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Sunday, June 25, 2017
Scripture: Ephesians 2:11-22 & Acts 15:1-21
Sermon: Par for the Course
Rev. Jill VanderWal

A Baptist pastor decides to play hooky on a Sunday to play golf. He’s playing the best golf of his life when an angel asks God, “Are you going to let this slide? Do something!” So God says, “Watch this.” The pastor hits a 425-yard tee shot and the ball goes in the hole for a double eagle. The angel asks, “Why did you reward him?” God says, “Who is he gonna tell?”

The Setting:  Early Church.  The disciples ask “…well, what do we do now?” It’s a life-long question, and one that was constant for the early church. Jesus ascends, the Holy Spirit comes with fire and wind, there is preaching and there are baptisms and healings, and new believers and the community of faith is growing to include the most unlikely. There is a new openness which we discussed last week and the limit or boundaries of openness are being stretched and tested. In our scripture today we again find the community of faith, Jews and Gentiles asking, “what do we do now?”  A great conflict and an opportunity for clarity arises. In the last segment of our “practicing faith” sermon series, we will be looking at how there is Unity in Diversity.

The Scripture: Acts 15, the Council at Jerusalem

Some individuals from Judea have been teaching “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 Paul and Barnabas had “no small disagreement” with that idea. So 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. As they travel through Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of many Gentiles, and all the believers there are thrilled. 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 to keep the law of Moses.” So the apostles and elders meet and then Peter gives this speech:

 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers,[b] you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, 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. 10 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? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Then Paul, Barnabas and finally James (the brother of Jesus) share – as Simeon has said, and this is in accord with the prophets, (from Amos)

19 Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 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.

The Christ followers of Jewish heritage are asking what the sign of conversion is. And they want to know about the very practical question of how they would be able to eat together with this new community, as Jews consider what the Gentiles eat to be unclean. Here’s the big question – will the church decide to recognize and acknowledge actions of God that go beyond its current understanding, or will it demand that God work within its categories?

There is a timeless human challenge of merging tribes, sharing space and adapting. This is life…this is our life, but also life in the church.  Most of us, if involved in a church, have encountered disputes ranging from the color of the punch for funerals all the way to the allocation of millions to renovate a bell tower. I imagine we can relate to our brothers of the early church in regard to conflicts, big and small. In this passage, I find hope in the fact that as the disciples follow Jesus, and are filled with the Holy Spirit, they have the resources to confront controversy without being destroyed by it.

Luke Timothy Johnson, in Scripture and Discernment, suggests that Acts 15 is instructive for churches even today in how we can navigate difficult, complicated, and threatening decisions:

  • Gathering (they were committed to taking the time to meet and discern together)
  • Listening (they listened to the leaders)
  • Considering (they considered their experiences)
  • Testing by Scripture
  • Sharing new revelations (dreams, visions)
  • Deciding (they make a decision and then send out a mass letter)

Each person brings their diverse perspective or story to the process. They engage in a process of corporate discernment and then find a place of unity. Peter has this vision of inclusiveness that he’s still living into as he considers the “yoke of their ancestors.”  Paul and Barnabas are a “storycorp” of sorts, collecting and sharing stories. James is decisive and with clarity makes a proposal of how to move forward.

“the basis for the decision of the council of Jerusalem was not a literal reading of the authoritative text (i.e. the Bible), but rather a discerning attention to the ways and works of a redemptive God in the present,  human experience.” This means that the early church had to “catch up to God.” Do you believe we have to catch up to what God is doing around us?

Par for the Course: What can we expect in life – conflict or opportunities for discernment?

Conflict is inevitable and even good. We love conflict in Star Wars, Harry Potter, and our favorite book. Conflict and creative tension brings life, suspense, intrigue and flavor. So why fear and hate it when we encounter it in life, work, and yes, church. Can we clarify that conflict and tension are GOOD!?

Patrick Lenconi in his book Death By Meeting, claims we are bored because we’re all supposed to agree.

“When there is trust, conflict becomes nothing more than the pursuit of truth, an attempt to find the best possible answer.” We need to learn how to have tough conversations in our church life and in all of life. We need together to set a culture where we honor each other, refuse to gossip or listen to gossip and are willing to approach those we have an issue with.” Resilience through conflict is a skill we build. How resilient are you? Are you growing in your resilience?

You matter. Each of you have a place, a perspective and a voice.

As we discuss corporate discernment and live in unity in diversity…we need diversity. We are better together. One tool that continues to help me see this is the Strengthsfinder tool.  It gives you 5 main strengths out of a total of 34 categories. They combine to make your unique strength profile. There are 33 million combinations of these 34 types. How would you ever find another like you?  What Strengthsfinder does is to help me see how each person approaches life and challenges and how we uniquely solve challenges and move through life.

Here are the 4 groupings of strengths….and an example of a strength area from each:

  • Executing: Restorative – people who are good at dealing with problems, figuring out what is wrong and solving it.
  • Influencing: Activator – make things happen by turning thoughts into action, and are often impatient
  • Relationship Building: Adaptability – “Now” people, who can go with the flow and discover the future one day at a time
  • Strategic Thinking: Analytical – search for reasons and causes, with an ability to think about all the factors that may impact a situation.

We need all voices, we need different perspectives. We also need to practice humility, care, and prayerful listening. Last week Troy spoke of openness and the Presbyterian value of being Re-formed and always reforming. This week the reformed principle that stood out to me as being connected to unity in diversity is mutual forbearance.  This is the idea that we aspire to be a “Big Tent,” we can respect each other and actually appreciate unity in diversity as part the image of God.

Book of Order F‐3.0105 Mutual Forbearance: That, while under the conviction of the above principle we think it necessary to make effectual provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.

You are members of God’s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.

Looking back at how we are encouraged and inspired to Practice Faith…from Acts:

In our “practicing faith” sermon series, we have explored telling our stories, healing, sharing resources & possessions, inviting others into the community of faith, standing up in the face of opposition, living in the power of the Holy Spirit, living and sharing the grace of signs and seals of our faith, spiritual openness and close today with unity in diversity. Yes, there will be conflict, but we have the resources to discern together and emerge stronger even through struggle.