(Preached at Muncie Friends Memorial Church)
Reading Acts 15:
I love business meetings. Very often I’d choose a business meeting over a meeting for worship. Too often, what people call worship seems to be more about us than about God — but a meeting for business is special. A meeting for business, for me, is a time of prayer where the group seeks God’s will together. We ask what God wants of us, and we struggle with our understanding of God’s voice until we discern. In our time of prayer, God changes our hearts, so that we can become obedient.
You see, I am a resurrection Christian. I believe that Jesus was raised from the dead — and God is with us. I believe that God has not abandoned us — and that we can hear God. I recognize that I’m not too good at hearing God’s voice. I try to explain things away, I try to justify what I want. I want God to be on my side so much that at times I’m not careful to be on God’s side. I need community to help me discern. I see this help most fully in business meetings.
One might say that I have a high view of business meetings. I have a high view of scripture — but, I recognize that God didn’t write down the names of the books of the Bible in stone, and hand them to an undisclosed leader of the early church… no, Christians struggled with the idea of scripture for some time. The list was finalized, after many years of discussion… few of us, for example, have read the “Epistle of Barnabas,” or “Shepherd of Hermes”, “Clement’s epistle to the Corinthians” or “The Apocalypse of Peter”. All of these were once widely read, and Christian communities recognized each of these writing as sacred scripture. Any faith that I have that our scripture was rightly identified is a belief that the Christian community can rightly discern God’s voice. The same is true with my understanding of what it means for Christ to be divine, my understanding of the Trinity, and many other issues. The creed which the church uses came out of the Nicene council and the council of Constantinople. Our understanding of Jesus as fully human and fully divine was described at the council of Chalcedon. I have a lot of respect for these business meetings — so much that I say with the church: “We believe” — so much, that I, with the rest of the Christian world, read our scriptures.
One difficulty with such a high view, the belief that we meet together to find God’s will — and God will bend our hearts and minds is that I go to business meetings and I find myself disappointed. I find myself with a lot of stubborn people who speak before listening. It seems they are not open to listen, even if God speaks directly. They don’t pray for God’s will to be done, but that God will honor their wills. I go in expecting a miracle and find human pettiness. Why is it that I don’t give up?
The funny thing, for all the important things business meetings have brought us — things that we do not even question, we very often dread them. In my life, I’ve been to a few meetings where I’m convinced God’s was there. I’ve seen God bringing salvation to a group that would only survive with God’s grace. I believe, not only because of what meetings have handed down to me, but because I have seen — but, Even I, who love the opportunity to seek God’s will together dreaded yesterday’s meeting. (I will report that it was not THAT bad… but, it was more about compromise than seeking God’s will for us as Friends.)
Oddly enough, even though so many important things happen when we discern God’s will together — the New Testament does not include bylaws. Not only are there no bylaws, but there is only one, maybe two, business meetings. If there is a model meeting, it is what was described in Acts 15. When I read this description — I see a meeting called because of tension in an expanding church. Perhaps James serves the role that we think of as clerk. There are representatives from both Jerusalem and Antioch, and after much heated argument and much prayer there is a minute written and an epistle. It could easily be one of our own Yearly meeting Representative sessions.
The topic of the meeting was how do we interpret scripture when it talks about living in a right way before God. Some said, agreeing with scripture, that God’s people needed to become circumcised, change their diet avoiding unclean foods (such as pork), others felt that it was excessive to ask Gentiles to essentially become Jews before they were able to come to God. The evidence that God had come to them was overwhelming… (Does scripture have more authority than the God who gave us scripture?)
The agreement was basically a compromise. Circumcision would not be required, nor would the gentiles be required to become Kosher — however, they would be still be required to change their diets. How meat was butchered became important — the sense of the meeting is that the prohibition against eating blood was universally in effect. They also called on the Christians to avoid meat that was sacrificed to idols. This means that you cannot simply go to the market and buy meat, because much of what was for sale was meat butchered as a sacrifice.
So, what happened after this? As this happened before any books of the New Testament were written — we get a pretty good idea of what happened, simply by reading the New Testament. Acts tells the story where Paul this argument continues — even though it was decided in a business meeting. Those who disagree start riots, Paul is arrested because those who insist that even gentiles must be circumcised rile up the crowds saying Paul is against the law.
Reading Paul’s letters, he is always writing about the our relationship with God, and with Torah. He defends the idea that salvation by grace is not dependent upon our complying with the law. Eventually, one might say that Paul goes against the council as he calls those who refuse meat, eating only vegetables “weak in their faith.” in Romans 14. Clearly Paul did not see this as a law to follow, but a courtesy to those who felt scandalized by other people’s diets.
Over time — Paul’s side won. I know there are meat eaters here — how many of you ask in which way the meat was butchered? How many of us would be scandalized if there were blood in the meat? After all the prayer and discussion, after discernment, either God or was it the people decided to do something else.
I still have a lot of respect for business meetings. I love the things that they have taught me about God. I love that someone told me what writings are worth reading — and some basics about the nature of God. I believe that if we believe that God is working with us — this struggle to discern God’s will is worthwhile. I am also thankful that the writers of scripture gave us this essentially failed meeting as our model. When, after much discussion, the best we can do is compromise — we cannot discern and act on God’s will — I see that not only have we attempted something worthwhile, but that when we fail — we are in the company of giants. When we succeed — we’ve met something truly miraculous.