Playing Catch-Up

by David Baer, May 14, 2017

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Text: Acts 15:1-18

Last fall we adopted an adorable, energetic three-year-old beagle mix named Baxter. He is a very good dog in many respects. He’s learned how to walk on a leash, how to sit, how to wait for permission to go at his food. There’s just one problem: he suffers from an incurable case of happy feet. If there is an open door to the outside, Baxter will bolt through it and be halfway to Waldwick by the time you realize what’s happened. I’ve chased Baxter through the wooded areas behind our neighbors’ houses, and across Franklin Turnpike in the middle of a white-out blizzard. I’ve tried bribing him with treats, calling his name, pleading with him—but once he looks back and sees I’m on his tail, he puts on an extra burst of speed, and away he goes. Only two things can bring his wild romp to an end. The first is due to his being very sociable: while he won’t stop for me, he will stop to chat with any other person or animal he happens across. If he does that, and the person has the presence of mind to grab his collar, I can catch up. The second way to catch him is a lot harder–it happens when he makes a blunder and strays into an enclosed area where I can finally corner him. When Baxter wandered through the open gate of our neighbors’ fenced-in yard, I knew I had him at last. But it is always, always the case that when I finally catch Baxter, it’s because of something outside of my control. When he bolts out of the front door, I know all I can do is try my best to keep up until I catch some kind of a break.

Sometimes it’s God who races ahead of us, wild and uncontrollable. That’s how it was for the early church. Today’s story from the book of Acts is about how the church found itself running to catch up with what God was doing.

In order to understand this story, you have to realize that nearly all of the people who followed Jesus at the start were Jews. And being Jewish meant that there were certain practices that marked you as belonging to the family of God. There were holidays you celebrated. There were foods you could and foods you couldn’t eat, and particular ways those foods had to be prepared. And one of the most important marks of Jewishness was the circumcision of males. This was a big, big deal. About a century and a half before Jesus, a Greek emperor had banned circumcision and outlawed the Torah, and the Jewish people rose up in a successful revolt against him. Being a distinct people, a holy people, God’s own people, and being able to show it through your lifestyle was something worth fighting and dying for.

But one day Peter had a vision that led him to the home of a centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius and his household were not Jews, but God had prompted him to invite Peter to come and preach in his home. When Peter did this, the Holy Spirit came over Cornelius and his household the same way it had come over the apostles at Pentecost. They began speaking in tongues and praising God. Peter was astounded to see that God made no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. God was able to give all people the gift of forgiveness and new life through Jesus. You didn’t have to become Jewish first. And maybe that ought to have settled it… But as it turned out, not everybody agreed.

Today’s story opens with a group of Jewish-Christian believers coming into the church in Antioch in Syria. In that church there were Jews as well as others who were from the more cosmopolitan Greek-speaking culture. But these agitators take a hard line, telling the men who are members of that congregation, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” We’re told that there was “no small dissension and debate” between these activists and Paul and Barnabas. (One scholar says that this is the polite way of saying that they were throwing things at each other.) The community decided to send Paul and Barnabas to the apostles in Jerusalem for a definitive answer. On the way they stopped at church after church, and they got everybody fired up in favor of Gentile ministry. (I don’t know if all this politicking influenced the apostles’ decision, but it certainly didn’t hurt!)

When they get to Jerusalem, the apostles welcome them, which is a good sign. But then some Pharisee believers in Jesus get up to make their case—and yes there were Pharisees who believed in Jesus! Their spirituality was based in a relationship with God through the law of Moses, but they also insisted that this had to be something that all believers shared in common. And in strictly logical terms, they had the better argument. They had the weight of scripture and tradition on their side.

But then Peter weighs in. And it’s striking that he doesn’t appeal to scripture or Jewish tradition. Peter, the unsophisticated fisherman, simply says, “Look, I know what I saw. The Holy Spirit moved through those Gentiles right before my eyes.” And Paul and Barnabas speak up too, sharing their own stories of what has happened when those outside the Jewish faith have heard the good news of Jesus. And the whole assembly falls silent, spellbound by what they’re hearing. What are they going to do? On the one side there is everything they’ve been taught about the law and what it means to be part of the covenant family of faith. On the other side, there’s clearly something amazing that is happening among the Gentiles, something that has to be driven by God.

Then James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem, speaks up. He draws from the words of the prophet Amos. There is another tradition in scripture, he says, one that points toward the hope of God’s tent, God’s sheltering care expanding to encompass those who were formerly on the outside. And it’s hard to imagine, given the testimony they’ve heard, that this is anything but a fulfillment of that promise. “Thus says the Lord,” he concludes, “who has been making these things known from long ago.” The astounding response to the message among people beyond the Jewish faith has jolted the leaders out of their comfortable understandings and given them new insight into the scriptures and the God they bear witness to.

What we have in this story is an amazing picture of how faithful decisions get made among people called to follow Jesus. It’s a matter of racing to catch up with a God who acts first, before we’re ready or prepared. Our God is the God who created light when everything was dark, who made a dry path through the sea for the Hebrew people, who raised Jesus from the dead. Our God does great, wonderful, unimaginable things to bring life, order, beauty, and redemption to creation and its creatures. God is the first mover in any faithful activity among God’s people.

When God acts, it disturbs the settled lines God’s people have grown comfortable with. “We’ve never done it that way before!” is not a new argument. It is to be expected, because if it something is from God it is going to be new, unimagined, and unsettling to God’s people. The “no small dissension” is normal, in a community that can expect to be jolted again and again by the God who delights in doing a new thing.

But the way they work with this argument in this story is also deeply faithful. They consider the scriptures, the weight of all the teaching they’ve received about who God is, but they don’t consider scriptures in isolation. They don’t pick one or two verses and make them the whole story. Instead, they let their experience of what the Holy Spirit is doing right now guide the way they read the scripture, so that scripture itself stays fresh and alive in the present.

I can think of any number of times God has jolted my settled understandings of who I was and how I needed to live: when I heard a call to ministry, when I became a parent for the first time, when I became a parent for the second time. We can expect, both as a community of faith and as individuals, that God is not going to let us rest comfortable, that God is acting right now to upend the settled lines we meant to live within. And that is part of the reason we need each other—we need the perspective of a whole community’s experience of God and understanding of the scriptures in order to answer God’s call faithfully.

Sometimes God is like the dog that bolts out the front door, and it’s all you can do to keep up. You don’t know where God’s wild run will take you, and nothing in your control can bring it to an end. But unlike my dog Baxter, the Spirit of God races ahead of us with gracious purpose to enlarge the circle of God’s love, meeting those who thought they were on the outside with salvation and hope. Thanks be to God! Amen.