Friday, September 9, 2016

9 September 2016
“The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name…Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every Sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts 15:12-15; 19-21 NRSV).

            Good morning, welcome. Our passage today is from the Daily Lectionary as published by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. This lectionary is available on the PCUSA web site and through their free Daily Prayer App. The lectionary follows a two-year cycle that reads through most of the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice. I think following the lectionary will better accomplish my original intent here-to offer some practical ways to demonstrate Christ’s presence in our day to day lives by reaching out to others. The lectionary includes three readings; the app also has Psalms and prayers. The readings are listed below; the app itself is a great devotional, with different prayers for different times of the day.
            Today we look at Acts 15:12-21. Paul and Barnabus have just completed Paul’s first missionary journey; in Pisidian Antioch “…they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles” (14:27). However, their success, created a whole new problem-how can Jews and Gentiles fellowship with one another, given the differences in lifestyles and traditions. Acts 15:1 gets right to the heart of the issue: “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.”. Actually, there is more than just fellowship at stake here. Paul has been teaching grace alone is sufficient; now it appears some believing Jews seem intent upon keeping the Law as well. This is about more than just keeping religious traditions. The issue involves deeply held beliefs handed down over thousands of years; change will not come easily.
            Paul and Barnabas returned to Jerusalem, reporting everything God had been doing among the Gentiles; some believing Pharisees pressed for the necessity of circumcision and keeping the Law. They were saying, in order to become Christian, Gentiles must first become Jews. After much debate Peter defends Paul, pointing out  in 15:8-10 the Gentiles have received the Holy Spirit just as the Jews had-“God… testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” Acts 15:8-10.
            We pick up the story in vs.12, where James, quoting Amos and Isaiah, proposes a compromise-Gentiles do not need to be circumcised. They do need to avoid idolatry and unchastity, and avoid eating meat that had been strangled or still had blood. Two moral rules, and two ritual rules-two diverse cultures can now come together in fellowship. James finishes by saying “For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every Sabbath in the synagogues” (15:21). He is saying there are still many believing Jews who observe the ceremonial law and offending them will accomplish nothing. James does not say it but my thinking is these Jews, who see Jesus as the fulfillment of their rituals and observances, would have much to teach new Gentile believers. Once they get past their differences and listen to each other.
            Here is a lesson we desperately need to see today. Not just that there is a need for compromise, or that compromise is ok, but when we actually listen to one another there is opportunity for real learning.  As I said the other day, all too often we define ourselves by what we are against. When we do this, the wall goes up, the line is drawn; those who believe what we oppose defend their position, we defend our position, and both sides become stagnant, pools of dead water with no source or outlet. Eventually they evaporate, leaving nothing but dried up earth.
            It seems today many believe any compromise is a sign of weakness. Entire political systems and worldviews-and churches-are built around this belief. Their primary focus-their only focus-in on doctrinal purity. Strict adherence to doctrine becomes more important than actually helping those in need. In the case of churches, these ‘remnant churches’ believe they are the guardians of correct doctrine; they are usually small and proud to be small. In focusing on doctrine (which is important, I am not saying it is not) they miss what God is doing in the world around them.
            In our passage James is cautioning against deliberately giving offense, while at the same time allowing various faith communities-faith traditions, if you well-to keep their identities. He is showing us God will work according to His will, not according to our expectations. And in fact, this idea of paradigm shift where God is concerned runs through all three readings today. We see it in Job’s conversations with his friends. We see it in the mourners who failed to see Lazarus’ death was for God’s glory. We also see it in Jesus Himself, who, being fully human, is moved by anger and sorrow even though, being fully God, He is about to demonstrate the Father’s awesome power, the point where full humanity and full deity will come together in a perfect demonstration of what Jesus came to do-give life.
            These stories are made-for-meditation moments. Meditating on Acts, we feel the tension; hear the impassioned pleas and marvel at the wisdom of one who knows both the Scriptures and the God of whom they speak. In the Gospel story we allow ourselves to see how Jesus fully identifies with our humanity and allow ourselves to be blown away by the remarkable demonstration of divine power. Now, obviously we cannot go around bring mortal enemies together or raising people from the dead. But we can do something else. We can encourage people to listen to one another, to search out common ground (by the way, this is much easier to do when only a few people are involved). We can learn to identify-and identify with-with those less fortunate. We can raise them up in some small-or not so small-way, restoring their dignity and along with it the image of God lying beneath the surface, just waiting to be released.
            These are themes we have seen before and will see again. This is the mandate given us as citizens of the Kingdom. Search for common ground when we disagree. Give no offence, as much as it depends on you. Do not disregard those less fortunate. In fact, the cruelest thing of all may very well be looking past someone as if they do not exist, refusing even to acknowledge their presence.  Spend some time thinking about how Jesus loved Lazarus and remember He loves us the same way. Because He was fully human He knows what it’s like. Because He is fully God He can make it better. Because we are His, we can make it better too.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all this day. JRG
Today’s readings
Job 29:1; 31:24-40
Acts 15:12-21

John 11:30-44

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