The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favourably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, “After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.” Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.’
Sometimes we make a casual decision that turns out to be one of the more important ones of our life, but at other times we know we are facing a decision that will massively affect our future. I wonder if the folk meeting in Jerusalem, trying to find a way of encouraging the Gentile converts while keeping on board the Jews who now followed Christ and wanted the Gentiles to go through the same processes and rules as they did, were aware of the significance of the moment?
How would you have dealt with all this? I find it interesting that the things we might have considered significant – maintaining the number of converts; the success of the Gentile mission (however you choose to define success!) – don’t seem to have featured. Instead, what was shared was what God had done and was doing; the ‘signs and wonders’ that had been manifested among the Gentiles, and it is God’s leading, concentrating on Peter’s testimony and on the connection with scripture, on which James focused when he closed the debate and gave his decision.
It was a decision with considerable implications for the Gentiles, for the apparently light restrictions would have affected much of their lives. Meat offered to idols or that had not been completely bled was sold in the butchers’ shops, so avoiding it meant being picky about the butcher you chose; probably meant that you had to refuse dinner invitations from friends just in case they’d shopped in the wrong place, and in a society that laid great store on giving and responding to hospitality, this could lead to you losing face and place in society.
Of course, this ruling would still have disappointed some in the Jerusalem church who were wanting to protect the Law, even though James ended by pointing out that the Law was proclaimed week by week in the synagogues, a sign that the early Church remained part of the Synagogue for some considerable time.
But then, surely any move forward disappoints someone! At the present time we are faced with much change in the Church; ahead of us probably lies a time of real upheaval, and I wonder how we are reacting? My feeling is that we are less likely to take the approach of looking for what God is doing in the world and in the Church because firstly it can be hard to discern (counting people in our churches is easier!) and secondly because the implications of what we find may clash with our prejudices – and we ALL have prejudices! Then, of course, what we decide may actually make life hard for us, and maybe we have to be ready for that.
But as you mull over all this, spare a thought and a prayer for those, like James, thrust into taking a lead at crucial times; those who chair the significant meeting and appear calm (have to be calm!) but are inwardly terrified and plagued with sudden inner doubts even as the will of the meeting becomes clear. They are human too!
Eternal, living Lord God, thank you for those who have guided and helped us through the difficult, painful decisions we have had to take, in our own lives and in the church. By your Holy Spirit, keep us alert to your word and action in the world today; guide us in these uncertain times to make good and wise decisions; assure us by the presence of the living Jesus in our lives, for we ask it in His name. Amen
The Rev’d Ruth Crofton is a retired minister living near Durham.