“Discernment: Figuring Out What God Is Doing”

~ Acts 11:1-18/Acts 15 ~


Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the “Others” had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of Jesus, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Jesus, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the “Others” the repentance that leads to life.”

This reading from the Acts of the Apostles is one of the lectionary texts for today. I believe it has an important message for us to hear. Interestingly, it is not theology or doctrine. It is narrative. It tells a story of how things went down in the church in the early years. It’s a story about how the church decided to go a completely different direction then they could have ever imagined previous. This is a story about discernment or how they figured out what God was up to. I believe it is a story for us today.

First, a caveat: The common designations, Jew and Gentile, are problematic. The designation “Jew” in this passage really means “Judean,” people who lived in Judea and Jerusalem. And were adherents of Judaism as practiced in the Temple. The Jerusalem followers of Jesus were of this Judean demographic. To the Judeans, “Gentile” meant everyone else, including those Israelites who lived in the diaspora and, important to our story today, did not include circumcision in the practice of their faith. So in our reading today we substitute the normal translation, “Gentile,” with “Others.” And whenever I refer to “Jews” it means explicitly the Jerusalem church.

Here we have a strange vision given to Peter, the Holy Spirit telling Peter audibly to go to a certain man’s house, and then the Holy Spirit “falls” on everyone in the house, whatever that means! But if we can look past the dramatic Holy Spirit fireworks for a moment, let’s see what is actually happening here. In doing so I am greatly indebted to Luke Timothy Johnson’s insightful work Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making in the Church.

Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke, also wrote the Book of Acts. They are one continuous story. From the very beginning of the Gospel all the way to the end of Acts, Luke makes it very clear that God, from the beginning, intended the inclusion of the “Others” into the church. As the reader, we can see that from the beginning God willed the salvation of the whole world. It appears to be inevitable.

However, Peter, Paul, Barnabas, the other disciples, and the whole church don’t know that. Indeed, Luke goes to great pains to show the human process of how the church came to recognize God’s intention. Luke lays out the plot very carefully. He provides painstaking attention every stage of the action. Luke wants us to see how agonizingly difficult it was for the early church to come to the place where “Others” could be accepted as full and equal members of the church of Jesus Christ.

This account from Acts 11 comes part way into the story. The story actually begins in chapter 10. As our text for today notes, Peter responds to a rather accusatory question: “Why did you eat with uncircumcised men?” Peter  recounts the events of his encounter with Cornelius at Caesarea that occurred in chapter 10. Peter had a profound experience. He came to realize that God’s Holy Spirit really did visit this man, Cornelius, an uncircumcised “Other,” in the very same way Peter himself had experienced the Holy Spirit. So, Peter baptizes Cornelius and his household.

Peter re-tells the story to his accusers in order to re-emphasize the experience of Peter and Cornelius. In the telling, Peter has a spiritual insight. He recalls the words of Jesus: “John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” I’m sure he never thought he’d be applying these words of Jesus to this situation. And so Peter’s conclusion is that “if then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” Notice: Peter’s insight is not based on any scriptural precedent or doctrine. Nor is it based on his authority as an apostle. He doesn’t argue or debate. He merely tells his story, “this is what happened to me.” This and this alone, moves the others to accept and ratify his decision: “Then God has given even to the “Others” the repentance that leads to life.”

Over the next three chapters Luke demonstrates that this was not just a singular event. Indeed, through the preaching of Paul and Barnabas “Others” are becoming Christians in many places. As a result, controversy ensues. We encountered that opposition first in our first reading with the “party of the circumcision” criticizing Peter for eating with “Others”. We encounter it again in Antioch where Paul and Barnabas are giving a report to the church on their mission endeavors. This, at the beginning of chapter 15, where we read:

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. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the “Others,” and brought great joy to all the believers. 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.”

Evidently, it’s one thing to say that “Others” have received the word of God. It is quite another, according to the serious Jewish believers in the church, to have “communion” with the “Others,” to have fellowship with them, to eat with them. They can’t be members of God’s people in the fullest sense. No, they need to first be circumcised. And their argument was on solid precedent. Their entire understanding of scripture, of holiness, indeed, their entire understanding of God, demanded complete separation from the “Others.” The sign of that separation was circumcision. And nothing in their experience as Jewish followers of Jesus to this point had changed that understanding.

I can’t overstate how significant this issue was to those early Jewish Christians. Granting that “Others” had been given the Holy Spirit (and note that the authenticity of that isn’t challenged), could they be accepted into the church just as they were? Or must they first “become Jewish” by being circumcised and obey all the ritual demands of the Law of Moses? Luke Timothy Johnson asserts how big this issue was and how high the stakes: “The Others were ‘by nature’ unclean, and were ‘by practice’ polluted by idolatry.” This was a huge block for them.

