One of my favorite things in the version of the story we heard today from the New Revised Standard is the opening words: Some people. Which could just be said “there were some people.” Or, could be said “Some People” because you know which people. Maybe a little side eye or a not so subtle pointing “Some People.”
It is suggested that the Jerusalem Council–what we find in this story–happens in the year 50. So we’re 20ish years from the death and resurrection of Jesus. We’re 20 years from the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome when they’ve had enough. It’s kind of a prime window of the time of the early church that grew from the Jewish community. Don’t forget, all of our leaders that are named and the Some People are all Jewish. Peter, James, Paul, Barnabas, all Jewish, so we’re not throwing shade against the Jewish community.
Anyway, “Some People” had been hearing the stories of Peter and the conversion of Cornelius, and Paul and Barnabas building a church in Antioch. And so “Some People” showed up, and pulled the metaphorical brakes on the whole thing. 20 years in we have reached a time of conflict.
“Some people” have decided that they need to clean up what has been going on. Jesus was Jewish and they, reasonably, thought that those who would be a follower of the Way of Jesus would also be people who follow practices of Judaism. “Some people” thought that it was perfectly reasonable that these grown new followers should be circumcised, which sounds unpleasant.
What we have in the story is a vision of who we could be when it comes to times of conflict in the church.
When the gathering assembled for that first Council everyone had questions and opinions. How can we be in fellowship with people who are uncircumcised? How will they understand the stories? How will they learn to live life correctly? “Some people” first saw all the things that would and should keep these communities separate, that should keep the Gentiles from full inclusion. These had a tight hold on to what was seen as a priority. They had heard that Jesus called himself the Gate and they decided that they would be the gatekeepers, deciding who would make it through and who would not, forgetting that Jesus was already saying the gate was open to all.
They needed some help. Instead of focusing on how these people were wrong, outside, needed to change, the question they needed to ask was: What is necessary for this diverse community to gather together? What is necessary for Jew and Gentile to have table fellowship? It’s subtle, I know, but it’s the difference between “How do you fit into my understanding?” and “What joins us?”
Church, we are not having the same disagreement that they might have had, but there are times when we have found ourselves deeply committed, we have held on tight to an idea of church, of church membership, sometimes it could be an actual object. Something that we hold on so tightly to, that it keeps others out, that it keeps us staying put, that it keeps us from growth.
I had a professor that told a story of some Quakers, the religious group, not the oats. There was a time in their history that the men and women couldn’t sit on the same side of the meeting house sanctuary. Now, this was long over but one community still had the short wall up that was designed to maintain the separation. And they got to a place where some thought they should take it down and others said, no, it’s part of our history. Who’s holding on too tightly? Who’s not willing to consider an alternative?
Part of the process of the Jerusalem Council, and for the Quaker Church, and for each of us, is hearing the stories. What is the testimony that people have on the conflict. For Peter it was his vision from God, for Peter and Barnabas it was the moving of the Spirit in Antioch. Maybe for some in the Quaker church it was a symbol of how far they had come, a piece of their ancestors that was left behind for them.
And while it’s not our tradition, there is a metric in the Anglican Church when looking at situations, at the world: how do we understand it in light of Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience. The conflict at the Jerusalem Council, and at the Quaker Church, were rooted in tradition, the way things have always been, what was there before, what we know. Peter and Paul and Barnabas told of their Experiences of the Spirit coming into the lives of Gentiles.
The problem comes when our experiences are so different from another. Who’s wins? Who’s is more important? Who’s takes precedence? What if “some people’ had said, “Nah, I’ve seen Gentiles, the spirits they are filled with are not Holy.”
We see this today: It would not take long for me to find a story of a black man who has been stopped by the police while walking in the neighborhood where they live or work. And it shouldn’t matter, but sometimes it does, that these are men with PhDs, teaching at universities and seminaries, picking up their morning coffee or walking home from the gym. And I can tell you that that is not my experience. But can I stand before these men and say, because it wasn’t my experience, what you’re saying must not be true? Of course not. They can both be true, but only one of those experiences is problematic, only one demands action, only one is requiring some change.
When we are deciding conflict, when we are thinking about next steps, when we are weighing diverse and divergent experiences, traditions, while not leaving our reasons and minds at the door, we need to root it all back into the stories and teaching in our scriptures. I believe that we ought to come at our stories and teachings in scripture from an attitude of abundance, love, and justice, that is revealed in people’s experience of God and in the life of Jesus. James presented a story of God, rooted in the Torah, that is expanding and reaching and offering space for Gentiles. Reason, tradition, experience, scripture, they all interact with each other because we don’t come to the Bible as black slates. It is a living book, a living tradition, and if we hold on too tight so that it doesn’t grow, expand, bear fruit, it will die.
We let the stories, the experiences, the tradition, and of course, our scripture-hopefully coming from the best possible interpretation–and we consider, we have long conversations, we discuss and debate in love, listening, pondering, asking questions because we’re curious and not because we’re trying to manipulate. This is the process of discernment. A time of considering and being vulnerable and living in uncertainty. The hope is, in the end, a conclusion is arrived at that everyone is excited about or can live with, there are no “No” votes in discernment. It’s a scale and no decision is agreed to unless everyone is in the middle to yes. This isn’t an easy process and it certainly isn’t a mean conflicts or discussions are resolved quickly. I don’t know how long they were in the Jerusalem council, but from the story I heard, it took the Quakers years to discern what to do with that panel in the middle of their worship space, until some suggested they place the panel on the front of their soon to be built balcony, it remained in the church, but it found a new purpose. Sometimes, discerning can bring about unexpected solutions, creative answers, when we take the time to consider, to mull, to discuss, to learn, to really listen.
And it’s hard. If you’ve ever had a fight with someone you care about, a fight with a family member, someone who you have committed being in a relationship with, you know that when you get to the end there is still work to be done. There is still something that needs to be reconciled. For the Jerusalem Council it was writing a letter that would be sent out, but it was also “some people” living their faith and living the mission and ministry in a way that included people unlike them without the expectation of body manipulations. We grow, we learn, we stop, to go, whatever it is we respond. We grow together, and we come back to this table: where we remember that we are connected, that we are bound together in the life of God, the teachings of Jesus, the movement of the Spirit, and in living with each other. We remember that the table extends well beyond this place and this community but through the whole of creation and we are connected one to another–regardless, no matter, always.
So may we be people of discerning hearts, living traditions and faith, and the expanding table.