Reading: Acts 15:1-21
Everybody knows you need to have rules. If you are playing a board game you need rules. (remember them before computers) I’m sure we know somebody who the first thing they do when a board game comes out the box is grab the rules. Then an entire conversation enfolds as each person suggests their interpretations of the rules. Which ones really need to be followed and which ones can be bent a wee bit to allow a faster more fun-filled game. But oh no, Mr or Mrs ‘that’s no in the rules, ye cannae dae that’ just will not relax. If you are playing a sport you need rules. I have often been at a football match when someone close by seems to know all the rules better than the officials do. Notice I said seems to know because what is often nearer the truth is they haven’t got a clue and they just want everything to go their way. While Mr or Mrs ‘it’s ma baw, its ma rules and you’re not playing’ just will not relax. If you are a member of any organisation you need rules. There will always be somebody who wants to push things to the very limit, sometimes that’s good because it brings change sometimes it just causes the other members to snap. And then of course in all of these situations and more you will always find the barrack room lawyer who loves to impress with their endless wealth of who really cares knowledge. Mr or Mrs ‘law 67 section15, subsection 22g states……’ Whatever you are doing in life you need rules. We can all do different things with them. We can let them shape who we are or who we are can shape what the rules are going to be. We can stick absolutely rigidly to them so that others out with our group don’t know them and therefore they cannot become one of us or we can fashion them in such a way that allows others to get to know our ways and take them on board as their own. Having said all of that of course does not advocate a free for all but allows room for grace to filter in. We see this happening in our readings this morning. Men are sent from the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem. They have come to Christianity but they also believe they must hold fast to their Jewish code of Law. They felt that the gentiles would make this new way impure and to a certain extend they were right as the gentile’s outward behaviour suggested this was the case. Their purpose was to convince these gentile Christians they must follow the Jewish Law. By the time they arrived at Antioch they had gone even further teaching the people the customs of Moses. Stating that they would have to live by the Jewish Law completely or they would not be saved. Those who were teaching these things came mostly from the Pharisees, the strictest party among the Jewish people, and of course Paul himself was a Pharisee. Peter reminds them of his experience with Cornelius and his family who were non-Jewish. Peter learned then that God was not making distinctions between Jew and Gentile.
He told them not to place a heavy yoke around the new believer’s neck, a yoke indeed which their own people had difficulty carrying over the generations. The Laws were one thing but it was all the add on little rules that had been introduced that Jewish people had to obey, these were the things that made for a heavy yoke and apart from the Pharisees most people agreed it was too heavy for them to carry. Jesus himself, in Matthew’s Gospel, made reference to all of this when he said, ‘They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders.’ Peter found the yoke of Jesus to be light and not heavy. Why then enforce all these rules upon people when as Peter says even the Jews cannot be saved simply by obeying their rules. It is grace through faith that saves. Through the grace of Jesus Christ Jew and Gentile alike will be saved. Now it was Paul and Barnabas who took the floor and gave examples of times when the power of the Holy Spirit was at work showing that God was accepting of all who came to faith in Christ. The final speaker is James. His judgement is that it is not necessary for Gentile Christians to obey the entire Jewish Law. There is no other requirement for salvation he says. The one requirement is faith in Jesus Christ. Let no man add any other. James asks three things of the Gentiles. This he seen as a way forward in which they could remain in fellowship with one another. The things he refers to are the most offensive to Jewish believers and by abstaining from them the Gentiles would be avoiding unnecessary offence. He wishes them to abstain freely and there not to be any compulsion into doing so. They would abstain from these things not as a way of winning salvation for themselves but to show love for their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ. The Jewish brothers and sisters could show that same love in return by not being over demanding of theses Gentiles Christians. His closing remarks are a reminder that the law would not be forgotten. Gentile Christians could go and hear it and respect it. But the law was not necessary for obtaining salvation, for either Jew or Gentile. A fascinating glimpse into the politics of the early church. Ten years had passed since his first experience around this issue. By the time we get to the council of Jerusalem there may well have been more gentile believers than Jewish ones. The compromise is an attempt at removing barriers. It is a gentle reminder to all of us. God will move beyond the obstacles we put in the way of people coming to faith and knowing him.