Tag Archives: Acts

Council of St. Louis?

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.

The Acts 1 Church

Note:  This series on The Church as it is presented in Acts seeks to:
(A) examine the character and praxis of the first church,
(B) apply lessons from the first church to the contemporary church and
(C) gain a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between discipleship, church life and leadership.

This examination is inspired by the many church leaders who espouse the “Acts 2 Church” especially in terms of numerical growth in the denominational church.  It is my hypothesis that that early church knew BOTH numerical success AND evangelical resistance; BOTH acceptance of the Gospel AND hostility to the Gospel; BOTH ecclesial integrity AND ecclesial corruption.  It is my further hypothesis that the Contemporary Church BOTH can grow numerically AND is resisted by the culture at large; BOTH can find arenas where Christ is welcomed AND where the Gospel is seen as a threat; BOTH exemplifies great faithfulness as a body of believers AND struggles with internal wrongdoings.

Being a Christian Necessitates Knowing Christ

“I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day he was taken up into heaven…” (1:1-2a)

To be a Christian is to be ‘like Christ’.  To be like Christ, after the death, resurrection and the ascension is to take upon oneself the entirety of Christ’s existence.  How many congregations began in barns, houses, schools and fields?  Even today, with the ubiquity of Christian architecture, how many congregations are birthed in congregations?  (That’s not necessarily rhetorical.)  Luke reminds us of Jesus’ suffering and of his resurrected ministry; 40 days of speaking about the Kingdom of God.  We follow a Messiah of promises made and kept.  “…You will be baptized by the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Distracted by Dispensationalism

“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” (1:7)

If there is a theological tangent I loathe, it must be dispensationalism.  I tire of answering John Hagee questions.  Jesus is telling the first church about the promised power of the Holy Spirit, and they are still in pre-resurrection mode: wondering when the good part’s going to begin.  When can they assume their thrones?  When’s the REAL kingdom coming?  The peaceful resurrection is all we get?  The power that Jesus promises them is not the power of a throne, not the power of a chariot, not the power of magic, not the power of might in any conventional understanding.  Conventional understandings don’t seem to impress Jesus.  The power of the Holy Spirit is connected to the task of being “witnesses” in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.  Jesus didn’t take a straw poll nor seek the advice of a steering committee.  He stated the clear commandment and moved on to higher things.

The Ascension

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (1:11)

There are way too many Christians sitting on the sidelines staring at the clouds waiting for “What if?”  The men in white robes ask a pertinent question: Why have you not gone into action?  The quickness of the ascension parallels the quickness of the death and the minutes-long encounter at the empty tomb.  These events are vital to the person of Christ.  But he seems happy to get them over with.  It is as if the real Christian life is the daily drudgery of peacemaking, compassion, service and worship.  These vital events are almost like the altars Jacob built out in the wilderness.  Israelites passed by them countless times.  Each time, they stopped to remember, but not to build shrines, Temples, Cathedrals or churches.  That was Peter’s error.  The purpose of transfiguration is NOT to stay up on the mountain…it is to embody the change that you are working toward in the valleys.  Jesus ascended NOT so that people would adore him, but so they could get on with the work of witnessing.

Apparently there was an Attendance Pad in the Upper Room

“All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (1:14)

The opening of one’s self to the comfort, power and instruction of God.  They were preparing themselves.  Even in the midst of fear, someone had a good idea.

“Together the crowd numbered about 120 persons.” (1:15)

Eleven disciples, certain women, Jesus’ brothers and many unnamed people.  The eleven will gain legacies.  Churches will present Living Last Suppers where each disciple gets to speak, and each disciple’s martyrdom is noted.  All the women are unnamed but Jesus’ mother.  Also unnamed are Jesus’ brothers and everyone else.  Given the bumbling nature of the Apostles, it stands to reason that some of the unnamed were just as productive as the 11.  We know that women pretty much run the church.  Emerging from the 120 were two that gain a name: Joseph/Barsabbas/Justus and Matthias.  They were present “from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us”.  Jesus was noteworthy for calling his own disciples.  How about a little love for the volunteers?  Did Jesus ever ask them to do anything?  Did they retrieve the donkey and colt for the Triumphal Entry?  Did Jesus wash their feet?  Were they in the garden?  I wonder what became of Joseph/Barsabbas/Justus.

