I heard recently of a pastor who was standing on the steps of his church one afternoon. It was the early 60s, and his church, like many others in the Southern United States, was on the brink of division, debating how they would respond to the struggle for Civil Rights and integration in their city. It was a threat to split their church entirely, and the pastor was deeply concerned.
On that particular day, an angry group of people, many of them high school students, was marching down main street, right by the church, demanding an end to integration. In the mob, the pastor saw a couple boys from his youth group. It was jarring, but he didn’t intervene. “Best to stay out of it,” he thought, “people have their different opinions about this.” But then he looked again, and that’s when he saw his own son in the line.
Well, instinct took over and he immediately stormed into the crowd, grabbed his son, shook him to life. This is not who he was, not who he was raised to be, not the gospel he had heard since his birth. His son’s face turned from anger to shame, and together they grabbed the other boys, and on the steps of the church, the pastor, in no uncertain terms, tried to tell them who they were. With a bit of hellfire and brimstone mixed in, he tried to say “Boys, remember who you are.” (1)
People of faith can disagree about all kinds of things. But some things are simply a part of who we are and who God has created and called us to be. Some things are essential. John Wesley once said it this way: “In essentials, let there be unity.” Wesley said “In non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity,” but when it comes to essentials, unity.
Our text today, from Acts 15, describes a church that is debating what is essential. It’s called the “Jerusalem Council,” but we recognize it as a church meeting, and the potential for conflict is right at the forefront. In verse 2, we read, “there was no small dissension and debate.” Churches have had such contentious meetings over a lot of different things. You’ve been to some. Churches debate the color of the carpet, the customs surrounding communion, whether the youth ping-pong game disturbs the meeting in the room below, what the right attire is for Sunday morning, whether the church will have dairy or non-dairy creamer for its coffee — all real, documented topics, by the way!
One pastor describes dissension and debate over pew cushions. The church had contracted to put new cushions in the sanctuary, and one person became so angry over the color the committee picked that on the Sunday they dedicated the cushions, she brought a lawn chair and set it up in the aisle. (2) Yes, churches know how to have meetings. You’ve probably been to enough to know you’d rather be at the beach and come back asking, “How’d the meeting go? Oh, sorry I missed it!”
Of course, in Jerusalem, this was no trivial, carpet color meeting. It was essential. It was so basic, that it was a single issue up for discussion: Is the church going to admit into full standing and fellowship persons who are, to put it plainly, foreigners? Persons who have never been part of the nation of Israel. Persons who do not know the Hebrew scriptures. Those who do not have the customs and traditions of Israel. Some of them have worshipped idols. Some of them don’t know about the Exodus. Some of them have different morals and standards. Some of them are from far away. Is it enough that they simply want to love and follow Jesus?
At stake, you see, was the very nature of the gospel. Essential.
You understand how they got here. It started in Jerusalem, in fact. They were just a small band in a locked upper room, then the Spirit comes in Acts 2 and sends them scattered into the streets, speaking other languages amongst all kinds of people: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia…” Acts describes.
Peter stands in that diverse group and says, “This promise is for you, for your children, for all of those far away.” It’s for Gentiles — those that Jesus is speaking of when he charges them in Acts 1:8 to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, Judea, and to the ends of the earth…”
This is the movement of the Spirit throughout the story of the growing church in Acts. They hold things in common. They add to their number those being saved. At one point, an Ethiopian Eunuch is baptized in the water and brought up to the assurance he is beloved of God, despite all that would divide him from that in some people’s minds. At another time, a Roman soldier, Cornelius, is welcomed and included in the fellowship. Gentiles are receiving the Holy Spirit. And now Paul is growing in prominence and volume as an apostle to the Gentiles.
So of course, “certain individuals” as Luke calls them, want to set a few things straight: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” they say in verse 1.
The meeting starts with that question, and everyone is ready to respond. One preacher I love pictures it like a convention, with microphones set up about the floor.
“Our delegation has a Bible Study” one says, “And we’ve been studying Ezra. And we see it says ‘Get rid of the foreigners. Even if you’re married to one, divorce her…’”
Then someone else stands up, “Well, we’ve been studying Ruth. She was the ancestor of David, and of Jesus, too, and she was a Moabite. If Jesus had Moabite blood, foreign blood, it seems this should be okay.”
“Yeah, but read Amos,” someone says, “You alone — alone— you alone have I chosen.”
But then someone else: “Well, what about where it says, ‘The mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established, and all nationsshall flow to it…’ (3)
It goes on like this for a while, everyone wanting to say, “The Bible says it, that settles it.” Of course, if all they had was the Bible, they never would have come to a consensus. Notice what they say in verse 28, as they finally reach a decision: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us that this is what is essential…” The Bible says a lot of things, you see. And we make choices about how we will read it, and interpret it. And we do so faithfully, as they did, with the guidance of the Spirit and the strength of community: “It has seemed good to the Spirit and to us.”
We know how to do this in this congregation. It’s not so different from some years ago, when our former denominational home — the Southern Baptist Convention — was making claims that women shouldn’t be ordained as ministers — a claim on which they continue to double down. “The Bible says it,” I heard one Southern Baptist leader say. “If you don’t like it, take it up with God.”
Well, some of us did, didn’t we? Sure, anyone can see what’s written. Paul told Timothy not to let the women teach in that particular church, for instance. But then we started giving and hearing testimony and evidence of God at work transforming lives and bringing people to Christ through women who preach and teach. We remembered that we raise young women in this church, and fill their heads with the notion that God can work through their very lives and voices and bodies the same as any of their male peers. As one preacher has said, “We ordain women because we baptize girls.” So we decided, effectively, that what was applicable or interpreted at a certain place and time is not the same to us and for us, and that we would apply it and understand it differently. And we reaffirm this every week. When one of our gifted ministers and pastors who are women stands to preach and teach, we are saying something about how we interpret the Bible.
This is what begins to happen in Jerusalem. After faithfully attending to all the passages, they start to hear testimony: Peter, Paul and Barnabas, James. They all begin to testify to the love of God, who is always reaching for the Gentile — for the foreigner in our midst, in other words.
III. David Sedaris is a widely celebrated American author, who once moved to spend much of his time in Paris — an experience he documents in his book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, which is a mostly hilarious look at one person’s attempts to adapt to a new culture. Sedaris says that in his experience, to be a foreigner is the lowest form of life. (4)
If it’s true for a celebrated author, living in a picturesque city… if it’s true for a successful and wealthy man, who bounces from cafe to museum to attraction with ease… if it’s true for a white, anglo man living in Europe… how true it must be for others who know what it is to feel foreign, to travel to a new land seeking asylum, or to be enduring family separation or detention at the United States border.
Our world is full of borders and boundaries, checkpoints and tests, markers of identity and claims of hierarchy and racial purity… It’s full of “fences” put about the law, to use the language of Deuteronomy and the literalist readings of those “certain individuals”… but these things are not essential. They don’t come from God. No, “God shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. You, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)
People of faith and goodwill might disagree on how we respond politically to the immigration crisis, but it’s so vital that we remember what is essential: the love and compassion of God for the stranger. This is especially urgent when we hear sentiments, or even chants like in our own state this week, that say: you don’t belong, you don’t fit in.
“You don’t fit in” is actually a quote from a church meeting. Fred Craddock once shared about his first student church in East Tennessee. He worked there in the summers as a seminarian and it was about twenty miles from the town of Oak Ridge. In those days, atomic energy was booming and folks were coming to work in a plant there and building that little town into a city. They were coming from everywhere, in tents and trailers and little temporary huts. They covered those beautiful hills with the temporary dwellings — hand dug outhouses, wash hung out on fences and branches, little kids playing in the muddy yards.
Fred said that his was an “aristocratic little church” with a white frame building near by. It was a nice church with good people, nestled in the hills. He called the board together and said, “We need to reach out to those folk who are here. They just come in from everywhere and they’re fairly close. This is our mission.” The chairman of the board said, “Oh I don’t think so.” Fred said, “Why?” He said, “They won’t fit in. After all, they’re just here temporarily, living in those trailers and all.” Fred was baffled, “Well, they may be here temporarily but they need the gospel, they need a church…” “No, I don’t think so,” the man said again.
Well, the board meeting lasted a long time, and even led to a congregational meeting the next Sunday night. The upshot of it all was a resolution. The resolution was offered by one of the relatives of the chairman of the board and the resolution basically was this: “Members will be admitted to this church from families who own property in the county.” It was unanimous except for Fred’s vote and then he was reminded that he couldn’t vote.
Years later, Fred was a professor at Candler Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, and he and his wife Nettie took a side trip to look for that little church — he wanted his wife to see the site of his early failures! He had a hard time finding the church because Interstate 40 had been built through there, but he finally found the county road, and back nestled in the pines, still there, shining white, was the little church building he had remembered. It was just like it was, except now cars and trucks were parked everywhere, and a big sign was out front: “Barbecue. All you can eat, chicken, ribs, pork.”
Fred said, “Well, might as well go in for lunch… “ so they went inside, where he saw what others might not see. He saw those same beautiful oil lamps hanging on the wall. He saw they still had the old pump organ, only now just for decoration. The pews, which had been cut from a single poplar tree, were now lining the walls where people were waiting in line to get a table. The place was full — full of all kinds of people: “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, settlers of Mesopotamia…”
And Fred said to Nettie, “It certainly is good this is not a church now. These folks would not be welcome.” (5)
It’s been true in so many churches. It’s been the result of so many meetings. But not in Jerusalem that day. This was something essential. It was so vital that they couldn’t just split it down the middle and take some third way. They couldn’t just wait patiently for everyone to come on board. No, the nature of the gospel was at stake, you see.
So Peter says, “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
“Just look at the signs and wonders done among the Gentiles” Paul and Barnabas say.
“I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God,” James summarizes.
And then the word goes out: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials.”
They realize that if it’s not a church for Gentiles, then none of us “fit in.”
Those ‘certain individuals’ were probably upset about it — as the movement of God’s Spirit always seems to disrupt and frustrate somebody. They likely looked for someone to blame. Maybe Stephen, who went to the Temple and made the speech that started it all. Or Phillip, who baptized Samaritans and first let them in. Or Peter, who stayed with Simon the Tanner and welcomed Cornelius the Roman. Or Paul, traveling all over claiming to have had these visions, and declaring he’s an apostle to the Gentiles. Maybe Barnabas is to blame, or James is at fault.
But no, Luke is so completely clear: God is to blame. This has always been the plan of the God whose Spirit moves out beyond the bounds of custom, expands to welcome more widely, include more graciously, assure more lovingly, embrace more extravagantly, moves even to the ends of the earth and calls all of us to follow that far.
I heard of one church who was wondering what following in this way meant at one time. It was again, during the 1960s — it was spring of 1960, to be precise. And with the growth of the Civil Rights struggle in their area, some wondered what it would mean for their church. Yes, certain individuals wondered if their white church was going to begin welcoming black worshippers and black members.
They had a meeting, and some stood up and said, “Of course everyone can become a member here, regardless of race. How could we do any less than Jesus?” But some hesitated. They understood the point, but people have different opinions. Was the church ready? Yes, some “feared it would divide the congregation.”
And I’ve heard of that church, because that was our church. That’s what some of our meeting minutes say in February 1960. And through the power of the Spirit and the work of Christ’s followers, something called us to who we are, who God is calling us to be, and this church ultimately said in that moment, “We’ll place no burden but the essentials.”
That’s the movement of the Spirit. And it’s not done. It moves in us still. It still calls us forward, and outward, and further into the bold and inclusive and welcoming love of the one who reached far enough for all of us. So let us step away from the crowd and be reminded of what is essential. Let us look in the face of the one who helps us remember who we are.
- Story shared by Rev. Brian Erickson about a pastoral mentor.
- Story shared by Rev. Davis Chappell, “A Good Church Fight.”
- As imagined by Fred Craddock, “Can I also be included?”
- “Americans in Paris,” This American Life Ep. 165 (July 28, 2000).
- Craddock Stories, pp. 28-29.