Unknown Acts

Acts 15: 1-19

The Reverend Tasha Blackburn

May 7, 2017

(VIDEO UNAVAILABLE- Due to technical difficulties, the video was unable to record.)

Every Presbyterian pastor has to do it. And none of them look forward to it. After the schooling, after the internships, after all the exams, one final requirement lies before them: to be examined in front of the entire Presbytery. If it goes well, then you will be ordained. And if it does not go well, then all of the schooling and the exams do not matter. You will not be ordained. Elders and pastors come to the microphones and they can ask you anything, testing out your theological beliefs, your academic rigor, your pastoral nature. We have a friend who faced his examination just after he’d finished a heady philosophy course. His answers were so convoluted that the whole room almost failed him!

Even as Presbytery’s question their function and cut back on their role, the examination of prospective pastors remains at the core of what they do. Because having the right belief matters and identity matters.

The earliest example we have of something like this is what we read in Acts 15. Paul has already been ordained and he and Barnabas have been preaching and teaching far from the powers-that-be in Jerusalem. Paul has begun telling non-Jews that they can become Christian and skip the step of circumcision. Basically, they don’t have to meet the requirements of Judaism to become Christian.

Some examiners come from Jerusalem to visit the two of them because they don’t think Paul’s teachings are right. His beliefs have gone astray and they want him to stop. Paul disagrees so they bring their fight to Jerusalem. Many are certain that Paul will fail this examination.

At the heart of this first council of the church is this: Jesus’ death is a ransom—a payment—for many. Which begs the question: how many? Because if “many” means very, very many, then we don’t know that they will all look like us. Paul believed that non-Jews were part of that ransom and that belief complicates everything. If Christianity is not just going to be converted Jews, then the “many” is getting beyond us. And “right belief” really matters. And identity really matters.

Some of the mistakes Christian missionaries made on the continent of Africa are well-known. When British Christians arrived in what is now Kenya, they taught about the love of Jesus but, often, they linked his gospel with obedience to the British crown or to a divine right of colonialism or even the need to wear western-style clothing. These things had nothing to do with the gospel but they had everything to do with identity and self-preservation.  So the good news of Jesus began to have baggage around it.

The leaders of the early Church had much more at stake than preserving their culture the day that Paul and Barnabas came to make their case. They were all of one belief—meaning they were all of one religion—and Paul’s teachings threatened to make that one religion into two. But they listened to him anyway. Luke tells us that they kept silent as they heard about the amazing wonders that were taking place in the Gentile churches. Then, putting aside everything they had all thought they’d known, James, Jesus’ brother, ends the examination by saying, “I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.” James speaks and Paul has passed: if non-Jews are turning to God then that is what matters more than anything else. What they wear does not matter. Their governance does not matter. Their anatomies do not matter. That they have turned to God is the point.

If only we could always remember this moment in Acts when we share the gospel of Jesus. When we compare the conversions of Africans several hundred years ago to the conversions of South Koreans in the last century, we can see that maybe we’d been reading Acts 15 in the meantime. In 1900 only 1% of South Koreans were Christian. Missionaries came to that country and worked very hard to allow the gospel of Jesus to become indigenous to them. Converts were not asked to change their dress or their government. They were encouraged to become Christians in a Korean way. And, a little over 100 years later, 1/3 of the country is Christian and they are second in the world in sending out missionaries to share the gospel today.

As open-minded as James became. he did require some commitments. Just after our passage, he lists four behaviors he wants non-Jewish Christians to abide. All four have to do with activities in the pagan temples. Please, James says, please, at least don’t go to pagan temples anymore and worship their idols, and eat their food and engage with their prostitutes. It seems like very little to ask: a low bar to admission into the Christian faith.

What is staggering about this is that Paul ignores even this low bar. He and Barnabas go back to their preaching and teaching and, as near as we can tell, Paul never told any of the converts about these four requirements. When he describes this agreement with the apostles in his letter to the Galatians he specifically writes that they didn’t ask for any required behavior except that the converts “remember the poor.” So not only did Paul pass his examination, but he walked away from it ignoring any of its recommendations.

And he did it because this man who had loved the Law his entire life—who gave his life in study of it—came to realize that the Law could not save him. Only Jesus could. He and the other apostles face the question each generation must face. What is required to be among the many who are ransomed by Jesus? Is following the 10 Commandments required? Or abstaining from the 4 pagan temple behaviors? Or undergoing circumcision which is the one sign of the covenant? Which laws must be followed to be saved?

Paul comes to a succinct answer: none of them must be followed. None of them. He writes in Galatians: “We are justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” He believes this so firmly that a couple of chapters later he derides those non-Jews considering circumcision saying, “If you let yourselves be circumcised, then Christ will be of no benefit to you.” It is either rely on the law or rely on Christ. If we start to rely on right behavior to save us then we have given up on Jesus.

James and Peter were not the only ones who have had to peel back the extra layers that have been pulled tight over the good news of Jesus. They were just the first. We have to face the same examination in our time and place, asking ourselves what burdens and baggage we have attached to the gospel which are more about preserving ourselves than they are about sharing the love of Christ.

I have sat through many Presbytery examinations since my own examination 15 years ago. I have listened as Christians sailed through their exam and I have listened as Christians struggled to meet the group’s expectations. During the 8 years I was a member of Great Rivers Presbytery in Illinois, I, also, each time heard the same question asked. Many times it was the question that would bring an end to the examination altogether. The question was offered, each time, by the Reverend Charlotte Poetschner. She would come to the microphone, lean in to it carefully, and she would ask, “Do you love Jesus?” The candidate would, invariably let out a sigh of relief at the simplicity of her question, and say, “Yes, I do love Jesus.” And, with that, someone would call for the vote.

It is so difficult to peel the layers back, all of them back, to reveal simply this: if you love Jesus then that is enough. Over and over again, we try to add to it, to require more and to preserve our own identity in the process, to preserve “right belief” in the process. And over and over again, we return to these earliest texts to remind us that Jesus has ransomed many. How many? Very, very many. And if someone loves him then that is the right belief, the only identity that matters.

When we lived in Scotland I looked out my window one day to see a sight I could have never imagined. It was a parade, a parade of missionaries from South Korea. They were walking the High Street of Edinburgh in Great Britain, waving signs and preaching about the gospel of Jesus Christ. What had begun so long before had now come back home to its shores. It was amazing to see: the world the Brits had evangelized were now coming back and evangelizing them. What a wonder! And we rejoice in it, even as we fervently hope that, in sharing the good news of Jesus, these missionaries too have read the book of Acts. Amen.