July 16, 2017 “Gravity or Grace?” – Acts 15:1-21
“Gravity or Grace?”
July 16, 2017 – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
“Please sir, I want some more.” Many of you remember that pitiful request as the words of tiny Oliver Twist in Dickens’ novel of the same name. Standing with empty bowl in hand Oliver looks up at the huge master of the workhouse dining room and begs for a little more gruel to eat. His plea is met with astonishment. “What!” says the master.
The boy repeats himself: “Please sir, I want some more.”
There is swift and ruthless action. The master whacks Oliver on the head with his ladle and restrains him, while sending for Mr. Bumble the beadle, a parish official charged with keeping order and punishing offenses. Mr. Bumble rushes into the parish board meeting to announce “Oliver Twist has asked for more!”
Shock and horror murmurs round the boardroom table. The chairman exclaims, “For more! … Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?” And so begins their discussion of what to do with such a rebellious boy as they decide upon the first of many cruel persecutions which the young orphan will endure.
Dickens was writing black humorous social commentary on an England where the treatment of the poor was being determined by “philosophical” gentleman. We would say they were “scientific.” Upon rational principles they set up rules to govern the care and feeding of those in need. Those rules supposedly allowed just the right amount of food to each person, but in reality provided starvation rations. The “paupers” as they were called, were slowly starving to death in the name of keeping to the regulations.
Our text this morning opens in Acts 15:1 with the arrival in Antioch of men who believed wholeheartedly in reasonable regulations. If they had had their way, they would have starved to death the Christian faith just beginning among Gentiles. It would have been starved of the love and grace of God. Antioch was full of “Greeks,” non-Jews who had become Christians. It was the center of a movement which transformed the Christian faith from a little subdivision of Judaism into a world-wide movement. Soon there would be more Gentile Christians than Jewish Christians.
People did occasionally convert to Judaism back then. It was rare, but a few Greeks and Romans would embrace the Jewish faith and worship of the one true God. The rabbis and Pharisees had a standard set of regulations for handling Gentile converts. Males had to be circumcised and everyone had to begin obeying the many provisions of the Mosaic code concerning diet, sexual behavior, the Sabbath, etc.
When Jewish Christians in Judea, in and around the hilltop city of Jerusalem, got wind of all the Gentile converts in Antioch, it only seemed natural to “go down” to Antioch and make sure the proper rules for converts were being followed, circumcision and all the rest.
Verse 2 tells us this regulatory mission from Judea came into sharp dispute with Paul and Barnabas. Last week we saw those two apostles in southern Turkey as they proclaimed the Gospel and made dozens of Gentile converts. Nowhere did we read that Gentiles were expected to follow Jewish law and custom. For Paul and Barnabas, imposing Jewish regulations called their whole mission and ministry into question. If this church and all the others they planted were to survive, they could not let the regulators have their way.
Paul and Barnabas were appointed to make the long 250 mile journey from Antioch up to Jerusalem to consult with the first leaders of the Christian church. As they went, they stopped in churches which had sprung up along the Mediterranean coast and shared their stories of how the Gentiles had been converted in Asia Minor, how so many non-Jews had gladly received the good news of Jesus Christ. Their visits in those churches, probably over a month long journey, was almost a campaign tour, gathering support for their position.
Verse 4 says they arrived in Jerusalem and were gladly received as they gave once again the report of what happened in Cyprus and Pisidian Antioch and Iconium and Lystra and Derbe, all the Gentile communities where churches now worshipped Jesus.
Yet almost immediately, we read in verse 5, some Pharisees stood up and challenged the report. These were Jewish Pharisees who had converted to Christianity. They still held on to their strict observance of Jewish law and custom. So they demanded, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to obey the law of Moses.”
The result was what is sometimes called the Jerusalem Council, the first gathering of church leadership to decide a question of doctrine and Christian practice. It happened around 50 A.D. Verse 6 simply says “The apostles and elders met together to consider this matter.” Verse 7 begins, “After there had been much debate…” We can only guess what is covered by that little phrase, but our church council knows that when our minutes say, “There was much discussion,” it can mean a long period of prayer, deliberation and debate. I imagine something similar here. They may have talked for days.
