Acts 15: 1-18
May 2, 2021
Last week, the story of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch on the wilderness road underscored the expansive embrace of God’s love and the anticipated response we are to have to it.
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In the chariot, the eunuch modelled the inquisitiveness that is essential in growing spiritually and in developing a faith-fueled sense of discipleship. On the other seat in the chariot, Philip modeled the welcoming actions that illustrate the inclusive nature that should mark life in a faith community.
Last week, the passage dealt with whom should be considered a member of the faith community and with the appropriate response from the community itself.
Near the end of the passage, the pair spot a pool of water off to the side of the road and the eunuch asks: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
The answer … we learn from this moment … is nothing.
If your faith … if the Holy Spirit … brings you to join the community, then nothing should be placed in your way.
As the word spreads outward from Jerusalem to the ends of the known world, faith is bringing more and more people into the community of believers.
Paul and Barnabas had been operating in Antioch – a community near the present-day Turkish-Syrian border. The community was a hub of outreach activity to a largely Gentile population.
Just before today’s reading, the pair told the church in Antioch “all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles.”
Nothing stood in their way … maybe something did.
Today’s passage opens with the appearance of some teachers from Judea … Luke calls them “certain individuals” … who have arrived in Antioch and want the Gentile members of the congregation to be circumcised in order to meet the conditions of God’s covenant with the people and to be saved. A growing congregation is all well and good, but, shouldn’t these new members be circumcised, as well, this group asks Paul and Barnabas.
If they’re not circumcised, as tradition dictates, then how can they claim to be God’s chosen?
To them, baptism isn’t enough.
You can almost hear the elders and the Pharisees defending their position with the phrase, “This is the way we’ve always done it.”
Despite the discussion and the instructions from the visitors from Judea, nothing is settled in Antioch. So, Paul, Barnabas and a handful of others are instructed to return to Jerusalem and report on their progress and discuss the circumcision question with a council of elders and faith leaders.
Along the way, they share the news of the conversion of so many Gentiles when they stop in Phoenicia and Samaria.
The ranks of the faith community keep swelling and, while such an occurrence seems like it would be a cause for joy, for some of the elders and for the Pharisees, it is cause for concern and perhaps even anger over all these newcomers being welcomed with so few conditions being placed on them compared to those expected of previous generations … particularly, when it comes to things that set the community apart.
After all, circumcision was part of the covenantal agreement Abraham and his descendants have with God. According to the Book of Genesis, circumcision was the mark of the covenant … it was an identity marker for generations to come. If the person isn’t circumcised and follows the law of Moses, how can they claim to be a member of the faith community these certain individuals ask?
How can their identity be established to others in the greater community? How can they be set apart?
This opens the door to a debate on what are the prerequisites for salvation and what marks a person as a member of the faith community … and their place in the greater community.
If they already have the faith in God, do they also need to be circumcised?
For modern audiences or congregations, the questions are what expectations do we place on people who feel called to join our faith families? Is being faithful enough?
And … just as importantly … do our expectations keep people from coming into community?
In addressing the council of elders in Jerusalem, Peter advocates for full inclusion of anyone who wants to join the community of believers … no conditions other than carrying faith within their hearts is necessary.
As Peter declares, God already knows a person’s heart and makes no distinction between Jew and Gentile … and God has already cleansed the hearts of those who are coming into the community. People are not set apart … they are joined together through their faith and through the actions of the Spirit.
Near the conclusion of today’s passage … after Peter, Paul and Barnabas spoke … James offers a final thought. He calls on the council to consider that it has been god’s will to include the Gentiles? What if God is keeping the promise to Abraham by bringing the Gentiles into community in order to offer them salvation?
What will identify them as members of the faith community is their heart-led, faith-filled actions toward others, not their willingness to lose their foreskin.
In short, faith binds the community together.
Right now, as we journey through the pandemic … perhaps we can spend some time reflecting on our faith communities’ identity … on the expectations we place on others called to our doorways … to consider if checking the right boxes has become our priority rather than modeling Paul and Barnabas and celebrating those who come by faith.
We can … as communities of faith … consider what traditions and practices are just window-dressing or that serve to alienate or isolate newcomers. What happens when someone outside our respective communities responds to the Gospel?
We can’t deny that the pandemic is forcing changes upon faith communities.
There is palatable sense of fear of loss … of losing practices and structures that marked our lives of faith in pre-pandemic times. That same sense serves as the motivation for “certain individuals” in today’s reading.
In discussing today’s passage, Lutheran scholar Rolf Jacobson notes that the situation in Antioch and the region outside of Jerusalem is not one of loss, but is really one of gain. It’s one in which God is bringing about a future that is not less, but of more by bringing in these people.
When we exit the pandemic, I pray that we become less concerned with ensuring that members of our faith communities check off all the right boxes according to our preferences and become more concerned with welcoming them as the Spirit moves them in through our door and living into the faith into which we are called.