Previously on LA Law…
In my last post on the question of discernment, dear reader, we thought about how it was that Peter came to lead the church in a whole new direction.
According to the writer of Acts, he was the first to preach the gospel to people who weren’t Jewish (or Samaritan). He led the way there. He had a vision of new possibilities: something so shocking for him that at first he struggled to accept it. It was a really surprising thought for him. So surprising; so out of his comfort zone, that he saw that it must have come from God. And yet we also saw how it was also the next step in an ever outward trajectory on which Peter had already been travelling. For Peter, the authority of his vision was confirmed by the coincidence that followed. Immediately after waking from his ‘vision’ (nap/hallucination), he was invited to go into a place he would never have gone before.
But remember that when he got back, he shared that story with the whole church and together they worked out that this was not just for Peter, but for them all.
Job done. Decision made. But turn to Acts 15.1-35 and here we are just a few years later and it doesn’t look so settled after all. It’s not that people want to roll everything right back. They don’t want to stop sharing the gospel with people who aren’t Jewish. But some people are now saying that these new believers have basically to become Jewish. The men have to be circumcised and all of them have to keep the law of Moses.
Paul and Barnabas are really pretty cross about it. They were sent out from Antioch to carry on what Peter started. They’ve been seeing people who aren’t Jewish come to faith. Those people have been baptised in water. They’ve received the gift of God’s Spirit.
But now some people are saying they’re second-class. Not even that. No class at all. Unless they become Jewish, they’re still stoofed.
It’s a massive question for the Church. Sharing the gospel with people who aren’t Jewish. That’s okay. The Church had already got that far. But if they accept the gospel; if they come to have faith in Jesus; do they have to become Jewish?
In the end, the Church says, no they don’t. Their faith in Jesus is enough. But that’s not all. There is something new. These new believers who aren’t Jewish have to live in a way that won’t offend Jewish people who don’t yet believe in Jesus. It won’t be business as usual for them anymore. They don’t have to become fully Jewish. But it’s not alright for them to live like pagans anymore.
That’s really interesting in itself. But in the third session at our weekend away, we didn’t think so much about the decision itself as how the Church came to that decision. We were thinking about how we can be a community of discernment. So we looked at how the Church exercised discernment together.
Here’s a few things that we noticed…
- WE’RE NOT ALONE
This difficult question came up in Antioch. But it doesn’t get settled there. Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem. That’s where these people who were making life difficult had come from. Paul and Barnabas could have told them just to get lost. But they didn’t. They knew that their home church was part of a bigger family of churches. This was a question for the whole of God’s Church to answer together. Even though Paul and Barnabas were apostles, they weren’t free just to do their own thing. They needed to settle this question with all the apostles. I think that had two things to say to us in our situation:
1. We need to settle our questions together. We need each other in our little group: the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s! We’re in it together.
2. But we also need to test out our answers with the wider family of churches of which we’re a part. First, for us here, that means our sister church in Somerstown: St Peter’s. But our Anglican family includes other churches in the local cluster of parishes and the city deanery. And we recognise too in all this, the authority of the apostle who leads the mission in our Diocese: the Bishop of Portsmouth.
We’re not alone as individuals as we try to answer our questions. And we’re not alone as a community.
- OUR STORIES MATTER
This whole question erupted because Paul and Barnabas told a story. They’d just come back from their travels in Syria. They’d been sharing the gospel with people who weren’t Jewish. they’d seen them respond in the same way as Jewish believers had. They’d seen them receive the same gift that Jewish believers had. Telling this story when they got back to Antioch caused a big upset. It was just too much for the visitors from Judea. It sounded like Paul and Barnabas had lost it.
But Paul and Barnabas can’t keep it bottled up. They keep telling the story. They tell it on the way to Jerusalem. And all the churches in Phoenicia and Samaria get excited. They tell it to the whole church in Jerusalem. And they tell it again to the special leaders’ meeting that gets called.
And telling their story sets other people free to tell theirs. Peter shares his experience again. But it’s not just people who agree who tell their story. Those pharisee believers who find it all a bit much get a hearing too.
But finally, it’s James who sets all these stories in the bigger story of God’s love for God’s people. Everyone’s story matters. Those stories make sense when they’re heard alongside God’s story. So we need to share the story of what’s happening for us as get stuck in with what God might be doing in Somerstown. All our stories need to be heard. We need to hear each other’s joys in what we’re doing and share in that excitement. We also need to hear each other where our story is one of really profound difficulty with where we’ve got to. And we all need to agree that God’s story is the one that will help us make sense of all of that.
EXCURSUS: BEING CREATIVE WITH GOD’S STORY It’s really interesting how James handles that story. He uses Scripture. He uses the spiritual practices of his people; their Tradition. And he creatively reinterprets both.First James recalls a promise about the Temple as if it’s about Jesus. The temple was everything to the Jewish people. It was where God lived. It was where the people met with God. And there was a hope that one day everyone would come to know God by coming to God’s temple. That included people who weren’t Jews: the Gentiles.
