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7 Pentecost (Proper 11), YrA ‘17              23 July 2017

Through the Bible Series:  Acts 15:1-31 Jerusalem Council

Wisdom 12:13; Romans 8:18-25; Ps 86:11-17; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The Rev. Michael Williams @ St. George’s Anglican

 

Collect – “Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion, we beseech thee, upon our infirmities, and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, mercifully give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”

 

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

 

  **********************************************

 

  1. Essential Background to understand the Council

The way God the Holy Spirit orchestrated the events leading up to the Council in Jerusalem and its outcome is quite fascinating.  To understand this first ever Church Council – that took place roughly 15 years after Jesus’ ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost – we need to have fresh in mind three things:

 

  1. Jerusalem the Judaistic CoG

First – That at that time the Christian community in Jerusalem was the center of gravity for the Christian movement with the community made up mostly of the Apostles and of Palestinian Jews who had “repented and believed in Jesus as the Christ,” the Messiah, the long-awaited Savior of God’s chosen people. 

And so Christianity in Jerusalem was Judaism-centric, organized around the Law of Moses, and still heavily/ontologically steeped in the traditions of Judaism that had formed the Jewish community of faith.

 

Peter, and John’s brother James, and James the brother of Jesus were key leaders there.  Gentiles who were drawn to Judaism, as well as those Gentiles who become followers of Jesus, had to be prepared to be immersed in the customs and practices of Judaism,  specifically the requirements for circumcision and strict obedience to the Mosaic Law. 

There was even a party of Jewish Christian Pharisees in Jerusalem referred to as the Circumcision Party  (perhaps left-brain dominant individuals) that was hard-over to ensure compliance with the Jewish requirements of the Law.

* So that’s the first thing.

 

  1. Peter’s encounter with Cornelius & Co.

The second thing we need to have fresh in mind

- is the story of the Apostle Peter’s encounter with and the Roman Centurion named Cornelius. (Acts 10)

Cornelius was a “God-fearer,” i.e., a gentile who had entered into Judaism/who believed in Yahweh; a devout man who, together with his household,  prayed constantly and gave alms liberally. He was stationed in Ceasarea on the Mediterranean Sea. 

 

As the story goes:

While Peter was traveling about doing mighty works in Jesus’ name, some disciples sent for him to come to Joppa (also on the Mediterranean south of Ceasarea).  And having performed a mighty healing there, he remained for some time at the house of Simon the Tanner.

 

Meanwhile up in Ceasarea – Cornelius had a vision of an angel coming and exhorting him to send men to Joppa to fetch “one Simon who is called Peter.” So Cornelius sent men to retrieve him.

 

Meanwhile Peter was up on Simon the Tanner’s rooftop praying and fell into a trance; and saw the heavens opened and something like a sheet come down with all kinds of ‘unclean’ animals & birds. 

A voice told him to kill and eat, but Peter said,  “No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”  To which the voice responded, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” 

This happened 3 times. 

As Peter wrestled with the meaning of his vision the men sent by Cornelius were at Simon’s gate.

 

They brought Peter to Ceasarea, to Cornelius who had called together a house full of his relatives and close friends.  

 

Peter addressed them, explaining that although it was unlawful for him, a Jew, to be there associating with them – Gentiles – God had revealed to him that he should not call any man common or unclean.

 

Cornelius told of the angel’s visit and that they were gathered there to hear and receive what Peter had to say.

Peter responded, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  He then proceeded to preach the gospel message to them, concluding: To him {Jesus} all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

“And as he was still saying this the Holy Spirit fell on all of them who heard the message. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in languages and extolling God. Peter then declared, 47 “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.  

  1. Barnabas & Saul/Paul’s Missionary Works

Finally, the third thing we need to have fresh in mind in order to understand the Jerusalem Council

- is a sense of where the Apostle Paul was in his life and ministry at the time of the Council. 

 

Paul had experienced his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus and essentially disappeared back to Tarsus, i.e., except for a visit to Jerusalem relatively soon after his Damascus Road experience.  He had shared his testimony whereupon his true conversion was accepted by the Church there (but this only after Barnabas had stepped up to speak to the apostles & elders on Paul’s behalf).

 

Over a decade later the Jerusalem church had received news that the gospel had spread to Antioch in Syria through the testimonies of believers.  So the church deployed Barnabas from Jerusalem to Antioch to check out the situation.  Barnabas was impressed and saw the need for formation, went to Tarsus in search of Paul, and enlisted him to come and assist in providing leadership and catechesis, which they did together in Antioch for over a year; at which time the Antiochene Church sent them off on an evangelistic mission to Cyprus and Asia Minor.

 

First Missionary Journey:

On this first missionary journey Barnabas and Paul would preach in each place to the Jewish community,

and usually with the positive result of conversions;

But also usually with major push-back from those Jews who refused to receive Jesus as the Christ. 

At which point Paul and Barnabas would turn their attention to preaching to the local gentile populace, and this with extremely productive results.

 

Now at some point after Paul & Barnabas had returned to Antioch members of the circumcision party from Jerusalem came to Antioch teaching that

 

“Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 

 

You can imagine how disruptive this message would have been for the Christians in Antioch. This issue, together with Peter, and even Barnabas, succumbing to the pressures of the circumcision party, led to what the text describes as “no small dissension and debate.”

