Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. – Acts 15:36-41

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The beautiful spires of St. Nicholas Church in Prague, Czech Republic

I’ve heard it many times: If you are doing the Lord’s will, all will go well. Tell that to Jesus as he faces the cross. Tell that to Job in the midst of his troubles. Tell that to Paul and Barnabas as they successfully conclude a major effort to validate their mission to the Gentiles only to discover irreconcilable differences between the two of them. The rift was so severe that Paul and Barnabas split company. One goes one way. One goes another.

Let’s remember who these two are: Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus and brought low so that he would learn “how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15). Barnabas was the one who introduced Paul to the Apostles, vouched for him, and – original son of encouragement that he was (that’s what his name actually means) – provided support for God’s continuing work in and through Paul. These two were like Laurel and Hardy, Ben and Jerry, or, well…Paul and Barnabas!

If ever there is evidence of the fact that honorable men can disagree on certain matters and not ruin the fellowship of the redeemed. It is noteworthy that at the end of Acts Paul and Barnabas are reconciled, and united in friendship as well as faith. But anyone who has been around the church for any number of years will testify that not all people agree with each other all the time. There are always inevitable conflicts and challenges when sinners relate to one another – inside the church or out.

Bonhoeffer wrote a book, Life Together, in which he offered the premise that the only way two people can relate honestly with each other is through the cross of Jesus. I need forgiveness, and I must look at you as one who has been forgiven through Jesus cross. That’s how we relate within the body of Christ.

Mission means that we who belong to Jesus look at everyone through the cross of Jesus – whether it is reciprocated or not. And when it is no longer possible to be at peace with a brother or sister in Christ we do our part and commend the other person to the grace of God (cf. Romans 12:18).

I was at a meeting sometime ago where there was discussion about coordinating mission efforts in an attempt to keep things tidy (and under “proper control”). Not to coordinate our efforts, it was said, would result in chaos. On the other hand to get so caught up in coordination of efforts that we put ourselves into gridlock is not a better alternative. I said to the group, “When it comes to mission work, I prefer chaos to gridlock.”

Mission work is messy. Thank God Jesus was willing to get completely messy for the sake of his mission to save the world from their sins. Thank God for those mission partners who are difficult to work with, and who run too fast, or seem to want always to slow us down. We need them all…messy as that may be!

Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers.23 With them they sent the following letter:

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:

Greetings.

24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

Farewell.

30 So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. [34]  35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord. – Acts 15:22-35

Interior of the Basilica of St. Peter and Paul at Vyšehrad fortress

Interior of the Basilica of St. Peter and Paul at Vyšehrad fortress

Diane and I just returned from an extended time in Germany and the Czech Republic. We visited our son and his family in Martensöhe, Germany (southwest of Frankfurt), were in Berlin for a few days, before heading toward Prague, stopping in Wittenberg and Dresden along the way. During our travels we saw many beautiful church buildings. We did not see many churches; that is we did not see many gatherings of believers around word and sacrament.

Certainly there are several reasons for this. The Communists took pains to dismantle the churches in the eastern block. Prior to that there were wars of various kinds – bishops vying for their turf, protestants, Huguenots, Hapsburgs, Lutherans, Roman Catholics – each with their own challenges and efforts. One prince would declare the people of his fiefdom to be Lutheran, while another would proclaim the Roman Catholic faith.

Religion became something other than faith or relationship with God and other believers. It became nothing more than an alignment with the ruling group and their religion. There were few letters like the one above to a new group of believers. There were many declarations, power plays, and efforts to control.

The need to keep the faith pure and true to God’s word is unending. We must never relegate the truth of God to an optional ornament like so much Baroque bric-a-brac:  beautiful but not truly necessary. God’s truth is the foundation of his grace and the launching pad of his mission.

But mission is messy. If it is successful it will bring us into contact with all kinds of people: different races, ethnic groups, of varying languages, eating habits, smells, clothing, and mannerisms. That was the case that brought about the large church gathering recorded by Luke in Acts 15. The question was, “What to do with the new non-Jewish believers?”. The answer was to proscribe just a few behaviors that would especially offend the Jewish people – since the roots of the Christian faith are deeply sunk into the ground of the Jewish nation.

Had the Jerusalem Council determined that they needed to exercise more control over these new believers, requiring them to conform to their own (Jewish) sensibilities, we might never have seen the church grow to what it is today – a multitude of people from every tribe and language under the sun, all singing praise to the Lamb that was slain and who now reigns in heaven above.

To the extent that we are faithful to God’s mission we will look less and less like those ornate cathedrals in Germany and the Czech Republic. There may be fewer museums and concert halls. But there may be more followers of Jesus and more true churches where people worship God, love each other, and share the Good News with more and more people each day.

Diane and I are traveling to see family and connect with some folks from St. John over the several days. I have not decided whether or not I'll post regular devotional blog posts during this time. If you care to follow our travels, however, you may wish to go to my travel blog and see what we're up to.

We will be traveling with Martin Luther for these next several days. See where he shows up!

And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name.15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,

16 “‘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,
17 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 18 known from of old.’ – Acts 15:12-17

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Cactus Blossom | Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

Whenever Christmas or Easter rolls around we preacher types look for some new angle on the old, old story of Jesus’ birth or his death and resurrection. There is good cause for this, people who have heard the stories over the years can too quickly become jaded by it. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard all that before,” we imagine them to say. So we look for something new.

In fact on this occasion Paul and Barnabas are telling the Jerusalem church leaders something really and significantly new: The Gentiles were receiving the Gospel, and were coming to faith, and were manifesting signs and wonders as testimony (not to themselves, but to Paul, Barnabas, and now the leaders in Jerusalem) of the legitimacy of their conversion and faith. This is new. This is very new!

But not so fast. This is really not new at all. This is a 750-year-old story – if not older. Paul quotes Amos and Isaiah, who had expressed these things as fait accompli when they wrote those words. God had already made up his mind to save the Gentiles. It was a done deal, for what God decides, God does.

This is good news for us today, for God decreed that the Good News of the Gospel would be spread from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). So it is an old story of sin and grace, love and redemption, mercy and justice, from the foundations of time. That’s an old story worth telling and sharing. Thank God someone shared it with me…and you…and your brothers and sisters in Christ. I wonder with whom he would have you share it this week?

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” – Acts 15:6-11

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Cactus Blossom | Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

I once heard a way of describing our status as Christians in this way:

  • We have been saved through Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead.
  • We are being saved by God’s continuing work in our lives to keep us in the faith and bring us ever closer to him, and ever more like Jesus.
  • We will be saved on the Great Last Day when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead and brings us with him into the fullness of the rule and reign of Christ.

Peter speaks here of all three: Clearly the final verse has “will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The hope for that is founded in what God has already done in appointing Peter to speak to the Gentiles about Jesus, announcing the Good News of Jesus that their hearts were cleansed by the Holy Spirit through faith. What hangs in the balance is their being saved – the on-going work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, and the vital role we play in other’s being saved.

This is the the whole point of the meeting in Jerusalem. This is a big deal. And all joking aside (“It’s the first synodical convention,” some Missouri Synod Lutherans will say!), this convocation will set the direction of the church into the coming centuries in regard to the salvation not only of those already having been brought to faith, but for any future missionary efforts.

Let’s just say this: if the conclusion was to be that the Gentile believers had to become Jewish in their religious practice I very much doubt Paul would have continued his missionary activities. I realize that hypotheticals are difficult to prove, and this one does come out in favor of a very open approach to non-Jewish people. Nevertheless, there is much at stake here – including the ongoing mission of God/mission of the church.

I’m not certain this is as settled in the minds and hearts of us today as it should be. Any time we make requirements for entrance into the fellowship of believers beyond faith in Jesus and a willingness to lead a moral life (this is implied in the requirements set for the new believers – stay tuned), we are impinging on people’s salvation and the mission of God.

The final verse of this section of Acts speaks wonderful grace and truth. Grace: we will be saved. Truth: We need to be saved. But thanks be to God! We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” – Acts 15:6-11

 

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” – Acts 15:1-5

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

When I was growing up, I would go over to my next door neighbor’s house and just walk in the front door. I didn’t knock. I didn’t ask if I could come in. I just went in. I would find Kenny either in his bedroom in the basement, or watching TV in the living room. It’s just the way things were. I just presumed that I could go into his house.

