Sunday, 3 November 2013

Acts 15 - church meetings and how they work

Are we nearly there yet?

I don’t know about you but if I want to wind up the adults I’m travelling with I can mimic the question the youngsters started asking no sooner than we had just set out.

Are we nearly there yet?

Is the question we might well ask of all the changes we have been putting together for the church here at Highbury.

Yes, we’re getting there.

Since our last Church meeting we have had interviews for all our Ministry Leaders and we will be sharing the fruits of those interviews at Thursday’s Deacons meeting.  Then at our Church Meeting in December will be an opportunity to hear each of those who have come forward sharing their vision for the worship, the discipleship, the mission and outreach and the youth work we do as a church family.

Things are falling into place as then we turn to our Deacons elections and maybe most for our prayer the post of Church Secretary to fill in March.

Come our Annual Meeting things will be in place – and the end of this process will be the beginning of new things to take us forward into the future ahead of us.

And in it all we seek to root all that we do in the Scriptures, in the Bible.

That’s why in this period we are reading through the Book of Acts – to get a sense of what church is all about.

There was a time when I thought that our Congregational Way of being the church was the authentic New  Testament way of being the church.  I have boks that demonstrate that the Congrgational principle is the New Testament principle – and many of those books excite me.  In some ways I am quite passionate about believing that.  And yet in other ways I have come to feel that’s the wrong way of thinking: not just unhelpful but also damaging.

It’s very easy for me to say, I’m right and to Methodists, or Anglicans, or Roman Catholics, or Pentecostals, or Charismatics – you are wrong.

As I read the scriptures I think there is rich diversity in the church of the New Testament – as followers of Jesus who stay in Jerusalem continue to value the worship of the Temple with its high liturgy so Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends will find warrant for their worship and their understanding of priesthood in those parts of the Bible that speak of temple and its worship.  As followers of Jesus spread out into the Jewish diaspora of the Mediterranean world they take much of what became the synagogue tradition and make it their own – and we find warrant for our worship and our understandings of priesthood there.  And as followers of Jesus made contact with the cosmopolitan world of the great cities like Corinth they shared exuberance in worship that provide warrant for charismatic and Pentecostal friends in the worship they share and their sense of the way church is.

What’s important for us, I believe, is not to say our way is the right biblical way and yours is wrong.  But instead what is important for us is to say this is where we find warrant for our practices in the Scripture – these are where our roots are in the Bible.

It was when my supervisor and principal of our Theological  College in North Wales, a prolific writer and thinker in the Welsh Language, Tudur Jones spoke at one of our early assemblies here in Cheltenham he quoted a seventeenth century thinker who suggested that when it comes to matters of church and the way we do things unless the roots of it are in the Bible then it will come to nothing.

That was the inspiration my father had for the cover design of his little book on the first years of the Congregational Federation.   A tree growing with roots in the Bible.

IT’s as we come to Acts 15 that we encounter another of those glimpses of the life of the early church where I would maintain I find warrant for the way we do things in our Congregational Way of being the Church.  And yet is also a chapter that others will find warrant for the way they do things.

That too is to me not a threat, but a reminder that all our structures have partial value and none has the perfection some long for.

You only have to look at the headings in many a translation and commentary for this chapter to realise how straightaway the translators are putting a slant on things.

It’s one of those moments when the Good News Bible excites me.

The NRSV goes with the heading that many a commentator will use – so much so that I find myself referring to what happened in this chapter by this heading.

The Council at Jerusalem.

Call what happened in this chapter ‘the Council at Jerusalem’ and many Anglican and Catholic and orthodox friends will say – this is the first of those gatherings that later were to develop into the great Ecumenical Councils of the church – the Council of Nicea, the Council of Chalcedon – and then that tradition comes into the parlance of the Catholic church in the Council of Trent, the 1st and then the 2nd Vatican Council.

You get all the trappings of bishops coming together to ‘define’ the faith.

But wait a moment.

Look at the Good News Bible and what do you find as the heading for this chapter.

The Meeting at Jerusalem.

That’s interesting.

That’s a reading that draws my attention.

What’s going on here?

This is the point when things come to a head.

There is a significant difference of view among the followers of Jesus.

The issue has been simmering away from the early chapters of Acts.

It’s all to do with the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church.  Given that Jesus is fully Jewish, and those first followers of his we read of in the Gospels and the early chapters of Act are for the most part fully Jewish, what expectations should be placed on Gentiles who come to follow Jesus?

Peter has had his moment of inspiration when in that vision he hears the voice of God telling him to get up, kill and eat all manner of living things that are banned in the books of the Law.   The vision prompts him to visit Cornelius, a Centruiorn of all people of the Italian Cohort, who is based in the seat of Roman power over Judea and Samarai, Caesarea Maritima.

And he discovers that wonderful breakthrough moment that ‘God shows no partiality’.

Barnabas and Paul then find thesleves with a commission to take the Gospel, this wonderful good news to the Gentile world.

