10th Sunday after Pentecost (Prop 12 – C)
Acts 15:1-21
Sermon Series on the Book of Acts
July 24, 2016
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Epistle from Acts 15, which was read a few minutes ago.
One of the notions people have about the church is that it isn’t supposed to have any conflict. We’d like to believe that because the Church is full of Christians we would always get along. Sadly, you and I both know that conflict does happen in the church because the church is made up of sinners. As sinners, we’re not always going to see eye to eye, and as sinners our response often makes the situation worse. It doesn’t have to be this way though for there is a God-pleasing way to handle conflicts in the church. In chapter 15 of Acts, we hear about a conflict that arose in a congregation and, by God’s grace, we see how conflict is properly handled.
One of the challenges for the early Church was the diverse mixture of Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. Both groups believed in Christ, and yet because they came from different backgrounds conflicts naturally arose. When Paul and Barnabas arrived back in Antioch at the conclusion of their first missionary journey they encountered one of these conflicts; some Jewish Christians were teaching, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” I think their hearts were in the right place because they were sincerely trying to live according to the Law that God had given through Moses. God had commanded circumcision as a sign of His promise to send the Savior and to distinguish the faithful from the pagan nations that surrounded them, and some of the Jewish Christians thought that circumcision was still mandatory.
Even though their hearts were in the right place, the conflict that arose was handled poorly at first. Instead of meeting with Paul and Barnabas to discuss what was God’s Word really said, they worked behind the scenes to cause trouble. They undermined Paul and Barnabas by corrupting Christ’s teachings and refusing to listen to the truth.
Now Paul and Barnabas had several options for responding, some would’ve been helpful, others not so helpful. One poor way to handle the conflict was to ignore the false teachers and wait for them to leave. This would’ve helped avoid arguments, but they would’ve had a big mess to clean up after the fact. They could’ve just left. They could’ve gone to another place, another church, and started over. Paul and Barnabas could’ve responded nastily, like the false teachers were doing. They could’ve gossiped and worked secretly behind the scenes. They could’ve badmouthed the Jewish Christians, insulted them, or bullied them. They even could’ve lost their tempers and become physical. Whatever way they chose would’ve severely, and possibly irreversibly, damaged the congregation at Antioch.
As we listen to the drama going on in Antioch we wouldn’t be surprised if they had chosen any of those poor ways to respond to the conflict because we would possibly react in the same poor ways. The church is full of sinners and it affects our relationships with others. Saint James, the same James from our text, says “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” We have conflicts because we’re self-absorbed sinners. We want what we want and it doesn’t matter what others think or want. We say we’ll forgive but we won’t forget. We gossip and slander and talk behind people’s backs. We work behind the scenes to get our way. Sometime we walk away from the church and write our opponents off. Are any of these beneficial? Of course not! Actions taken in secret only lead to more problems and more conflict. When we engage in this type of sinful behavior it damages the church and the unity of believers.
Paul, Barnabas, and the Antioch congregation could’ve responded in any number of sinful ways, their response though is not only a great example for us to follow, it also reveals God’s glory. Luke tells us that the congregation sent Paul, Barnabas and some others to go to Jerusalem to consult the apostles and the elders about the circumcision issue. They went to the source, they went to those who had sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His Word. They didn’t fight amongst themselves, they sought help.
As the conversation and debate went on in Jerusalem we see that the apostles and elders had a theological discussion. They discussed rationally what Jesus taught and what it meant for the situation. They talked about the miracles and signs that God had done among the Gentiles that proved God had called them as well. And finally Peter brought the debate to a close by speaking the beautiful Gospel, “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” This is what it the whole debate was about; what had Jesus done for all people. Their resolution was God pleasing because it was centered on Christ, just as each of our discussions should be.
In I Corinthians 1, Paul urges all Christians by saying, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” As sinful Christians we’re going to disagree at times. Even Paul and Barnabas had a falling out for a time, but they were reconciled and reunited as Christian brothers. When we, as a congregation or as individual Christians, have conflict we seek to resolve it in a Godly way.
We do this by patiently talking to one another, acknowledging our own sins, while forgiving the sins of others. We search the Word of God. What does God have to say about the situation that lead to the arguing? What is a pleasing resolution in His eyes? And then we come to a resolution that is centered on Christ and gives glory to God. We are Christians and in all that we do we reflect what Jesus says about us when He says, “That they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” This is what it is all about – Jesus. We are reconciled to one another and we forgive one another because Christ first forgave us. We love one another and speak well of one another, assuming the best about everyone because Christ loves us. It is the forgiveness of sins that He bought for us on the cross that gives peace between us and God and then extends that peace between all of us. He is the one who gives us unity and maintains that unity in the Church and in our congregation.
The word synod in our church body the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod means “walking together”. We walk together because we believe the same things, we love one another, we forgive one another and this enables us to bring glory to Christ and to the Gospel. If the congregation at Antioch had continued fighting and bickering, it would’ve come unraveled. Instead, they consulted God’s Word and came to a decision that enabled all of them to rejoice in what God had done for them all, Jew and Gentile. Now we are blessed here at Emmanuel because we’re united in doctrine and love for another and there isn’t any open conflict. But when there is conflict either out in open within the congregation or between individual Christians, we remember who we are and who the other are; children of God, redeemed by Christ, saved by Grace. When we remember this, God is glorified and we will be blessed because we are the peacemakers.
Now the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen