The Antiochene NO!

(Read Acts Chapter 15 and then this reflection)

Times are challenging in the early Church. The new, but old first church in Jerusalem is up in arms about what’s going on up in Antioch, where bikers and tattoo artists and gypsies and hippies are coming to new life in Christ. They feel as though they are losing control, so they send up some scholars to preach and teach that all the Gentiles turning to Jesus must be circumcised. And we read that “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them.” Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall at that meeting?

Well, they along with other travel back to church headquarters to discuss things further with the apostles and elders (that would be those with decision making power). On the way they add some more enemies of Israel to the fold — Phonecians and Samaritans. Yikes!

They tell their stories of what God’s Spirit is doing to the faithful in Jerusalem. The leaders of a very Jewish Christian early church reiterate that circumcision is necessary to keep the law of Moses. Peter speaks up, reminding them that “if there’s anything we know, it’s that salvation comes through the grace of Jesus. There’s no distinction…we and they all need it, and they have the Holy Spirit just like we do. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

To which Paul and Barnabas jump in and share story after story of all kinds of people placing their faith in Christ. Then the most blessed words of the whole story come: “THE WHOLE ASSEMBLY KEPT SILENCE, AND LISTENED…” They listened, to Barnabus, and Saul, Peter and James, and they listened to the Holy Spirit. We know this, because those with power and under pressure to tow the Mosaic Law line changed their mind! They changed their mind!

They sent ,messengers with a letter back to Antioch, that said, “FOR IT HAS SEEMED GOOD TO THE Holy Spirit AND TO US TO IMPOSE ON YOU NO FURTHER BURDEN…”

The witness of what Willie Jennings called the “Antiochene NO” changed their minds. Here gentiles and Jews shared a new life in God’s grace and as a community were not willing to accept other qualifying necessities that nullified the saving grace of Jesus. This is God’s work, what God is doing in tearing down the walls between them, bringing them together.

This Gentile inclusion brings great joy and Holy trouble to the young church, governed by a people who understand themselves to be chosen and called out and blessed in a way that others are not. Now they must gulp hard, because it is in fact no longer that way, and never will be again, except that in Jesus Christ, the Messiah, ALL, everyone in the world, is chosen, and called out, and blessed.

Paul will relentlessly deal with this issue of the “Us and Them” being put to death in Christ. Here’s what he writes to the Church struggling with this at Galatia:

“Therefore the law (circumcision) was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:24-29)

It’s an amazing moment when the church moved ahead, and opened up to the ways of God. Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson reflects thus: “The text of scripture does not dictate how God should act. Rather, God’s actions dictate how we should understand the text of scripture.” This is important. In Acts 15, the church with great courage went with the actions of God, through the Holy Spirit’s inclusion of All humanity in grace’s invitation, rather than with the old law.

And this is why I will argue for inclusion of all people, because the God of scripture — the Creator of the Cosmos, the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, the Living Word who makes all things new, and the Holy Spirit’s surprising habit of including outsiders that never ends — our God is an inclusive God.

Remember that the Church had the courage to be quiet, and listen, and open up to what God was doing in the world, and say “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” and they gulped, and wrote a letter welcoming others for the first time.

May it be so, still, that we may be a Church with such courage in these our brief days. That Holy “Antiochene No!” coming to life in us helps the Church follow Christ out into the world.

Peter Hawkinson

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