A Simple Matter
Have you noticed that things tend to get more complicated over time? If you haven’t, perhaps some examples would help. Let’s start with the tax code. The original 1913 income tax law was 23 pages long and took about 400 pages to explain. Today, the law has expanded to over 5,300 pages requiring an additional 74,000 pages to explain. No wonder politicians from both sides of the aisle regularly promise to reform and simplify things! Or consider a business. Apple started with two computer nerds in a garage. Today it is the second most valuable company in the world (it recently lost the title of most valuable to Exxon), employing thousands of people, and is vastly more complex than it was in 1976. Or perhaps consider…churches. Most churches begin very simply. They have a vision and a message. Then over time are added programs and committees and policies and by-laws and buildings and furniture pieces and ministries all of which become enshrined both in structure and in placement such that the message and vision become a mere sideshow to the main event of tradition. And tradition is a complex thing. Or, how about following Jesus. That’s pretty simple at the start. Just live the way Jesus did and do what He said. Things tend, as they always do, to complicate from there. There are meetings to attend and services at which to worship and small groups in which to participate and service projects to lead and Vacation Bible Schools to put on and more meetings to attend and staying away from this and not watching that and so on and so forth. What begins with such glorious and elegant simplicity always tends to find a way to get complicated.
Indeed, we see this very thing in the history of the church. As we have worked our way through the greatest story ever told, we saw eleven weeks ago how the church began with such elegant simplicity. One hundred and twenty men and women, empowered by the Holy Spirit to make disciples. There was some persecution and some internal challenges, but these were resolved by clinging stubbornly to the simplicity of the movement’s birth. They boldly stuck to the message and mission of Jesus in the face of temptations to complexify. When this boldness sparked some persecution, they responded with more boldness. Eventually the time came to expand the movement. We saw that the Jesus movement was always intended to be an inclusive one. After all, “Christian” is an inclusive identity. This didn’t require any additional complexity, though. The believers kept doing the same kinds of things but simply did them with new and different people. They refused to leave their primary task of making disciples (which always requires a long-term investment in another person), never forgetting, as Peter reminded us a couple of weeks ago, that the Gospel always and only moves on God’s power. That all brings us to this morning. And I should say that if by chance you’ve missed any of the parts of this series you can go to the church’s website and as long as that website exists you can find every part of the series there.
This morning we arrive, not at the end of Luke’s history of the church but at the end of the heart of the story of the growth of the church. From this point forward Luke focuses his attention on Paul and his remaining two journeys throughout modern-day Turkey and Greece and some of the other Baltic States in order to make disciples there. Luke even travelled with Paul for some of these journeys. Before this second part of the story, though, something important happened. As we said just a few minutes ago, eventually things always get more complicated and more nuanced problems come into play for an organization. This final part of our journey through the greatest story ever told brings us to where the church is facing its biggest problem yet. On the surface the problem seemed to be about one thing (namely, should Gentile men have to be circumcised in order to be saved?). Behind the curtain, however, there was something entirely more important going on: what does it take to follow Jesus and how complex a thing is it going to be to take up such a journey? If you have a Bible with you in some form find your way to Acts 15. I want to close this series by telling you one of the most gripping stories we’ve yet encountered and along the way we are going to discover a principle that is absolutely vital for the church to grasp if we are to be about our chief task in the right ways.
Let me start by reading from v. 1: “But some men came down from Judea [to Antioch] and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” If you can remember back a few chapters to when we saw how the church first made some baby steps in the direction of the Gentiles, I told you then that the church up to that point in history was a Jewish movement. Prior to the conversion of Cornelius everybody who was a follower of Christ was a Jew. They all kept the law. They attended the Temple or a local synagogue. The men had all been circumcised. These were all the marks of a Jew. Now, though, as folks started flooding into the church who were not culturally Jewish, things began to get a little uncomfortable for the folks who were. Think about it: when you’ve been trained your entire life to think a certain way about some issue, it’s not an easy thing to suddenly begin thinking about the issue in a totally new way. Yes some of the leaders of the movement—Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and the like—had embraced the new normal, and yes, they weren’t directly opposed by the other disciples (after all, who would want to stand against a guy who raised someone from the dead?), but still, for the average Jewish church member, wrapping their minds around this new way of thinking was a slow process. Some struggled with it. Others just outright resisted it. There were some, though, who went beyond even this. They actively taught the opposite. Yes, Gentiles could be saved, but they had to become Jews first. And in case you missed the subtlety there, that essentially means that Gentiles can’t actually be saved. The Jesus movement was and always would be a Jewish movement. The old ways were best. All this new stuff changing the way things have always been done and letting people live however they wanted to wasn’t merely making them uncomfortable, it was wrong and it was going to destroy their church. And so again they were teaching that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
Now, would this have cut down on the number of people connecting with the church and therefore with Christ? Yes. Did this matter to them? No. They had put tradition and complexity ahead of fellowship and following Jesus with simplicity. Had you asked them, they would have counted themselves bold followers of Jesus who were committed to seeing the Gospel advance. But, it had to advance along the lines they saw fit or else it wasn’t going anywhere. I hope you can see that this was not how things ought to have been. This was actually a point of divergence with how the church had always been. It was consonant with tradition only in that it fit with their traditional way of doing and thinking about things. As a result, Paul and Barnabas opposed them. Luke describes the pair as having “no small dissension and debate with them.” Picture the most intense church business meeting you can, ratchet things up from there a bit and you’ll be close to what things would have been like. And yet, no resolution was attained. They needed to get the whole body of the church together with all the leaders in order to work this out.
Both groups set out for Jerusalem. When Paul and Barnabas arrived in the city they were greeted warmly by the leaders. They shared excitedly about all that God was accomplishing through them. The other group, however, had little Gospel advancing work to talk about, only that they were keeping these wild new believers informed of the deep traditions of the people of this movement. Paul and Barnabas’ report about the Gentiles coming to faith not including any notes about their becoming fully Jewish in the process was a bridge too far for these more tradition-minded folks. Look at v. 5: “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up…” Can you picture how that went? These committed believers who had been Pharisees before becoming followers of Jesus, had heard enough of this idle talk of people following their Jewish rabbi without becoming Jewish. And so they rose up. Can you hear the words of their spokesman? I have had about enough of this! “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” In other words, these new outsider converts, these people who are not like us coming into our church, must first become like us and embrace our traditions. They must understand the rich history of the movement to which they have given their lives. Then and only then will they be counted among the saved.
Here’s the kicker, though: The traditions of the Jews and the nuances of the law were ancient then and incredibly complex. There’s a reason there was a professional class of law-interpreters. It was complex. If these Gentile converts were expected to keep the whole law in order to be saved, there wasn’t much of a chance for them. It was bad enough they were being asked to embrace a totally new view of the world in taking up the lifestyle of a Jesus follower. These folks wanted them asked in addition to that to take on the full weight of the tradition that gave rise to it. They were getting one worldview for the price of two! All of a sudden, had these men had their way, something which was once very simple was about to become entirely more complex.
Over the course of the meeting each side of the debate made their case. The Pharisee party laid out the reasons for insisting on keeping the whole law. Rest assured, they were very good reasons. They would have spoken warmly about the joys of keeping the law. They would have told stories about when they came to realize what a beautiful thing the law was. They would have shared how it gave their lives a sense of clarity and purpose beyond themselves and they wanted for these new believers to experience the same clarity and purpose. And the church simply could not jettison this great body of tradition just because a few people were wanting to come into it who were struggling with understanding the need for it and living up to it. Doing good things is sometimes hard, but this doesn’t make them any less good. Then Peter took his turn and shared his experience of seeing the Holy Spirit come upon Cornelius and his household—thereby assuring they were in fact saved—before they had even thought about keeping the law. Paul and Barnabas spoke up to describe all they had seen God do among the Gentiles through them. A resolution, however, was not forthcoming. They needed a voice of authority in the church to speak up, weigh in, and propose a clear way forward.
There was indeed such a voice. James rose to speak. Everyone knew who James was. He was the brother of the Lord. His commitment to the law and the rich traditions of the Jewish people was absolutely unquestioned. He was known sometimes as James the Just because of the virtue of his character. His was a deeply trusted word. Both sides waited with baited breath as James opened his mouth. Listen to his words starting at v. 13: “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’” In other words, “God is definitely moving among the Gentiles. This is something He has been planning for a long, long time.” This was not such a controversial observation. Surely there were some in the church resistant to the idea of Gentiles even being allowed in in the first place, but even the Pharisee party was glad to see them become disciples…just so long as they did it on the right terms. What came next, though, changed the world.
Keep reading with me at v. 19: “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God…” In other words, “No, we shouldn’t ask the Gentiles to be circumcised and keep the law.” Does this mean he was throwing out tradition and agreeing that they should be able to run wild, doing whatever it is they saw fit?!? What would become of the church!?! He’s not finished. Verse 20: “…but [we] should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
So, what does this mean? First, let me spell out what James is saying here a bit more clearly and then we’ll talk a bit more about what it means. James is basically saying: “We don’t want to burden these new Gentile converts with obedience to the whole law. They didn’t sign up for that. That would be way too complex. Instead, let’s ask them to keep away from just a couple of things, one which is probably the biggest hang-up point for the Jews and one which is pretty necessary to help them make a clean break from their former way of life.” Now wait a minute: didn’t James spell out four criteria? Why do you say only two? When James talks about things polluted by idols, things that have been strangled, and blood, these all would have been part of various pagan worship rites. These three really all go together under the heading of idolatry. In other words, tell the Gentile converts to abstain from behaviors that point in the direction of idolatry. This was a really sensitive issue to the Jews who were infamously and aggressively monotheistic. In a polytheistic world their aggressive refusal to worship any God but Yahweh was what set them apart more than anything else. This was a really big deal and so while the Gentiles may have been able to go to the neighborhood barbeques (which is essentially what many of the idolatrous festivals amounted too) without falling into worshiping the local idols, this was going to be a sticking point for the Jewish Jesus followers and it was better if they stayed away. In other words: spend your time with your new church family. The second item, sexual immorality, doesn’t really need much explanation. Behaviors we would identify as sexually immoral were rampant and a huge part of the culture in first century pagan contexts. Given God’s pretty firm insistence on people keeping to the boundaries for sexual behavior He set in place in creation, this was a pretty big deal as well. In short, then, James boiled the whole law down to two things: stay away from idolatry and practice sexual purity. That’s it. Two things. And actually, with Paul’s later explanations that it really was okay to go to the barbeques as long as their attendance didn’t needlessly offend or lead anyone into sin, there was only one requirement. One requirement to follow Jesus. Be sexually pure and the rest will work itself out. That’s really…simple.
Think about what this did, though. Had James sided with the Pharisee party the church in all likelihood would have started to look a whole lot like first century Judaism which…wasn’t growing. It’s hung around for 2,000 years, yes, but today there are fewer Jews in the world than Southern Baptists in the United States. Instead, though, James resisted the forces of complexity and made things incredibly…simple. One requirement. That’s it. Be sexually pure. That’s so simple. It’s not easy. But it is simple. In fact, it’s so simple that it’s offensively simple. Our sinful nature (which is the source of complexity in our world) can’t stand this elegant simplicity. I mean come on. If following Jesus is that simple then anyone can do it. And if anyone can do it then we’re not so special for doing it. But we want to feel special. We want to feel like we’re part of the in crowd, that we’re in the know. And so we make things really complex so that it looks like we are in possession of some great secret and you have to be like us and jump through our hoops before we’re going to share it with you and until you do we’re better than you. That’s how the Pharisee party thought—it’s how a lot of believers think today—and James said, “No, no, no. Just one thing. One thing’s enough. We don’t want to burden people. We want to make it simple. Because, following Jesus is simple.”
In fact, this brings us to our big idea for the morning. If you don’t remember anything else about this morning, remember this one idea: Following Jesus is simple. Following Jesus is simple. This fact is part of what made the church so attractive in practice. Judaism was complex. There were 613 laws that you had to worry about keeping and then, depending on who you followed, there was a whole set of oral interpretations to worry about too. Paganism was complex. There was a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses you had to keep track of and keep happy and watch out for. But following Jesus? Simple. Following Jesus is simple. You just live like He did. Yeah but what about…what about…what about? That’s exactly what this meeting Luke describes in Acts 15 was all about: the “what abouts.” Their “what abouts” were different from ours, but that’s all they were. They wanted to make a “what about” the center point…but it was a “what about.” And James said: “Forget about the “what abouts.” Let’s keep things simple. Work on staying sexually pure and with the Spirit’s help all the other “what abouts” will work themselves out.” Following Jesus is simple. Now, this doesn’t mean it’s not deep. There’s plenty of depth. If you want depth, I’ve got almost 6,500 pages of depth here you can plumb and this is just theology and philosophy. If you want more I’ve got another 200,000 or so pages in my office to add to it. There’s depth aplenty. But deep doesn’t mean complex. Following Jesus is simple. It’s so simple that even a young child can grasp it and begin following. Following Jesus is simple.
And that sounds really nice, I’ll confess, but what does it actually look like in practice? How can we apply this idea in a way that makes a meaningful difference in our lives and in the lives of the people with whom we are trying to share the message? How can this help us create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ? Let me offer you one idea and then we’re out of here. If following Jesus is simple, then we need to make sure that getting to Him is simple too. We need to be certain that getting into our community here is simple. The Pharisee party wanted to put up a barrier to getting fully into the church that allowed them some control over the matter. If they were going to let these outsiders in, then at least they wanted to be able to control the flow and to keep the worst of them away. I mean, if we’re going to have to deal with people who aren’t like us, at least let’s make sure that they aren’t too much not like us. Right? Churches today do this same kind of thing in a whole variety of different ways. When churches have communities that are hard for outsiders to break into they are making things complex. When church members get hung up on anything other than the message and mission of Jesus they are making things complex. Those kinds of things must come second to fellowship and following Jesus in simplicity. When churches have expectations of new people that go uncommunicated and which diverge from generally cultural norms they are making things complex. They are creating burdens on people who are interested in following Jesus. They are creating artificial barriers to becoming fully a part of the body of Christ. Yet our job is to remove barriers. Following Jesus is simple. Now, this doesn’t mean there aren’t any requirements. Yet James settled on one: sexual purity. We can’t very well expect much more than James did. And, sexual purity is still pretty important and still pretty necessary so why don’t we settle on that? Let’s make following Jesus simple.
Let’s think about the kind of barriers and burdens we have in place that make following Jesus more complex than it actually is. Are there any kinds of people we’d rather not see here? Remember, “Christian” is an inclusive identity. Do we have places where our culture is significantly different from the culture of this area? Do folks new to the whole church thing have a lot to learn in order to get acclimated to how we usually do things? How could we alter these things in ways that would make them simpler? After all, following Jesus is simple. How can we change our approach to church from being the guardians of tradition to being the heralds of the kingdom? How could we change our attitude from being keepers of a secret to bearers of public news? And make no mistake: this is something about which we must be vigilant. The tendency of every organization will be toward complexity; toward making it an insider’s game. Yet following Jesus is simple. Following Jesus is simple. Let’s make things simple so that others will follow. In fact if you love tradition, why don’t we just follow in the tradition of our faith ancestors by being boldly committed to making disciples out of everyone, growing the church on the power of God with the help of a very simple message? Then we will claim our place in the greatest story ever told. Then we will see the story pass from our generation to the next and the next and the next and the next…until Christ returns. Following Jesus is simple. Let’s do it.