Now Gentiles are coming to God. But they’re not going anywhere near the Temple in Jerusalem. They’re coming to know God through Jesus. Only Jewish people could come into the central parts of the Temple. But anyone can come to know God through Jesus. So the ban on people who aren’t Jewish coming to know God is irrelevant.
Second James reminds everyone that people who weren’t Jewish were allowed in the Synagogues. There were lots of people around who weren’t Jewish but who liked what the Jewish faith taught. These ‘God-fearers’ were allowed to be associated with the Synagogue community if they kept what was called the law of Noah. The law of Noah wasn’t as full-on as the law of Moses. It was Judaism ‘lite’. But it meant that these people who weren’t Jewish were at the same time, not pagan. They were not Jewish but their lives didn’t offend Jewish people.
So James puts these two things together in a brand new way. Gentile Christians had already come to know God through Jesus: the new temple. They could share in a mixed community if they kept the law of Noah. That way non-Christian Jewish people wouldn’t be offended by the gospel.
I think that should inspire us to look into the Bible and the Christian Tradition as we try to answer our own questions. Let’s bring our story and Gods story together in creative ways. We’ll discover new ways to be God’s Church. We’ll find new ways too to share in God’s mission.
- WE VALUE EACH OTHER
This all starts with a row. Things get a bit heated. ‘There was no small dissension.’ That could have continued. What Paul and Barnabas have been doing challenges everything that Jewish people hold sacred. It goes to the heart of their faith. It threatens to undermine the whole basis of the people’s covenant relationship with God. They could have been put on trial for heresy. Instead, they are welcomed by the whole church. Who they are and the story they tell is embraced by the whole community. They are generously welcomed. They enjoy the hospitality of the church in Jerusalem.
That spirit of hospitality is right there all through the proceedings. Generous welcome is what characterises the whole process of discernment. People don’t talk over each other. Everyone is heard.
Did you notice that it keeps saying so-and-so stood up. The pharisee Christians stood up to say their piece. Peter stands up to tell his story. This is people giving each other space and taking their turn.
- WE NEED SILENCE
The other thing we notice is that people need silence. When the special leaders’ meeting is called, they all listen in silence as people take it in turns to share their story. They’re not grumbling. They’re not whispering to their neighbours in the meeting. They’re not trying to interrupt with their own thoughts. They really and truly listen. They give their full attention.
It’s ever so easy isn’t it when we’re in a discussion not to listen. To spend the whole time while someone else is talking working out what we’re going to say when it gets to our turn. I can’t say from this reading that people aren’t doing that. It doesn’t get us inside their heads. But I’d like to think that they’re not.
Really, really listening isn’t just about being quiet and not speaking. It isn’t just about being quiet on the outside. Really, really listening is about being quiet on the inside. That’s incredibly difficult. But if we really want to hear God in what other people say and in ourselves, we need silence. We need the sort of silence that penetrates deep into our souls.
That sort of silence sets us free to be truly present to other people. It sets us free to be present to the moment we’re in right now. That sort of silence is a gift it takes a lifetime to cultivate. But it’s worth the effort.
- WE’RE ALL INVOLVED
When it comes to the crunch, it’s down to the apostles and elders to find a way forward. They’re the authorised leaders of the church in Jerusalem. It’s their job to listen to all the different stories and weigh them up. They work out what they think is right. They appoint people to take the decision to Antioch.
And even in that group, it looks like James has a special job. He presides over the meeting and sums up where it’s all got to at the end. He talks at the end about what he’s decided. He might be talking about his own personal point of view. Or he might be saying that this is what he’s decided on behalf of everyone.
I think that’s more likely. He seems to be the overall leader of the Jerusalem church. He is Jesus’s brother after all!
But despite all that, I still want to suggest to you that the whole church is involved in this discernment process. These leaders don’t take these decisions without the rest of the church. In fact the process starts and ends with everyone being involved. When Paul and Barnabas first arrive, it’s the whole church that hears their story. And it’s the whole church that hears the pharisee Christians object.
Next there’s this discussion among the leaders. They work out a way forward. But finally, it comes back to everyone again. The letter to Antioch goes with the consent of the whole church. So the leaders have authority. But they’re not authoritarian. Their authority comes from the whole church.
How does that work for our discernment? Well there are obviously authorised leaders in our setup. Alex and I have authority from the bishop. But decisions have to be shared with the church council – the PCC. The PCC’s authority comes from the whole church. They are elected by all the church members. PCC members have a responsibility to reflect the views of the whole church not just their own.
And so it’s perfectly appropriate for all of us together to consider how we go forward with some of the important questions that we are faced with.