When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly. The next day Paul went with us to visit James; and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard it, they praised God. Then they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law. But as for the Gentiles who have become believers, we have sent a letter with our judgement that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.’ Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having purified himself, he entered the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them.
There may be times when we all suffer from decision paralysis. How can we be sure that the decisions we make are right and good and Godly?
This episode in Paul’s life seems like an object lesson in how NOT to choose well.
I consulted a lectionary which was very clear about what it called the ‘lessons from the story’: compromises are seldom successful and good people may give bad advice. If this is true it really doesn’t look promising for the URC’s principle of taking decisions in the Councils of the Church.
The fact that the very first word of the following passage in Acts is ‘but’.. tells us that this plan does not quite work out. It seems simply listening to the Elders when they say ‘do what we tell you’ is not the best way of discerning God’s will.
So what do we do? How do we balance the thoughts of others, the ideas we have ourselves, the teaching of the church, the word of the Bible – and in all this try to discern the will of God?
I think the answer comes in what is missing from this passage. In Acts 21: 1-15 there are two mentions of the Holy Spirit, one of prayer, one of prophecy, and the whole thing ends with the statement “the Lord’s will be done”. Here it seems there is no prayer, no listening to prophets, no seeking the guidance of the Spirit.
Whatever voices we listen to as we make our plans, we need to spend time in prayer, and commit all we do to the purposes of God.
The good news is that whether we do this or not, God has ways of bending our lives back into the right paths. Paul’s work in Jerusalem continues in a direction James and the Elders could not have anticipated. We, too, can do our best to choose wisely and prayerfully and trust in the God who says ‘But…’ and redirects our steps.
Loving God, Thank you for the wise people in our lives who help us to hear your word, take time to pray and seek your will. Help us to trust your purposes for our lives, so that even when the road does not lead where we thought it would, we still find you walking with us in the way of Jesus by the power of the Spirit. Amen.
The Rev’d Ruth Whitehead Moderator, South Western Synod