Discussion came to an end in verse 7 as Peter stood up and addressed the assembly. Remember, Peter was the first apostle to confront the “Gentile question,” in chapter 10. He preached the Gospel at the home of a Roman centurion. God worked on Peter to get him there, but once he went and saw the Lord pour out the Holy Spirit on Gentiles, he was convinced. Peter reminded the Jerusalem council of those events.
In verse 10, Peter asked why the Christian church should expect new Gentile Christians to keep Jewish law and custom. He called that law a “yoke,” something like a burden, dragging a person down by force of gravity. Not even Jews had been able to carry that load, to obey all its provisions. Why should they then, with utmost gravity, lay that burden on a fresh generation of Gentile believers? Gravity had done no one any good.
Verse 11 expresses the alternative to gravity. It is doctrine which Paul will take up and develop into a whole theology for the Christian church. Peter said, “On the contrary [No!], we believe we will be saved the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Grace. Grace, not gravity. The precious, everlasting, loving mercy of God is poured out on anyone who will receive it, Jew or Gentile. Grace. Not gravity. That’s the Gospel.
Gravity is very tempting. Gravity keeps your feet on the ground, keeps your head out of the clouds, keeps life in balance. We can’t just let people get away with behaving however they like, saying and doing whatever they want. That only gives us the kind of chaos we are hearing in the news about places like Syria and about our own government.
Christians struggle with the tension between gravity and grace. It seems like we might be losing our hold on gravity, as if all rules and standards are being tossed to the winds. I grew up with clear Christian expectations—no alcohol, no swearing, no smoking, no dancing, church every Sunday morning and evening, give 10% of one’s income, read the Bible every day—we knew the rules; they kept us in balance, even if we were a little grave.
Now in the name of grace, most of those expectations are ignored or at least not talked about much. Even for supposed Christians, it seems as if almost anything goes. Do as you please, because what matters is grace. It may feel to some of us as it felt to those Christian Pharisees in Jerusalem. In the absence of gravity, the whole Christian faith is about to float off into chaos.
After Peter, the assembly in Jerusalem listened to Paul and Barnabas report. In verse 12 they fell silent with wonder as they listened to the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles. They could easily have been carried off completely by the grace of it all, and so might we. But the rest of the story is a balance between gravity and grace.
In verse 13, James takes the floor. By somewhere around 44 A.D., James the brother of the Lord became leader of the church in Jerusalem. Call him bishop, call him senior pastor, call him what you want, he was respected and deferred to by all believers in that city. He guided the first Christian church wisely until his martyrdom in 61 A.D. He had the final say in the discussion.
Like all good pastors, James based his direction on the Bible. In verse 14, he agrees with Simon, with Peter, that God has looked favorably on Gentiles and made them His people. In the next few verses he quotes from the prophet Amos chapter 9 to prove this has always been God’s intent, that Gentiles were always included in God’s plan.
Then verse 19 announces James’ “decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.” We might say, O.K., case closed, grace wins, we can all go home. Not quite. With his next breath, in verse 20, the pastor of Jerusalem proposed a letter with some very specific directions for Gentile Christians. It’s not all the rules and expectations of Jewish law, but still a few key ones: “abstain from things polluted by idols, from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” You don’t have to do it all, just these four basics. Grace covers everything, but a little gravity will keep feet on the ground.
There’s something odd about those four directions. Except for number two, a prohibition of sexual immorality, they are just the sort of ritual regulations which it seems grace ought to ignore, like it ignores circumcision. It seems odd, that while calling for grace, James would fall so far back into gravity as to tack on a few archaic rules about what one should and should not eat.
Decades later those rules seemed odd to ancient Christians as well. So there is a whole wing of the textual tradition, the copies which scribes made of Luke’s original scroll, which changed these rules. The so-called “Western” copies re-wrote these rules to be all moral prohibitions. Scribes eliminated the business about strangled meat and substituted the negative golden rule, “Do not do to others what you do not wish them to do to you.” They changed no-idol-meat to simply no-idolatry. They interpreted no-blood not as a dietary law, but as “no-murder.” But that’s not the original. That’s not what James said.
