Sunday, May 31, 2015
So here’s the problem. You recall that when Jesus went back into heaven on Ascension Day, he gave his followers a very clear message. He told them to tell the story of his life and deeds and death and resurrection – starting in Jerusalem, and then in the nearby areas, and finally, all over the world. We had that story a couple of weeks ago. And as we heard last week, on Pentecost Sunday the church grew in one day from 120 people sitting huddled in a room together, to a huge church of 3,000 baptized people. And before you know it, the number grew to 5,000 baptized members. In Jerusalem. With the original disciples and a few others as pastors. And over the past weeks we’ve had some stories about that. But then, as Jesus had directed, the disciples started to spread out, and tell the story of Jesus in other areas as well. Including that Paul is making all these journeys to what’s now Turkey and Greece and he’s even heading for Rome, and he’s talking with a whole lot of people in all those places who are not Jews and they are becoming ardent followers of Jesus. And Peter has done the same, with that Roman Soldier Cornelius, as we saw a few weeks ago. And suddenly we have all these people who don’t have a drop of Jewish blood in them, and don’t look like Jews, and who don’t know the Jewish laws, much less keep them, and who haven’t read the Old Testament scriptures and who are not circumcised, and don’t celebrate the Jewish holidays, and who eat all the wrong kinds of food – and they are all being baptized and believing in Jesus. And they are even receiving the Holy Spirit.
And you remember how that was for Paul. He would make his way to a city in Greece or Turkey and his pattern was that he would look around for the other Jews and worship with them in their synagogue. And then he would begin to tell them about Jesus. Now some of those Jews in the synagogue would hear Paul gladly, and would begin to believe in Jesus. But often the leaders of the synagogue would not, and they would be suspicious of Paul, and they would be furious with him for causing divisions in their group, and introducing all these new ideas about some man named Jesus and disturbing the peace of their synagogue. So they would report Paul to the police, and the police would come and handcuff Paul and question him and often put him in prison. And then he would be released from prison, and he would leave that city, sometimes in the middle of the night, and go to the next city down the road. And meet with other Jews in that city, and many, many of them would begin to believe in Jesus, and the leaders of the synagogue would be furious and the whole story would start all over again. Paul would have to defend himself in front of the authorities and sometimes go to prison, and run from one city to the next. So that here we have Paul, going around starting up Christian churches all over Asia and into Europe. Including people who have never heard of all those Jewish laws and all those Jewish ways of doing things. The book of Acts is full of those stories. And Paul is thrilled with what’s happening and so is Peter – to be telling all these non-Jews all about Jesus and seeing the church grow by leaps and bounds all over Europe and Asia.
But now the Jews in the headquarters church – the Mother Church - in Jerusalem are beginning to hear news of all this and they are not happy with any of it. And they call Paul and Barnabas and Peter and many others, back home to Jerusalem for a conference. We might call it a confrontation. And they have a serious debate and there is widespread disagreement.
There might also be a little racial tension going on here. These Jews have always thought they were God’s chosen people, for hundreds and hundreds of years, from the time of Abraham. And now it turns out, perhaps, that they have to share God’s love with others who are not Jews. You might think about that for a moment.
And maybe there’s a little jealousy going on here too, because all these churches in other places are growing so wildly and new churches are being started up all over the place – all over the world – way outside of Jerusalem.
And there was certainly some distrust of Paul. After all, the rest of them, including Peter, had known Jesus personally and had followed him all up and down the country side and had heard every word he had to say, and had witnessed his resurrection. But Paul was an outsider to their little circle. He had never known Jesus. And in fact, early on, before his conversion, he had made a career of torturing the followers of Jesus. So the elders at the headquarters church in Jerusalem are a little skeptical of him, to say the least. And as a result of this, maybe, Paul has felt much more comfortable preaching and teaching way off in the cities of Turkey and Greece, and as far away from Jerusalem as he can get. And as far away from those suspicious church leaders as he can get.
But on top of the racial tension and jealousy and the personal tension, there’s also some real theological tension here.
For the very first time the church is facing this question: is God a God of the Jews only? Does a person have to obey all the Jewish laws before she can become a follower of Jesus? Do we have life with God by obeying all those laws, which is what people had thought forever and ever. Or do we have life with God through Jesus? You can see how very important this was.
And the leaders of the church discussed it at length there in Jerusalem. They listened carefully to an eloquent statement by Peter. They listened carefully to the glowing reports that Paul and Barnabas had to give about their experiences and how churches were growing like crazy wherever they went.
And then James got up and spoke. He’s the brother of Jesus and he’s become the head of the headquarters church there in Jerusalem. We sometimes call him the first Bishop of Jerusalem. He’s very highly respected there in Jerusalem – partly because he was Jesus’ brother, of course, but also partly because he was a very wise man. And James suggested a compromise. There would be some of the laws that the new believers would obey – the most important ones, and for the rest, the newcomers would not be burdened with knowing and obeying all of those Jewish laws. In the end, the others sitting there that day agreed with James. And they chose delegations of people to travel to the churches all over the Greece and Turkey. With a letter. The letter apologized for causing them some distress, and told them of the compromise that had been reached. And all involved were relieved and pleased.
So that’s what that looked like Jerusalem in the first century – about the year 50 – about twenty years after Jesus’ death. Here’s what it looks like in the 21st century, in this country. It’s very much the same – as you will see.
Last week I talked about how our session makes decisions at the local level. The elders sit together in the conference room, and we pray. We pray that God will be in our speaking and in our silences and in our thinking and in our listening. Then we discuss the issues carefully and thoroughly and everybody is encouraged to speak. We listen to each other. And slowly a concensus begins to emerge of what the next step forward will be, and we make the proper motions and vote on them. Just like at that conference in Jerusalem.
And closer to home, we meet at Presbytery meetings here in southwest Michigan. Sue Rabick and I will be going to a meeting next month in Kalamazoo. And Cindy Delmont and I went together the last time.
And here’s what it looks like when decisions need to be made in the larger Presbyterian Church USA. Our General Assembly met in Detroit this past summer. Thousands of Presbyterians from all over the country. We get together a huge room full of people as different as possible – men and women, and pastors and lay people, from all over the country and from many races and backgrounds and occupations – middle of road people and those to the left and those to the right. And we ask them to come to agreement on an issue and to report back to the rest of us. They pray and ask for God’s guidance, and they speak and listen carefully, and sometimes it takes a very long time indeed, but eventually, usually, they come to an agreement. Some of the decision they make, the most important ones, come to each of the presbyteries so pastors and elders in the presbyteries all over the country in all kinds of places - vote on them as well. And when a majority of the Presbyteries agree with what the General Assembly has decided, it becomes a policy in our denomination. And letters are sent all over the country,(or more likely these days it’s a post on our national website) letting folks know what has happened. Very much like at that conference in Jerusalem. With prayer, and listening and discerning and with the Holy Spirit hovering over all of us.