Sermon - Brad Brookins

05142017 - Brad Brookins
00:00 / 00:00

Acts 15. 1-21


            1Then 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.’


A couple of weeks ago, when Alan was preaching, he read a quote he had come across many years ago.  It went like this:  “There are many ways one can do a right thing right.  There are many ways one can do a right thing wrong.  But there is no way one can do a wrong thing right.”

I thought that was a wise and useful saying, but there is another related question—kind of a question behind the question, that remains unanswered:  What do you do when you can’t agree on what the right thing is?

It’s hard to do the right thing if there is no agreement on what the right thing is.  Groups and associations—like churches, run into this all the time. 

I was cleaning out some old files in my desk this week when I ran across a letter written by our church consistory—what we today call the council, dated February 26, 1984 and addressed to the “Dear Members of the Zwingli United Church of Christ”.

Who among you would likely have been here in church on February 26, 1984?  You may remember this little kerfuffle.  Here’s the text of the letter:

“It has been somewhat “traditional” at Zwingli UCC for minor children to receive Communion only after their Confirmation.  However, Zwingli Church has had no explicit policy with respect to the participation of minors in the sacrament, and, as a result, there exists some confusion in the church about who among our children may or may not participate in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  To clear the air, the Consistory, together with Pastor James, has decided to offer an “explicit policy”.  We offer to you the following guidelines for your consideration.  We believe they represent the best of our church’s tradition in a way that is flexible to our current congregational realities.  If you have any strong feelings about the policy please respond on the back of this (letter…)


A minor child in the church may participate in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper under any of the following circumstances:

a)         upon reaching the age of 10, or upon entering the 5th grade and after both parents and child complete appropriate instruction by the pastor.

b)        upon completion of a first communion instructional program at another church and with the approval of the pastor

c)          upon entering a program of confirmation instruction in this or another church and with the approval of the pastor

d)        upon completion of a program of confirmation instruction leading to Confirmation in this or another church

e)         at the discretion of the pastor under circumstances he deems appropriate.

The Consistory and Pastor of Zwingli UCC, in an effort to establish order and consistency in the worship-life of our congregation kindly ask your compliance with the above Communion guidelines.  Thank you.”


Now the letter did say, “If you have any strong feelings about the policy, please respond…” and, because this is Mt Vernon, someone did.  A couple who were members here responded with considerable vigor, judging by the way they phrased their letter.  This is what they wrote—all in capital letters:


This letter was dated 2-29-84, with the 9 double underlined to emphasize, I suppose, the quickness of their response and the accompanying seriousness with which the were addressing what was to them a very serious and important question.

There are many ways to do a right thing right and many ways to do a right thing wrong.  but on matters like this—on the practice of one’s faith, how do you know what the right thing is.  Scripture is, in my opinion at least—and I might be wrong—inconclusive on this question. 

So what do we do when people we go to church with are of different minds on matters believed to be of deep moral and theological significance.  What do you do when a decision has to be made, and whatever decision is made will likely offend the losing side—to the point perhaps that they will leave your fellowship?

What do you do?

This is the sort of issue in play in the story we are reading this morning from the book of Acts.

In the earliest days of the church—for the first few years after the first Easter, almost every Christian was also a Jew; because Jesus, of course, was a Jew.  In those early years, everything about being a Christian fit in pretty seamlessly with everything about being a Jew.  Christianity was, in essence, a sect of Judaism—like the pharisees or the Sadducees.

But then Peter is sent to the home of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius and Cornelius and his entire Gentile family are converted.   Shortly after that, Paul begins his lifelong mission to the Gentiles and thousands more join the church.

Suddenly you have Jewish Christians and you have Gentile Christians—and they are not the same.  Their cultures, their histories, their experiences of God are so very different—and, in the eyes of many of the early Christians, so incompatible, that they cannot see a way forward.

When today’s story opens, Paul and Barnabas are busy raising up a church in Antioch—north of Jerusalem in what today is Syria.  This congregation may have been largely, but certainly not exclusively, Gentile in its makeup.  Paul seemed to have a knack for gathering mixed Jew and Gentile congregations. 

In his congregations, Jews did not identify primarily as Jews and Gentiles did not identify primarily as Gentiles.  They were first and foremost followers of Jesus.  They were Christians with a Jewish heritage and Christians  with a Gentile heritage—but they were first Christians.  For Paul, allegiance to Jesus always took precedence over allegiance to one’s nation or history.

But not everyone in the early church saw it that way.

“…certain individuals (the story goes) came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ “

These “certain individuals” were not apostles or elders or leaders in the Jerusalem church.  They were just folks visiting Antioch who—kind of like the people who wrote the response to the Mt Vernon Consistory in 1984—had a particular bee in their bonnet.  They knew the right thing to do and the right way to do it and they wanted to make sure everybody else knew it, too.

Paul and Barnabas engage with these new-comers in what Luke describes as “no small dissension and debate”.  Keep in mind that Paul was trained as a pharisee and a rabbi.  This was, no doubt, the kind of knock down, drag out argument that the rabbis relished and were very good at.

I imagine the young church in Antioch being taken aback by all this.  And not knowing what to do, they did what organizations often do—they kicked the problem upstairs, to a higher level, for a decision.  They sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to discuss, and hopefully resolve, the issue with the apostles.

Once in Jerusalem they were welcomed, Luke says, by “the church and the apostles and the elders”—and that’s pretty much everybody.  And that “everybody” included some who disagreed with Paul—the believers who, Luke writes, “belonged to the sect of the Pharisees”.   They argued that it was necessary for the Gentiles to keep the law of Moses.