So when Paul and Barnabas encounter this opposition Luke tells us they “had no small dissension and debate with them.” And they decided they should send delegates to the mother church in Jerusalem to sort this all out. And so the first church counsel, what one has called “the first Presbyterian General Assembly,” convenes in chapter 15.

Again, even though Luke presents the issue from God’s point of view to be a slam dunk, he writes in great detail the arduous human deliberations of those early Christians as they gather in Jerusalem to discern God’s intent. There are two basic sides of the argument. Paul and Barnabas recount their experience of God’s work amongst the “Others” and, not insignificantly, with them. The traditionalists, identified as the party of the Pharisees, argue on the basis of theological principle and precedent. Their claim of “it is necessary” rests on centuries of understandings about God. Their position is quite powerful and respectable. Circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses were indeed the accepted ways to be accepted by God. The weight of evidence would seem to be on their side.

The only way that such a powerful argument could be countered was the conviction that God was indeed doing a new thing in their midst. And so they deliberated, with much debate and confrontation and emotion. It was not easy. Finally, James, the leader of the Jerusalem church concludes: “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the ‘Others’, to take from among them a people in Jesus’ name.” What was the evidence? Correct theology? No! Adherence to correct polity? No! The evidence was their personal experience. The “Others” had experienced God and that could not be denied. In the end that was the compelling proof that the whole church should change directions: These people have experienced the Holy Spirit just like we did. Or, to put it another way, these people love Jesus just like we do!

With all this, James concludes: “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those “Others” 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.” Thus, in the end, a compromise: The “Others” could be accepted as they are but we would like them to observe a few simple rules. A letter was drafted and Paul and others were commissioned to take the message to the church in the diaspora and the rest is history.

I believe this process of discernment that the early church went through is still applicable today. In recent years our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), went through a similar process of discernment. The issue was whether LGBTQ persons could be fully accepted into the life of the church, including ministry leadership – deacons, elders, and ministers. Due to unfortunate language inserted into the constitution back in the 90’s, this was a hotly divisive issue for 15 years plus. Many of us here lived through that quagmire of debate. For many, it was time to change our ways and embrace that full participation. For others, armed with centuries of theology and practice, it would go against what they considered to be the clear teaching of scripture and spell the end of the denomination. Finally, the denomination came around to fully include our LGBTQ friends. Yes, there were vigorous theological and biblical debates. But in the end the most compelling argument was that they loved Jesus. The discernment process hinged on this idea: In the lives of people, in their experience with God, we see the work of God.

Yes, the issue was very complex, controversial and divisive. Working through all that was an important part of the discernment process. But a huge part of the process were the actual experiences of faithful gay and lesbian Christians. I am talking about people who live faithful, to use bible language, “Holy Spirit lives.” Jack Rogers, former General Assembly Moderator, SFTS professor and one who had been on the other side of this issue, said this: “These real people evidence a commitment to Jesus Christ, in spite of continuing persecution from society and the misguided policies of many Christian churches. The Christians who are homosexual whom I know show a profound love for Jesus and a deep commitment to marriage and the care of children.” In the end, our church discerned that, despite going against all precedent, hundreds of years of precedent, God was doing a new thing in the church today.

It doesn’t end there. God is still doing new things. We just need to practice the art of discernment to figure out what God is doing. I think we do that by listening to each other. Or, as one of my favorite religious blogosphere writers, Morgan Guyton, says, we need to “democratize theology.” He suggests that Christian community is about giving space to each individual to think for themselves, theologically. And that there is not an expectation that everyone believed the same thing. We can all have an imperfect grasp of what faith is all about. Using the bible as a resource for faith development, we can understand that God speaks to each of us individually. God reveals Godself generously to those who are earnest seekers. In a democratized community of faith, as Morgan says, “each person’s voice is understood to be indispensable and important to the community’s wisdom as a whole.” This “democratizing” factor is an important contribution to how a community discerns how God is working in its midst.

In that vein, this summer, as in summer of the past, we embrace “Summer Sharing.” In July and August you are invited to stand here and share your faith journey. This year, however, we are calling it “The Gospel According to…” It is an opportunity to hear your voice, to hear how God works in your life. And in that we, as a community, can discern, even more fully, what God is doing in our midst. In the coming days, there will be opportunities to sign up for a given Sunday. We want to hear your voice. In doing so, we will, as our next hymn says, “venture” and “soar through open skies” to “find a pathway through life’s maze” and be, more fully, the church of Jesus Christ in this time and place. Amen.

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