Acts 15:1-2, 6-12
Listening to the Spirit
What we have just read are some of the most important texts in the Bible! We all individually need to understand what they teach us to get through every day of our lives; and we as a church need to understand what they teach us to know how to be the church that God calls us to be. We all have many needs – for hope, for encouragement, for strengthening, and for guidance. These texts are about guidance; about discerning the will of God – and it is my experience that when we feel that we have discerned the will of God, we are encouraged and strengthened as well. We will look at both texts, then see how they apply to us today.
Jethro’s Advice to Moses
First the story of Moses and the advice of his father-in-law, Jethro. First Jethro asked him what was happening, and the way Moses described it, the people came to him “to inquire of God” (v. 15). God’s guidance is what they were seeking, and Moses was the man whom God had called to lead them and teach them God’s will.
The situation, you will recall, is that Moses has just led the people out of slavery in Egypt to liberation – but they were in the wilderness still. It was clear to everyone that Moses was a powerful leader, that God spoke to him and that he spoke for God, and so it was healthy and good for the people to want to hear God’s word to them, individually through Moses.
From beginning to end, Moses’ role is that he is a mouthpiece for God. This is chapter 18 of Exodus; the very next next thing that happens as chapter 19 opens is that Moses goes up to Mount Sinai and receives from God the Torah, the 10 Commandments and the other statutes and ordinances that will form and guide the community from that moment on – even to today. So Moses’ role as a leader who heard the voice of God and who communicated God’s will to the people was of utmost significance.
But Moses’ father-in-law Jethro said (v. 17) “What you are doing is not good.” Why? Because Moses had taken upon himself the task of interpreting God’s will to each individual person – and it was simply too much; there were too many. Jethro did not use the modern way of saying it, but in effect, his advice was, “you need to set appropriate boundaries; you will suffer burn-out; you need to learn to delegate.”
Jethro’s advice was very sophisticated in an important way because it framed Moses’ continued ministry of communicating God’s will, as in fact it came to be, and has been for thousands of years: Moses had the role of teaching Torah; the specific implications of torah then could be taught by people who were able interpreters. Listen again:
(Jethro said) 20 teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. 21 You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves.
Moses had the role of teaching the “statutes and instructions” that is, Torah, and the able men were able to interpret torah for the people.
There are several important truths at work here: one is that God’s voice is mediated through Torah, through the scriptures; God continues to guide his people by means of his Word. We believe that and rely on that fact today.
But God does not only speak through Moses, he speaks through other members of the community as well who can apply the teaching of Torah to specific individual cases. These people who interpret Torah for the community are not chosen at random, or on a round-robin rotating basis; nor are they selected because of their wealth or positions of power like tribal chiefs. Rather they are qualified by spiritual character qualities. They are people who first and foremost “fear God” in other words, their piety, their spirituality is evident.
Anybody could claim to fear God or pretend to, but their fear of God, is proven by their visible lifestyles – and it is interesting that money comes into the picture here. How do you prove your spirituality? By your bank statements. These men demonstrate that they meet the criteria by being people who are “trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain.”
God will give his people the guidance they need for their daily lives by first giving his words of instruction, his Torah, to Moses, who will teach it to the people. And then God will speak through members of the community – not just priests and prophets – but able people who are sensitive to the voice of God, spiritually alive and alert people, all the way down to the level of one in ten. Sounds like a small group system.
What have we learned from this text? We understand that God speaks to us and guides us first and foremost through Torah, through scripture. And we believe that God continues to speak to us through spiritually sensitive people within our community.
The Jerusalem Debate
Now we are ready to engage the New Testament story in the book of Acts. Let me set the stage. Jesus has been crucified and has risen from the dead, and has told his disciples “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Events have proceeded for the early church exactly as Jesus predicted. They did receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. It was the day of Pentecost and suddenly the Holy Spirit of God came upon them, enabling them to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in languages spoken by many different people – and 3,000 Jewish people who had grown up outside of Israel and were native speakers of other languages all heard the gospel in their own tongues.
Then, the gospel spread out from Jerusalem just as Jesus had predicted. The Holy Spirit kept empowering witness in all of Judea, and then further into Samaria, and eventually into the non-Jewish cities of the Roman Empire like Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae, Corinth, and Philippi. New churches were springing up as the apostle Paul and his coworker Barnabas made their missionary journeys.
But even though Jesus had predicted it, this whole business of gentiles being converted was starting to raise eyebrows back at headquarters in Jerusalem. Jesus was Jewish, the apostles were all Jewish, they worshipped and prayed and lived according to the law of Moses, the Torah – they were circumcised, they kept the Sabbath, ate only Kosher food – which is what they understood God required of them – none of which was true for the gentiles.
The question that had to be settled was, could a gentile be a Christian without first converting to Judaism, being circumcised, keeping Sabbath and obeying Kosher laws? this is what v. 1 says:
1 Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
This was not a small problem; it was huge. Luke politely describes it as no small dissension and debate” (v. 2) “No small dissension” means a Big dissension; and debate means that people were passionately committed to arguments and made them with all the force they could muster. It was a conflict. Acts 15 is about the first church fight. There were two sides, and they did not agree.
How to receive Guidance
Step back from the scene just for a moment and notice this: they needed God’s guidance. This is the whole point: how in the world is God going to guide them in this discussion? How does God guide us, today? Watch what happens.
First, some people appeal to scripture. They bring up “the custom of Moses” – which simply means the life style required clearly in the words of Torah, that is, scripture – which leaves no doubt: required is circumcision all the rest of it.
No one would challenge the role of Torah; there would be no Jewish faith without it. And yet, though Torah is the first word, it is not the last word. The words of Jesus must be taken into account as well; he predicted the spread of the gospel beyond Jewish borders. But he left open the question of what the conversion of gentiles would entail. He never commented on whether gentiles should be circumcised when they accepted the good news of the gospel.
So how should the matter be decided? What happens next is powerful and amazing. It is that the community gathered for that intense debate listened first to Peter’s testimony, and then to Paul and Barnabas.
v. 12 The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.
We did not read the whole chapter, so I will summarize the story: Peter, Paul and Barnabas, reported the experiences of new Christians around the entire Mediterranean. These uncircumcised gentile people responded to the message about Jesus, believed, and the Holy Spirit of God came upon them just as it had done on the apostles on the day of Pentecost, thus confirming that this was the work of God; and circumcision was not a barrier at all.
James stood up and summarized the conclusion that the Jewish Christians should “not trouble” the gentiles who were turning to God – code for not requiring circumcision – trouble indeed.
Again, step back and see what has just happened. People of faith bear witness to the work of God in their own lives, their experience of God, and that testimony is taken seriously in the process of discerning God’s will.
This is exactly what we believe today: that God still speaks, leads and guides us most powerfully as we gather as a community of faith to debate and discuss and share our stories of God’s work in our lives. We believe we discern the voice of God through our community. It is not cut-and-dried. It is not black-and-white. We do not all agree. Sometimes there is “no small debate.” But we believe that God guides us, by his Spirit, through this messy, inefficient community process.
What are we here at the First Presbyterian Church in Gulf Shores, Alabama to do? How are we supposed to do it? Should we repeat exactly what we have done before? Should we change? What is our mission and what actions help us to accomplish that mission most effectively?
Scripture sets our agenda for us: we listen to scripture first. But that only goes part way towards practical guidance. We know we must worship God, according to scripture, but nothing is said about organs or guitars. We know we should minister to the poor and oppressed, but which mission should we give more support to? We know we need to communicate our faith to the next generation: how?
Survey: listening to you
We believe that this is an important moment in the life of this congregation, in which we who are leaders in this church must hear from you. We need to hear you report your experiences, your perspectives, your individual opinions about this congregation. In order to facilitate our listening, and to give it some order and structure, we have worked hard to produce a survey.
As you leave today you will see envelopes organized alphabetically. If you are a member, your name is on an envelope, and inside is the survey; each member gets one, not just each family – but each individual. Members who are not here will receive their surveys by mail after a second opportunity for picking them up here next Sunday. Inside the envelope is also a stamped return envelope. We hope that you will complete the survey this afternoon and return them by mail to the church on Monday. Some of you may wish to save the church the postage expense by filling out the survey here before you leave today. In any case we will wait a bit for surveys to be returned before tabulating the results.
What we expect
We expect that there will be differing opinions. We do not all look a the world the same, we have different tastes, different backgrounds, different ways of thinking – just as the apostles did in Jerusalem. But we believe that by listening to your experiences, we will be able to hear the voice of the Spirit.
This is Graduation Sunday in which we ask God’s blessing on our graduates as they leave behind one newly completed part of their lives and move to the next. Graduates are always future-focused. The immediate next step has already been worked out – for our graduates, it is more school. But the future after school is less certain. There will be decisions to make about jobs, marriage, locations, a host of decisions. How will you graduates know what God wants? You will listen first to Torah, to scripture. Let your agenda be God’s agenda: Jesus’ agenda. And then you will listen to the wise counsel from your community – family, school staff, colleagues – and you will look at your own experience of God’s past work in your life – and then you will make decisions, trusting that God is guiding you; and he is.
This is how all of us live, making decisions about everything from our purchases to how we will manage our later years. We will listen to scripture, and to the interpretation of scripture by godly people, and then hear the witness of those who have walked the path ahead of us. And God will be at work in the process, guiding us by his Holy Spirit.