READ: Acts 15
THINK: Acts 15 is a turning point chapter. It tells us the story of one of the seminal moments of the early church that absolutely shaped the direction and future of Christianity. And the decision that is made is laid out with crystal clarity. But there is a catch, a massive problem with Acts 15 and it is this: over the centuries the church has constantly reverted to the type of thinking and behavior that led to up to this moment. Church history and churches all across our nation and our world today serve up countless examples of groups of Christian believers who totally missed the big idea of Acts 15. And whenever and wherever that happens the gospel message of Jesus Christ is obscured and hindered.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Most of the early converts to Christianity didn’t consider themselves converts at all. They were Jews who simply accepted the truth that Jesus was the Messiah so they weren’t changing faith or religion at all. And they continued to worship at the Temple and follow all of the Old Testament laws because they still saw themselves as Jews. But then guys like Paul and Barnabas went out and shared the message of Jesus throughout the Greek and Roman world and all-of-a-sudden there were all these Gentiles joining the Jesus movement. And they definitely saw it as a conversion. They were leaving paganism to become followers of Jesus.
But the question that everyone faced was: what are they converting to? To Judaism? Cause that didn’t just mean hundreds upon hundreds of rules and laws. It also meant surgery for the men. Painful surgery. But it makes total sense that there were those in the church who felt they needed to convert to Judaism. We tend to look back, with the hindsight of knowing how it played out, and judge the people who thought that as Pharisees who just couldn’t let go. And many of them were Pharisees. But they weren’t illogical, or crazy, or trying to actively prevent people from finding Jesus. They simply had a very clear idea of what they thought following God meant and couldn’t imagine anybody else claiming to follow God without living out that idea.
So the debate – do Gentiles have to convert to Judaism and get circumcised in order to be a part of this community of people who follows Jesus. And the Disciples and Elders in Jerusalem talk about it for a little while and then Peter and James – the brother of Jesus and the most highly respected leader in the Jesus Movement at this time – both speak. And their words are powerful and of the utmost importance to us still today
Peter says, “Yo, we didn’t even keep the law. We’re acting like they gotta be perfect in order to join up with us and the burden of perfection isn’t one any of us have ever lived up to. And it’s not a burden Jesus saddled us with. Ever. He said it was about faith in him. So, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that following Jesus is about faith in him. Not participation in ritual or anything else. Solely through faith.”
And then John says – and I love these words because the simplicity is beautiful, “Well, they need to be careful what they eat around Jewish brothers and sisters so as not to be offensive, and they need to guard themselves against sexual immorality. That’s just good stuff to do for the sake of the community. And then, yep, that’s it. That’s the whole requirement. Just believe in Jesus. We should not make it difficult for these guys to get to know Jesus and be a part of his movement!”
We should not make it difficult for those on the outside to get to know Jesus and be a part of his movement. How many of our churches can say that we don’t make it difficult? How many of our churches can say that we are more passionate about the needs, desires, and comfort of non-churched people than we are with churched people? How many of our churches are passionate about making it easy for people to come to Jesus…and how many are passionate about correcting behavior and getting people to live right so that they can then join our communities?
The simple answer – and its measurable, empirical, and palpable in our churches – is that so many churches today like so many throughout history have lost the plot. So many of them are built for church people and before non-churched people can really walk in the door and feel at home there are conditions that they need to meet. And I know what you’re thinking right now: “Well, probably lots of churches are like that. But not mine. We’re welcoming.” That’s super duper. It’s also probably a terrible lack of self-awareness. How many non-Christians do you have coming through the doors on a Sunday? And especially how many marginalized and messed up folks? How many of them are plugging in to your community because they feel at home, and honestly how many of them would be welcomed with open arms even if they wanted to plug in?
It’s so easy to look back at the Pharisees and say, “Wow. I can’t believe they still didn’t get it after they knew Jesus.” But for thousands of years many in the church have walked in their footsteps rather than Paul, Peter, and James’s. Part of us is still convinced that if we can change people’s behavior through pressure or legislation then the behavior modification will lead them to Jesus and make them good enough to be a part of our churches. And the gospel is the exact opposite. It says the church is for everyone and all people are welcome to come and connect and we’re never good enough to merit the cross but meeting Jesus is the only thing that ever changes who we are and how we live.
If our churches are passionate about welcoming lost people, about breaking down walls and barriers that keep them from connect with us and with Jesus, and about removing anything and everything that creates hurdles in them finding Jesus than we’ve missed it. If we’re more concerned with our comfort and our preferences than we are with the comfort and preferences of the lost then we’ve missed it. If we’re asking or expecting people to be good enough before they connect with our community then we’ve missed it. What is “it”? It is this: Faith in Jesus alone saves. And the church is the instrument God has chosen to bring that message to those who need saving.
PRAY: Ask God to help you be self-aware today, and to show you your Pharisaic attitudes towards church and lost people and what they need to do before they can come and be fully welcomed by you and your community. Confess the times when you haven’t had a welcoming spirit. Confess the times when you’ve been a stumbling block and wanted to do church for church people instead of for lost people. Confess the times when you’ve expected people to obey laws and rules that you’ve personally struggled to obey. Close by asking God to forgive you and give you his heart for the lost.
Amen! James’ words mean so so much to me, not only in my personal witness- but even more as I work in and for a church! Let us not make it difficult! How very wise! Love this so much! Really makes me realize how much more grace I need for new believers also. Thank you for these words today!