By grace alone

St Michael’s 19th June 2016

Readings – Acts 15:1-21: Matthew 12:1-14

Over the past few weeks we have been on an extraordinary journey with the apostle Paul. He has travelled across Cyprus and through modern day Turkey preaching the gospel and all kinds of things have happened on the way. People have come to faith, miraculous signs and wonders have been performed, and churches planted in places previously unreached with the gospel – and all this against a background of persecution, of stoning and general hardship.

Imagine for a moment you were there at the church in Antioch when Paul and Barnabas came back home and told of all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles (Acts 14:27). You’d been pretty excited, wouldn’t you? You would be rejoicing in the news of all that Lord had been doing, and eagerly looking forward to what He was going to do next.

But then, Acts 15:1: Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” We don’t know exactly who these men were. Perhaps they were some of the believers from a Pharisee background mentioned in verse 5. But we do know what effect their message had. The joy of the believers in Antioch gave way to sharp discussions. Instead of talking about growth and outreach, the church started arguing about finer points of Jewish law. Abraham was circumcised, so was Moses, so was Jesus. Yes, it’s all very well hearing about Gentiles being converted, but rules are rules, and you need to obey the small print if you’re going to be a proper Christian.

With the beginning of Acts chapter 15 the atmosphere in the church changes, and it’s worth asking ourselves why. I think the answer is clear: when God chooses to do a new thing, it can be hard to accept we are no longer in control. When the Holy Spirit moves in power, He disturbs our comfortable way of doing things. We feel threatened by the fact He is in charge, not us. And so what we try and do is control the movement of the Spirit by focusing on the rules and traditions that we hold so dear. In the case of the Pharisees in our gospel reading, they homed in on the question of Sabbath observance, and made it more important than the healing Jesus performed on that day. In the case of the men from Jerusalem who came to Antioch, they homed in on the question of circumcision, and made it more important than the growth the church was experiencing.

Now just try to imagine what would have happened if the believers from a Pharisee background had won the argument. What would have been the practical consequences for the Christian faith? Well, to begin with, salvation would depend on a religious ceremony. As they argued unless you are circumcised… you cannot be saved. Now when I was a student in Cambridge there was a doctor who preached from time to time and every sermon I heard he went into far more detail than was necessary about circumcision. I used to leave church feeling physically sore, and I for one am so glad I am free from having to obey this requirement.

But not only would salvation depend on a religious ceremony. Because in order to belong to God’s people you would have to adopt a certain culture and conform to a particular way of doing things. In effect the believers from a Gentile background would have to become Jewish and behave accordingly, and that would have been a disaster for the future spread of the gospel. The clear message of the church would be, “Conform or be cast out”. And that would have meant we ended up with first and second class believers, proper believers who carried out everything expected of them, and those who followed Jesus but didn’t behave like real Christians. So although the council at Jerusalem may seem like a mere historical detail, the outcome was of supreme importance for the health and growth of the church, and we should rejoice that these believers from the Pharisee background didn’t win the day.

Yet I also wonder if there aren’t parallels between the attitude of the Pharisees and the spirit that lies behind so much organised religion today. Isn’t it true that sometimes the church has turned the very simple message of the gospel into something so much more complicated? That instead of preaching the simple fact we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ we have majored on ceremonies and liturgies and rituals, as if somehow they were necessary to our salvation? Isn’t it true that so often we have expected those who come through our doors to conform to a particular culture in order to be a proper Christian? Welcome to Saint Agatha, here are six books for you to use in today’s service and please sing the responses in Latin – you can read music, can’t you? And isn’t it true that without even meaning to, we have ended up with first and second class Christians, those who fit into the traditional way of doing things, and those who do not seem to be suitable churchgoing material? No wonder our church so often seems in decline, out of touch, unable to move with the times.

How do Paul and Barnabas respond to these Pharisee believers? Well, instead of leaving the church and maybe setting up a new denomination, they go up to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders there. It seems that although there were new churches springing up everywhere, the church in Jerusalem retained some kind of central authority. It had been led first of all by the apostle Peter and now by James, the brother of Jesus. And notice one little but important detail that comes out of verse 4: When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Do you see that’s exactly what Paul and Barnabas did when they returned to Antioch back in chapter 14:27? As we heard earlier: They reported all that God had done through them and how He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. Paul doesn’t alter or trim down his message to suit the occasion. He simply and plainly puts forward what has happened. Because when you are seeking to work for the truth, honesty and openness really is the best policy.

But their stories don’t wash with these Pharisee believers. They are insistent, verse 5: The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses. As far as they are concerned, they are right and there is no room for argument. And sadly, that is still the way Christians so often behave today, when there is disagreement about matters of faith and belief. Both sides believe themselves to be correct, and the result not only dishonours the church, but grieves our Lord Jesus Christ who died for our salvation.

This is why Peter’s intervention is so significant and so timely. No-one could accuse him of being an outsider like Paul or Barnabas. He was one of the original twelve apostles with Jesus, and his words carried a weight and an authority for both sides of the argument. And although the details of what he says might seem technical to us, actually there is so much we can learn from the way he puts his case forward.

First of all, he gives testimony about what the Lord has done in his own life. Verse 7: Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. He’s referring here to an occasion where the Lord gave him a vision when he was praying and he was sent to a Roman centurion in Caesarea. You can read it about later in Acts chapter 10. But for now all we need to note is that everyone would have known how the Holy Spirit came upon the Roman centurion when Peter began to explain the good news of Jesus Christ. And when you are seeking to make any kind of decision, it is always good to recall how you have already seen the Holy Spirit at work in your own life.

But Peter isn’t finished there. Because he goes on in verses 8 and 9 to share how the Lord has been at work not just in one Roman family but in non-Jewish believers generally. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. So if you want to know if the Lord is at work, look at the results. Are people coming to faith? Are they being filled with the Holy Spirit? If so, then you can have little doubt that what is happening is of the Lord.

And that means, verses 10-11, we should avoid doing anything that might quench the work of the Holy Spirit or put obstacles in the way of that faith: Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Because at the end of the day the real question the council of Jerusalem faced was one of grace. If the Pharisee believers had won, then they would be saying that what Jesus did on the cross was not enough. You couldn’t simply believe that Jesus died in my place for my sins. You had to add something extra to that. The technical name for that is “salvation by works”, and it is a problem that has bedevilled the church ever since.

Peter’s words remind of us of an essential truth we must return to again and again – that being a Christian is not about earning God’s favour. It is about believing and receiving. That is, believing in Jesus’ death and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. And as soon as we complicate that message or add something else to that, we are immediately treading on very dangerous ground. Indeed Peter says we are testing God by our disobedience, by thinking we know better than to live in light of His grace.

So in these verses Peter shares his own experience. He tells of how many Gentiles have come to faith. He reminds the council of Jerusalem of the grace of the Lord Jesus. He doesn’t get personal. He doesn’t get technical. Like Paul, he simply and honestly shares what has been happening.

Yet I guess that even then there were probably some who still wondered whether what has happening really was of the Lord. And to a certain extent, I can understand their scepticism. When other people start talking about all the wonderful things the Lord is doing, I often find there’s a little part of me asking, “Yes, but is that really the Holy Spirit at work?” “How can I be sure what’s going on is part of God’s plan?”

This is where the words spoken by James, the brother of Jesus, from verse 12 onwards are so important. Because what he convincingly shows is that this movement of the Holy Spirit was foreseen and is in line with the words of Scripture. We’re not going to look at the Old Testament Scripture that he quotes in any detail, but in essence it is the clinching proof which bears out all that Peter and Paul have been saying.

