined our own church with the question “why?” at the center of it? 

Over the last 10 months, we have talked all around this question, and we have looked at the importance of investigating our doubts together, seeking wholeness in community, sharing our stories with one another, keeping ancient stories alive, and even learning to lament with one another as we suffer grief. Now, as we turn back to the book of Acts, we want to start to shift our perspective from what the church does for those inside of it to how the circle of the church can grow to offer new hope and new belonging to those who might not think they have any place here. I know that has been a long set up this morning, and I promise I won’t keep rehashing all of this each week! But truly, I think we need to lay all of that out here at the beginning as clearly as we can, because I think the value for us of everything we are going to talk about in the next 6 weeks flows out of that important shift in what we are talking about: WHY CHURCH? isn’t just a question for Christians…it’s a question for everyone. And I’ll get on my high horse for just one quick second here and say the future of the church in this country absolutely depends on our ability to both say clearly what the church is here for and mean it. We have to learn to back it up. The days of depending on a culture that just sort of assumes the church is here to make our city and our state and our country a better place are over. We have–to be blunt–betrayed that trust. And so we need to figure out together what makes Revolution important to people, both inside these walls and outside of them. Or else we won’t be. 

So, what do we do with these two things this morning? First, that the essential tension in the early church had to with how to stay committed to Truth while also expanding their circle…and second, that rediscovering why we do church is so important to us as a community? 

antiochTo get at an answer, I want us to look at a critical moment in the second half of Acts when the work of the main church in Jerusalem collides with the work of Paul among the Gentiles. The setup here comes after Paul’s first missionary journey, when he traveled as far as Antioch in modern-day Turkey and established the first real church beyond the borders of the Jewish world. In that church, Paul taught that the hope for new life Jesus promised was a hope not only for Jews but for anyone who repented, was baptized, and committed to following Jesus’s example in the world. For the record, this is what we also teach today. But as Paul returns home from his journey to Jerusalem, word of what has been done goes ahead of him, and some of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem are incensed. 

To explain why they are so angry, we have to offer a brief bit of backstory: one of the key rituals in Jewish culture–perhaps the key marker of Jewish identity, going all the way back to their patriarch, Abraham–is circumcision of male infants.

circumcision

Let’s just say that this is not the first image to come up when you do a Google search for “circumcision.” I…have been on a journey. 

This act permanently marked Jews as being set apart, and it was deeply connected to their identity as a people who were unique among the nations. But since Christianity is, at its root, a Jewish religion, this tradition created real tension once Paul started baptizing non-Jews into the faith. Why? Well, because non-Jewish men would not have been circumcised. So, the question becomes: what do we do about this? Do we insist that they be circumcised as adults? Or do we skip that…and if we skip it, are we taking a first step towards abandoning the entire Law? Initially, the church’s answer is clear:

Acts 15:5

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.” 

But Paul disagrees: he says that when he was actually among the Gentiles, he had no reason to believe their conversion was incomplete. Peter agrees and says, 

Acts 15:8-10

“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?”

I want to pause now on this point, in part because I want to make sure we think it through, and in part because I can sense that this whole message today has gotten pretty darn academic, and I want us to take a moment to make sure it can feel grounded to us as we try to draw lessons for ourselves from it today. So, what is at stake here, really?

Over the last month or so, I have been reminded that perhaps the sneakiest of all sins is envy. Its roots seem to be in justice and self-care, but it can do so, so much harm to us. To illustrate:

Education Students People Knowledge Concept

“YAY!!!”

A few weeks ago, my oldest daughter, Evangeline, who is in fifth grade, was working on one of her first group projects. Right now, in this rdom, I want you all to look around: did you hear someone near you groan? That is because group projects are the first great separator of sheep and goats in most of our lives. Every single one of you who groaned knows what it means when someone says “group project”: it means somebody is about to do somebody else’s work. And I’m going to stir the pot this morning: if you didn’t groan, I bet it’s because that work that got did was yours. Group projects are the absolute worst. And Evangeline’s was no different: she and her friend were supposed to be staging a scripted interview, where one of them would play the part of Susan B. Anthony and the other would ask questions. They were supposed to work on the questions together, and then perform in front of the class. Evangeline was Susan B. Anthony. But it was the day before the presentation, and Evey was frustrated because her partner had been working for days on an artistic backdrop for the interview, and she hadn’t been helping with the questions. Furthermore, she had batted the questions Evey had written aside and said they weren’t good enough. Evey was panicking. 

susanbSo–and if you know either me or Meredith, this will come as absolutely no surprise to you–we gave her some advice: just suck it up and write all the questions and answers yourself. Share them tomorrow with your friend. If she has done the work too without telling you, you can pick the best ones and do a mix of them. If she hasn’t, you’ll still feel confident in your grade. 

Any guesses as to Evey’s reaction? Bingo: that’s not fair. Why should I do all the work and let her get a good grade? She was distraught. And so–because I am a pastor now, and that means I have a professional obligation to solve all problems with a Bible story–I told her a parable Jesus once told about some workers.

vineyard

In the story, a worker is hired at the beginning of the day to work all day for a particular payment. Then, in mid-morning, the man who hired him goes out and hires a second worker to work for the same wage. He does this again at noon. And again in the afternoon. And then again, at the very end of the day: each worker gets the same payment of a penny. It did not take Evey long to get the point of this story, and to be ticked about it: “that’s not fair! The first worker worked all day!” But of course I asked her: did that worker get the payment he agreed to work for? Did each worker? So, what makes it unfair?

The reason we fall victim to envy is because we tend to care more about other people’s pasts than their futures. 

And the same was true among the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem: what was really at stake in this issue of circumcision wasn’t what was best for the Gentiles…it was their own sense of envy that the Gentiles were being paid the same wages even though they were hired at the end of the day. There wasn’t much that was easy about being a Jew in the first century, or in the centuries before it: they had been conquered and re-conquered, exiled and persecuted and enslaved. Circumcision was a token of that suffering; a marker. The Gentiles seemed to them to be freeloaders on the Jesus story. 

So, what does the early church do? The apostles and Paul meet and Peter says the evidence of the Holy Spirit–the evidence that they received the wages–is there. Why give them another burden to make yourselves feel better? Especially a burden that we have not carried in an unimpeachable way? He adds, 

Acts 15:11

“On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will”

In the end, the leader of the church, Jesus’s brother James, speaks and says that they will write to the Gentiles and say circumcision is unnecessary and they are

Acts 15:20

“to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” 

Which is to say, they are instructed to follow the Law moving forward. Moreover, the whole council decides to send the letter back to Antioch in the company of two other apostles, Judas and Barsabbas, in order to make sure the Gentiles know that the whole of the Jerusalem church is with them. 

I know this has been an odd sermon this morning, and I apologize for that! There has been a lot of storytelling and summarizing, and it’s a far cry from the personal stories of lament we have been sharing over the last few weeks. But if you can come along with me just a little bit further, I think we can make a few observations here about how the early church functions that can teach us about how we, too, should be and live. 

Here’s what the church is. And also why the church is:

The church is people who, in their own times and for their own reasons and at their own paces, have decided they want to live lives more like Jesus. 

That’s it. That’s what and who we are. But the catch is in the footsteps of the man we are trying to follow: that guy gives everyone the same wages, no matter when they start the day’s labor. That guy isn’t exactly fair, at least not in the way we understand. Instead, he’s generous. He pays too much. Which means the church is supposed to pay too much, too. That, at least in part, is the why: the church is here because a world that looks more like Jesus is a world where people pay too much. Where people are generous. Where people are welcomed, whether they deserve it or not. Which means it’s a world where people are valued, and valued deeply. It’s not fair. But I think it’s better

What can we learn from the way the first church walks through this issue of circumcision among the Gentiles? We can learn: 

First: Paul, Peter, and the other apostles are focused on the trajectory of the church. They aren’t looking to create one perfect pocket of Christian community in their small world of Jerusalem. They want the church to grow, to bring others in. Do we want the same? I love that Revolution is a small church, I love that I feel like I can know everybody here. If we are a small church forever, that’s absolutely fine with me. But it can’t be because we didn’t invite others in. It can’t be because we only want the workers who started at the beginning of the day to be paid. It can’t be because we are envious. If you love what this church is for you, share it. Tell your friends they are welcome here. Show them they are wanted.

Second: the early church focuses on the experiences of those who are new to the community. Paul and Peter silence the critics of the Gentiles by focusing on the Gentiles. The legalistic arguments about what these people should or shouldn’t do; the politics of what the impact will be for the Jerusalem church…those things are cast aside because their past isn’t the Gentiles’ present problem. What real good would circumcising grown men do? What could it add to their conversion that baptism and the Holy Spirit hadn’t already given them? The church leaders remembered and empathized with the experience of their new converts, and that led them to a generous decision. 

Again, what about us? If you have been here for years, are your eyes open on a Sunday morning for folks who are new? Are you caring for others in the way you were cared for, or in the way you wish you had been cared for? And what burdens are we placing on one another? Is there any burden from the past that still belongs on a person’s shoulders, or are we sharing and celebrating real freedom? Are we forgiving? Don’t place a burden on the neck of your neighbor that you haven’t been able to carry. Love, and love radically.

Third: the church reads Scripture with humility. The Pharisees aren’t wrong about what they are asking for: they have chapters and verses to back them up! But they are callous in the spirit of what they are calling for, and the early church models a concern for the whole of Scripture, as much as for the letter of it. James quotes the prophets in his defense of the Gentiles, keeping his eye on the doors Scripture opens and not the doors it closes. Are we the same? Can we follow their example of living in the tension of our commitment to the truth of Scripture and our calling to expand our community? So often, churches fall on one side of this debate or the other: they have an answer for everything, and they condemn, condemn, condemn…or they want so much to be liked that they crumple up and throw away every part of the Bible that makes them uneasy. Do we have the courage to live in the middle? To say “yes” to both sides? To love, no matter what…and to hold that Scripture is true, too? 

I’ll tell you what, the secret to this isn’t complicated, but it is incredibly hard: the secret is humility. The ability to say, yes, I know the Bible is true…but I don’t understand all of it perfectly. And I want to. James shows us that the way to do this is to keep digging, to know the Bible…and when it makes us uncomfortable, to keep digging still, and look for the harmony in it. Talk to each other. Wrestle. Live in the tensions of our belief, but in humility, love above all. 

Fourth: the church lives out what they teach. That’s the proof of the thing. The Jerusalem Council doesn’t end with a bunch of guys in Jerusalem sending a signed and sealed letter, for others to enforce. They go to Antioch with the letter in hand. They read it to the Gentiles in person. They deliver the news in a way that is human. And they commit to walking through things with the Gentiles, as long as they are needed. 

Oh man, this point stuck with me all week. Do we do this? Do we take the things we believe and walk them out in real life with people? Or do we hide behind belief statements on our website or, perhaps, in things we yell at one another on social media? Are we willing to walk things all the way through with one another? 

Years ago, Meredith and I attended a church that talked a lot about adoption. That church is the reason we pursued adoption ourselves, 9 years ago. And do you want to know why we felt we couldn’t wriggle our way out of this responsibility we see in Scripture to “care for widows and orphans in their distress”? Because every single leader in that church adopted a child. Every one. They knew it was complicated. They knew it was hard. They didn’t lie to us about that! But they lived it out, right there for everyone to see. They struggled together. They walked their beliefs through, all the way to the end of the road with one another. 

This is going to be a hard series, in a lot of ways. But I hope it’s also a series that helps us to feel free and even joyful. I hope it helps us avoid the trap of envy, and find excitement in the challenges of not only being a family, but growing one. We fell in love with Jesus because he freed us from having to exist only for ourselves. He taught us to exist for others instead. Are we willing to fall in love with the Church for the same reason? 

 

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