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:
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.
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.  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
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.