Who Knows?

This week we’re celebrating All Saints Day, the remembrance of those who have passed in the last year, as well as our theme “Who Knows?”.  The two together could raise many questions about life and death and everything in between.  Who does know?  Read on to find out…

Scripture: Acts 15:1-21

1 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.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, 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.

3 So 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.

4 When 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. 5 But 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. 7 After there had been much debate, 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; 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10 Now 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? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

12 The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15 This 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—even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18 known from long ago.’ 19 Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but 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. 21 For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

Background on the Text:

  1. This is the physical center of Acts: the first half of the story has ended, and the second half begins with this story. It is also the last time Peter is mentioned in Acts. Paul takes over from this point.
  2. The story is central to an issue that defined Christianity. Was it possible to be Jewish and Christian at the same time? Although the story is told from the viewpoint of the early Jewish leaders of the Christian movement, it was the beginning of the eventual split between Jews and Christians. This split would take place over almost 300 years. Paul was a vehement supporter of the idea that yes, it was possible to be Jewish and a follower of Christ, as it was possible to be Gentile and a follower of Christ. He ultimately lost this argument.

Exegesis (close reading) of the Text:

  1. Paul and Barnabas have been preaching the good news north of Jerusalem: in Antioch, where they got started, Cyprus, Iconium, and Lystra, among other places. They have had tremendous success among both Jews and Gentiles.
  2. Some Jewish Christians enter these areas, and tell the new Gentile converts that in order to be saved, (receive God’s blessings) the Gentiles must be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas strongly disagree.
  3. To settle this dispute, Paul, Barnabas and a few others go to Jerusalem and bring the matter to the Twelve and other leaders of the church. Along the way, Paul, never one to pass up a chance to preach, converts more Gentiles.
  4. There is first and all-church meeting, in which Paul and Barnabas tell of their successes with the Gentiles. These Gentiles have had no previous experience with Judaism: that is, they are not God-fearers as Cornelius was.
  5. At the all church meeting, some in the conservative Pharisee faction argue that the Gentiles have to accept the full panoply of Jewish laws and customs in order to be true followers of Christ.
  6. The apostles and leaders move into an executive session. Paul and Barnabas again tell of their successes. Interestingly, it is Peter who supports the idea of not burdening the Gentiles with the “yoke” of obeying the Law of Moses as well as living a Christian life.
  7. Next, James (a prominent leader, but unclear if he is a brother of Jesus or not) proposes a compromise: the Gentiles do not have to be circumcised, but they should follow some of the dietary laws, and not participate in fornication. These are considered to be rules that are so well known, that they are almost common sense.
  8. The upshot of this is that a letter with this compromise is sent to the Gentile churches, and they accept the agreement with joy.

Questions the Text Asks of Us:

  1. Paul tells a slightly different version of this incident in Galatians 2. In Paul’s version, there is no mention of a compromise and he instead asks all members to be sensitive to the “weaknesses” of others in their practice. If eating food offered to idols makes someone else fall in their spiritual walk, then one should not eat food offered to idols. (See Romans 14)
  2. What makes us Christians? What customs, practices, and rituals are important and identify us as Christians, and which of these can we set aside for the sake of unity?
  3. We have an obvious parallel in the Coop, although it shouldn’t separate us as much as the differences between Jewish and Gentile Christians. We have people in the Coop who are cradle Lutherans or Methodists, and some who have no church background at all. What are we willing to sacrifice (customs, rituals, practices) for the sake of unity? What stumbling blocks do we place in front of each other in the name of tradition?
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