Reading Luke and Acts in 2020
Week 39 | Acts 15
By Claire Wood
Acts 15 Reflections and Questions
Acts 15:1-6 The Council of Jerusalem (or, what could have been the world’s worst Neighborhood Association)
Let’s say you’re the first family to move into a brand new Neighborhood. The homes are beautiful and you’re proud of where you live. The builder is gone and you’re on your own. So, why not make just a couple little guidelines to make sure the neighborhood keeps its charm?
While you’re at it, you should probably pick a few folks to make sure everyone is keeping up their property maintenance. You can call it a “Neighborhood Association*.” The folks on the corner’s lawn doesn’t look like it’s been mowed in ages. Okay, new rule – you have to mow your lawn once a week! Oh no, the new neighbors painted their shutters green, everyone else’s are black! Okay, new rule – no green shutters... The original intention, an earnest love for one’s home and Neighborhood, becomes a stumbling block. (*There are many Neighborhood Associations that are gracious, generous, and healthy organizations; but for this exercise we are focusing on the bad ones.)
That’s how I envision the Council on Jerusalem. Jesus was no longer physically present, so they couldn’t just ask the Builder of the movement what to do. Eventually, the gatekeepers arrive. If you aren’t circumcised, you can’t be a Christian. Sorry! Good luck and Godspeed, hope you enjoy worshiping idols! Hey, Paul, don’t you know how to build gates or something?
With just a few arbitrary rules, Christianity was on track to become the world’s worst Neighborhood Association. Like the kind that fines you $10 because you didn’t mow your lawn while you were sick. Or the kind that says your kids’ lemonade stand is “soliciting.” Or the kind that calls the police because you are hosting your church small group and a Black friend happens to be waiting at your front door.
Who would ever want to live in that neighborhood? Who would ever want to join that club?
QUESTIONS: What councils do you sit on? Who do you exclude? What councils and associations have excluded you, or fined you unfairly?
Acts 15:7-21 The Council’s Decision (or, the Neighborhood Association takes down the gates)
The Council was in a fierce debate. The Jewish converts were worried – and understandably so. The Gentile converts were upset – and understandably so. The Apostles were trying to define the Way and couldn’t figure out how to do so without drawing a line somewhere. The Jews saw a future of overgrown lawns and mismatched doorknobs. The Gentiles saw themselves being forced from their homes over the wrong type of shingles.
Luckily, the Holy Spirit steps in. Peter highlights the hypocrisy of it all, the rules, the laws, the barriers. Jesus came to establish a new Covenant; desiring mercy, not sacrifice. James recalls Amos’s prophesy that the Tent of David would be rebuilt with room for all! Not just the Jews or the circumcised or the perfect. Not just those with perfect lawns and the right color shutters.
The Holy Spirit knew that Christ’s Neighborhood is to be a welcoming space for all of humankind. The Council figured out quickly that inclusion was the Christ-like way. And inclusion doesn’t mean lawlessness or turning a blind eye to sin; inclusion means a love and acceptance that is greater than a broken rule or sin.
QUESTIONS: Who will you include as we rebuild the tent? Who do you want living in your neighborhood? What rules do you need to let go of?
Acts 15:22-35 The Letter to the Gentiles (or, an invitation to the best Neighborhood party ever)
The Council knew they needed to do some damage control. They quickly draft a letter to put into the hands of their most capable messengers. Barnabas, Judas, Paul, and Silas were trusted by the Jews and Gentiles alike. Their letter explicitly states “you, a Gentile, are welcome in the Way.” Think of how it feels to be named – to be invited in.
The Apostles knew that it was not enough to say, “hey, so don’t worry about getting circumcised, anybody can join.” Only an honest, repentant invitation could be extended to those who felt that they had been denied God’s grace by the gatekeepers. The old rules had caused harm; many Gentiles felt wounded by exclusion. The Apostles knew they had to rebuild the tent bigger, wider than it was before. God’s love and grace was extended to all nations; the old tent couldn’t keep all of that joy in. They knew Christ made a home for everyone in their Neighborhood through grace.
That’s what is funny about gatekeeping grace. We just can’t. And the more we try, the more we fail. It’s not a loss of morality, or too few small groups, or an un-mowed lawn that is keeping people away from the Church. It is gatekeepers who tell fellow humans that they are not good enough to join the fellowship of believers, that there is no room in the tent, that they don’t belong in this Neighborhood.
QUESTIONS: What is your letter to the Gentiles of your life? In lieu of an open invitation, how can we extend an earnest invitation to those who may feel excluded from our Neighborhood; as individuals, as families, as congregations, as United Methodists, and as followers of Christ?
Claire Wood is Associate Director of Marketing & Communications at Murphy-Harpst.