Category Archives: Acts of the Apostles

Say and do

How can I understand unless someone explains it to me? Philip told him the Good News about Jesus. Acts 8: 31 & 35

The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by the Deacon Philip. Lambert Sustris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by the Deacon Philip. Lambert Sustris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We do not know a lot about Philip. What we do know is that he was one of seven Church Leaders appointed to sort things out, following a quarrel among the members of the church about the management of certain funds and other practical matters, so that the Apostles could concentrate on their ministry of prayer and preaching, unhindered by such trivial distractions. Philip was also a preaching evangelist, sent to head a mission to the Samaritan people. A bold undertaking, for Jew and Samaritan had not got on with one another for a thousand years – the hostility intense and bitter. And tradition has it that Philip was the first to lead a black African to faith in Jesus. That is what the opening verse of this reflection is all about.

Even less is known about the Ethiopian who heard the good news about Jesus from Philip. We are led to believe that he was most probably black but a eunuch, and that he held high office, none other than Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Court of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia. Candace was not her real name, but a title given to all the Queens of Ethiopia. When the two characters in our story met, the Chancellor had just been to Jerusalem to worship God. So, he was religious, either a Jew or a devout man fed up with the multiplicity of gods on offer, looking to Judaism for something better. When Philip meets him on the road out of Jerusalem he was riding in his carriage, reading and struggling with the text of Hebrew Scripture. Philip, man of the hour for this wandering pilgrim in search of true faith by asking the pertinent questions, longing and hoping for answers that made sense.

And Philip knew what to do and what to say – with great effect. Philip, grasping his chance, told him the good news about Jesus as they travelled the road together, unlikely to be looking at the scenery through which they journeyed. The Word of the Lord was by far more important and urgent. Whereas most of the commentaries consulted translate that Philip, “preached to him the good news”, I prefer the alternative, “told him the good news.” No chance of the award ‘PhD’ for that little morsel of biblical criticism! It is simply that as I endeavour to imagine the scene, “told” the good news somehow fits better, speaks more eloquently. What matter, the great thing in this story is that Philip knew what to say and what to do and a new convert was baptized and went on his way rejoicing. A conversion to Christian faith, always an occasion of great joy but it is just the beginning!

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Kingdom come

Ghirlandaio, Domenico - Calling of the Apostles - 1481

Calling of the Apostles. Domenico Ghirlandaio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A clever piece of fictitious writing about Jesus at the beginning of his ministry has him thinking about the recruitment of disciples. He compiles a short list of potential helpers and takes it for assessment to the “Jordan Management Consultants” in Jerusalem. The Agency’s response, based on computer analysis and interviews, is highly critical. “The men you are thinking about,” the report says, “do not demonstrate any true potential and you might be advised to look elsewhere.” There can be little argument that the men Jesus did propose for leadership roles were a motley crew!

Keep with the idea, extend it, and engage in another fictitious exercise involving the same Management Consultants. This time Jesus is exploring how best to proceed and succeed in his missionary task. A possible response from the Consultancy’s Public Relations Department might read, “Sir, we have reviewed your stated objectives and it is our considered judgement that to win public appeal your movement would be advised to have a single watchword or master-thought. A careful evaluation of your aims and purpose lead us to believe your most appropriate and effective slogan would be: “The kingdom of God.”

Although, astonishingly, it is given no mention in the historic Creeds of the Church, “the kingdom of God” was at the very heart of Jesus’ message. He is on record as saying, I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God, for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43). The kingdom of God is the main theme in Jesus’ teaching: it occurs over 100 times in the gospels. Many of the parables were stories Jesus told to explain what the kingdom of God is like. The kingdom features in his very first sermon. “The appointed time has come,” he said, “The kingdom of God is here.” (Mark 1:15). It is still there in his last sermon. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles (1:3) tells us that after the resurrection of Jesus, “He spoke to them about the kingdom of God.” And he asks his followers to pray for it: in the prayer Jesus gave us on which to model all our prayers, we are to ask, “May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Every time we say those words we are asking for the Rule of God to be recognised and accepted in the world. The hope of the visionary with whose writings the New Testament closes – the Revelation of John – is of a time of rejoicing in heaven because “the kingdoms of this world now belong to our Lord and His Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.” (11:15). Whatever else Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God, its fulfilment is something for which the disciples must pray.

