Acts 15:1-11, 22-35
July 19, 2009
I used this title “One Giant Leap” because we are now at a major anniversary of the greatest adventure in history. Forty years ago tomorrow, Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the Sea of Tranquility and into history. And the world will ever remember his words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
I also used this metaphor because there’s another “giant leap” that we’re reading about today. It was a giant leap for the early church, anyway. And this was sort of a sneaky way of using this title and talking at least a little bit about the Apollo 11 mission! But let me tell you about this “giant leap” for the early church.
First, remember what I mentioned last week. I said then how the first great issue in Christian history after the day of Pentecost, was the issue of how the Jewish leadership dealt with the newly established Church. There are a number of chapters in Acts devoted to that controversy. Remember the Jewish leaders were caught up in all of this since Jesus first came on the scene. They had first questioned him, and then they had openly opposed his ministry – some of them, anyway. They had successfully silenced him – or so they thought! But then, his ministry continued after his death, and his name kept coming up! And that was very difficult for them! So in this first part of the book of Acts, we see their efforts to silence, again, the name and the message of Jesus.
The second big subject, the “giant leap” I’m asking you to think about today, is what we read about in the next 5 or 6 chapters. And it centers around the huge question in the early church, “Who’s in?” Who is part of the Church? Again, the first subject in Acts is the Jewish leaders response to Jesus. Now, the next big subject is how this new sect called the Church had to answer the very difficult question of who is included in this new faith? And making that decision would be a giant leap for the Church!
Think about it. Every Christmas we read those very familiar words of the angel. “Behold I bring you good news of a great joy that shall be to all people…” And I’ve talked about how hard that would be for the people at the time. Could they really accept that? “..great joy to all people.” The Jewish faith had become very exclusionary by that point in history. They were God’s people and everyone else were outsiders. And those who were in the new Church were still considered to be good Jews. Many saw the new faith as an extension of Judaism. And many kept those exclusionary beliefs. At first, all the converts to the faith were from that Jewish community. Actually, that made it easy. Because when Peter and the boys reached out with the message, all they had to do was to convince the people that Jesus was the Christ. They just had to show that he was the Messiah, the chosen one of Israel. But what about those outside of Judaism?
I hope you see what a giant leap that was! If you go back you can read a number of stories in the “teen” chapters of Acts that had to do with the message of Christ coming to the Gentiles! And that was earthshaking! There was the vision of Peter of the “sheet lowered from heaven” containing all the animals that were considered “unclean” to eat. Do you remember that? What was once unclean was now clean! And with that vision happening simultaneously with the call to preach to gentiles, Peter believed God was telling him that people long considered to be “unclean” were now “clean.” That meant the Gentiles! But that was not so easy for people to accept, and Peter had to explain himself over and over again!
I can’t emphasize enough how big this subject is in this first half of Acts! And at the point where we read today, the early church leaders have now convened a council in Jerusalem to make a decision about this. That’s the story we read for today. And just take a look at who was at this council. At one point it refers to the Pharisees who were believers. They were there. And they were part of the group who believed that people coming to Christianity first had to become Jews. Some of that group even believed that new Christians had to be circumcised! (Ouch!) At the very least, they thought they should keep the Jewish Law. And of course, there were those who disagreed. They believed that converting new believers to Judaism was unnecessary.
So, the upshot of this story is that the council decided that the burdens of the “Old Law” were not to be imposed on new believers. Peter pointed out in verse 10 that no one could keep the old law anyway! I sometimes wonder what the Church would be like if this council decided differently. But of course they didn’t. They decided that salvation through Grace superseded the Jewish Law, so new converts would not be required to keep that law. That was a HUGE decision. That was a giant leap for them. They even drafted an official letter from the council, which Luke spread upon the pages of Acts!
What I want you to see here is that this council was called on to deal with an age old spiritual dilemma. Do we decide things based on what we want, or based on what God wants? Think about that. And consider that the most difficult prayer is ironically the prayer that is said more often than any other. We say it every week – along with most Christians. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…” That’s all about our will verses God’s will, isn’t it? But do we really mean it? Do we really want God’s will? It sounds like a small step. But too often it’s a giant leap! Too often our prayers are more along the lines of, “This is what I want, God. May it be your will.”
Let’s face it. It’s hard to seek God’s will – and especially when the chips are down. When things are tough in our lives, we often retreat into our own little world, the world which we control! Sometimes when things go wrong we call it God’s will. We start making statements like, “It’s a tough thing I’m going through now, but it must by your will, God.” And I don’t believe that’s the reality of it. I think that’s confusing God’s will with God’s omniscience. God knows what’s going to happen to us. But that doesn’t mean that everything that happens to us is God’s will! Do you see what I mean? Bad things may be happening to us for many reasons. And sometimes it’s because we’ve insisted on our own will and our own choices have turned out bad. It’s not God’s will that the bad happens. That’s a long subject, I know. But let me just say that when bad things do happen, often the best solution for us is to seek and to choose to follow God’s way. But even that can be very difficult! Sometimes we’ll cling tenaciously to that control, even if it’s to our detriment!
Seeking and doing God’s will is not easy. And by the way… This whole thing about God’s will is also a big reason a lot of people don’t want to be God’s people. Too many outside the church think God is out to tell them what to do! Or worse, he’s going to tell them what not to do! Religion to them is all about “thou shalt not!” That’s hard to get around!
In that council in Jerusalem, there were those who wanted things their way. They wanted to keep Christianity a “Jewish thing.” But that was not God’s will. It is clear by God’s actions through the Holy Spirit that God wanted the message of the Christmas angel to prevail. He wanted the good news truly to be “…to all people.” And that was hard for some people to take. But if you look at these stories in Acts, it is very much evident that God wanted the church to include the Gentiles.
As I’ve said before, I think this book is not very well named. Instead of “The Acts of the Apostles.” it should be “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” This is about the things God did through the powerful work of the Holy Spirit as he established and grew the Church. I guess I get it why it’s called what it is. These are the actions of those who led the early church. I suppose that puts it into an historical perspective. But these stories are about God being in control. They’re about people seeking God’s will, and following his will, despite sometimes some very difficult circumstances! And in this case, it is seeking God’s will about who is included in the Christian Church. And it was the beginning of the process that led to you and me.
So, the question becomes, how do we continue the legacy of the Church? Do we pray “thy will be done” and really mean it? Do we spend our lives seeking what God’s will is for our life? Do we try to recognize when we are insisting on our own way, and when we’ve forgotten to seek God’s ways? Do we do those things? Or is seeking God’s will for us a giant leap?
Lord, we are grateful that you have called us into the Church. We know we don’t always seek your will. We know that we don’t always live our lives in a way that shows your love and grace. But we ask for your help. Show us where we are insisting on our own will. Help us by your spirit to seek to follow where and how you would lead us. Grant us your strength and your peace, that our light may shine before the world and your body may grow and prosper. For these things we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.