Lesson 4: A Bump in the Road

Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.(Acts 15: 1,2)

A problem arises on the road from Jewish sect to Catholic Church.  If the main act of worship is a shared meal, how are those who practice kosher to worship with those who don’t? What is the Church to do with these Gentiles? Should they be required to become Jews before they could become Christians? Should they be expected to observe all the Jewish traditions or just some of them, and if just some, which? This was the situation when Christians gathered for the first church synod.

When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.’ (Acts 9: 4, 5) So much for any idealized picture of the early Church.

Paul and Barnabus represent the position of the Gentiles, James the Jewish Christian group, and Peter comes off as the mediator. He steps up first to report the Holy Spirit has given his approval to the Gentiles, because they spoke in tongues just as the original group did at Pentecost and second that he believes everyone, Jews and Gentiles, “shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus”.

He is endorsing Paul’s version of the Gospel, agreeing that salvation is a gift from God rather than an achievement resulting from observing Jewish tradition.

James, who clearly has the authority, makes the decision. These newcomers need not observe all of the Jewish law. Not wanting to make it too difficult from them, he only asks that they abstain from food polluted by idols, meat from strangled animals, and sexual immorality, That means they obey all the moral law, but only a part of the ritual law. And significantly that is the part about kosher diet. Obviously, this is important if all Christians are to share the Communion meal. .

How come none of us were ever asked to observe these three requirements? Perhaps they were not so crucial after the fall of Jerusalem. But perhaps even more, because there is no evidence that Paul ever told his Gentile churches about them. He only asks them to collect an offering for the saints in Jerusalem. In fact, in Galatians he says that is what he was instructed to do. “… when James and Cephas (Peter) and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.” (Galatians 2: 9. 10)

We’ll read about this offering for the saints throughout his letters. (Romans 15: 25-31, I Corinthians 16: 1-4, II Corinthians 8 and 9)  Acts 11: 27-30 claims the collection began when famine hit Jerusalem. Perhaps Paul saw this as a chance to replace what were unreasonable requirements with something more achievable and beneficial for that matter.

Lest you think this is a wimpy effort to avoid obligations, remember people throughout history have substituted financial gifts for impractical duties. Often this has enabled a society to get beyond worn out laws. In a sense, that is what happened with Jesus’ command to give your life for the Gospel. Not everyone could literally sacrifice her or his life in martyrdom, but all could give a most valuable part of their lives, their possessions. It is only wimpy when no sacrifice is involved.

Often when we read Acts 15 we miss what a terrific problem was being confronted. It seems to be pretty settled as we read on. Remember Acts might have been written 40 years after the events. A lot has transpired; much has cooled off. We get a better idea of what a problem this was as we read Paul’s letters, written back when things were still hot. The Jewish groups in Jerusalem are constantly sending people out to check on him, to rebuke, discipline, and challenge him. He is constantly defending his position that we are justified by grace through faith, not observance of the Jewish law. At the same time, some scholars believe there is evidence that he himself love his entire life as a practicing Jew. He simply did not demand this of others.

Of course, we still have the problem. Think of all the rationalizing we do in excluding people from the Communion Meal. We invent all sorts of reasons why this group or that type of people should not be welcomed. We set up specialized requirements that must be met before WE let people share THE LORD”S SUPPER with us. We even use excommunication as a weapon against those who disagree with us. Throughout my long ministry people were always coming to me in the pain that went from being denied a place at the table. In fact, I used to quip that more than a third of my parish were former Roman Catholics who were refused the Sacrament after their divorces. The problems Paul confronted are still the ones with which we struggle.

If we truly are to represent Jesus in this world, being the Body of Christ who offers the Body of Christ, this becomes a significant matter. If we are truly “Little Christs”, then our hospitality is a witness to His hospitality. Because of that by the end of my “paid” ministry, I came to believe any kind of exclusion from the Lord’s Table of any person is hard to justify. I am not sure I am right. What do you think? Can anyone come up with a good reason to deny Communion?

You must have noticed that our group includes some “wise guys” in every sense of the words. I can assure you those I know are also very compassionate. That serves as an invitation to join the discussion. I still tell the High School Reading Group there are no “dumb people” and no “dumb ideas”, at least not when they are part of a conversation.

I hope some of you will respond to royler’s question about how we decide to believe Paul rather than John Smith or Mohammed. As usual, royler gets to the heart of the matter. I’d say the same of Myron when he asks about statements such as “destined to eternal life”. As we read further into Paul’s understanding of faith, we constantly have to ask if he means it all depends on whom God chooses.

Keep building on the few thoughts I throw out. I think it is especially important for our women to comment on my statements about hospitality. They seem to do a better job than men most of the time.

Read Acts 20-28 for Friday’s lesson. It is a long history of Paul’s trip to Rome. You won’t find many deep thoughts. In fact, you should definitely read this one quickly, so you can discern what the writer is saying. Observe it is all about Paul now. Ask why it is so important for him to get to Rome.

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