A word of caution – a mistake is easily made if our evaluation of prayer equates it with a quick-fix God who is good at conjuring tricks. T.W. Manson, a noted theologian, had this to say, “Those who think Messiah will come and transform the world by a wave of a magic wand are mistaken.” Jesus could not be more clear; early in his ministry he launched His campaign “manifesto” (without the help of the Joint Management Consultants in Jerusalem!) He took the opportunity to do it in the Synagogue when asked to read the Scripture, a passage from the prophetic Isiah. There he made public how he saw his task (Luke 4:18-19): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

There we have it – a ministry that was to revolve round the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged, the suffering and to do something practical, positive and radical about their circumstances. Not surprising then, that those early Christians were known for the way they lived, just as much as for what they believed, One of the first things Jesus did following his dramatic announcement of how he saw his task was to choose his disciples. And then it would appear he gathered them together in a series of seminars where he spelt out in detail what the kingdom was about. In the gospels, we have preserved what might be called “the manifesto of the kingdom” in the Sermon on the Mount. Here is no airy-fairy waffle. Here is a programme which is more than theory, more than academic. Here is something that deals in a realistic and practical way with a new and universal order. Jim Wallis, the American preacher and evangelist has this to say, “Here Jesus speaks to the basic stuff of human existence. He concerns himself with money, possession, power, violence, anxiety, sexuality, law, and goes on to the way we treat people, as well as with faith and religion people.” N.T. Wright in his book Who is Jesus? gives an opinion that No King but God was the revolutionary slogan of Jesus’s day and Jesus was seen as the one announcing that God was at last to become King. And for Jesus the kingdom was not purely an inward, private thing, Tom Wright says, it was essentially to do with the way in which Israel’s God was to become the Lord of the cosmos. He concludes that is the big picture the Gospel paints. That is the ambition God has for the world. That is the task in which the Church must engage. No wonder we are to pray for it. And more – live and work for it!

Ambassadors

James Tissot: The exhortation to the apostles. Image credit: Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia

James Tissot: The exhortation to the Apostles
Image credit: Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11: 26) but it was Jesus who called them disciples. In the gospels it is the word most commonly used for a follower of Jesus. Jesus also called them apostles. Luke in the third gospel says “Jesus called his disciples to him and chose twelve whom he named apostles” (6: 13). In the New Testament, one of the qualifications for becoming an apostle was that the person had witnessed the resurrection. In time, however, every follower of Jesus was equally recognised as an apostle and the New Testament word for apostle refers to an envoy, an ambassador.

A young boy received a lesson about the disciples of Jesus in Sunday School. When he got home he told his mother the lesson was about Jesus’ samples! He may not have got the word right but he was as close to the truth as anyone could be. An apostle, an ambassador, represents Jesus; he or she – Christ’s samples. And the world’s opinion of Jesus may be influenced by the kind of sample we are. There is one feature of the life of an ambassador we ought to note. An ambassador can be an alien in a foreign land. When an ambassador comes to Britain to represent an African country, or the USA or Russia, he or she brings with them a different tradition, a different way of life and often a different language. They may be resident in this country but the UK is not their home and they will continue to follow their native life-styles. If they eat their dinner in a restaurant without using a knife – well, what is to stop them? They are probably American and not conditioned to our cultural code which insists by way of good manners on us eating with knife and fork!

It is a bit like that for the Christian. The environment in which we operate falls short of the picture the New Testament gives of the Kingdom of God. It is a world in which we may feel out-of-place and ill at ease as we take our stand for Christian values. There is much that gives rise to anger within us because it is contrary to the biblical concept of justice, of right and wrong. Christianity is fast becoming a minority in this country and what we stand for is increasingly opposed and challenged. If we are honest and bold enough to confess it, there are times when the grass looks greener on the other side and there is the temptation to have the best of both worlds; the temptation to compromise. Sometimes in our kind of world (not all will agree) compromise may be inevitable. It is naïve and an illusion to imagine the possibility of all and everything ever being absolutely crystal clear. Possibly the only way to avoid the conflict is to escape to the seclusion of the closed monastic life. If all of us went for that, who would work for God’s kingdom on earth? It would not be enough even if the pattern of life was to be one of intensive and consistent prayer. But an apostle is more than one who is sent as an envoy; the apostle is commissioned for a special task. And however great or humble the task we are given, it is for us personally to do something special in the interests of the kingdom of God. If we are Christ’s representatives we are commissioned to save the world from wreck and ruin. To be recognised as one of those Christ people, because our life carries with it the authority of the one who calls us and sends us to represent Him in our day-to-day life, work and witness and to be counted with the apostles…..is an honour and a privilege.

Christ has many services to be done;

Some are easy, others difficult,

Some bring honour others bring reproach

Some are suitable to our natural interests,

Others are contrary to both;

In some we may please Christ and please ourselves;

In others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves,

Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ,

Who strengthens us.

Extracts from the Methodist Covenant service

First in Antioch

 

Ancient Roman road in Syria which connected Antioch and Chalcis. Credit: Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia

Ancient Roman road in Syria which connected Antioch and Chalcis
Credit: Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. Acts 11: 26.

I have referred more than once to my early ministry on the Moray Firth. One of my first discoveries: menfolk are better known by their nickname than by their Christian name. I was told that the community in which I lived was known for miles around for its ingenious way of giving boys “tee-names” by which they were known to their dying day. A tradition that could never surpass that of another place with a fondness for nicknames. The city of Antioch in the days of the early church enjoyed the reputation of being rather clever in the way they doled them out. And it was at Antioch that the disciples first received the name of Christian. A name that was used in contemptuous ridicule. Literally, it means these Christ-people. But to appreciate the impact of it we have to imagine it spat out, venomously, as the words were spoken, “these Christ-people! “ A name we are proud to own today, often maligned but transformed by the lives and witness of Christians – from contempt to respect.

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch, but it was Jesus who named them Disciples! In the gospels it is the word most commonly used for a follower of Jesus. He said, “whoever does not come after me cannot be my disciple”, and to be a disciple is to be a Learner. Jesus called them to follow Him and named them disciples; learners. We are followers, not hangers-on…Jesus leads us on a pilgrimage like the one on which Abram the Old Testament patriarch embarked when, at God’s call, he left home not knowing where or how the journey would end, but ever pressing onward, constantly looking for new directions. If that is the road we take, it requires in us a humility and obedience which accepts that until the journey’s end we may not have all the answers and so we can never stop learning. It does not mean there are no circumstances in which we can be certain. We are close to heresy if, for example, we relegate the teaching of Jesus to mere speculation, or stumbling and faltering guesswork. Jesus prefaced his teaching with the words, “truly I say to you” and those who heard were amazed and overwhelmed by the marvellous assurance of it. “The people,” says Matthew, “were astonished because he spoke with such authority.” No point in following if we are not prepared to believe what Jesus says about life, about love, about God, aye, about sin! But it does require in us a respect and tolerance (a scarce commodity in some circles) to accept that sometimes, because discipleship is an ongoing learning experience, we have to acknowledge that some of our fellow travellers with a different understanding may be right and we may be wrong! Blind dogmatism is too often mistaken for assurance and certainty. “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch,” but it was Jesus who called them disciples = learners. Living with him every day, watching how he handled all sorts of situations, listening to his private conversations and his public utterances, being privy to his dreams and aspirations, witnessing his tears and marvelling at his love for his heavenly father, those disciples would come to know and understand to what they were committed and what was expected of them to become like him, true men of God.

So the followers of Jesus were nicknamed in Antioch. It is a name that has stuck, a name that is honoured in spite of some very clever people’s endeavours to eradicate Christianity (and all other religions) and to establish a secular and humanist society in which the kingdom of God is a mere fairy tale. Why has this nickname, given all those years ago, survived the onslaughts of opposition and persecution? When Ignatius, an early Christian father, was on his way to Rome to be martyred he wrote, “Let me not merely be called a Christian, but be found as one.” The answer to our question, our prayer and promise for today and tomorrow.

Second fiddle

Eastern Orthodox icon John the Baptist — the A...

Eastern Orthodox icon: John the Baptist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The picture the New Testament gives of John the Baptist is very much about someone happily accepting the role of Second Fiddle. (Acts of the Apostles 13:25 REB) “I am not the one you think I am. No, after me comes one whose sandals I am not worthy to unfasten”. And the way John the Evangelist tells the story in the 4th Gospel suggests there were probably contemporaries who thought John the Baptist to be mistaken in the role he undertook for himself; avid supporters of the Baptist. Possibly they campaigned to secure a greater prominence in the Jesus “set-up”. And part of the purpose of John, the writer of the Gospel, it would seem, was to ensure that John the Baptist is kept in his rightful place. The Evangelist keeps rubbing it in that John the Baptist is only a witness; he is not the light that shines in the darkness, only a witness to it. (John 1: 6 & 8) The Evangelist tells us more than once that the Baptist makes no claim to be the Christ; that he saw himself simply as a prophet, a voice calling in the desert preparing the way for one still to come, whose shoes he is not worthy to tie! All the time the 4th Gospel is saying, make no mistake the role of John the Baptist is that of Second Fiddle.

