or What the Council of Jerusalem can tell us about General Conference 2019.
After Easter, I’ve been exploring Acts with my congregation. The concept was ‘let’s see what people did with the news that Jesus rose from the dead’. The second understanding was that Pentecost gave the Holy Spirit-the fiery courage to take the gospel to all the world, but the resurrection of Jesus was the content of the Gospel. “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses,” Peter testifies on Pentecost (Acts 2:32).
God’s Invitation to the Apostles from the Gentiles
It’s interesting how Acts tells the story of the Gentile’s inclusion in the church. The notion that God is with Apostles is quickly turned on it head. It’s as if the Holy Spirit burst out of the Upper Room and the Apostles just couldn’t keep up.
God appears to Cornelius in a dream first before God says anything to Peter. And Peter has to be thrown into an hallucination before he would dare enter Cornelius’ territory. It is ultimately Cornelius who invites Peter. Peter testifies with aplomb. A second Pentecost breaks out and Cornelius’ household are all baptized. It’s as if this was for Peter’s awakening as much as Cornelius’.
Ananias was approached by God to relieve Saul of his blindness. Saul/Paul was chosen by God to be an apostle to the Gentiles. A vision of Ananias was given to Saul/Paul before their meeting. The testimony is that God is clearly acting on behalf of the Gentiles that God wants to receive the gospel.
The gospel gets to the Gentiles by accident again after the stoning of Stephen. As a precaution, the fleeing Apostles only taught in the synagogues. It was in Antioch that Hellenists heard the Gospel. By crossing a language barrier, the gospel inevitably crosses an ethnicity barrier as well. The swelling of the church in Antioch prompts Barnabas to go get Paul. The two of them minister in Antioch for about a year. God readies the Gentile people before Barnabas and Paul minister to them.
This issue of gentile inclusion leads up to the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) where leadership from the entire Christian planet gathers for a special general conference on inclusion of Gentiles in the church. By this time, God has on numerous occasions directly intervened to clear the way for Gentiles to be included. It would require a massive revision of Hebrew law.
Don’t Look Now, but the Quadrilateral gets Upended in Jerusalem
Not everyone was of one mind regarding Gentile inclusion in the church. A group of Pharisees insisted that Gentile Christians be circumcised. To us, that sounds complete preposterous. But the Pharisees had scripture on their side.
Circumcision as the emblem of the Covenant
Remember, circumcision was the sign that the Hebrews were serious about following God. Abram was 99 years old when the sign of circumcision was given. And it was ordered as a serious custom from early on. It was a law before there even was a law. Circumcision was the threshold into the family of God.
Did you know that foreigners were allowed to observe Passover in ancient Israel, but only if they were circumcised? “If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the passover to the Lord, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he shall be regarded as a native of the land” (Exodus 12:48). You can’t have the promised land without the pain.
Circumcision was also a saving grace. Did you know that en route back to Egypt, Moses wrestled with God the same way Jacob did (Exodus 4)? But in a twist, God not only overwhelms Moses, but is on the brink of killing him. Moses’ wife Zipporah sees what’s going on and performs an emergency circumcision on their son. Touching the freshly butchered foreskin to Moses “feet”* (feet in the OT is often a euphemism for genitals) God’s wrath is satisfied. Moses then goes on to free the slaves from Pharaoh. Apparently God really cares about circumcision.
The biblical record (at least as Peter and Paul understood) was very clear on circumcision: it was required. The default setting in Jewish theology was that circumcision marked one as part of the family of God. It was the foremost symbol of Israel’s relationship with God. Circumcision and the covenant went hand-in-hand. Before Passover, before the Torah, there was circumcision. It identified. It saved. It purified. It marked you as God’s favored one.
On the anti-circumcision side, the only answer Peter has was what he observed. From Acts 15:
The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. After 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. 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. 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? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’
Paul and Barnbas testified to what they observed in Antioch. James added a prophetic interpretation. In all, the Council of Jerusalem concluded that circumcision was not required. A letter was sent the churches throughout the world to explain the conclusion and to encourage Christians to steer clear of sexual immorality. I wonder how an intercultural church would have interpreted “sexual immorality”. Certainly Jews and Gentiles differed greatly on this.
This is no small matter. Through experience and a touch of reason, a major biblical and traditional emblem was discarded. Paul later details in Romans how the Law was really great at convicting one of sin, but otherwise terrible at actually saving anybody (Romans 7:7-12).
A Revolutionary Angle
Since Advent, when I gave myself a crash-course in the Maccabean revolt, I’ve had an altered view of the Pharisees. The Maccabeans ousted the Seleucids who were formidable world conquerers in the centuries before Christ. The Maccabeans were able to set up their own miniature dynasty (Wikipedia actually has an excellent summary here) until the Romans came along. Part of the Maccabean success was attributed to their penchant for their legal purity. They studied the OT prophets and concluded that their demise was due in part to God’s unwillingness to protect them. They rededicated themselves to their food laws and only begrudgingly chose to fight on the sabbath. They were able to defeat a grotesque and terrorizing army through their dedication to the covenant (the Law) that God had with them.
The Pharisees are the heirs of the Maccabean way, even as the Hassmonean dynasty splintered into factions. Their dedication to the law was not just for greed or power, they had good historical reason to believe that this was the way to oust the Romans and have their land back. It worked in the days of Exile, it worked in the days of the Maccabeans, this is clearly the way God will save us. For Jesus and then Peter and Paul (a Pharisee even!) to say that the Law was no longer necessary not only thwarted God’s word, it risked the continued occupation of the Romans in the holy land. The stance made at the Council of Jerusalem had far-reaching radical consequences.
What does this Mean for Saint Louis?
I say ALL of this to get us to General Conference 2019 in St. Louis.
I don’t know what is going to happen. But I feel as though there is a contest not unlike the Council of Jerusalem. The black-and-white readers have the book on their side (kinda). I personally believe that what the Bible says about homosexuality is ultimately apples and oranges since the Bible doesn’t recognize that homosexuals can actually mutually love each other. The scripture conflates homosexuality with other matters like violence or wanton lust…or worse. And what we now know about genetics is not accounted for in scripture. Nevertheless, those who see the Bible as unquestionably right do have a few lines of prohibition on their side. (Though it seems portions of the early church had found fault with that thinking.)
But is the Holy Spirit done? This seems to be the rebuttal. The harm assumed by including LGBTQ+ people in the church is not born out by the evidence. The good is hard to account for since all LGBTQ+ contributions to the church are couched in their being marginalized. What if Jorge Lockward was not marginalized? We simply do not know all that we’ve lost as a denomination. When I observe LGBT+ clergy in other denominations being just, loving, compassionate–all the things Jesus was–I do two things: I celebrate the ministry and I mourn my church for being so stubborn. When I observe LGBT+ married couples being joyful, mutually sacrificial in their love, raising kind-hearted children–putting to rest the stereotypes against them–I have two thoughts: I celebrate their family and I mourn my church for not having the eyes to see what’s going on. It is not Christian to be so nose-down in the Bible that you can’t recognize the Holy Spirit at work in the world around you.
I don’t know what will happen in St. Louis. The ramifications are huge. But so too are the hurdles for change in either direction! How can members of a family that are fused in their positions find peace?
The Council of Jerusalem sticks out to me as a similar battle. The potential for a flood of losers seems high. Then again, Peter, Paul and the like were then able to go to their constituents and say “Yes, we recognize what the Holy Spirit is doing here. Let us break bread in peace.” Perhaps that day is coming when we in the UMC can share the bread of with our LGBTQ+ neighbors without prejudice or shame.