I wonder if the Jerusalem congregation wasn’t going through changes of its own right about then.  Perhaps there were more Christian Jews in the church and fewer Jewish Christians—more people, that is, who identified first as followers of Jesus and only secondarily as whatever else they were or had been before.

The debate again is vigorous and long.  It goes on for a while until Paul and Barnabas are given the floor.  And then, something important happens; something that I think can help us in our own conflicts and kerfuffles.

Paul and Barnabas tell stories.  Story after story of what God was doing among the Gentiles.  “Signs and wonders”, Luke says, being done among these Gentiles—people who are not circumcised; people who do not follow the law of Moses; men and women who are learning to follow Jesus first and to put their nation and their race and their former religion in a distant second place.

And the stories carry the day.  The undeniable working of God’s Spirit carries the day.  And the question that was of such over riding concern—“What must the Gentiles do to be saved?” morphs into a declaration of wonder and joy—“Look how God is saving the Gentiles!!”

And when the stories are done, James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem makes this announcement: “I have reached the decision (he says) that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God”.  By which he means, I think—“God is not requiring these Gentiles to become Jews, so why should we?  God is not laying the law of Moses on the Gentiles, so why should we?”


“Unless you follow the law of Moses, you cannot be saved”, the Jewish Christians said in Antioch.

“Unless you receive the proper theological education, you cannot eat the Lord’s supper”, those Mt Vernon members said in 1984.

We know now how the early church resolved their dilemma on the law of Moses and circumcision, and such.  But I want to circle back to the Mt Vernon dilemma of 1984 because it’s a question that surfaces still today.

And following the lead of James in the Jerusalem church, I want to change the question to one I think we should be asking.  In 1984 they were asking “What does the communion service mean?   Let’s tweak that, and ask this:  “What does the communion meal mean to you?  See the difference?  Let’s not ask, “What happens to the bread and wine?”  Let’s ask, instead, “What happens to us when we break the bread and drink the wine?”

How would you answer that question?  I want to hear your stories.

Bible Study

  1. Read the entire passage below.

  2. Keep in mind—this story is a small part of the much larger story of the early church as it is presented in the book of Acts.  If you aren’t really familiar with the entire story of Acts—and most of us, including me (Brad) are not, it will be hard to correctly interpret what is happening in this part of the story.  Therefore—

  3. Be careful in your reading of this passage.  Be prepared not to understand, with complete clarity, what is going on here with these early Christians.  We can learn from them, no doubt, but our issues will likely be different.


Acts 15. 1-21


1Then 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.’ 2And 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. 3So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. 4When 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. 5But 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.’

6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers, 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. 8And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10Now 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? 11On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’

12 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. 13After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. 14Simeon has related how God first looked favorably1` on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 

16 “After this I will return,

and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;

   from its ruins I will rebuild it,

     and I will set it up, 

17 so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—

   even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.

     Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18known from long ago.” 

19Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20but 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. 21For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.’


  1. Vs 1  (Use your imagination here): Who might these “certain individuals” have been?  What role do you think they were playing in the assembly of believers?  How would you describe people in churches today who behave the way these people were behaving?

  2. What do you know about the importance of circumcision in the covenant between God and Israel?  Apart from the physical aspects of circumcision, what were these “certain individuals” asking of the gentile Christian converts?

  3. Vs 2  Notice how carefully Luke (the author of Acts) describes the situation:  “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate” with these “certain individuals”.  If you read the rest of Paul’s writings you will see was is capable of a rip-roaring fight with people who disagreed with his “gospel”.  What is the most theologically significant church conflict you have ever witnessed?  How was it resolved (if it was)?  In hindsight, how might it have been better handled?

  4. Vs 4 says Paul and Barnabas were welcomed in Jerusalem by “the church, the apostles and the elders”—that’s pretty much everybody.  Yet Vs 5 says “some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees “, argue a position contrary to what Paul and Barnabas were  presenting.  Four questions—        A: What does this tell you about the range of theological positions present in the early church?  B:  How, do you imagine, one can belong to “the sect of the pharisees” and be a follower of Jesus at the same time?  C:  What might we learn from this about the generosity of spirit among these early believers?  D:  How might their example guide our life together as the church in Mt Vernon today?

  5. In Vs 16-18, James is quoting the Old Testament prophet Amos (Amos 9.11-12), though he makes some significant changes to the words of Amos (see below).  What lesson is he drawing from Amos and how is he applying it in this situation?   How do you think those who belonged to “the sect of the Pharisees “ would have received his interpretation?

  6. In this setting there were Jewish Christians and there were Gentile Christians.  The fundamental issue in the church for its first century or so had to do with how these two groups would, or could, get along.  On the whole, they did very poorly.  Why are there such fundamental divisions among Christians—that is to say, why is it so hard for us to define ourselves without an enemy to be against?  What are the most serious divisions within Christianity today?  

  7. Extra Credit:  If all Christians suddenly became the one Body of Christ and there were no divisions among us, who would be our Gentiles then?  How would Jesus want us to relate to them?




Amos 9. 11-12


On that day I will raise up

   the booth of David that is fallen,

and repair its breaches,

   and raise up its ruins,

   and rebuild it as in the days of old; 

in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom

   and all the nations who are called by my name,

   says the Lord who does this. 


Acts 15. 16-18


“After this I will return,

and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;

   from its ruins I will rebuild it,

     and I will set it up, 

so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—

   even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.

     Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.”