You see, if we want to know whether the Holy Spirit at work, the answer is to always look at the word of God. Now I realise that sometimes Christians get into silly arguments about whether we should rely on the Holy Spirit or the Bible, but that is to completely misunderstand the relationship between the works of God and the word of God. They are not alternatives, as if somehow we can choose between being a Spirit-filled or a Bible-believing Christian. No, the work of the Holy Spirit and the word of God are two sides of the same coin. It was the Holy Spirit that caused the word of God to be written, and it is the word of God that helps us to see how the Holy Spirit is leading and guiding us.

So what does all that mean in practice? Very simply this – that in whatever decision we face, whether as a church, or in our daily lives – we need to see where the Holy Spirit is at work and listen to what the Word of God is saying. Paul and Peter shared how the Holy Spirit had been at work. James shared how the word of God was reinforcing what they were saying. And it was because the work of God agreed with the word of God that the council at Jerusalem was able to reach a decision, and the church was able to keep on growing. It seems to me that in the same kind of way, if we are keep growing here at St Michael’s and St Barnabas, then we need to keep our eyes open to where the Holy Spirit is leading us and our ears open to what God’s word is saying to us.

However, just because God was doing a new thing, this didn’t mean that the Gentiles were free to do whatever they wanted. Yes, they did not have to adopt cumbersome rules and regulations, but that didn’t mean they were free to do whatever they wanted. John will look in more detail next week at what was in the letter the council of Jerusalem wrote to the churches of the Gentiles. But for now I want to make the point that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is to be found not just in new and powerful experiences, but also in faithful, obedient living.

So what about food sacrificed to idols? That’s a no-no because we are called to worship the Lord Almighty and Him alone. We must avoid anything that seems to suggest other faiths, other religions are somehow OK. For us today, that may not mean eating food sacrificed to idols. But it might mean avoiding this meditation technique or looking at that horoscope, or whatever else encourages us to fill our minds with anything that is not of the Lord.

As for sexual immorality – well, I hope that point is fairly obvious. As one youth leader said many years ago, your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, not an adventure playground. Yet sadly, there are too many Christians today who believe the Holy Spirit is leading us to reject what the Bible says about human sexuality, and ultimately changing the good news of Jesus Christ. Avoiding sexual immorality may sound obvious, but it is a temptation that for many of us is real and needs to be resisted, not only for our own good, but for the sake of the gospel.

What then about the meat of strangled animals and blood? Now I guess for most of us this is not much of a problem. But to Jewish believers eating such meat and drinking blood was totally revolting. It was something you just didn’t do, and it went against all their core beliefs. And this command to avoid these things is to me a reminder that we need to act out of love for our neighbour and avoid doing anything that will harm or undermine their faith. So that might mean, for example, voluntarily giving up alcohol for the sake of someone who finds the idea of Christians drinking a problem. We may be fine with the idea of the odd tipple, but if our drinking creates an issue for someone else, the loving thing to do is not to offend them.

But please note this. The reason why the council at Jerusalem told the Gentile churches to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood was not to create rules and regulations like the Pharisee believers. The Pharisees believers were demanding that the Gentiles be circumcised in order for them to be saved. The council at Jerusalem asked the Gentiles to obey these commandments to show they had been already saved. And that’s a crucial difference. If we want to show the world that we have been saved through faith in Jesus Christ, if we want to live in obedience to the Holy Spirit and the word of God, then we need to show the evidence Jesus makes to our daily lives. That’s where God’s commands come in – not as a burden to be carried, but as a joyful response to all that Jesus had first done for us.

So for us here at St Michael’s and St Barnabas the message of this passage seems very clear. We are in a season of growth, but for that growth to continue, let’s keep our eyes open to what the Holy Spirit is doing. Let’s keep our ears open to what the word of God is saying. And let’s make sure we are willing to offer our hearts and minds to the one who has saved us by His grace, so that through us the Lord can keep on building His church and many others come to be saved. For His name’s sake. Amen.

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