Thursday, May 6, 2021

Are traditions stifling us?

To watch this sermon, please click here:

Today’s Gospel essentially centres on the theme of abiding in Christ, which I dealt with in some depth on Sunday.  So, if you’d like to explore what ‘abiding’ really means, I encourage you to read that sermon in this week’s Chronicle, out today.

Instead, let’s focus on the first reading we heard, from chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles.  The reading was part of the record of the first Council of Church leaders, in Jerusalem.  We don’t know the exact date of this important conference, but it took place somewhere between 15 to 25 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  By this time, as the Acts of the Apostles tells, the Good News about Jesus had spread to many countries outside of Israel and Judea.  Paul and Barnabas had been especially determined to spread the Good News – travelling into Syria, and over to Cyprus, for example. 

As a result, a lot of non-Jews, known as ‘Gentiles’ had become converted to faith in Jesus.  They had become followers of The Way, and the title ‘Christ-ian’ was beginning to be used, at first as an insult by the enemies of Jesus’ followers.  But all these new converts were being brought into what was still regarded (in most quarters) as a Jewish sect (following the famous Jewish Rabbi called Jesus of Nazareth).   Some of the early Christians present at the Council of Jerusalem were also Pharisees.  Under any normal rules of Jewish sects, any man who wished to become a Jew had to go through circumcision – which had always been regarded as a sign of God’s Covenant with the Jews and Israelites.  The Pharisees were especially keen on this rule – as Pharisees tended to be!

Of course, for Jews this rather painful procedure was carried out soon after birth, and completely forgotten.  But for an adult convert, it was another matter altogether!  The early church was discovering, unsurprisingly, that there was a fair amount of resistance to the idea of circumcision, from potential converts!

So the Council of church leaders was called to work out how this difficult situation could be resolved.  In all likelihood, this was one of the most important decisions that the early church would ever make, if the Good News of Jesus Christ was to travel to the ends of the earth. 

St Peter had already had to confront the issue of whether or not to include Gentiles in the faith.  God had given him a vision of ritually clean and unclean food, and commanded him to eat them all, while God said to Peter, effectively, ‘who are you to decide who is in or out of the Kingdom of God?’.  So Peter was already convinced that Gentiles needed to be included in the Kingdom.  He therefore searched the Scriptures for evidence that this was indeed God’s plan too.  In the writings of the prophet Amos, he found these words:

After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent.

Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,  even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’

This was a promise from God through Amos, that David’s Tent (a metaphor for Jerusalem), rebuilt after the Exile, would be a place for all peoples, Jews and Gentiles, to seek the Lord.  At the Council of Jerusalem, Peter used this passage of Scripture to underpin what God had already shown him:  that the Kingdom of God was for all people, not just the Jews.

Of course, Peter also had his own direct experience of Jesus’s ministry to underpin his argument.  He had witnessed how Jesus opened his arms to everyone.  Jesus had spoken lovingly to a Samaritan woman at the well.  He had preached all around the non-Jewish areas of Tyre and Sidon.  He had healed the child of a Roman Centurion, and commended his faith.  By his lived-example, Jesus showed, again and again, that the new Kingdom of God embraced everyone!

Thankfully, for our sakes (especially for the men among us!) Peter won the day at the first church council at Jerusalem.  Peter had the grace to recognise and argue that Jesus’ Kingdom was meant for the whole earth, not just the chosen nation of Israel and Judea.  Thankfully, he was able to persuade the rest of the Council of his view – and the rest, as they say, is history.  Followers of the Way, Christians, began springing up all over the known world, drawn by the promise and the message of new Kingdom of God, being established. 

And so ends our history lesson for today!  The question for us is whether there are aspects of our rules, our traditions, which stand in the way of new Followers of the Way being invited into the church of today.  That’s a question with which church leaders of today constantly wrestle.  Could it be that robes and cassocks are a barrier to new people joining us?  Could it be that our choice of music is too ‘out-of-date’?  Perhaps our use of 17th century English at this Thursday service is just too much for some people to stomach?

I wrestle with these questions a lot.  Take music, for example.  Some of you will know that I have a history of playing rock and roll, blues and soul music in my spare time.  Personally, I love music played on electric guitars and with a heavy drum-beat.  But if I were to start playing such music on a Sunday morning, while ditching our traditional hymns, would it really bring a lot more people into the church?  What if I were to stop wearing robes, and stand here in jeans and a T-shirt instead?  It’s a question I often ask – and frankly, I’m not sure what the answer is.  During my ministry, I’ve led small churches which use drums and guitars, as well as large ones which use traditional music.  It’s never an easy decision to make.

The best, I think, that we can do is to always stay alert.  We must always ask ourselves whether anything we do could be a stumbling block to the growth of the Kingdom of God here in Havant.  I believe that we must keep asking that question, just as the first Council of Jerusalem did.  And we must remain genuinely open to hearing God’s answer.  Amen.


No comments:

Post a Comment