No, in the midst of the grace, James kept enough gravity to require new Gentile Christians to keep a few minor Jewish regulations. Why? Why not moral rules rather than ritual ones? Isn’t morality what’s important? Well, yes it is. That’s why obedience to the Ten Commandments and God’s moral law was simply assumed for new believers. Why would they even want to be Christians if they didn’t understand that Jesus came to offer forgiveness for and freedom from their moral sins? It was just understood that Gentile Christians would not worship idols and would not murder. That didn’t need to be said.
What needed to be said and what James did say were provisions which affected the fellowship and unity of the Christian Church as a whole. In releasing Gentiles from Jewish law, he did not release them from love and concern for Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ. For the sake of the love of Christ, Gentiles needed unity with Jews. As Peter had learned, they needed to be able to sit down and eat together.
So the rules chosen here are all about not giving offense, not living in such a way that a Jewish Christian would be excluded from the fellowship. By upbringing, no Jew, even as a Christian, could sit down to a meal that included blood, or meat offered to idols, or meat from a strangled animal. Even the “sexual immorality” clause is about both fellowship and morality. Jewish people had strict views of public nakedness and sexual behavior which were very different from Gentile standards. What a Gentile might take for granted would hopelessly alienate a believer from a Jewish background.
The gravity then is really for the sake of the grace. So that it might be seen in the Church that the grace of Jesus Christ welcomes and accepts all, a few little rules were necessary so everyone could sit down together, without being deeply offended.
When we first started renting worship space to Manantial de Vida, the Hispanic congregation, I noted how their Pastor Juan Ventura always greeted and addressed me a “Pastor.” I was ready to be on a first name basis with him, like I am with my other colleagues in ministry. “Steve” and “Juan” would have been fine with me. But in order to respect his culture and tradition, and to build our unity, I made it a rule for myself to do my best to return the favor, to always greet him as “Pastor” in return. My freedom for a more casual greeting might have hindered our unity in Jesus.
Many people in my generation and older chafe a bit at politically correct language of all sorts. I was reminded by a younger person just recently that it is better today to speak about “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people” or even “people without homes” rather than “homeless people,” because we want them to be identified by who they really are rather than by their circumstances in life.
Why worry about all that? Why take care with our language so as to avoid offense? For the very same reason that James asked the Gentiles to keep blood and strangled meat off their tables. So we can sit down together in untroubled fellowship with all sorts of people, united together in the grace of Jesus Christ.
This text is really about Christian friendship and fellowship. Whom will we admit into our circle of acceptance and love? Will we have enough grace to admit those who do not strictly conform to our customary standards of behavior? On the other hand, will we anchor ourselves with enough gravity so as not to unnecessarily offend those who have different standards from our own? The answer is neither absolute freedom to do as you please, nor absolute adherence to some set of rules. The middle road, which James took, is a loving, thoughtful consideration of others in the name of Jesus Christ.
How does all this apply to us? It will keep changing and it will be complicated. We don’t teach that drinking alcohol is wrong, but we don’t serve alcohol at events here at church. We worship occasionally in two languages and accept any awkwardness that arises. We don’t turn away couples who are gay or living together without marriage, but we don’t condone that behavior either. We constantly and regularly seek the Spirit’s guidance into the delicate balance between gravity and grace.
Paul was deeply affected there in Jerusalem. He later developed a careful theology of mutual submission and respect for each other in his first letter to the Corinthians. He brings the matter all down to what he terms, “the most excellent way.” That way is love.
Jesus Christ offers us grace because He loves us. The most excellent way to receive His grace is with love and grace for others. Yet that grace requires a little gravity, requires us to take each other seriously enough not to do that which gives offense. Jesus had the gravity to hang from a Cross and die to bring us grace. Let us have enough gravity to extend His grace to each other. Then gravity and grace will sit down together around His Table.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj