"Outside In" Jamie Maciejewski
Acts 15:1-12, 22-31
The Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15 is a window onto an amazing period of time in the growth of the early church.
Jesus' followers have been active for a number of years taking the gospel to people in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. These are people we might call “insiders” to faith. They worship Yahweh. Their scriptures are what Christians call the Old Testament. They embrace the Ten Commandments and other laws laid out by Moses. As I said, they were mostly insiders.
But beginning in Acts 10, God thrusts the church into the totally new, unknown and messy process of taking the gospel “to the ends of the earth,” in other words, to “outsiders.” Gentiles didn't know or worship Yahweh, had never heard of the Ten Commandments, and didn't know anything about the Bible. This new stage of Jesus' mission raises issues that threaten to divide the church.
This morning I'd like us to explore an important dynamic that plays out in our reading: When we are faced with the question of who is a “real” Christian, of who is outside and who is in, we need to pay close attention to what God is doing. As we shall discover, what marks a person as acceptable to God and a member of the community of faith is not what their life looks like from the outside. It is what their heart looks like to God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The topic of Acts 15 is, at first read, circumcision. That's not a particularly divisive topic today. Around three out of four baby boys born in the US is circumcised shortly after birth. So we need to dig a bit to learn what it was that made circumcision such a divisive issue in Paul's time.
For centuries, circumcision had marked males as members of the Jewish community of believers. In Genesis 17, God made a covenant with Abraham, promising to be God to Abraham and to his descendants. Abraham's part?
“This is the covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Each male among you must be circumcised...This applies not only to members of your family but also to the servants born in your household and the foreign-born servants whom you have purchased... Any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant." (Gen. 17:10,12b,14)
Circumcision wasn't optional, even for foreigners, at least not if you wanted to be part of the covenant family, that is, the community of believers. This has been true for the believing community for nearly two thousand years.
So here we are at the Jerusalem Council, listening in on the debate. How should outsiders be included in the community of faith? “But then some of the believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and insisted, 'The Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to follow the law of Moses.'" (Acts 15:5)
You may remember Pharisees from some of the many run-ins Jesus had with them. They were the ones who insisted on strictly following the tiniest details of the law, even to the neglect of much
more important things like mercy and justice. Because Jesus was so hard on them, I think it's way too easy for us to dismiss Pharisees outright, but it might help if we try to understand things from their perspective. What made them such pills?
Pharisees were the ultimate insiders. They were passionate about following God's law as given by Moses – they knew the law backward and forward, had memorized whole sheets of it, and worked hard to follow all that it said. Pharisees also understood that much of Israel's past hardship was due to God's judgment for failing to follow God wholeheartedly. In fact their commitment to following the law of Moses so carefully originally sprang out of their desire to help keep Israel on the right track as God's people.
In contrast, Gentiles were the ultimate outsiders. The Jewish scriptures (again, our Old Testament) teach that Gentiles couldn't join the community of believers for worship unless they were circumcised. They were considered unclean, and the OT teaches that God is so holy he can't even look at uncleanness, let alone live around it. Those Gentiles who lived among the Israelites were looked down on and forced into menial and even slave labor. Gentiles who lived outside Israel were mostly bullies and enemies, and had almost wiped out God's people multiple times.
All this baggage – being uncircumcised, unclean, slaves and enemies – made it understandably difficult for the new church, deeply rooted in Judaism, to figure out how to incorporate these brand new Gentile believers.
The believing Pharisees say, essentially, 'This Gentile conversion-stuff may all be well and good, but it just doesn't square with Scripture. God's already made it clear that, to be part of the believing community, you need to be circumcised and you need to follow the law of Moses.' It's a pretty powerful argument. We can see why this issue was so divisive and why it prompted so much debate.
The church was faced with the question of who is a “real” Christian, of who is outside and who is in. As the debate continues, Peter steps up to speak and as he does, he draws people's attention to what God is doing:
"Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe. God knows people's hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith.” (15:7-9)
Who is the main actor in all of this? God chose me to preach. God knows people's hearts. God accepts Gentiles. God gives the Holy Spirit. God made no distinction. God cleansed their hearts.
Whose idea was it to go to the Gentiles? God's. How did Peter decide to go share the good news with the Gentile centurion Cornelius and his family and friends? God sent him. How did Paul and Barnabas end up on a missionary trip to the Gentile region of Galatia that Pastor Don talked about two weeks ago? The Holy Spirit set them apart for the work. Who converted the Gentiles on that missionary trip? Did Paul? No. God did.
The answer to every one of those questions is exactly the same. God.
The mission to bring outsiders into the community of believers is God's mission.
Here is what the Apostle Peter is saying, and it is revolutionary. What marks a person as acceptable to God and a member of the community of faith is not what their life looks like from the outside. It is what their heart looks like to God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The reason this circumcision issue is such a big one to Paul and Barnabas and Peter is that salvation must always be seen as God's work. If the church begins segregating classes of Christians as more holy and less holy, then the church is fighting God. God is the one who sees hearts and shows that he accepts a person by giving the Holy Spirit. God is the one who brings outsiders in.
Let's briefly touch on the question, How can I know God has given me the Holy Spirit? Sometimes there are miraculous signs and wonders. But the single most reliable evidence that God has given the Holy Spirit is faith. The scriptures say that no one can believe in Jesus unless the Holy Spirit is in them. Here's what Paul wrote: “So I want you to know that no one speaking by the Spirit of God will curse Jesus, and no one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:3) There are other evidences, but this is the primary one. If a person acknowledges that Jesus is Lord, the Holy Spirit is present!
What does the Jerusalem Council have to do with us today? What can we learn?
Number one: It isn't a very long walk to go from devout faith to the Pharisee club. Friends, we need to guard against the temptation to see ourselves as a special class of Christians, as insiders. I tell you this from my own experience. When we find ourselves thinking of others as not quite a real Christian or as a bit lesser of a Christian, we are getting into dangerous territory. Let's take Peter's warning seriously, and not test God by adding anything to the gospel. God is the one who knows people's hearts.
Number two: Never let anyone tell you that you are a second-class Christian, that you are somehow less holy or acceptable than any other Christian. There are no second-class Christians. When God brings you into his family, you are every bit as much an insider as the person who has been a Christ-follower their whole life. God makes a person holy. God knows your heart and gives the Holy Spirit as a testimony that he has accepted you.
As Peter said, “We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus." (15:11)
When we are faced with the question of who is a “real” Christian, of who is outside and who is in, we need to pay close attention to what God is doing. What marks a person as accepted by God and a member of the community of faith is not what their life looks like from the outside. It is what their heart looks like to God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.