Exodus 15:19-27, Acts 15:6-21
August 26, 2007
So, do you think I have the wrong punctuation on that sentence? Should it really be a question? Or is it the beginning of an answer to that question. The question would be, “What really matters?” The answer, “Well, what really matters is…” Or is it a statement. “I have an observation. What really matters in this life is…” Actually, I never thought of those different possibilities until I had it down on paper and looked at it for a while.
Well, I want to use this sentence today in a sort of two-fold way. We’ve reached Acts 15. And in that passage the church leaders were called on to answer the question, “What really matters in the faith?” And as we see their struggle, I want us to think about “what really matters” in our faith, too.
There was so much going on in those days! And we’ve talked about a lot of it on our “journey” through the book of Acts. There was the growing persecution of the Church by the Romans. There was a continual attempt by the Jewish leadership to counter the growing Christian movement. And if that weren’t enough, there was, as I told you a couple of weeks ago, this growing controversy within the Church about the state of the Gentiles who were coming to the faith. The question was, if they were going to become Christians, if they were to become followers of Christ, did they first have to become Jews? (Did that really matter?)
As the Church leaders looked at that question, as they debated that issue, I believe they had to decide “what really matters” for these new believers. That’s the first way I’d like us to think about this phrase, “What really matters.” Let’s take a look at how this all came out.
Paul was at the last stage of his first “missionary journey.” He was with Barnabas, and they had just had some bad experiences in Iconium and Lystra. We talked about that last week. The worst of those happened in Lystra, where Paul was stoned and dragged out of the city and left for dead! He recovered, and they both made their way back to Antioch, which was Barnabas home town. There they were well received, and I think they got a little “respite” from their tough ordeal.
Now at the beginning of chapter 15, we read about these men who came from Judah, and who were telling everyone that no one could have salvation in Christ without first becoming a full Jew, including the custom of circumcision. Here was this controversy again. And Paul and Barnabas disagreed. They had just been on this first journey where they had seen God’s anointing on the Gentiles. And they knew they had to do something. So they now headed back to Jerusalem to meet with the Church leaders to talk about that very question. That’s where our scripture lesson from Acts picks up.
In our passage from today we read some of the debate. And this wasn’t all of it, by any means. Verse 7 tells us that “…there had been much debate.” But our text picks up where Peter rose to speak. And the first thing he does is to give them his experience. He says, “Brethren, you know that in the early days, God decided that you should know through me, that the Gentiles should hear the word of God and be saved.” Do you remember the story he was talking about? It was the one where Peter had the vision of the sheet coming down from heaven filled with animals. In that vision, God declared that things that were once called unclean were now clean. And that vision happened at the same time that Peter was called to the house of Cornelius. And that was the first time the gentiles heard the word.
Peter is reminding them of that story. He goes on to say, “God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving the same Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed hearts by faith.” “These people had the same thing happen to them!” he said.
Those are two great observations to make. “God told us to reach out to the Gentiles, and God blessed them in the same way.” Then he asks them this. “Why do you make trial of God – why do you second guess God – by putting a yoke upon the neck of these believers, which neither our fathers nor we are able to bear.” Oooh, that’s a tough statement! He’s saying, “We and our ancestors followed all those Jewish traditions, and it still didn’t keep our hearts faithful to God.” Then he reminds them, “We know now that it is through grace that we are saved – just like these gentiles!
Well, that ended the debate. Peter told them what was really important. He told them what really matters, didn’t he? And what really matters was God’s plan! And while they were thinking about that, he called on Paul and Barnabas to come forward and tell the stories of what happened on their missionary journey among the Gentiles, which they did. And the evidence that “this was a God thing” became overwhelming to the council. And just to top it off, James stood up and told them how it was all part of God’s plan according to the Prophets. And he quoted them passages from Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah.
The debate was over, and they were convinced that they needed to boil things down to what really mattered. So James suggested that they send a letter to all the Gentiles and their leaders with some simple instructions on what to do to keep their lives pure and heading in the right direction. But they really decided was that what really mattered was not rituals and traditions, but the grace of God alone!
I’m glad we have this story. Because as I said, the second way I want us to view this statement “What really matters,” is to see what really matters to us. As we revisit this story, I want us to be thinking about that about our own life of faith. Like the people so long ago, we too have a lot to think about as we consider how our faith impacts our lives. There are all sorts of teachings and doctrine and ethics and theology associated with our faith. And those are fine. We should be thinking about all those things. They do matter! But every once in a while, I think it’s a good thing to boil down our faith to its essentials. Every once in a while we need to ask What really matters? If we did that, if boiled it all down to it’s essence, what would we have?
Maybe you’ve heard the story of the great German theologian Carl Barth. Like the Germans, he was very thorough in his thinking, and very systematic. And he wrote a long series of books entitled “The Church Dogmatics.” And “dogmatics” means “things we believe strongly.” And this series of books was all about the beliefs of the Christian faith, and it contained I don’t know how many volumes! Like 20 some, I think. Thick books! Well, one day, as a joke, one of his students asked him in front of the class if he could boil down all of his voluminous writings into one sentence. With everybody choking back laughter, Barth thought for a moment, and then said to the class, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” And they were blown away! Isn’t that what really matters?
Some of the religions people asked that same thing of Jesus. And frankly, I think Jesus welcomed those challenges! Often he was subject to trick questions involving tricky theology or political conundrums, which I have to think made him roll his eyes in incredulity. I’ll bet he wanted to say, “You’re kiddin’ me, right?” But instead of that, some would ask, “Which is the greatest commandment of them all?” By the way, that was the mindset of the Sadducees. The Pharisees were the ones who wanted to expand the commandments and figure out how they all impacted even the minutia of life. They created an additional “law” of over 700 nuances of the original ten.
The Sadducees wanted to boil them down to their essence! They wanted to put them all into one. “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus answered them, I think with great relief and satisfaction, saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.” I think in a way that was the same thing as saying, “Yahweh loves me, this I know, for the Torah tells me so.”
I think all the many things we know in our faith are great. It’s important to learn them, and they are wonderful to know. But we should “temper” all of our learning and insight and understanding by keeping in mind that which is most important. We should always keep in the back of our minds – or the front of our minds – that God created us, he loves us, and that he wants us to be in relationship with us. And he wants us to live life in his grace, and in his joy. He wants us to know above all that, “Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”
When we see what really matters, the differences and disagreements don’t matter as much, do they?! If only our world could see that. If only our country could see that. If only our denomination could see that. Let us be sure that we here at Eddington know that well!
There is a tradition in the history of the Church that the Apostle John was the only one to die of old age. All the rest besides him were martyred for their faith. But John grew to be old and frail, and to the end of his life, they still asked him to come forward in Church and speak to the congregation. But when he did, all he would say was “Little children, love one another.” Is that true? Maybe. Does that matter? I think not, because it is what really matters. Love God. Love each other.
Eternal God, you love us. We know that. Forgive us when we forget it sometimes, and when we forget that we should love each other. Help us to love you with all of our hearts and souls and minds and strength. Help us to live our lives, no matter what the circumstances, in the joy of your kingdom. Draw us close to you, Lord. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.