Last night concluded our study of the Acts of the Apostles. It was a great five weeks. I learned a lot and many here at St. Alban’s grew in their faith through this study.
We finished with a reading of Acts 15. This chapter describes the first council of the Church. Here’s the setting: some of the early followers of Jesus believed that one had to take on the fullness of the Jewish law in order to follow Jesus. This made a good deal of sense: Jesus was Jewish, Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish “one jot or tittle of the law,” and the early followers still gathered in the synagogues. Other followers of Jesus believed that you did not have to take on the Jewish law in order to follow Jesus. Really, most of this boils down to circumcision. Uncircumcised Gentiles (non-Jews) were understandably worried about being circumcised, and for many this was a barrier to following Jesus.
But the Holy Spirit was bearing good fruit among the Gentiles. Cornelius, a Roman soldier, along with his family, received the gifts of the Holy Spirit and was baptized by Peter in Acts 10. And all throughout the Mediterranean Basin, Paul’s preaching and missionary activities were reaping a new harvest for God among the Gentiles.
So what was the Church to do? The two parties had reached an impasse. How were they going to make a decision? They listened to the testimony of Peter and Paul, deciding that the Spirit was indeed working among the Gentiles. James, one of the early leaders of the church says, quoting Amos 9, “…so that all other peoples may seek the Lord – even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called” (15:17).
What I find most intriguing is this model for navigating Church disputes. Notice that neither Peter, Paul, nor James say, “Because that’s what Jesus said,” or, “But we’ve always done it that way.” The Holy Spirit was doing a new thing among the believers. Those who had always been on the outside were now being called into the Church’s ministry by the Holy Spirit.
The question for us today is not so dissimilar from that of Acts 15. Who is on the outside and how is God calling them into the Church? Is the Holy Spirit doing a new thing among us? People are wont to clutch the past and say, “But this is how we’ve always done it.” But perhaps we should come to expect new things from God and say, “Ahh, yes. This is how the Holy Spirit has always done it.”