So I begin with an introduction. Acts 15 records the end of Paul’s first missionary journey, a journey that had a profound impact on Paul, and likely on the lives of everyone reading these words. As we read Luke’s stories, it is easy to forget that much of what we now think of as Christianity hadn’t been invented yet. They wouldn’t have known the word sacrament, nor would they have known trinity. There was no Prevenient Grace; grace wouldn’t be divvied up into distinct categories for hundreds of years, and it would be hundreds, if not thousands of years later before people understood that announcements should be given after the opening music set, but before the sermon. The early apostles were free-wheeling it: figuring out the gospel as they went.The story below re-imagines the account of the second great meeting of the early church leaders as they struggled to bring unity to their work. In the first such meeting, recorded in Acts 6, the apostles put forth the concept of division of duties in ministry – that is, how the work of the ministry should be accomplished. In the second great meeting, record in both Acts 15 and Galatians 2, the apostles and disciples clarified the very nature of the gospel.
Leaders take action. In fact, that is the defining quality of leadership. Not risk taking, not brilliance, not creativeness, but action. Great leaders realize their own limitations in these other areas, but choose to resist the passive urges that always accompany such self-awareness. They step out in faith, and course-correct as they go.
Arrogant leaders don’t recognize their own limitations–they insert themselves into leadership roles because they think they are more bold, brilliant, and creative than those around them. They step in because they think others are going to mess things up, and often end up addicted to control.
Paul had been such an arrogant leader. Zealous for his Jewish traditions, and confident that he knew God and God’s will for His people. And in his arrogance and zeal, he murdered many. At the time, he saw these people as more than blasphemers, he saw them as threats to the very core of Israel. They had deserved to die. They had needed to die. He thought about these men and women as he walked towards the city that had once been their home. Jerusalem. Their faces returning to his memory with each step he took; they were familiar faces now. Familiar because their expressions of fear, sadness, and … compassion, were burned into his consciousness, but also familiar because some of these people were husbands, wives, parents, and children of those he now called brothers and sisters, and it was to these companions of the faith that he had journeyed so far to see.
Jesus himself awoke Paul to his arrogant ways. Not “awoke”, in the sense of that gentle nudge your mom gave you when you didn’t get up for school in time, but “awoke” in the sense of being shot out of a cannon into the path of a marching band. With one, incredibly short conversation, in which Jesus spoke only thirty-nine words, his life was shattered. His arrogance turned into shame, his sense of righteousness transformed into an all-consuming awareness of his eternal and well-deserved damnation. He had been so sure of his right … no … his responsibility to defend the faith, to judge others on behalf of God, that he didn’t recognize God was here. Didn’t recognize that God had been walking the very streets that he walked, praying at the same temple he prayed at, and comforting the same people that … that Paul had passed right by.
It took three days of blindness for Paul to figure out that his well-deserved damnation wasn’t coming, the same amount of time it took Jesus to redeem the world–although Paul wouldn’t make that connection until sometime later. The idea that God would forgive him didn’t stun Paul. It might have, but Paul had studied God and now his eyes had been opened. He knew that his God was a god of love, mercy, and compassion, but knowing and knowing are two different things. In many ways, God’s forgiveness felt right–it was as if a long lost puzzle piece had been found and finally put into its proper place. No, God’s forgiveness didn’t stun Paul. What stunned Paul was that God had called him to leadership.
How could this be? His leader’s arrogance is what had heaped shame upon shame on his head. His arrogance that had hurt so many, and led him so far astray. How could God call him back to service in that same thirty-nine word exchange that revealed the full extend of his wickedness? “You will be told what you must do.” Paul knew this was a call, and Ananias had confirmed it.
But this was now some seventeen years in the past. Paul had learned that he had limitations, and he learned to temper that sense of infallibility of thought, at least he hoped he did. In his persecuting days, he sought to destroy those who showed themselves as leaders for Christ, now his goal was to find, teach, encourage, embolden, and release them. He now knew he was one man, but discipleship was a task for a multitude, and yet, the streak of pompous self-confidence still mixed itself into his thoughts at times. That streak that makes you know that you know you are right.
His journey had been hard, his obstacles many, and it was his confidence that gave him the strength to push through, and pull through. His confidence enabled him to step into a synagogue and share the gospel of Christ, ever aware of the violent reaction that could occur at any moment. His confidence enabled him to start down a road, not knowing where he might sleep that night. His confidence enabled him to sit in a prison, and not lose his sanity. He knew, that he knew, that he knew.
Paul was heading to Jerusalem for a confrontation. This sense of knowing how right he was, had driven him on this journey, but the memories of having this same self-confidence as he arrested and murdered so many innocent children of God haunted his thoughts. Had arrogance taken hold of him again? Was his planned confrontation going to hurt the church? Divide it? Cause a rift that would eventually drive away the many people he strove so hard to serve? Had Satan obtained a foot-hold in his mind?
“No! No! The foot-hold Satan is trying to gain is in my doubt and uncertainty!” he argued with himself. “Or is that the Spirit trying to warn me?” Paul paused for a moment. Paused, then looked up, and spoke aloud, as if to a close friend, “Lord, you have guided me thousands of miles, you have given me words and wisdom, guarded me from rocks, stones, and my own foolishness over and over. I ask you once again, to walk beside me today. I intend to use every gift and talent you have given me, for your glory. Please protect me from my own fears and my own foolishness. Amen.”
Paul was heading to Jerusalem because he had been forced to grow in his thinking. He was sent out to share the good news of Christ to the gentiles, and as he had gone about this often difficult task, he had come to realize that the good news of Christ didn’t depend on the rich traditions of his Jewish faith. The Greeks didn’t weave blue threads into the tassels of their clothing, but they still loved God. They ate shellfish and the meat from cloven-footed animals that don’t chew their cud, but still received the Holy Spirit. They didn’t get circumcised, but still gave their hearts and faith to Jesus. Paul had come to realize that faith and salvation were divorced from the tradition of his fathers, and the Mosaic Law God had set forth to tutor His chosen people until the time was right for Christ. He had brought the good news of Christ to countries, towns, and families, who had far different foods, music, customs, and traditions, and yet so many were now believers–were now his brothers in Christ. How different were the experiences of his brothers who were born Israelites, stayed in the land of the Israelites, and shared the good news only to Israelites? The separation of faith and tradition, they did not see. The outpouring of faith in such diverse parts of the world they did not see. This was going to be difficult.
The streets of Jerusalem were dusty, and smelly, like any other city, and yet they were uniquely Jerusalem. He loved this city, it was God’s city, but then again, it was God’s city–past tense. When the temple curtain was split, God moved into the world, just as the prophets said He would. God was here of course, and He had always been in the world of course, but God had come in the form of His son and He hadn’t been welcomed here as He should have been, and now Paul was no longer welcome here as he once had been either. He missed the city, though. He missed the sites, he missed the sounds, he missed the street vendors, and he missed the temple. It was a home that he could never again call home.
As he was taking his final few steps toward the house where he was to meet the disciples of Jerusalem, he saw into the window of a small home, catching a glimpse of a women making bread. He paused for a moment to say hello to a young boy, threshing wheat in a small alcove, and then he stepped in.
The home was dim, curtains being draw across the windows to give a modicum of privacy, and there they were: the apostles and disciples of Christ. It was OK if they want to remain in their traditions, if they want to remain bound in the old ways–God cares about hearts, not traditions, and He knows that change is hard. But these men were also leaders, and they couldn’t be allowed to bind faith in Christ to their brand of tradition. The Law was dead, and with that death, Christ had brought new life, and he wasn’t about to let these men take that life back way in their ignorance. And there, at the back of the room, was Peter.
He was so different from Peter, and at the same time, shared a bond with Peter. Peter had denied Christ at the moment Christ needed a friend the most–and then Jesus forgave him. Not only forgave him of that one sin, but by dying on the cross He redeemed him, paying the price for his full life of sin. Peter knew redemption, in the same way that Paul new redemption, and it was this mutual understanding that formed an immediate and unbreakable bond between these two so very different men. Peter was a brother and the de facto leader of the apostles, but oh … Peter was also Peter.
