This morning, I got to read one of my favorite verses in scripture. The first reading is from Acts 15, when the early Christian communities have gathered in Jerusalem to deal with one of the biggest controversies in the early Church. As you may have figured out by now, I love to study controversy, and am particularly fascinated by peaceful ways to address them. Whenever I see a “success story” of people taking a topic head-on and growing together, I pick it apart.
I love this passage, because it tells us a lot about HOW the Apostles and early community dealt with controversy. Today we start with a debate. But what are they debating? Who is debating? And why?
- In Jerusalem. After Jesus’ death & resurrection, this became the center of activity for those who believed His Good News.
- The Apostles and presbyters. Presbyters are the first Christian priests, who are different from the temple priests, or hierus–although some of the temple priests have also joined this “Christian” movement.
- Representatives from all the churches. As the Apostles have gone out in the world to proclaim the Way, they all came together to debate and resolve this major conflict. These include what would latter become known as “deacons” and “lay-people,” and sets the precedent for the Ecumenical Councils that we now hold when worldwide controversies need to be addressed. I could say a lot more about this.
- Jews. All of the people who had gathered were either raised Jewish or converts to Judaism. Non-Jews were called “Gentiles,” and their status in the growing community is the topic of discussion.
So basically, more and more Gentiles (non-Jews) want to be baptized. Woohoo, right? Isn’t this what Jesus told them would happen? But those Gentiles are hoping they can opt out of full conversion to Judaism, which means being circumcision as adults, strict kosher laws, and other lifestyle obligations.
So we start this text by asking what we should always ask:
Who is “us”?
Peter addresses the group by saying that God “made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts.”
“Us” here means Jews, who observe the ritual purity laws, and also believe and proclaim that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, living in the tradition of Moses, and raised from the line of David.
“Them” means everyone else who also has faith in Jesus.
Eventually, the group said “yes,” Gentiles can join the Family. But only after listening to all sides of the argument, to appeals from the prophets, and from lived experience. This process is what fostered agreement, and maintained unity.
The Apostles and presbyters and representatives from all the congregations remained in their Jewish traditions, which they loved and valued. They continued observing the Sabbath and eating kosher. But they decided at this point to allow others a simpler lifestyle, recognizing that the traditions of their ancestors were not the Way of salvation. And the missionary Apostles also would eat with these Gentiles, new to the faith, as a sign of unity.
The underlying issue here was a question of purity. To approach God, one had to be without SIN, which are impurities. All the ritual acts of daily life (washing, eating) combined with the temple duties (circumcision, sacrifice) were designed to purify bodies and hearts to approach a God who is truly pure.
Some Christians interpret this passage as a total negation of everything that came before, as if the Apostles suddenly became Christians and denied any Jewish traditions or rituals. But the text doesn’t support that. Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and James still went on to observe the Jewish holidays, attend the Synagogues and Temples, and follow their own traditions.
But they recognized that these practices are only good in-so-far as they accomplish their purpose of purifying our hearts. There is still a basic foundation of practices that the Ecumenical Councils proclaim as a “Christian lifestyle,” but it’s not as all-encompassing or strict as many would proclaim. One baptism for the forgiveness of sins, weekly worship, annual Confession and Eucharist, and chastity in singleness or marriage… Those are the big ones.
So what about the rest of the trappings? What about stuff like Bible studies, and Youth Groups, and what languages you speak, and the clothes you wear, and the hymns you sing? Do those need to be in conformity as well?
Indeed, in today’s reading, Psalm 96 answers that question:
“Sing to the LORD a new song,
Sing to the LORD all you lands,”
This decision to open up the Christian Way beyond the confines of Judaism is not a denial of Judaism and Jewish traditions. But nor does it elevate some other Tradition in its place. Every new culture and tradition that enters this Family offers a new song of praise. When I read these passages together, which is the purpose of the daily readings, I think they say something more than each passage on its own.
This pivotal moment, the moment of the Gentile adoption into the Jewish-Christian movement, offers non-Jews an opportunity to become part of a larger, global network and community. But it does not require total conformity to one global lifestyle. Beyond the basics, non-Jews have the option of following other cultural traditions, and to even branch out with creativity to “sing a new song.”
This decision challenges me not to grow complacent in my comfort zone. Like the Apostles, I need to be willing to commit to annual traditions and daily spiritual practices that I find life-giving. And I also need the courage to recognize the Holy Spirit at work in others, that my Way and their Way can work together. The true test of our unity is whether we can commit to each other, and support each other on the different task to purify our hearts. Then we will truly become “God’s people.”
Then “us” and “them” becomes just “us.”