In somewhat the same manner many Christians today presume upon God, believing that we can just enter into his presence with little or no fanfare, or minimal trepidation. It seems quite the case for North American Protestant Christians. We belong to the church. We can simply go into any church and presume to be served a good sermon, a great choir, a comfortable pew, and a warm welcome. In fact, if we don’t find these things, we are prone often to complain about it.

What if, however, we were to take a different approach to entering into the presence of God and claiming a fellowship with other believers? What if we considered it a high privilege to call God, “Father,” and be welcomed into any fellowship of believers? We take for granted our equal access to God’s grace and easy acceptance by God’s people.

That makes it difficult for us to grasp fully the quandary and sincere debate that was to be had in Jerusalem over the entry of the Gentiles into the rule and reign of God. That God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles meant something. But just what did it mean? And when Paul and his company shared that Good News with the people in Jerusalem was it seen as unmitigated Good News?

Many years ago I was leading our church to become more inviting and accepting to people who were not yet part of our fellowship. Two reactions to our plans and the prospects of success stand out in my mind even today. At a leaders retreat our long-time church secretary said, “We don’t just want all these other people to come in here, do we?” She was literally afraid of the implications of that. She apparently felt threatened by having to deal with “all these people.” Another younger person (who was 16 going on 60) said, “Why can’t they (the people we were inviting into our church fellowship from outside the church family) become like us (first, before coming into our church)?

This was the question that would be put to the leaders in Jerusalem on the occasion of Paul and Barnabas’ visit there. What would be necessary for the new Gentile believers in order not only to be received into the fellowship of the believers, but even to be saved?

We might think this is a slam-dunk question, and that those who were asking these questions were petty and small-thinking. That may be true. It may also be important for us to watch carefully as this issue unfolds in the early church. While Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension with those who wanted to impose the Mosaic laws on the new Gentile believers, this would not be the last of those conversations. And apparently Paul and Barnabas thought this was important enough – and that those who were saying this deserved to be engaged in the conversation – that they spent the “no little time” it would take to talk this through.

They didn’t just throw up their hands in disgust and dismiss these Pharisees. But neither did they dismiss the new believers. Fellowship in the church is earned by Jesus, and not by our efforts or behavior. When we start there we are truly representing the heart of God.

Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. 25 And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, 26 and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. 27 And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they remained no little time with the disciples. – Acts 14:24-28

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

The foundation of the Christian faith is the grace of God in Jesus Christ who offers forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to everyone who believes. Whether we point to John 3:16 or Ephesians 2:8-9, the Good News has to do with God’s grace to you and me, and all people. It is Good News indeed when we hear that our sins have been forgiven, that we have the gift of eternal salvation, and God’s favor.

But there is something even deeper about God’s love and salvation that will eventually work itself into the heart of the believer. It will begin to matter to us that others do not have this grace we have received. It will become important to us that someone shares the Good News with people, and that they repent and believe the gospel.

As time goes on, we may even pray for the opportunity to share the gospel with others. Even those who are not particularly gifted as evangelists will sometimes wish to tell a friend or family member of God’s love and grace. The Good News is good news for me, to be sure. But it’s good news to hear that others are being brought to faith in Jesus. This is evidence of God’s Holy Spirit at work in our hearts.

I see the joy and celebration of Paul, Barnabas, and the Christian brothers and sisters in Antioch. This was the church from which they had been sent. And when they reported that God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles the people there rejoiced. It was not only a homecoming, but also a victory celebration. It was also a celebration of God’s work through the church at Antioch and the missionaries whom they had sent.

We rejoice when we hear that Eric and Linda Funke in Tanzania have made a new inroad, or that our missionary team in Kenya experienced God’s favor in their work there, or that our connection with LINC ministries in Houston have borne fruit.

The Good News is for us, and we rejoice when we learn that others have received God’s favor, for that is good news to the heart of a believer.