There is a wonderful rhythm as in these last few chapters of Acts we have seen the reach of the Gospel going into the Mediterranean world and then coming back to touch base in Antioch, and then to touch base in Jerusalem, as if the followers of Jesus are touching base with their roots in the place where the death and resuurection of Jesus happened, in the place where the Holy Spirit of God was let loose in the world.

There’s tension when people from Judea maintain that you cannot be saved unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses.

Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ 2And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them,

There’s interchange of thinking between the church in Antioch and the church in Jerusalem – it leads to dissension and debate.

That’s important first of all – it is not wrong to have dissension and debate.  IT’s what you do with that that’s important.

Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. 3So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5But 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.’

6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter.

Notice the way they are welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders.

That’s the whole church.

What is happening here is not a council bringing together representatives from lots of different churches are geographical localities.

This is a meeting together of the church in Jerusalem.

The apostles and elders – those sent by Jesus apostles.  Were the elders those who held an office – some argue so.  Or were they, the seniors, the older, wiser people who had more experience.  That’s a looser number.

Then we see the discussion.

It’s interesting to see how the meeting works – first, there is space for ‘much debate’

6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them,

Then after much debate – Peter puts his point of view.  Interesting he holds back and lets everyone have their say first.

What he says is riveting,  there’s a whole theology resting in these words but that vision and the insight he has had before are re-stated.

It’s powerful stuff.  That comes to an end in no uncertain terms.

Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10Now 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? 11On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’

That’s a powerful conclusion.

Then there’s a wonderful moment.

The whole assembly kept silence,

The value of pausing for a moment.  Moments to let the heat go out of the debate.

There was a school of thought in the nineteenth and early twentieth century that saw a massive split between Peter and Paul.  More recently that has been underplayed.  There is a consistency here … a sense of progression as Paul and Barnabas now speak.  Notice it’s not just Paul, but Paul and Barnabas.

and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. 1

What they said is not recorded – it concurs with what has been said.

Then comes a kind of summing up.  Notice it is not Peter.  It is James.  Not the James who was a son of Zebedee, a fisherman disciple.  Another James.  In all likelihood the James who was a brother of Jesus who in Jesus lifetime had not undertood the message of Jesus but in death and resurrection had come to see what it was all about.  This James now speaks and seems to sum up all that has been said …

13After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. 14Simeon has related how God first looked favourably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
16 “After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
   from its ruins I will rebuild it,
     and I will set it up,
17 so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18known from long ago.”

Again, in these few words there’s lots of really important theology here.  Not least a reading of the Scripture that sees that from Abraham right through to exile and beyond the Jewish people have been a people chosen by  God that through them God’s blessing should come to all the world. And this moment spoken of in the prophets, not least prophets of exile, Babylonian Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel has reached its fulfilment in Jesus.

Then it is as if for James to sum up his sense of what this discussion has led to – the consensus arrived at by the apostles and elders –

He comes up with a way forward that involves writing a round robin letter setting out the principle but accommodating those who have strong feelings … Gentiles will not have to be circumcised but at this moment and at this stage they are to be asked to be respectful of Jewish customs and practice.

19Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. 21For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.’

This is the point at which I find our way of doing things has its roots in the New Testament and in the Bible.

You might have thought that the decision of the apostles and elders would count.  The decision of James as the one presiding would count.

But no, something further has to happen as well.

It is something we have seen in Acts 6 and we see it again now.

22 Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, 23with the following letter: ‘

They seek the consent of the whole church.

That’s the bit where we find our roots in the Bible for our Church Meeting.

We have had our equivalent of ‘apostles and elders’ working away in groups, hammering out all sorts of things.  But at each step of the way we have acted with the consent of the whole Church – as we have sought it in Church Meeting.

This is a wonderfully exciting way of being church to my mind.

This is where we find our roots in the Bible.

‘The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, 25we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.’

This is not a decree of a council.

IT is a letter sharing insights from the church in Jerusalem – a church that through this process of dissension and debate had come to the point of making a decision ‘unanimously’

There’s a wonderful description of the decision – not just a matter of a vote but a sense of the guiding of the Spirit.

28For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.’

We seek the mind of the Meeting, the mind of Christ in what we do.  That’s what’s important for us together.

A brief letter with guidance.

And what happens when these people go off to the church in Antioch with the letter

This is a glimpse of what happens with these letters.

30 So they were sent off and went down to Antioch. When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation. 32Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33After they had been there for some time, they were sent off in peace by the believers to those who had sent them. 35But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, and there, with many others, they taught and proclaimed the word of the Lord.

They gather the church at Antioch together for a reading of the letter.  And there is a sense of joy at what is shared.

Interesting that Judas and Silas are described as themselves ‘prophets’ people who declare God’s word – and they are in the spirit of Barnabas as they ‘encourage and strengthen’ the believers.

There is a sense of peace in the church now in Antioch as they send them off in peace after they haven there for a while.

And Paul and Barnabas remain, with many others, teaching and proclaiming the word of God.

That’s the last we hear of Peter.   And the focus now returns to Paul and Barnabas, though as we see the focus in Acts shifts from Paul and Barnabas simply to Paul for reasons that are really disturbing … but that we shall have to leave for another time.

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