Acts 15:1-6,12-13,19-21; John 13:31-35
5th Sunday after Easter
19.5.2019 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
If you have tuned into the news this week you will have heard that ITV have decided to axe The Jeremy Kyle Show. If you’ve been fortunate enough not to see the show, it may be worth saying that while the show purported to be about helping people to articulate and resolve their conflicts (whether it was conflicts between husbands and wives over alleged marital unfaithfulness, or between neighbours), in reality the show deliberately tried to stir up and rile participants, as that made for better entertainment and larger TV audiences. It took the tragic death of one participant, following a harrowing experience on the show, before the programme was finally taken off air. People may take some voyeuristic pleasure in witnessing others in conflict, but it is hell for those who are tearing each other’s lives apart.
Resolving conflict is not something that we find easy. Even with our current political impasse, and the desperately obvious need to resolve it, both our main political parties are finding it incredibly difficult not to resort to petty political point-scoring, to denigrate the other, to justify themselves.
Its a great challenge for the wider church as well. The Anglican communion has been wrestling for months, years even, in trying to find a way of resolving the conflict over human sexuality. On both sides, views have become entrenched, and certainly in the media, where the extremes tend to get reported, we hear the language of betrayal, hate, heresy.
And we are not immune from conflict either. Whether it is conflicts within our families, or in the workplace, or with neighbours.
Well, our reading from the book of Acts, opens a window into a huge controversy within the early church, and how they went about trying to resolve it.
The issue was about what to do with non-Jews (Gentiles) who became Christians. Jesus was a Jew. The disciples were all Jews. Did that mean that anyone who wanted to follow Jesus needed to become a Jew and follow the Jewish religious laws? It was not an unreasonable expectation. After all, for centuries, God had chosen to work through the Jewish people. The religious laws were there as a means for helping people to live holy and faithful lives. So, if you wanted to follow the Jewish Messiah, surely that meant buying into the centuries of Jewish tradition and culture too?
But on the other side of the argument were those who were appalled at the idea that faith in the grace of Christ was not enough for salvation. They were shocked that people were being made to jump through other hoops, including, in the case of males, circumcision, before they would be regarded as true Christians. For them, the fact that God had given the gift of his Holy Spirit to Gentiles without them becoming Jews was proof enough. They would point to the church in Antioch – a church full of Gentile believers – that was growing at a tremendous rate, that was generously giving to the needs of communities around the world, that was sending out missionaries like Paul and Barnabas. Why did they need to suddenly conform to Jewish religious laws? God was clearly at work within them.
Well, the issue comes to a head in Antioch. Some of the “traditionalist” Jewish Christians come up from Jerusalem and start telling everyone they must be circumcised. Otherwise they cannot be saved. Their passionate, no-nonsense, uncompromising message is appealing to some, and deeply disconcerting to others. It causes divisions in the church. People stop eating together. After all, if now you are supposed to keep the Jewish food laws, you cannot eat with those who don’t.
The Antioch church want this sorted out, so they send Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the church there. What happens is an intense meeting. I imagine that it would have been a bit like one of those meetings between a trade union and the employers, locked in to a smoke-filled negotiating room, with no-one allowed to leave until an agreement was reached.
The meeting begins with Paul and Barnabas telling everyone what is going on in Antioch, and the remarkable work of God’s Spirit amongst the Gentile Christians. The traditionalists then gave their view. Then, after much debate, Peter speaks of his own experience, and how the conversion of the centurion Cornelius has convinced him that it is not necessary for Gentile Christians to adhere to the Jewish law – after all, it is a burden that not even the Jews can keep. James, the brother of Jesus, and the apparent leader of the church in Jerusalem, having been listening the whole time, then speaks and gives the clinching argument in favour of the Gentile christians. A letter is then written to inform the churches of this decision.
This may feel a bit dry and arid, even bureaucratic perhaps, but there are some important principles for us here in the way that we resolve conflicts with those who passionately disagree with us.
Firstly, those in conflict came together and talked about it. It would have been easier, perhaps, to avoid each other or bad-name one another, but instead they talked it through. They all met together in Jerusalem and talked it through. |n the conflicts we face, it is often much better to grasp the nettle and talk to the person, rather than letting it stew and fester. For some of us that may come easily; for others of us we may need to pray for the courage of the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, having come together, they listened to one another. Luke tells us “the whole assembly became silent as they listened”. Listening to someone else when you passionately disagree with them is not easy. The temptation is just to jump in and counter everything they say. But true listening involves a desire to genuinely understand the other’s point of view. It is less a skill, and more an attitude of love.
Thirdly, there is a real sense in this meeting that there is a genuine attempt to discern how God may be working among them. Paul, Barnabas and Peter all speak of God’s work. When we are in conflict situations, it is difficult but important to try and step back and ask, “where is God at work in this situation? where is his love, his grace, his Holy Spirit present?” And if we are helping others in conflict, rather than being directly involved ourselves, this may be an important question for us to ask, as it is often one that gets missed. In this situation with my neighbour or my colleague or my family member, where can I see God at work?
Fourthly, the scriptures are used to inform and guide the decision. James quotes from the Old Testament prophet, Amos, in summing up the decision of the meeting. So often, God’s word can be a source of inspiration, encouragement, wisdom, challenge at times of conflict. Reading the Bible with an open heart and mind may help us to find new ways of resolving conflicts that we are in.
And finally, the church finds a solution that extends grace to all. It would have been easy to dismiss the traditionalists out of hand, to tell them that their views were outmoded and outdated. But whilst the meeting is very clear – Gentiles do not need to become Jews or conform by Jewish religious laws – they urge Gentile Christians to live in such a way that enables them to continue to have fellowship with their stricter brethren. There is grace here, love extended to those who may have been perceived as the “losers” in the debate.
And maybe that is the key underlying theme to this issue of Christian/ Jewish identity, and to conflicts we find ourselves in. The grace, the love of God, must triumph, not only in the outcomes of our disagreements but in the way in which we go about resolving them.
We are called to love those we disagree with, and as we have seen, that involves meeting with them, listening to them, discerning how God may be at work within them, and allowing his word to shape who we are. And it means seeking a resolution where all may know they are loved and valued.
May God help us in the conflicts we face. Amen.