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Acts Week 5: Unity in the Midst of Storms


Unity in the Midst of Storms

Acts 15


When I was a kid, I shared a bedroom with my younger brother.  It was a large room, and we divided our individual spaces with a large dresser that sat in the middle of the room.  On one side was my bed and all of my things.  On the other sat my brother’s bed and all of his.  I don’t remember how it all started, but at some point, we began to argue over the position of the dresser.  I’d move it a few inches toward his side of the room so that I’d have more space on my side.  And then he would move it back, giving himself more space on his side.  Sometimes this battle would happen in person, with each of us pushing on our side of the dresser.  (Thankfully no one ever got hurt!)  But other times, when he wasn’t in the room, I’d move that dresser over just a smidge, only to find it back in my turf later on.  Our feud over the position of the dresser went on like this until my parents decided that it was time for us to have our own bedrooms.  And while that battle resolved itself, we would go on to have many more fights over the years over a variety of things.  We were well practiced at conflict.


And you know what?  So is the church.  Most churches like to project a positive image.  They like to be seen as places where everyone gets along and supports one another, where everyone is unified, and everyone is happy with the way things are.  Sure, some churches are like that some of the time.  But the truth is that churches are made up of people–people just like my brother and me, who manage to fight about all kinds of things.  I asked a few clergy colleagues to share some of the conflicts they’ve experienced in the churches they’ve served, and here’s what they said:  people have argued about the color of the carpet, the kind of decor or art to display in the church, the time of the worship service; the type of music sung in worship; whether or not to put up a screen in the sanctuary; what kinds of flowers to plant around the church; and even the type of wood to use to repair a handicap ramp.  From the outside looking in, some of those arguments might seem rather petty, and I wonder if any of those people look back now, like my brother and I do, and laugh over what they used to fight about.  

But churches have also argued about some really significant and important things–like whether slavery is evil, or whether women should be able to preach.  I’m thankful to be in a denomination in which those particular debates have been settled for a long time.  And yet conflicts continue in our denomination and others.  You might say that wherever two or more are gathered, there will be disagreement.  The church is well practiced at conflict.


Of course, this is nothing new.  In our Scripture today, we read about a disagreement in the early church over whether or not Gentile converts to the faith should be circumcised.  In Judaism, which was the faith tradition of Jesus and the first Christians, all male children were to be circumcised according to the law of Moses.  So when Gentiles, or non-Jews, began converting to the fledgling Christian church, some people felt it was important for these new Christians to be circumcised as the Jewish tradition dictated.  But Paul and Barnabas didn’t agree; this seemed like an unfair burden to place on the new converts, and so the leaders of the church in Antioch argued about what to do.  


As you can see, conflict has been a part of the church since the beginning.  We are well practiced at it.  And yet, I don’t think that we’re always very good at it.  We don’t always engage in conflict in healthy ways.  I don’t know about you, but my natural tendency is to shy away from conflict.  I’d usually rather brush things under the rug or ignore problems than face what might be an uncomfortable or messy disagreement.  The problem with this, of course, is that the issue at hand hardly ever goes away–it just grows under the surface and gets more complicated and and more messy.  Resentment builds, and things don’t usually end well.  


Some people can’t stand the very idea of conflict in the church, so they just up and leave the community when arguments arise.  They’d rather avoid church altogether than deal with disagreements.  Can you imagine what might have become of the early Christian movement if Paul and Barnabas had ghosted the church in Antioch because of a disagreement?  Think of how different things might be. 


And then there are those who love a good church fight.  These folks approach disagreements like they’re running into battle, weapons drawn.  And while facing conflict head-on might be more healthy than trying to ignore it (like I tend to want to do), those who approach arguments this way can leave behind a wake of hurt and harm.  Conflict can be difficult to navigate well, even if we’re well-practiced at it.  And yet, if conflict is inevitable in Christian communities–which it is–there must be ways to approach it that don’t ignore serious problems, or cut off relationships, or leave people wounded.  There must be a way to navigate conflict that helps the church remain unified.  So perhaps we can learn some lessons from today’s story about the early church.   


After the leaders of the church in Antioch had wrestled with the issue of circumcising Gentiles without any kind of resolution, they decided to send a delegation to Jerusalem so the apostles and elders of the church could weigh in.  And I think this is where we encounter our first lesson from this story.  When these leaders found that they disagreed about something, they didn’t just sweep the issue under the rug or leave the scene; they faced it head-on.  But they also didn’t fight with each other for so long and so hard that they hurt one another in the process.  Instead, as pastor Mary Hinkle Shore notes, they broadened the conversation by seeking the opinions of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.  In other words, they brought more voices into the mix in order to get new perspectives.      

 

And as it turns out, the circumcision of Gentiles was just as contentious in Jerusalem as it had been in Antioch; the council debated it for a long time.  But eventually, Peter spoke up.  He reminded those gathered that God had given the Gentiles the gift of the Holy Spirit in the same way that the apostles and elders had received it.  In other words, if God hadn’t made a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, why would the church do such a thing?  After all, Peter reminded them, everyone is saved in the same way–through the grace of Jesus Christ.  After that, Paul and Barnabas shared about how God was working in and through the lives of the Gentiles.  And when they had finished speaking, James reminded everyone of the words of the Prophet Amos, who spoke about God’s restoration, which would include even the Gentiles. 


And here we find our second lesson from this story.  The apostles and elders brought their experiences of the Holy Spirit, along with the experiences of the Gentiles, into conversation with both Scripture and their inherited traditions, and then they used reason to make their way through the conflict.  In our United Methodist tradition, we call this the Wesleyan Quadrilateral; it’s an important method for discernment and decision making.  While Scripture is always primary, our experiences of God, the traditions of the church, and our own ability to reason can help us move forward when conflict threatens to derail our ministry or our mission.  And when we come to these conversations prayerfully and with humility, the Holy Spirit can work in and through the process to bring clarity and a greater sense of unity.

In the end, the council in Jerusalem came to a consensus.  They agreed to send a letter to the church in Antioch, letting them know of their decision.  It was their belief that circumcision wasn’t essential and wouldn’t be required.  Instead, they should focus on what the council had deemed important.  That is, staying away from idol worship and sexual immorality, and not serving food that Jews found offensive.  This bit about food was probably to ensure that when they were gathered together, everyone could share in the same meal.  When the church received the letter, they were delighted and encouraged.  The matter was settled, and their ministry continued to flourish.  


And here we find our final lesson from this text.  The Council in Jerusalem made a way through the conflict by discerning together what was essential for them and what wasn’t.  The belief that all are saved through the grace of Jesus Christ was essential.  So was avoiding the worship of idols, sexual immorality, and ensuring mutual care and hospitality across differences.  But what wasn’t essential was the circumcision of Gentiles.  The early church was able to stay united in its mission and ministry because it was able to clarify what was most important and remain united in its commitment to those things.  Or, in the iconic words of Stephen Covey, they were able to keep the main thing the main thing.     


Several years ago, I heard about a congregation that had entered into a discernment process about the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of the congregation.  They knew that people in their church had very different views about this, and they also knew that this could easily become a heated debate that could harm people.  So they began with a conversation about their views of Scripture and the lenses through which they read the Bible.  Then they brought in a variety of voices to broaden their perspectives.  They invited some bishops to talk with them about theology and the tradition of the church.  They learned from a physician about the current science around sexuality, and a psychologist talked with them about the mental health of LGTBQ+ persons.  Finally, a variety of people from the congregation, including some from the Queer community, shared their experiences.  By inviting varied perspectives and by using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral–Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason–this congregation was able to discern what was essential for them.  It wasn’t an easy process, and some folks didn’t agree with where the congregation eventually landed.  But most people believed that they had been faithful in the process; that the Holy Spirit had used this experience as an opportunity for growth.  And as a result, the congregation had rededicated themselves to their vision and mission.

Friends, the church is well-practiced at conflict.  If you haven’t witnessed a church fight, you probably just haven’t been around long enough.  And we haven’t always fought well.  Some people have been hurt, and others have left because we haven’t always handled conflict in healthy ways.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Like the early church, we can face disagreements head-on, with prayer and humility.  We can broaden our conversations to hear different perspectives, and we can use the gifts of Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason to help us discern what’s essential and what isn’t.  With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can emerge from conflict more unified, and more focused on sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with all people.  To paraphrase John Wesley, if we can’t think alike, can we at least love alike?  Can’t we be of one heart even though we aren’t of one opinion?  Without a doubt, we can.   So come, Holy Spirit, and make it so.  Amen.  

    

John Wesley, “Sermon 39:  Catholic Spirit,” https://www.resourceumc.org/en/content/sermon-39-catholic-spirit, Accessed 5/20/24.  



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