From a human standpoint this may not have been easy to accept. Country and people looked forward hopefully and expectantly for Messiah to come and deliver them. And maybe as the Baptist became more aware of a special destiny for himself, and discerned within himself the feeling of being somebody special, he would have wondered if the golden crown was for him. J.B’s message was not a popular one but there were those who warmed to him, gathered to him, elevated him to a position of prominence, people for whom baptism into faith by John was paramount. Luke reports even Jesus submitted to baptism by him. Perhaps there was some greater future for him than making do with clothes made of camel’s hair. But if he held any such notion, it was not to be.

It would have been easy to resent his subordinate role, to rebel against God’s wishes for him. The great thing is – John resisted whatever temptation came his way, to claim for himself more than he was due. For want of anything better to do in a relaxed moment I watched on TV a repeat of Keeping up Appearances – the episode in which Mrs Bucket was upset and furious because she only came second in a Cookery competition. “I will not be outdone by that Mrs So & So” (the one who got 1st prize), she tells her poor long-suffering husband, Richard, and immediately sets about to redress the situation in a most ridiculous way, having Richard drive her around in a borrowed Rolls Royce! Only an entertaining sit-com, yet not entirely unreal. I’m reminded of a boyhood friend – he had a real football and was very popular in the park! But when he was not made captain of the team or allowed to play centre forward (a striker to those younger than I am) he would pick up his ball and go home: “It’s ma baw!” Not so John the Baptist: although Jesus is junior to him in age and in spite of being first on the field, he is more than ready to step aside, listen to the voice of God and respond to it – more than ready to step aside and give Jesus centre stage; even if it is second fiddle, I’m not worthy to untie his shoes.

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What does this make of discipleship? Does not submission, subservience, subordination, second fiddle create a situation of Upstairs Downstairs – not just servants but slaves? Who remembers the early 50s? Harry Belafonte’s good looks and silky vocal style helped popularise calypso music. My favourite was Island in the sun. Those attributes and charisma led him to the brink of a major movie. His pleasure at making such a break turned to anger when he realised that as a black man he would be expected for ever to play Second Fiddle to his white co-stars. Times have changed – thank God; the doors of opportunity open to those who in my early days would have found it difficult to rise even to the heights of Second Fiddle. Much as I enjoy following the antics in Downton Abbey, it rankles with me to think that to a lesser degree the attitude of “upstairs” to “downstairs” is bred of discrimination: certainly not First Fiddle; scarcely Second Fiddle. But, hold on! Second Fiddle in an orchestra is no less important than that of the leading violinist. It is crucial for Second Fiddle to play in harmony with the leader of the orchestra, the one enhances the other. To play Second Fiddle to Jesus requires us to be in a close, personal and dependent relationship with Him, reflecting the light that He brings as it shines on us and through us. Alas, sometimes Christians are more concerned with their own image and direct the spotlight on themselves rather than on Jesus. In the words of Paul, they are the ones who think too highly of themselves. Consigned to playing Second Fiddle is not good enough for them, so they set about lobbying for status and positions of power; their ambition – the mantle of star performer. There was a time when I operated close to a form of ecclesiastical politicking – fortunately I did not have to be part of it. The ambition of discipleship is eloquently summed up by St. Paul when he says, “For me to live is Christ, so that it is not I but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Advent is upon us once again and John the Baptist is part of the scene – John the forerunner, committed and content to be Second Fiddle. And it is part of his story that Jesus pays him a tremendous tribute. “I tell you,” He says, “among those born of women there is no one greater than John.” And then He says, “Yet, the one who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)

Weatherwise

“Give thanks to the Eternal – he is good, his kindness never fails.” Psalm 106: 1 (Moffatt Translation)

On a glorious September morning some years ago, travelling by road in a beautiful part of North East Scotland, the Moray Firth, with scarcely a cloud in the sky, the sun, pleasantly warm, shone brightly. There was a wonderful calm and the North Sea, a deep rich blue, lay mirror still (it could be very boisterous at times). On the one side, the inshore fishermen were busy with the harvest of the sea. On the other side, farmers were making the most of it, bringing the last of the harvest home.

I recall seeing the scene with new eyes. My mind went back to earlier days, my time on the farm, on a rainy morning, chopping firewood and cleaning out sheds, waiting for the hay to be dry and ready for cutting. I began to appreciate a sight with which I was becoming familiar, of crews pacing the quarter-deck of a fleet storm bound in harbour. There was still a reasonable number of fishing vessels based on Buckie and the other ports up and down the coast – it is very different now.

A farmer cannot get on with the harvest, hay, corn and wheat, until the crop is ripe. A fisherman cannot put to sea until the storm abates. For their bread and butter, the farmer and the fisherman depend on nature being kind.

God “has not left you without some clue to his nature in the benefits he bestows: he sends you rain from heaven and the crops in their season, and gives you food in plenty and keeps you in good heart.” (Acts 14: 17, Revised English Version).

It is not that God’s promised benevolence has dried up and is the cause of the appalling and sinful fact that millions of those “created in his image” go to bed night after night with empty bellies; with death the one assured certainty. Poverty (and its consequences) is today’s cardinal sin. We cannot get off the hook by labelling God the “Sinner”. How his heart must grieve!

Chaos

When I recall my first efforts as a preacher, I marvel at the tolerance of my congregations. How they suffered from the excesses of youth; I was 18 years old when I first began. There was the occasion when we sang Charles Wesley’s popular hymn, And can it be (Hymns & Psalms 216), often referred to as “The Methodist Anthem”. I got carried away at the end of it, telling the congregation that I was so moved we should be dancing down the aisle of the church. Dance does have a place in worship today but not in those far distant days! Not my cup of tea, actually it does nothing for me, but it doesn’t stop me from singing gustily and I hope tunefully, Sydney Carter’s Lord of the Dance. Anyhow I don’t and never could dance! It would be nice to think of myself as a prophet, or an early charismatic Christian. Neither would be the true “me”! My utterance that Sunday morning was simply naively over enthusiastic, and perhaps a wee bit foolish trying it out with a Scots congregation. It would be different today.

Sadly, the older I become, the more I realise how staid is much of our spirituality and discipleship. The more I reflect, the more I realise how great the need to recapture something of the zeal with which the early Christians invaded the post-Pentecostal world. The sort of enthusiasm which got them into trouble when they were accused of “turning the whole world upside down” (Acts 17: 1 – 9 AV); a statement that infers utter chaos and, in my view, a picture that loses much of its point in new translations of Acts where it is replaced with “they have caused trouble all over the world.”

It was William Barclay who said the trouble is that with the passing of the years we wrap Jesus up in so much stained glass.

Unlikely lads

Ghirlandaio: Calling of the Apostles Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Ghirlandaio: Calling of the Apostles
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Jesus spent the whole night praying to God, When day came, he called his disciples to him and chose 12 of them, whom he named apostles. Luke 6: 12-16 (GNB).

When Jesus called the Twelve he had at least a twin purpose in mind: he invited them to go with him and He chose them for friendship. Most of us, I suspect, have come to value the companionship and influence of friends – friends and friendships are an integral part of life. In choosing the Twelve, Jesus was hoping to insure the future of the mission and ministry He exercised by divine appointment; a movement that was to become the early Christian Church. The story begins in the New Testament – Acts of the Apostles. A movement of the Spirit of God described as turning the world upside down. A movement in which those whom Jesus named apostles would be close to the heart of it. I hazard a guess but I think, and may not be far out in suggesting, that many who actually knew the Master’s men wondered what Jesus was thinking about when He recruited those Twelve. When Philip, one of the chosen, the new recruit, set out to find Nathanael to tell him all about it, Nathanael’s response was far from encouraging or complimentary – ‘Nazareth’ he exclaimed, ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ I think it quite possible that when it became known who were to be specially close to Jesus the cynic might have been heard to say, ‘it’s a funny selection but it’s what you might expect from a Nazarene?’ And might there not be others, more sensitive and less prejudiced, who would be asking, ‘What on earth was He thinking of when He appointed this small ‘covey’ of unlikely lads?’

There is another side to the story and it is interesting to note how they acquired the reputation of being a motley crew and, more importantly, why He chose this odd assortment of human characters. Let’s take a closer look at one or two of them and let us begin with Peter.

Four of them were fishermen, one of them being Peter: rough, strong, hard working and, maybe not unused to a bit of colourful language; Peter, impetuous, a rough diamond..

There is Matthew, a tax collector, a cheat and a quisling and much hated. Simon was a Zealot, a fanatical nationalist pledged to kill any quisling or any Roman he set eyes on – probably a terrorist.

