Sunday, 19 July 2015 | Luke 5:1-11; Acts 15:1-12
Homosexuality and same-sex marriage; clergy child abuse; women bishops; Christian–Muslim relations; science versus religion; poverty and social exclusion; declining church membership; hymns versus choruses. Which of these issues is the most pressing, the most urgent, for Christians today? I cannot possibly answer that question to everyone’s satisfaction, and so I’m not even going to try. But what I will say is that in a hundred years, in two hundred years, in a thousand years – it’s quite possible that none of these issues will be around. The members of Holy Trinity Beckenham living in the year 3015 may consider our present debates over same-sex marriage and women bishops as arcane and abstract, of no immediate relevance for Christian discipleship in the fourth millennium.
I dare say we might have a similar attitude to the rather obscure debate about circumcision in Acts 15. How on earth could the early Church seriously be debating what Gentile Christian men should do to their penises? This is the same Church, remember, that was described earlier in Acts as selling its possessions to share the proceeds with the needy. But here we see the Church as having gone from proto-socialism to the theological assessment of its members’ members! What went wrong?
We need to remember a couple of things. First, the early Church was predominantly Jewish. James, John, Peter – all these men were Jews. And this meant, secondly, that circumcision was not merely an ethnic peculiarity but part of what it meant to belong to God’s covenant people. According to Genesis 17, the rite of circumcision was a sign of the covenant relationship between God and Abraham, and between God and Abraham’s descendants, the Jews. But now it seemed that God was widening the scope of God’s covenant people and allowing Gentiles – non-Jews – to belong, too. And so this raised the question: If Gentiles can now be admitted to God’s covenant people, and if circumcision has always been a sign of belonging to God’s covenant people, then should male Gentile converts be circumcised?
You might still be thinking this is all rather quaint and provincial, so let me just emphasise that this was very much a live issue for the early Church as it wrestled with its newly given Christ-defined identity. But a number of leaders within the early Church were savvy enough to recognise God doing something entirely new by bringing Gentiles into God’s covenant people, who were no longer defined by the law of Moses but by the risen Jesus. Paul was one of these leaders; and Peter was another. Listen again to Peter’s words in Acts 15:
God . . . testified to [the Gentiles] by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.
Wise words. And had they not been uttered, we would in all probability not be here today. But observe: these wise words were uttered by Simon Peter, the impulsive, impatient, and rather immature follower of Jesus whose mouth often ran ahead of his brain despite his good intentions. So how did Peter, a simple fisherman by trade, suddenly become an authority on biblical interpretation, respected by those around him?
Well, first of all, it’s quite likely that Peter wasn’t a simple fisherman. Today’s Gospel reading suggests Peter was effectively a small business owner with employees working on his boat, and in partnership with James and John. Other biblical passages suggest Peter was married and a homeowner, like many people today. And Peter was likely at least to have been bilingual so he could navigate the choppy seas of trade and commerce in a land ruled by colonial powers. Peter was likely to have been literate, too, as young Jewish men would have learned to read Torah, the law of Moses, in order to commit it to memory. Peter preaches three times in the early chapters of Acts, and has two New Testament letters attributed to him, so it’s fair to say he knew how to string a sentence or two together. Peter was quite intelligent, knowing the law of Moses, and able to work with others to run a business.
But it’s also fair to say that Peter perhaps didn’t conduct himself too well at times. Once he had accepted his calling to follow Jesus, Peter had a number of foot-in-mouth moments that have become the stuff of legend. Peter was not afraid to ask questions – “How often should I forgive? Seven times?” – and Peter was not afraid to challenge Jesus – “O Lord, you’ll never be crucified!” Peter was the one who tried but failed to walk on the sea. Peter was the one who sliced off the slave’s ear in Gethsemane. And Peter was sure he’d never deny Jesus . . .
But these rather dubious demonstrations of successful Christian living also reveal Peter’s more endearing traits. Peter wasn’t afraid of voicing the thoughts of the disciples when Jesus was intense – “Look, we have left our homes and followed you!” Peter had no hesitation in believing the women when they claimed to have seen the risen Jesus at the tomb. Peter was the first to recognise Jesus as God’s promised Messiah. And Peter was the disciple on whom Jesus would build his Church. Jesus is true to his word: at the end of John’s Gospel, we have the familiar story of Jesus confirming Peter’s role in looking after his followers: “Peter, feed my sheep – and follow me.”
All in all, Peter was just a typical bloke thrust into a leadership position he’d never anticipated. Peter realised Jesus was someone worth following and didn’t hesitate to swap the relative security of his fishing business for the uncertainty of a life of discipleship. No doubt the fact that James and John did exactly the same was encouraging. But it remains that Peter was stepping out into the unknown. And in the eighteen or so years from when he first met Jesus to the events described in Acts 15, we see the Spirit transform Peter from a rather cocky but enthusiastic man into the rock of calm authority Jesus had promised.
So what shall we take from all this? There are three things I’d like to say.
First, there is the Jerusalem church’s process to resolving controversial topics. I shouldn’t need to say again that the issue of circumcision was of great importance for the identity of the early Church. And the various debates about it were quite heated at times – you need only to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians to know this. But here, in Acts 15, we see the Jerusalem church’s approach to handling controversy. The apostles and the elders present listened to reports from the mission field, reports describing how numerous Gentiles were placing their faith in the Jews’ Messiah. They listened to the various parties in the debate, to the many interpretations of what might be happening. They discussed among themselves – probably quite intensely at times – what should be done. And finally, they came to a resolution that, we read later, seemed good to them and to the Holy Spirit.
The point here is that it takes time, sometimes a lot of time – weeks, months, even years – to discuss controversial issues properly and thoroughly. It takes a lot of time to listen attentively to the various perspectives and positions. And it takes a lot of commitment to hear every voice that needs to be heard, especially when we know some voices will say exactly the opposite of what we want them to say. But dialogue and debate in the Church isn’t about winning arguments or forcing agendas; its purpose is to discern what the Spirit is doing in our lives, in the Church, and in the world.
The second thing I should like to mention is this: Peter’s openness to God’s innovation. Peter was open to what God was doing in his life and in the wider world. He followed Jesus for three years, making many mistakes along the way. He was definitively transformed by the Spirit at Pentecost. And he was freed from his past mistakes to spend the rest of his life telling others about the good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection. But through all these things, Peter was sensitive to what he saw happening: Gentiles becoming Christians and receiving the Spirit. God’s covenant people were no longer a ‘Jews only’ community, and Peter was perceptive enough to know that this truly was God at work. And, as a good Jew, Peter had a thorough knowledge of what we now call the Old Testament, meaning he had a frame of reference by which he could understand what the Spirit was doing with the Gentiles. Peter was so familiar with the Word of God revealed in Scripture, and so grounded in Jewish traditions of interpretation, that he was able to discern what God was doing and add his voice to the important conversation about circumcision taking place in Jerusalem.
And finally, let’s remind ourselves what sort of person Peter had been: an eager disciple of Jesus but prone to foot-in-mouth disease. But note well: Peter was not daunted by his mistakes; nor was he defined by them. While Peter made more than his fair share of mistakes, he was confident enough in his relationship with Jesus to move on and not dwell on the times he’d messed up. Discipleship entails taking our eyes off our failures and placing them firmly on Jesus and his successes.
So be encouraged! Our past mistakes need not define us; we need not be trapped by patterns of thought or behaviour. But by the Spirit, we can be transformed and freed like Peter to serve Jesus in spite of our personal histories and issues.
Be encouraged! We need not fear God’s innovation. God loves us all – the death and resurrection of Christ prove this – and what God does with each of us is firmly rooted in who Christ reveals God to be. There are times when our relationships with God will be painful, and we will agonise like Peter when he denied Jesus three times – but we need never doubt God’s love for each and every one of us. And so when God does something new, even controversial – well, we can be sure God is doing it not to spite us but to extend the reach of God’s kingdom. And we, too, can play our part in God’s purposes when we are open to the Spirit’s action in our lives.
And be encouraged! The Church has always had to deal with divisive issues. For the early Church, it was circumcision; for the Church today, it’s same-sex marriage and women bishops. But Peter’s example shows us how to deal with controversy: watch, listen, learn. Only when we have watched what is happening, listened to others’ opinions, and learned of the various issues at play can we act together as the one body of Christ to discern what God is up to in the world.
In conclusion, I commend Peter as a model for Christian discipleship. Throughout his life, Peter asked questions, challenged his master, acted as a spokesperson for the twelve disciples, and learned what it meant to follow Jesus through good times and bad. And by staying close to Jesus, Peter learned to work on the negative aspects of his character so he could become ever more like his master, Jesus, and discern God at work in the world – even among the Gentiles!