Our guest preacher is Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana, an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Rev. McKibben Dana is a writer, free-range pastor, speaker, and coach living in Virginia.
It’s a gift and a real honor to be able to preach for you today… When Thomas asked me to preach, he said Doing a series on the book of Acts, “Church Get Your Acts Together.” Clever title, sounding great so far. “This will be for Mother’s Day, but don’t worry, you can record ahead of time.” Sounds good. Then he said, “And here’s the text: it’s the one where the early church is arguing over circumcision.” Yikes. Happy guest preaching!
But of course, the text is about something much broader than that. The early church, in its first generation as a movement and a way of life, is having to reckon with some very fundamental questions. Jesus was a Jew, as were many of his closest followers. As best we can tell, his life followed the pattern and practice of other Jews at the time. Yet Jesus also had a ministry that extended to the Gentiles, to those who did not claim that Jewish identity. What happens to those folks? Do they adopt the practices of Judaism as a condition for joining the Jesus movement? Do they submit to the law of Moses, and the customs of the Hebrew people, as one faction believed they should? Or are those customs no longer necessary, or at least, not essential for those who call themselves Christians? Today’s text centers around the so-called Jerusalem Council, convened to debate and decide this fundamental question. Think of it as the General Conference of the day.
To our modern ears, this debate we see in Acts may seem like a very quaint conversation. I’d venture to guess that the leadership board of your congregation doesn’t have a lot of debates about how much of the Jewish law you all should follow. However, at the heart of the debate we see in the book of Acts is something that very much animates the church of today, or it should. And that’s a question of identity: Who are we? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What does it look like to walk in the way of Christ? What are the patterns and practices we follow? How do we make our faith visible to the rest of the world?
In addition to being a guest preacher and writer, I’m also a ministry coach, working with pastors, ministry teams and other church leaders, and I can tell you that congregations everywhere are having a version of this “who are we” conversation. As we move out of covidtide and into a post-pandemic reality, what does it mean to be the body of Christ gathered? What does regular church attendance look like in a time when some will be able to gather in person, others may wait until it’s even safer, and still others have gotten pretty used to dialing into an online service while they putter around their kitchen in their pajama pants? How does a congregation minister to visitors in the virtual worship space? I have a client whose church has had a very regular visitor to their Zoom worship services, who lives in Brazil. What is the congregation’s responsibility to this person, and what is hers to them?
I know that many congregations, yours included, have been engaged in hard and important conversations around systemic racism; some of these conversations were prompted by events of the last year, while others have been going on for much longer. Are these merely a side conversation? One issue among many? Or is dismantling the forces of oppression and racism the fundamental work of our time, if we are to follow the One who came to set captives free? If we affirm, with Paul, that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, male nor female, that we are all one in Christ, is that conviction merely a spiritual reality that will take place in the sweet by and by, or does that conviction demand that we topple systems and structures that subjugate others? And are we willing to do that?
Perhaps this biblical story—this argument over the basic claims of the gospel—is more relevant to our time than we might have thought.
And conversations like this are going to lead to some disagreement, if not outright conflict.
Conflict is inevitable in any community. In fact, you actually want a certain amount of conflict; it’s a sign that people are being authentic, that they aren’t just going along to get along, that they have a stake in what’s happening. In a church community, we might say that conflict is a sign that the Spirit is nudging us along, we are growing, we are being real with one another and we care enough about one another to hold each other accountable to the claims of the gospel.
But that doesn’t make it any easier. I struggle with it as much as anyone, and I will tell you that most church leaders do. Few of us are trained in healthy ways to deal with conflict. Perhaps you remember the humor website from a number of years ago, called the Bureau of Communications. You can Google it after the service. The Bureau of Communications features a series of forms that look like tax forms. There’s one for delivering bad news, one for asking forgiveness, and one that’s pertinent for today’s topic, called Airing of Grievance. Imagine an official-looking form with fill in the blanks for you to customize with your own message:
“To [blank] from [blank]. I am sending you this message to alert you that I find your behavior of [offensive action] to be particularly [sensation]. I wish to draw this to your attention because you may not be aware of the effect this has on others. Specifically, I feel [feeling] whenever you [details of offense.] As an alternative, I would suggest that instead you could [preferable activity].” And the form letter goes on from there, with a place for you to bubble in how often the behavior occurs, and check whether you would like a response.
