Holding On, Letting Go | Sonia Home
The council at Jerusalem
1 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3 The church sent them on their way, and as they travelled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.’
6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles should hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.’
12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up. ‘Brothers,’ he said, ‘listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
16 ‘“After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things” –
18 things known from long ago.
19 ‘It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.’
The council’s letter to Gentile believers
22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorisation and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul – 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
30 So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.
Holding on – letting go.
When the council of the church in Jerusalem met to consider Paul’s report, they had to decide whether or not male circumcision would continue to be an essential part of their faith. It was a crucial part of the Jewish religion – something they had never needed to doubt or question. It must have been terribly hard to let go of a lifelong practice, but if they didn’t, they would be refusing to accept the wonderful work that God was doing among the Gentiles. They bit the bullet, and graciously recommended a shortlist of essentials, leaving out circumcision. This had been helpful to them, but it was not essential for the new Christians.
The shortlist contained a warning against sexual immorality, and against eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. The warnings were essential to guard and protect these new Christians. Sexual immorality had tripped leaders up continually and harmed communities. Idolatry – worshipping something else instead of God – had always to be guarded against.
Today sexual immorality is still taken seriously by the church, and positive support is given to established relationships, for example in ‘The Marriage course’. As for idolatry, this occurs in subtle ways – for example, what do we sacrifice to the idol of Money? It will be different things for different people, but it is worth examining what we might need to abstain from if we are to knock Money off its pedestal in our lives.
The big picture for those leaders in Jerusalem was to see the new thing that God was doing, and in response to let go of what held them tied to the old ways, and move on. What does that look like for us today?
B&A Church has gone through many changes in the past decade. For some this has been very challenging as long-established traditions and habits of worship have needed to be re-evaluated. Some traditions have been seen to be essential, for example the need for a disciplined prayer life, while others have no longer been helpful for the church as it has grown. It can be quite painful moving outside one’s comfort zone, but also enriching. And today’s story is encouraging, because it makes clear that this letting go of traditions has happened since the earliest days and helped the church to grow. Basically, if something is helpful for others, if it is a blessing and part of what God is doing, then we need to follow the example of those early church leaders: let go and move on.
For new Christians there is a different challenge: to look at other traditions and see what can be helpful for growing and deepening their faith. 2018 is the new context, but much wisdom can be learnt from the past and from those who have been worshipping in different ways for many years. It is always good to learn from mistakes others have made, rather than make them again ourselves.
God is generous to everyone, and challenges us to be generous too. He is everlasting and unchanging, but also recreating and renewing. As God reveals new ways to perceive him, he calls the Church to recreate and renew itself. The challenge is for all of us as we find ways to help each other worship God and grow in faith.