January 16, 2005

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Emphasize
Grace Over Law
Acts 15:1-35

Several years ago, a very dear friend of mine commented to me that every person wears a figurative back-pack as they journey through life. That back-pack is, of course, intended to carry only life’s essentials—the core beliefs and ideas that nurture our souls and give us strength as we travel. Unfortunately, we often place items in our back-packs—worries, concerns and supposed obligations—that really don’t belong there, and those additions make our back-packs weighty and nearly impossible to bear.

To make matters even worse, we often encounter a variety of people on our journeys who are eager to fill our back-packs for us! They quickly stash one of their problems in our pack, and increasingly burden us down with their issues and demands. “That is precisely your problem,” this friend said to me one day when I must have felt particularly weighted down. “You let everyone else fill your back-pack, and it gets harder and harder for you to carry.”

Religious people are often good at filling other people’s back-packs. Put your baseball glove away before Sunday comes. That can’t be pleasing to God—it is too much fun. Only members of this church are true Christians. Cut your hair. Change your clothes. Don’t drink, dance or chew, and never associate with people who do. And soon, the back-pack gets frighteningly heavy. If we can somehow carry it just far enough, God will rejoice and welcome us into his family. Various people have added unnecessary weight to some of your back-packs, I’ll bet. Perhaps you’ve even added weight to someone else’s.

Back-packs. That is the central issue here in Acts 15:1-35. An Apostolic Council actually met in Jerusalem to discuss them. And the discussion grew rather heated at times. Back-packs. What belongs in them? Who fills them? So important was this debate, in fact, that Luke Timothy Johnson calls it a watershed in the book of Acts.

Various events in the preceding chapters have brought the early church to this point. The first followers of Jesus, all Jewish in background, took seriously our Lord’s instructions and began proclaiming the Gospel far and wide. As they did, outsiders—non-Jews—took their places in the pews. Half-breed Samaritans. Full-blown Gentiles. And as the diversity within the church increased, so did the uneasiness of at least some of the original, Jewish believers. They had, after all, come to accept Jesus as the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, and they continued to take seriously the Jewish framework with which they were so familiar. Why discard much of their Jewish heritage? There was, in their mind, no conflict of interest here. Circumcision, the sign of the covenant with Abraham, still counted for something. So did many of the other customs and regulations associated with Moses.
Suddenly, this developing church encountered its most trying internal issue—what about the new believers who did not share these Jewish roots? Believers who have not been circumcised and who are quite unfamiliar with these important Jewish customs? How should the church deal with them? Must they take on these practices in order to be fully welcomed into the Christian faith?

This is, I might point out, a rather thorny matter. All communities wrestle regularly with issues of admission and identity. What fees should be established? What application process must be followed? “What does it mean to be ‘one of us’?” people often ask. We today are no different. Here at the Grantham Church, Pastor Allison and I have been talking more and more about what it means to become a member of our church. What are the expectations? These and related questions are often not so easy to answer.

So, too, here in Acts 15. In fact, the questions here go even deeper. At stake is not so much simple membership in a community, but instead the very salvation of a person’s soul. “What does it really mean to be a Christian?” the people ask. What are the requirements? What do all Christians have in common? What must a person do to be saved? Two streams of thought appear. There are, first of all, the Pharisee or deeply traditional Jewish Christians, who argue that circumcision and selected other customs associated with Moses are not optional. Such practices were, I suppose, as important to them as baptism is to us today. “You can’t simply throw such rituals away, relegating them to the ash heap of history,” they argue. And so they conclude that all followers of Jesus, Jews and Gentiles alike, must carry them in their back-packs.

The other group, championed here by Peter and Paul, believed that God’s inclusion of Gentile Christians brought with it a break from such customs and traditions. While these rituals played a particular role within the Jewish community over the centuries, they hold no such significance for these new, Gentile converts. “Don’t stash all of this Jewish stuff in their back-packs,” they pleaded. To require their continuing implementation would accomplish nothing other than to burden these new believers unnecessarily.

And they debated. They argued. It got heated at times. The scene brings to mind one of our own general conferences several years back when a thorny issue—restructuring the leadership paradigm for the denomination—was on the agenda. Emotions ran high, and opinions deep. There was a great deal at stake. Finally, Luke Keefer, Jr., a highly respected man in our denomination, rose and gave a tearful and impassioned plea, and a sort of calmness settled on the crowd.

In the same way, James, an increasingly significant leader in the mother church in Jerusalem, particularly insofar as Peter was gallivanting all over the place, rose on this occasion in Acts 15 and persuaded the delegates to accept the position of Peter and Paul. “Therefore I have reached the decision,” James remarked, “that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God,…” And with a decision that took but a few sentences to record, the entire future of the church opened up to new possibilities. From this point on, Gentile believers need not worry about observing such Jewish customs. The Gospel of Jesus Christ can be freely and unashamedly proclaimed throughout the Gentile world, and that Gospel centers on this basic and unwavering foundation—we are saved through faith in Christ alone.

It is, as I said, a landmark decision. Just consider for a moment the response of the Gentile believers in Antioch when they receive the delegation from Jerusalem and read the letter from the council: “When the members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation.” They were free to continue in the faith without the added burden of observing the customs of the Jews. Their back-packs instantaneously grew noticeably lighter!

In a sense, the decision of this Apostolic Council seems simple enough. It represents, however, a major step for the early church. This decision, in reality, constitutes a movement away from “religion” in favor of “relationship.” In selecting grace over a rigid enforcement of law, these believers recognized God’s overwhelming preference for people over procedures, and for human hearts over sacred ceremonies. Centuries before the time of this council, Israel’s prophets were trying with great conviction to help their listeners realize that, while the rituals of religion can at times serve a helpful instructive purpose, they cannot make people right with God. “When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?” the Lord inquires through his prophet, Isaiah (1:12). “Your new moons and your festivals my soul hates,…” “With what shall I come before the Lord?” Micah asks. “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,..? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,.. (6:6-7)?” “No,” the implied answer is in these and countless other cases. God doesn’t want “religion.” He wants “relationship.”

In Jesus, this developing theme that elevates relationship over religion and human hearts over sacred ceremonies reaches a climax of sorts. The Jewish temple loses its central significance: “The hour is coming,” he informed the woman of Samaria, “when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem,” but “in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-23).” The distinction between clean and unclean foods ceases to be a concern: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person,” Jesus said, “but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles (Matt. 15:11).” Over and over again, Jesus sets aside “religion” in favor of “relationship.” It isn’t through observing these rituals and meticulously following the customs that you are made right with God, he suggests. Salvation is a gift from God. It is an extension of his love and grace. Peter and Paul caught on. Now, the rest of the church—thanks be to God—follows their lead. In that moment, millions and millions of back-packs, weighted down by works, guilt, and impossible expectations, were unpacked. Our hope lies in Jesus Christ alone.

I must, it seems to me, offer just a few words of both clarification and caution. In setting aside religion in favor of relationship and law in favor of grace, first of all, neither Jesus nor the early church set aside godliness. They simply positioned godliness in its proper place. God’s love and grace are offered freely—you simply cannot earn them, nor are you required to. Having received them, however, the only reasonable response is to love him and live for him in return. Genuine love transforms people far more than law ever could.

Further, in elevating human hearts over sacred ceremonies, neither Jesus nor the early church set aside the importance of traditions and rituals that are genuinely helpful to the nurturing of the faith. Ceremonies and customs can serve as valuable reminders of our faith and values. They can help us worship and draw closer to God. What Jesus and the early church do, once again, is position our traditions and customs in their rightful place. All the ritual in the world will never give you favor in God’s sight. Only faith in Jesus can do that.

And finally, the proceedings of this Apostolic Council remind us that, as we move ahead as a church, we too will find ourselves in situations where we either try to fill up someone else’s back-pack, or someone else tries to fill up ours. It is, history shows us, a part of human nature. We so often codify and legalize everything that we hold dear. Be careful, the delegates of this early council want to remind us. Don’t place on people expectations that are meaningless and unnecessary, and don’t let them place them on you. Jesus Christ paid far too great a cost for our salvation for us to bury his gift in pile of religious waste. Knowing Jesus Christ is what our faith is all about.

How, we might rightly ask, do we know when some important tradition or custom ought to be set aside? We don’t, after all, simply change for change sake. How do we know when to move on? I can offer no better suggestions then those followed by these early Christians in Acts 15. First, they debated among themselves these issues with great tenacity. Secondly, they were willing to read and reread the Scriptures, remaining constantly open to our understanding and fresh insights. Thirdly, they were amazingly attentive to the Spirit, to the presence of God moving among them.

We all wear back-packs. They’re pretty heavy sometimes. Sometimes people have put things in them that don’t belong there. Maybe you’ve done that to somebody else. This Council reassures us that we stand in God’s presence, undeserving, but profoundly loved. It’s by grace and grace alone that you and I are saved.