Lies I've Believed: We Do Church the Right Way (Acts 15)

When I was married some fourteen years ago, there are some issues that I didn't even know would be issues. I grew up using Colgate toothpaste. My mother bought it, so we always used it. Before I got married, I really didn't know that anyone used any other type of toothpaste, nor did I think it would be hard to switch. That was before I married a girl who had always used Crest. Whenever my new wife went shopping, she bought Crest. Whenever I went shopping, I bought Colgate. We eventually adjusted, but it was a preference we didn't even know we had until we learned how to live together.

We've all got preferences. We don't even notice most of them. I guarantee, though, that most of us will notice once we're forced to accommodate someone else. Today I want to talk about preferences, not on a personal scale, but on a church-wide scale. Over the years, without even thinking about it, most of us have grown used to church being run a certain way. We never state it exactly like this, but after a while we begin to think: we do church the right way.

Today, I want to tell you a story about a church that once faced the question, "How do we react to new ways of doing church?" It's a question that we will encounter sooner or later. One of our kids will start going to a new church. We'll be doing some reading and we'll find some of our assumptions about church challenged. Some new people will start attending our church and want to do things differently. How do we react when we think we do church the right way, and someone is pushing us to do it differently? The answer to that question comes in the form of a story. If you have a Bible with you, turn with me to Acts 15.

The story we're about to read is one of the milestone events of the early church. The crisis that people faced then was one that could have torn the church apart. The wrong response to the crisis could have permanently damaged the progress of the church. The early leaders of the church made a decision which marks us to this day. Let's take a look at the story and see what lessons we can learn on how to react to new ways of doing church.

Crisis

Acts 15:1-5 says:

While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the Christians, "Unless you keep the ancient Jewish custom of circumcision taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." Paul and Barnabas, disagreeing with them, argued forcefully and at length. Finally, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent the delegates to Jerusalem, and they stopped along the way in Phoenicia and Samaria to visit the believers. They told them-much to everyone's joy-that the Gentiles, too, were being converted.

When they arrived in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders. They reported on what God had been doing through their ministry. But then some of the men who had been Pharisees before their conversion stood up and declared that all Gentile converts must be circumcised and be required to follow the law of Moses.

What we call Christianity today started off as a movement within Judaism. For the first part of the church's history, it was primarily Jews who followed the rabbi Jesus Christ. There were some exceptions, but you can handle a few exceptions okay. A man named Paul came along, who started to influence more Gentiles to follow Jesus. As more Gentiles follow Jesus, you have a problem: Do the Gentiles have to become Jewish to be Christians, or can they stay just as they are? You've got a big question there.

On one hand, you have those who believe that the Jewish way of doing things is the right way. They had some pretty strong arguments for their case. Most of the Jewish practices came right from God and had been passed down for thousands of years. The Scriptures were full of instructions on the Jewish beliefs and practices. The Jewish people were called God's own people, the people through which God would bless the world. The Messiah himself was Jewish, and observed the Jewish laws perfectly. You could stack up all the arguments, and it would make a lot of sense: the Jewish way is the right way.

On the other side, you have some people like Paul and Barnabas. They were working among Gentiles, and many of them were starting to follow Jesus. Although Jesus was Jewish, Paul and Barnabas didn't think that a Gentile had to become Jewish to follow Jesus.

The stakes were high. In the corner, you've got a group holding knives and saying that to do things the right way, you've got to be circumcised. You'd really want to think hard about joining the church, wouldn't you? On the other hand, you've got a new teaching that unravels thousands of years of theology and practice. What would you do?

Imagine the scene in Jerusalem. All the big names are there in one place. The meeting starts on a high note. Everyone is happy that Gentiles are starting to follow Jesus. It's the same as if I got up and gave a report about all the new people following Jesus through the efforts of our church. It's good news, except it also comes with bad news. You can feel the tension rise, people shifting in their seats, as some others stand up and say, "Yes, it's great news that Gentiles are following Jesus, but we have a problem." Verse 5 says, "But then some of the men who had been Pharisees before their conversion stood up and declared that all Gentile converts must be circumcised and be required to follow the law of Moses."

Picture the most radical change that you might be asked to make to accommodate new people in our church, and you'll get the picture. Do you make the change, or do you hold on to the way that you've always believed things should be done? What do you do when your most fundamental ideas, your bedrock beliefs about how church should be done are challenged?

Let's find out what happened here.

Freedom

The leaders of the church made a decision that was revolutionary in its day. It still is today. They embraced a freedom that allowed the church to expand exponentially. Their decision goes against what I would have guessed. It's a decision that has marked all of church history since. It's a decision that if replicated today would lead to freedom and expansion of the Kingdom within our culture.

Imagine for a minute if you had been at this meeting. We don't know most of what happened, but we can imagine. Verses 6 and 7 say, "So the apostles and church elders got together to decide this question. At the meeting, after a long discussion..." We already know that this issue generated strong emotions. I don't think that they had a nice, calm, rational discussion. I'm sure there was a little bit of heat. The discussion probably moved in a certain direction, but I imagine it was far from easy.

At the end of the meeting, two leaders stood to speak and clinched the debate. Peter, formerly the leader of the Jerusalem church, and the close friend of Jesus, spoke of the genuineness of what had happened, and closed with this: "Why are you now questioning God's way by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the special favor of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 15:10-11). Then James, brother of Jesus, stood up to speak:

And so my judgment is that we should stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, except that we should write to them and tell them to abstain from eating meat sacrificed to idols, from sexual immorality, and from consuming blood or eating the meat of strangled animals. For these laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for many generations." (Acts 15:19-21)

The report of this meeting states that the decision was unanimous. It comes in the form of a letter from the Jerusalem council to the Gentile believers:

"This letter is from the apostles and elders, your brothers in Jerusalem. It is written to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Greetings!

"We understand that some men from here have troubled you and upset you with their teaching, but they had no such instructions from us. So it seemed good to us, having unanimously agreed on our decision, to send you these official representatives, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we are sending Judas and Silas to tell you what we have decided concerning your question.

"For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or eating the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell." (Acts 15:23-29)

How do we react to new ways of doing church? This decision sets a pattern for us.

The main thing to take away is this: we have incredible freedom in how the church expresses itself. Early in the church's history, they faced the decision whether to be monocultural or multicultural, whether to do things one way or to allow freedom. They had to choose between controlling or giving permission. They chose to give permission. There is no one right way to be the church. We have freedom in how the church expresses itself.

I once sat with a lady who was upset with me. She told me that the right way to do church was inherited from Europe and had a particular set of beliefs and practices, right down to an acceptable selection of musical pieces. I listened a lot but didn't get to say much. It could have turned out this way. Instead, God has given the church freedom in how it shapes itself in different contexts. There is freedom.

At my previous church, an usher didn't have any dress shirts. People dressed up, but he didn't. Every week, he would apologize for the way he looked. He didn't fit into the culture. Every week, I thanked him for providing variety. If someone came in and didn't wear a dress shirt, they wouldn't be alone. He represented that there is more than one way to dress to come to church. We have freedom.

I wish I could take you on a tour around the world and show you all the shapes that the church takes. I worshipped in a very different church last week in the United Kingdom - same label, different contents. They did things very differently than what we do here. It was different, and it was good.

This morning churches have met that started early in the morning and went right to lunch, which is when they took a break before coming back for more. There are churches that have met in cathedrals and in huts. They've met with all different kinds of music. Some have centered their services around the Eucharist. Some have centered them around the sermon. Some don't have a pastor. Some don't meet on a Sunday. They're all different. The differences are good. God allows us the freedom.

Churches are taking new shapes in the new culture that is emerging. We may be tempted to be scared. Not everything is good by virtue of being different, but things aren't necessarily bad either. God allows freedom. He's given incredible freedom in the way the church takes shape.

There are two conditions in this passage. The first condition is this: don't let the shape stop the mission. If the church in Acts 15 had insisted that everything be done one way, then the growth of the Kingdom would have stopped in its tracks. Whenever we come across a shape that is an unnecessary hindrance to the growth of the Kingdom, we have a responsibility to change the shape so the mission is not hindered. That's a heavy responsibility.

I like to do things a certain way. As a church, we get used to doing things a certain way. We even codify our practices, and build structures. But none of this - our buildings, our programs, our structures, our staff - should ever get in the way of the mission of the church. The minute that these get in the way, they need to go.

I've been asking myself lately: what structures and shapes do we have in place that are getting in the way of the Kingdom expanding in Etobicoke? I'm not talking about the Kingdom of Richview. I'm talking about God's Kingdom. What do we need to change so that the community can benefit by this outpost of God's Kingdom being here? What structures do we have that are getting in the way? That's not an easy question. I hope you'll think about that one for a while.

There's one other condition. The letter from the Jerusalem council did outline a few areas in which the Gentiles were asked to cooperate. Don't be sexually immoral; don't eat meat offered to idols, or blood or meat from strangled animals. These were the Gentile practices that were either flat out wrong, or were likely to offend the Jewish believers. The second condition is this: don't be unnecessarily offensive in how you express the church. We have freedom, but that freedom is bounded by concern for the wider church. We are part of something bigger. We have freedom, and we're called to exercise that freedom with love.

I have preferences. Those preferences can never get in the way of what God is doing around me. We are called to let the church take shape according to what God is doing, and to relinquish our structures and our preferred shapes when they get in the way.

Our values as a church are to be people-centered and evangelistic. This year, as we move to stay in step with God, may we grant freedom to others, the same type of freedom God has granted us.

Lies I've Believed: A Decision Makes Me a Christian (Luke 9:57-62)

I'm going to see how much you trust me. If you have a wallet or purse with you today, please get it out. Don't worry; I don't want your money. Inside your wallet or purse, most of you will have a receipt. If you don't mind, pull it out for just a minute.

A receipts good for...the answer depends on who you are. If you think a receipt is good for nothing, you throw it out as soon as you get home. How many people just throw out their receipts? How many people have some type of filing system for their receipts? There's a personality test for you right there. What you do with your receipts tells you a lot about the type of person you are.

All of us have needed a receipt for a return, exchange, or rebate at some point, but couldn't find it. Finding a year-old receipt just saved me a bunch of money lately.

You may not have thought about it, but we in the church have developed a sort of spiritual receipt system. If someone ever asks you if you are a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, most of us point to a certain time in which we made a decision to follow Jesus. It's almost like we pull out a receipt as proof of what happened. Some of us can't remember the exact time or day that it happened, and it's almost like we lost our receipt.

Here's what we believe: a decision at some point made us a Christian.

I'm going to suggest something that might be a little bit uncomfortable for us today. I'm going to suggest that a decision does not make us a follower of Jesus Christ. When you read the account of Jesus' life and ministry, you never see Jesus trying to convince people to make decisions. Even when people ask him what to do to have eternal life, Jesus says things that would get me fired if I said them. He told one rich young man to keep the commandments. Would that ever get me in trouble if I answered that way! When the man responded by saying he had already done this, Jesus told him to sell all that he had and give it to the poor. It's not at all the way that we would answer the question if someone asked us how to have eternal life.

We talk a lot about inviting Jesus to be our personal Savior. Just once I wish that Jesus did the same thing. Jesus never answered the way that we do, about praying the sinner's prayer and making a decision. That doesn't mean that a decision or prayer is necessarily wrong, but it does give us cause to think.

Another problem with decisions is that it's sometimes so hard to pin down exactly when someone made a decision. For instance, when do you think the apostles became Christians? We just don't know. The same is true for some of us. We can describe a process of becoming closer to Christ, but it's impossible for us to pin down the exact moment at which we become his followers. For some of you, it's easy. The Apostle Paul could take you to the road where his life was transformed, and point you to the spot. For a lot of us, it isn't easy to point to one decision that made us followers of Christ.

Today we're going to see what Jesus actually did say about this. If you have a Bible with you, let's look at Luke 9 together.

Rabbi and Talmidim

In Luke 9, Jesus teaches on what it means to be committed to him. In verse 23, Jesus says, "If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find true life." Then, in verses 57 to 62, we read what he said to some others about following him:

As they were walking along someone said to Jesus, "I will follow you no matter where you go."

But Jesus replied, "Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but I, the Son of Man, have no home of my own, not even a place to lay my head."

He said to another person, "Come, be my disciple."

The man agreed, but he said, "Lord, first let me return home and bury my father."

Jesus replied, "Let those who are spiritually dead care for their own dead. Your duty is to go and preach the coming of the Kingdom of God."

Another said, "Yes, Lord, I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family."

But Jesus told him, "Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God."

Jesus said two words in verse 23 that lie at the heart of what we're talking about: "Follow me." Jesus issued this call to a select group of people. In addition, people occasionally asked Jesus if they could follow him, and Jesus outlined the conditions that are required if anyone wants to be his follower. Sounds good and simple. There are two words, though, that give us some context for the invitation to follow Jesus.

The first word is one you already know: rabbi. Jesus grew up in a Jewish culture. Although his area was not highly regarded by the religious elite of Judea, the people in Galilee were some of the most knowledgeable and religious Jews at that time. In every community, the local synagogue would hire a teacher called a rabbi. Children began learning Scripture around the age of four or five. They would spend hours learning the Torah or the Law. By the time children were about ten, most students would stay at home to learn the family trade. The best students, though, continued their training under the rabbi while learning a trade. They became familiar with the prophets and their writings.

Then, a few - very few - of the most outstanding students sought permission to study with a famous rabbi, often leaving home to travel with him for a lengthy period of time. They had a name, and it's the second word I want to teach you: talmidim (plural) or talmid (singular). Unlike the first word, rabbi, this one isn't as familiar to us. The English translation for this is disciple. A talmid was much more than a student. He didn't want to learn. He wanted to become just like the rabbi. Eventually the talmid would hope to become a rabbi and have talmidim himself, passing not only teaching but a lifestyle to his disciples.

Mostly, students sought out the rabbis they wanted to follow. A few exceptional rabbis were famous for finding their own students. Most were turned away, but for the select few, this would be the call: "Follow me."

This adds a whole new layer of understanding to what we read in this passage. Jesus fit the mold of rabbi perfectly. People called him rabbi. He traveled from place to place, visited the synagogues, and taught like a rabbi. He offered new interpretations of the Law, like a select group of the rabbis. He started teaching around the age of 30, which was the age at which someone was considered ready to teach others.

Jesus' call was that of a rabbi to talmidim: follow me. He talked about his ministry as one of replicating, so his talmidim would become just like him. In Luke 6:40, Jesus said, "A student is not greater than the teacher. But the student who works hard will become like the teacher." So, Jesus' call to follow him is one of a rabbi inviting a student, a disciple to become just like him.

That makes us talmidim. Following Jesus involves the same type of commitment that a talmid would have made to his rabbi: total commitment. It means living with the rabbi, learning, imitating, and becoming just like him. Everything becomes secondary to becoming just like him.

Following Jesus, then, is not primarily about a decision. In Luke 9, some people made a decision to follow Jesus, and Jesus told them that it is not enough. Following Jesus involves something much greater.

Following Jesus is more of a process than an event - Put another way, it's not so much about a decision as it is a direction. Being a talmid isn't something that happens one day. It's a direction that involves every moment of every day from that point on.

This isn't to put down the event. Some, but not all of you, will have had a moment at which you began to follow Christ. You may have had a moment with someone else in which they began to follow Christ. The moment can be a significant milestone, and we shouldn't put it down. But a single moment is never enough. It's part of a process.

For others, you can't remember that exact moment. That's my story. That's okay. Think less decision, more direction.

Following Jesus requires total commitment - You see that in today's passage. Verses 23 says, "If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross daily, and follow me." Later, he talked with three people and told them that they couldn't follow him with anything less than total commitment. Following Jesus involves a shift of allegiance. We follow, even when we don't know where he's going.

Following Jesus means becoming like him - This is what being a talmid is about. The goal is to become like the rabbi, Jesus. Everything else is secondary to this purpose.

When we become like Jesus, the result is that we live just like Jesus would if he lived at our address. We work just like Jesus was employed by our employer. We study just like the if Jesus was the student. The talmid becomes just like the rabbi.

Following Jesus means eventually making other talmidim yourself - One of the last things Jesus said was, "Go, and make talmidim of all the nations." The talmidim eventually become rabbis themselves, and go and lead other talmidim to become just like the rabbi they resemble.

When Jesus says, "Follow me," he's asking for much more than a decision. He's inviting us into a journey of living and learning from him, shifting our allegiance to him, and becoming just like him. The earliest name for Christianity was The Way. It signifies that we're on a journey of following the rabbi Yeshua (the Hebrew name for Jesus).

If you're looking for a headcount, a way to know that you've embarked on this journey, Jesus gave it: baptism. It's the entry point of following him. It's not for those who have reached a certain stage of maturity. It's for those who have embarked on this journey of being a talmid of Jesus.

Jesus said, "Follow me, live with me, become like me." That's his call to us today.

Information on rabbis and talmidim was obtained from an excellent article from Follow the Rabbi.