John, the disciple Jesus loved (John 21:20). Did Jesus just love one; have a favourite and was he treated thus? Does not our Lord love us all equally – with a generous and undeserving love? Warts and all? John – a likely lad?

Then there is Judas Iscariot who betrayed his Master for 30 silver coins. There is Thomas, realist and feet on the ground and Simon, brother of Peter; the two other brothers James and John, sons of Zebedee nicknamed by Jesus, Boanerges (sons of thunder) lads with a temper! We’ll let the others speak for themselves! No famous or brilliant or obvious leadership talent, just ordinary folk.

When I was about to take on an appointment with extended responsibility I had a telephone call from a wise and respected senior minister. He rang to wish me well and said something for which I was grateful and have never forgotten, ‘ Be yourself; don’t try to emulate your popular predecessors, it is you who have been chosen – chosen for who you are and for what gifts God has given you and the Church believes to be right for the job.’ Another source of encouragement over the years – words of the Apostle Paul. “The folly of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. My friends, think what sort of people you are, whom God has called. Few of you are wise by any human standard, few powerful or noble birth. Yet, to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness.” So no place is left for human pride in the presence of God. 1 Corinthians 1:25-29 (REB).

Encouraging isn’t it, when we think of the colossal task the Lord has chosen to share with us?

Familiar territory

The young church in the days of the Acts of the Apostles had a problem. New people wanted to join. They weren’t Jews; they were Gentiles. There was a serious division of opinion in the leadership; signs of disunity. What were they to do about it – how resolve the dilemma, the outcome of success? Many were to be added to their number. Something had to be done about it – and urgently. What did they do about it?  They convened a meeting!

The apostles and elders met to look into this matter, and after a long debate, Peter rose to address them. Acts of the Apostles 15: 1-12  (Revised English Version)

Here is a look at Eugene H. Peterson’s treatment of the passage in The Message:

The apostles and elders called a special meeting to consider the matter. The arguments went on and on, back and forth, getting more and more heated. Then Peter took the floor……

Familiar territory? Things haven’t changed. Church meetings proliferate! What is true of churches no doubt applies equally to other organisations and societies governing on a so-called democratic agenda. Nothing wrong with meetings or committees. What matters is getting the agenda right. What matters is the honesty we attach to our treatment of the business. Meet for the sake of meeting and we are not only wasting time, we are not being honest with ourselves or with one another, or with God.

A committee is a group of people who keep minutes and waste hours.  (Milton Berle.) The observation of a cynic – or a realist?

Consensus

The detective in the crime novel fell foul of his superiors. His downfall was due to his brutish harassment of suspects and to his intransigence in what he believed to be right and wrong. The arrogance and lack of compassion in the man resulted from his insistence that everything be measured strictly in terms of black and white. What is wrong with that? A reasonable question for a Christian to ask. It’s how many of us understand it, and there certainly are passages in the Bible which rule out compromise. Little wonder there is so much bigotry attached to religion.

Apart from there being grey areas in our pursuit of morality, the varied opinions of so many different people inevitably prevent a common mind in all things. In the course of my ministry I have presided over hundreds of meetings of one sort or other and know well how messy and difficult it can be in church business meetings to obtain and maintain a consensus. Rabbi Blue the well-known and popular writer and broadcaster, in one of his inimitable pieces, speaks of the problem of doing what is right and following conscience, yet being bound to a majority vote.

I wonder if the strange, but not unusual, Hebraic custom of deciding by casting lots, the method adopted by the apostles in the appointment of Judas Iscariot’s successor (Acts 1:26), was an acknowledgement of the difficulty of obtaining a common mind: a safeguard against human prejudice. Our acceptance of a compromise solution, and our loyalty to a majority decision with which we do not agree, may reflect a healthier spirituality than that of the absolute authoritarianism so much in vogue. When things we believe in and hold dear are rejected and we are convinced that the path favoured by our opponents, albeit it by a reasonable majority, is at a cost to our particular cause,  it is almost inevitable that the proponents of the minority cause will be disappointed, angry, hurt, resentful, even tempted to throw in the towel. It happens in all walks of life – the church is no exception.

There is another way, to respond to the challenge of achieving togetherness, whatever side of the fence we stand, generously and graciously respecting one another’s integrity. In the biblical and Christian vocabulary ……….GRACE!

Prayer: Lord, give us grace to keep our word, especially when our view is a minority one and we must abide by a majority decision, when we do not understand the way you are leading when you lead us along the path we resent having to take. Amen