Paul was here to talk to the disciples, but he knew that it was Peter’s word that mattered, but how to convince Peter? While he had the heart of a lion, he was an intellectual pygmy; Peter’s nickname of “the rock” was appropriate in multiple ways. In Greece, Paul argued and debated rationally, in the manner of the Greeks. Minds could be swayed through a vigorous exchange of ideas–but this was not for Peter. In Israel, Paul influenced by lifting wisdom from the Scriptures, and wrapping it with a discourse of pure passion, but he could not out-passion James and his flock in Jerusalem. These men knew passion.
He had to find another way, and so he excused himself and stepped back outside to think.
Peter got uncomfortable the moment he noticed that Paul had walked in. He saw the expression on his face when he stepped through the door. Peter may not have been a genius, but he had the gift of discernment and what he discerned about what was going through Paul’s head troubled him. He had met Paul, gotten to know Paul, and on many occasions, had that unpleasant experience of being schooled by Paul. It is a paradoxical feeling to appreciate the wisdom and learning you received from someone, all while holding a bit of jealousy in knowing that you will never be as brilliant minded as your teacher. It didn’t help that what Paul schooled him on most, was the man that Peter spent three and one half years of his life with, and that Paul never met–except for that one time on the road to Damascus. On top of this, Paul’s complexity of thought and energy simply exhausted him sometimes. How could Paul have all that energy? It was frustrating but, again, Peter knew that this was Paul, and it was OK if Paul had complex ideas and energy, because that meant that Peter didn’t have to. Peter could be Peter, while Paul was being Paul, just as hands and feet don’t have to be the same, all while being part of the same body. Of course, it was Paul who shared this analogy with him. The man could drive him crazy.
He had an idea of what was on Paul’s mind, and in the back of his head, he knew that Paul would be right again when the discussions started. Paul was always right.
But darn it, this was his hometown, these were his friends, and these were the disciples of Christ who ate with him, slept with him, and watched him die.
Paul would not be telling them how to live. Not this time.
As he finished convincing himself of this in his mind, there was Paul in the room again, standing at the door.
“Peter,” Paul cried out, across the room. And again, “Peter!”
As Peter looked up, the shouting continued, “Peter! What is this in my hand?”
The room was dark, and Paul was partially silhouetted by the noontime light streaming in from the door behind him. It was hard to see what Paul was holding, and so Peter had to lean forward to make it out.
“What is in my hand Peter?”
“It looks like a threshing fork, Paul.”
“What is in my hand?” Paul repeated.
“A fork”, Peter replied, for the second time.
“What is it?”
“A fork …”
“What is it?”
“A fork!” Peter cried out in exasperation, to which Paul quickly continued “And what shall we have for lunch today?”
“A fork”, Peter replied, then stammered, “No, I mean Pork …”, and before he could stammer a second time, Paul cried out triumphantly, “Good! It’s settled then.”
And so in that moment, our faith was freed from its heritage. No longer intertwined with the ancient Hebrew laws and traditions, it was free to take root in Rome, Spain, India, … free to go forth to the ends of the earth.
During the meal that followed, James pulled Luke aside, telling him that if he writes a word of this discussion down, that he will no longer be a friend of his. “I love you brother,” replied Luke. For while our faith can be shared through tradition, it need be intertwined with nothing more than love.
The consensus wrought in the council of Jerusalem brought unity to the early church in their understanding of Jesus’ declaration that he came to fulfill the Law and, almost as significantly, wrought unity in their understanding of how to exercise this newfound freedom. The early disciples understood that traditions and teachings ingrained for a lifetime are not so easily washed away and, because of this, the final proclamation drafted by disciples urged sensitivity, as did Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome that struggled with the cultural differences among the Jewish and Gentile followers.
Given how much culture and tradition is woven into the fabric of the expression of faith of every believer, the wisdom espoused by these early believers continues to hold merit, even today.