- The question of what was to be required of the Gentiles for membership in the Church was raising the more central and crucial question of

 

*What was to be required for salvation through Christ.

 

Rather than succumbing to any temptation to simply ignore those pressing the Judaistic requirement for circumcision, Paul chose, out of obedience to Christ,

and one might say compelled by the Holy Spirit, to submit to the need for consultation with the established church in Jerusalem, joining the delegation headed for Jerusalem with the intention of resolving the question.

 

So those are the 3 things we need to have fresh in mind to understand the Jerusalem Council:

  1. Jerusalem’s Judaistic Christianity
  2. Peter’s encounter with Cornelius
  3. Paul and Barnabas’ proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles

 

 

  1. The Jerusalem Council

 

Upon their arrival Paul & Barnabas were warmly welcomed by the Apostles and elders of the Jerusalem Church and they recounted all that God had done with them; - after which the circumcision party wasted no time in pressing their argument that all these Gentile converts would need to submit to circumcision and to the keeping of the Law of Moses.

 

“After much debate Peter took the floor and made the crucial argument, reminding the Council of the whole church gathered in the persons of the Apostles and elders that in principle the argument had already been settled, i.e., reminding them that, after Almighty God had  given Peter the Jewish-worldview-shattering-revelation that no man should be called common or unclean, God himself had born witness to the salvation of the Gentiles, of the cleansing of their hearts by faith, and by the giving of the Holy Spirit to them at the house of Cornelius;  

*That by the testimony of their faith in Christ,

God had erased the dividing line

between Jew and Gentile.

 

How then could the Jews now put God on trial by challenging his obvious acceptance of the Gentile faithful and attempting to impose upon them Mosaic legal requirements that neither the Jews gathered there nor their fathers had been able to bear?” (ISBE, pg 201)

Since they, the Jews, had been unable through perfect obedience to fulfill the Law of Moses,  they must then believe that their own salvation, as well as that of the Gentiles, came solely through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

          And all the assembly fell silent…

 

“Then” lest anyone think Peter’s experience with Cornelius and his household was an anomaly, “everyone listened as Barnabas and Paul recounted all the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” (15:12)

 

Then not Peter, but James, the brother of Jesus, leader of the Jerusalem Church and moderator of the Jerusalem Council, provided summation:

  -> that God was also ‘taking a people for himself’

 out of the Gentiles; and that this redeeming from among all nations those who receive faith in Christ was in perfect harmony with the prophetic word of God.

 

What do we make of the force of James’ pronouncement and the precedent that it set for future church councils?  The Greek word rendered “judgment” in most translations seems pretty definitively to mean just that, i.e., it was James’ judgment that the Jewish Christians should not trouble the Gentile Christians with the requirements of circumcision and the Mosaic Law.

 

James’ summation and judgment was indeed in harmony with the judgment of the rest of the apostles and elders since the Council’s decision was published

not as a pronouncement by James, but as a decree of the Council (What today we might refer to as a Conciliar Decree), with the letter beginning not from James, but from:

 

“The brethren, both the apostles and the elders,

to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia,”

 

III.  Significance of the Council

And so what was established by the outcome of this Council was the foundation for a fundamental shift and, from a Jewish perspective, a radical shift in how the Christian Church was to be understood/in how it was being constituted by God: i.e., ->

 

* away from identifying and understanding God’s chosen people in terms of ethnicity or geography

(i.e., as being Jewish, circumcised and centered in Jerusalem)

* to identifying and understanding God’s people in terms of those from any nation who hear the gospel,

and by God’s grace repent and receive faith in Jesus Christ in the power of God the Holy Spirit; i.e., those who believe and, rather than being identified with the old covenant through circumcision, are baptized into the new covenant of redemption through the blood of Jesus Christ, and are thus made members, not of the nation of Israel, but of the Kingdom of God as He has constituted it through the nation of Israel, of which the risen Lord Jesus Christ is King.

 

This shift is embodied in the work of the Apostle Paul

that, notably, following the Jerusalem Council becomes the entire focus of the author of the Acts of the Apostles of his recounting of the spread of the Gospel and the beginnings of the Christian Church.

 

The shift is away from a geographical center established by the Incarnate Son’s earthly presence in Judea and Jerusalem, to a Spiritual and Theological center known to us as the Apostolic Faith of Christ’s Church encompassing the creative, redemptive and restorative work of Almighty God that continues to be accomplished through the Church’s steady, contemporary, countercultural proclamation of the redeeming gospel of Jesus Christ, and through our witness to our own redemption at the price of his passion and crucifixion: And what is the substance of that witness but the demonstration of our lives organized individually and corporately

          *not first around the secular activities of our everyday lives,

          *but first and foremost around the substance of our daily prayers and weekly worship of the Lord who redeemed us,

          *in our investment in ongoing formation in him through our committed participation in the whole life of his Church, of this Church,

          *and around our persistent love for one another,

in humility and in accountability; all lived in the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.               Amen

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Jul 3rd, 2017 by stgac at 4:24 pm
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