Luke had already paved the way for the account we hear in Acts 15. Previous chapters in Acts relate how the Holy Spirit was at work among the Gentiles, bringing many into the Christian communities with the support and active welcome of leaders such as Paul and Barnabas. Yet no official decisions or rulings had been made by the councils of the Church. Acts 15 relates to this change.
The central figure in today’s reading is James, someone who, like the Council, largely disappears from our historical frame of reference after this, as Peter and Paul then bulk increasingly large. Earlier chapters in Acts had given spectacular descriptions of Peter and Paul’s change of heart and mind. James’ own metanoia (conversion) is perhaps even more crucial however. Whether, as the letter to the Galatians suggests, he was typically a strong conservative or not, he was certainly someone whom all groups respected. His words therefore helped tip the day.
Whereas Peter and Paul had come to see the Gentile issues as fundamentally related to salvation, James himself does not speak about that or about particular items such as circumcision. At the nub of James’ concern is rather the relationship of the Gentiles to Israel. In doing so he addresses the worries of the Pharisaical and other resistant groups in ways which might still be helpful for conservatives to consider today: namely looking again at what God is doing and what scripture might say if looked at, properly, afresh.
Firstly, James stresses that God is the initiator of what is happening. Just as he called Jews to be his special people, now God is doing something new, but very similar, with the Gentiles. The Gentiles can thus be saved without traditional ritual adherence. If God has so enlarged his heart, and drawn Gentiles into his embrace, why not Jewish Christians too? Then, secondly, James speaks from the scriptures, particularly the prophetic writings. Again, note well for later and our current controversies: as Ian Howard Marshall observed in his commentary, “Luke does not have James declare that `this thing'...agrees...with the prophets, so that the scripture text is the measure of how God can work, but the opposite: the working of God precedes the perception of the text's agreement." Scripture in other words is a living reality, not a dead hand on the present and future. For as Marshall also says, the quotation from Amos helps "bring out more clearly the way in which the progress of the church is in accordance with the Old Testament prophecies… God is doing something new in raising up the church; it is an event of the last days, and therefore the old rules of the Jewish religion no longer apply."
The upshot is that the Church, following James, decides not to ‘harass’, or ‘trouble’, the Gentiles any longer with those things unnecessary to God, even if they had been helpful to the faith community in the past. What a difference that made! Imagine too what a difference it might mean for some Christians to declare today not to ‘harass’ others in a similar way.
In the end, it seems that, for James and the conservative party, the turning point was to view the scriptural text in proper context – the context of God’s fresh workings – rather than as pretext: as a living inspiration not a deadening restriction. For again, note well, the Jerusalem Council’s decision was not at all a matter of setting scripture aside, but rather the reverse. The Gentiles were not given carte blanche to live exactly as they pleased but were instead set free to attend to those things which really matter: namely the heart of the word of God. Four restrictions were kept: “to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” The connecting link between each of these is perhaps partly to avoid idolatry. More importantly however, they are the minimum requirements for Gentiles which enabled them to learn more about the Scriptures. For, at this time, unless they were ultra rich and able to afford their own books, the only place people could attend to the Scriptures was in the synagogues. Far from being a small, but begrudging, limitation, this fourfold requirement was thus a positive welcome and encouragement to the Gentiles to flourish more fully in the community. Indeed, Luke says nothing about objections to this. It seems that the Gentiles were already happily observing them. So imagine if today we similarly stopped worrying about old burdens and isolated proof texts and, instead, encouraged everyone to engage more deeply and energetically with the Scriptures in whatever context we find ourselves.
Let me conclude with both a sombre and a hopeful note. For there is a deep sadness about the personal story with which I began. A few weeks after that sermon, when we returned after a college break, we saw our fellow student no more. Back in America, our friend had died from HIV/AIDS. The lessons of the Council of Jerusalem had no yet been sufficiently learned by either his church or society to assist him and so many others. Over thirty years later, whilst society has happily advanced, it is still possible to wonder how far we have really come as Church. Too many people have been excluded from our churches and continue to be so. Yet I know our friend’s witness was not in vain. It has helped to transform me, as it has helped to transform the Episcopal Church of the United States from which he came. So may the Spirit of God which moved the hearts of the conservative James and the establishment man Peter, as well as the radical Paul, transform all our lives today.
In the Name of the One who embraces the outsider and brings them home. Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for St Francis College eucharist, 18 May 2017