On Judas

“…from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” (1:25)

By far, the most gruesome scene in the NT stars Judas.  Descriptions of his death gross me out more than the crucifixion.  (King Herod’s worm-infested death was pretty gross, too.)  I have often felt a certain sympathy for Biblical characters that can only be described as tragic; Saul, Sampson, Solomon, Noah, Jonah and yes, Judas Iscariot.  Is this sympathy for the devil?  I mean Jesus was going to die.  HE chose it.  He predicted it and rode right into Jerusalem.  In the Living Last Supper I enjoyed over Holy Week, Judas was portrayed as wanting to fast-track the revolution.  Judas kissed Jesus, people moved, Peter severs Malchus’ ear…the battle for Jerusalem is on.  But now Jesus is on the tree and the disciples have a reputation for chaos.  Better that one would die than for many.  I’m not really a conspiracy theorist, but I have often doubted that Judas died via suicide.  The prayer upon choosing Matthias seems to indicate a certain angry and final attitude that the Apostles held toward Judas.  They didn’t grieve him for long.  What really happened?

The Acts 1 Church, 2011

The fear of today’s church is not the same fear that the First Church experienced.  Today’s church seems to have the fear of change and bows at the god of complacency.  Itinerancy began as a pragmatic strategy to minister in the westward frontiers of America.  We’ve kept the itinerancy and dropped the pragmatism.  But the First Church’s fear was over actual, literal death…as well as the death of this great gospel that Jesus had shared with them.  Praise be to God that the second fear trumped the first one.  Either share the Gospel and die or don’t share and watch the Gospel die.  We have fear over the death institutional church.  And yet we seldom act as if the Gospel is a life or death matter.

  • A church stumbles across a youth from a troubled background, home in shambles as the economy has stressed the parents and old bad habits become a Legion of problems.  Difficulties fester into anger and then neglect.  Church notices this and begins to strategize how to help the kid.  BUT…a power-broker in the church says no.  Inexperienced pastor does not insist loudly enough.  The good idea to help the kid dies.  The family continues to deteriorate.  Battered, not-so-inexperienced pastor tries another angle, learns that DFS has removed the kid from the home, mom and dad are through.  Youth ministry dies…ruled a suicide.
  • A church lives in a hellish vortex of drugs, AIDS, teen pregnancy, poverty and institutionalized racism expressed as police brutality.  Courageous pastor of small church leaves the church office and walks the streets.  He will do something about this.  The church starts a needle exchange program.  Druggies are lining up at the church for clean needles.  They are picking up old needles off the streets in the process.  They get a clean needle and a free condom.  Pastor befriends the druggies and begins to treat needle exchanging as an outreach opportunity.  He frequents the heroin dens to give out clean needles.  It is not uncommon for druggies to express the desire to get clean.  Guess who has get-clean programs?  The Conference calls…your apportionments are unpaid.  Courageous and effective pastor fights with the Conference for two years…and is moved.

There are men and women in white every Sunday, entering pulpits, manning the confessional booth, opening up the altar rails and presiding over tables of sacrifice.  In the Acts 1 Church, clergy are asking the pertinent questions and calling people to action.  We reassure people that Jesus will come back, but in the meantime, God needs witnesses and he has enlisted you.  Some will go astray and succumb to tragic ends.  For Judas it was a Field of Blood.  For others it’s alcoholism, health problems, addictions, family strife, etc.  The Matthiases of the world save the church all the time.  Alongside, not behind the men and women in white, are people named as leaders.  They interpret the time and invite people to prayer.  Alongside, not behind the leaders, are people numbered but not named.  Many of them are as faithful as any and will toil away in obscurity.  These are the foot soldiers of the faith.  They might become known, but usually only in association with another (ala Susanna Wesley).  For every man or woman in white, there are hundreds of unnamed disciples who are braving the Upper Room.  You can best believe that Jesus sees them.

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