It’s intentionally absurd, but there’s something very clean and clinical about it. If only we could fill out a form, send it off, and be assured of a tidy solution. But communities are messy, and the Jerusalem Council is no different.
Today’s text ends with a bit of middle ground: Gentiles who enter into the way of Jesus will not be expected to observe the entire Jewish law, but they are bound to part of it: a few bits relating to idols and avoiding certain kinds of meat. But we know that even these restrictions don’t persist. In fact, only a few verses later, they repeat these again, but they’re already softening the language: “If you keep these provisions, [then] you will do well. Farewell.” It sounds more like spiritual wisdom than a requirement. And we know that generations later, Paul’s side of the debate prevails. We are saved by grace through faith, full stop.
…Perhaps what the council decides in these 21 verses is less important than how they decide. Valarie Kaur is a contemporary Sikh activist who’s done a lot of work around hate crimes and other issues of the day. In her book See No Stranger, she repeats this refrain:
“The way we make change is as important as the change we make.”
I remember years ago, attending a conference and hearing a speaker who seemed to enjoy being provocative and ruffling feathers. He said, the church has got to figure out how to have hard conversations well. Because one of these days, we’re going to have a conversation about whether cyborgs are fully human and can thus be baptized. Futuristic predictions aside, there are so few places in our culture where we disagree well. If we can’t do it in the church, where we affirm everyone as created in the image of God, what hope do we have anywhere else?
“The way we make change is as important as the change we make.”
Thankfully, we have some clues in Acts 15 as to how that might look. Notice a few details with me.
First, the people engaged in this debate are speaking from their own conviction. They say what they see and how the Spirit is convicting them. These aren’t partisan talking points, these aren’t cable news chyrons, these are testimonies of how they see God working in the world. They speak from the heart.
Second, the whole assembly keeps silence. And I’m not talking about an oppressive silence, in which we muzzle the voices of the marginalized. I’m talking about a thoughtful silence, a listening silence, a prayerful silence. A silence where we aren’t just waiting for the person to stop talking so we can jump in with our pre-rehearsed response. This is a silence that sinks in.
Third, we see patience in this text. I’ve already shared that the rulings of the council change a bit even in this one chapter. But commentators believe that Luke is compressing a conversation. This stuff is not settled in a single sitting. The discussion takes place, perhaps over decades. Similarly, we live in the paradox of confronting injustice with a sense of urgency, but with the trust that we don’t need to have all the answers today, that God is working God’s purposes out. As Reinhold Niebuhr says, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”
And finally, there is joy in this text. We’re told that Paul and Barnabas make their way to the council by way of Phoenicia and Samaria. They convert people to Christ along the way, and this brought “great joy” to all the believers. In polarized times, with the weight of a pandemic on our shoulders, it’s hard sometimes to access joy. But it’s essential. I do not think that a joyless gospel can be the gospel. If it’s not good news for everyone, it’s not good news.
As a Presbyterian pastor, I’ve been part of countless debates about the role of LGBTQ persons in church leadership. I know this is very much a live issue in the United Methodist fellowship. I can tell you, coming from a denomination where these issues are mostly settled, I remember when I knew that the cause of inclusion and welcome would prevail. Yes, the biblical arguments were important and I believe, pointed in that direction. But I knew the matter was settled when I saw where the joy was. One side of the debate was angry, was pinched, was constricted and colorless. And the other was radiant, was expansive, was attractive in bidding all to come, to enter into the joy of being loved and claimed by God, just as they were.
I love the story of Archbishop Tutu, during the gloomiest days of apartheid, when the government tried to shut down opposition by canceling a political rally. Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead.
That day, St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa was filled with worshippers. Outside the cathedral hundreds of police gathered, a show of force intended to intimidate. As Tutu was preaching, they entered the Cathedral, armed, and lined the walls. They took out notebooks and recorded Tutu’s words.
But Tutu, that powerful witness for justice, who radiates joy out of every cell in his body, would not be intimidated. He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. At one extraordinary point he addressed the police directly: You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and you have already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side! With that, the congregation erupted in dance and song.
Washington Street United Methodist Church, we worship an amazing God. A God who calls us to great and difficult things, and hard and important conversations, but who promises to transform the brokenness of this world, through Christ, and within us, and through us, and when necessary in spite of us. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, amen.