TRA Wordtalks

"Sunday, 14th September, 1997 - Learn from Others."

30/97 14.9.97 Scripture: Acts 15:1-36

YEARS ago I arrived in Amsterdam, Holland, to speak to 5,000 delegates for the first International Conference of Itinerant Evangelists. After booking into the hotel, feeling hungry, I went into a sandwich shop and looked at the various kinds of meat in the refrigerated cabinet. I spoke to the lady behind the counter in my very best Dutch: "I would like to have a roast pork sandwich on rye." In her very best English she replied, "We don't sell roast pork." As she spoke I noticed behind her a picture of the Western Wall of Jerusalem, and the serviette holder on the top of the counter in the shape of the Star of David. Trying out my Dutch again, I said, "Are you a kosher shop?" She said, "We are the only kosher sandwich shop in Amsterdam." At the only kosher sandwich shop in Amsterdam, I had asked for a roast pork sandwich! If it had not been for the first Conference of Itinerant Evangelists in Jerusalem, 2000 years ago, no Christian would eat roast pork. Our Scripture from Acts 15, impinges upon what we as Christians eat and not eat. This passage deals with our culture, those things which we regard as important to us, those things which we believe are right and natural, but which may not be essential to our faith. Have you noticed that you tend to regard yourself as normal and that those around you who are different, are not? Your speech, your colour, your dress, your behaviour - these are normal. It is easy to regard others as being different and being somewhat less than normal. We all have these norms, our cultural background, and we use them to judge others. We all come from distinctive cultural back-grounds and we must learn the difference between what stems from our cultural heritage and what is essential to our faith. What is essential will abide, and what is cultural may change. In 1862, a Methodist minister in Sydney, wrote that the order, tone, and appearance of Wesleyan services here were "so truly English, that one might have imagined they were held in the heart of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, or Lancashire rather than fifteen thousand miles distant from our shores." We transported culture, not just faith. We have a cultural cringe seen as late as 1924 when the Roman Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix still equated Irishness with Christianity: "The more deeply they breathe the Irish atmosphere the stronger and more vigorous would be the Australian faith". We need distinguish Australian faith from European culture. There is an example of this in Acts 15. It tells of a dispute in the church concerning culture.

1. THE CULTURE COLLISION

"Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: `Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.'" Antioch was the growth centre of the church. It was not a Jewish centre, but Greek. When these men came from Jerusalem, the birthplace of the church and centre of conservatism, to the Greek centre where there was growth and new life, they began to teach the believers that "unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." There are people today saying the same kind of thing. The men from Jerusalem said to the believers in Antioch that they could not be saved unless they followed the laws of Moses, unless they were circumcised, unless they kept Jewish dietary laws, unless they ate kosher food, unless they......! You may have grown up in a home where it was said you could not be saved unless you abstained from using make-up, unless you avoided picture theatres and ball-room dancing and the like. Many people add their own cultural ideas. But there is a difference between faith and culture. These men from Jerusalem were saying "unless...." What they were doing was confusing the demands of faith with details of culture. We need to learn that lesson in the church. We tend to Christianise our culture. We take our behaviour patterns and baptise them, saying, "That is Christian." We ask someone, "Are you a Christian?" He replies, "My oath I am. I was born in Sydney!" To be born in Sydney no more makes one a Christian than being born in hospital makes one a bed-pan! There is no relationship between the two, between what is essential to the faith, and what is simply cultural. To insist there is will lead to conflict between faith and culture.

2. THE CULTURE CONFLICT

"This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question." They sought to resolve the cultural problem by having a council meeting. The early Christians were in three parties. First, there were the radicals, like Paul and Peter. They wanted change. Then there were the conservatives. These were the Jewish Pharisees who had become Christian. They wanted as little change as possible. The third group was the party of consensus. This party says, "Now, let's get a consensus viewpoint on all of this." The philosophy is: nobody loses, everybody wins. It doesn't always work. Where two positions cannot be reconciled, one has to give way. The Council met and decided. Unfortunately, the Book of Acts tells us only there was debate and a decision. As often with official minutes of a meeting, we have the result but not details of what went on. We have to go to Paul's letter to the Galatians, to find out just what did happen. Paul wrote, (Gal 2) "When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, `You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? We who are Jews by birth and not `Gentile sinners' know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.'" It is clear that there was quite a heated argument.

3. THE CULTURE CONFERENCE

This dispute had to be settled, so a Conference was called in Jerusalem. 3 "The church sent them on their way, and as they travelled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad." More non-Jewish people were becoming Christians. There is joy when a person becomes a Christian, unless there are too many of them becoming Christians. It is OK if there are more like us becoming Christians, but when you get too many of them, it throws the balance out. We like people like ourselves. We associate with people like ourselves and employ those from the same background. We go to places where others dress, speak and behave as we do. Conversions bring joy in heaven, but on earth we are not so pleased when there are more of them instead of more of us. That may lead to conflict. At this Jerusalem Conference Paul and Barnabas tackled the issue head-on. Two things went wrong. "When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, `The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.' The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them."

4. THE CULTURE CONCESSION

Peter, corrected by Paul, now tackled them on matters of ritual. "Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." His argument could not be defeated. If God accepts the Gentiles and does not distinguish between us and them, how can we weigh them down with regulations not even we can bear? Peter's memory was fresh from his experience with the Roman Cornelius. Peter had not mixed with people of other races and cultures until then when he discovered the way to God for both Cornelius and himself was the same. As a result of Peter's defence "the whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them." They decided to send a letter to the Gentile churches. James one of the consensus party, put the motion. When they finished, James spoke up: "Brothers, listen to me." He agreed with Peter, Paul and Barnabas, because their argument was true, but also because he wanted to keep his brother Pharisees on side. He was one of them too! So they wrote a magnificent letter, which looked both to the grace of Christ and to the Law of Moses. It offered both freedom and chains. "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood." They compromised and upheld the very things Peter and Paul opposed. The Jerusalem conference said: "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell." The Law of Moses had been round for a long time and read in the synagogues every Sabbath! So they regarded their culture as normal. They found it too difficult to depend solely on faith. It brought peace to the Antioch church. "The men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message." It was a compromise between faith and culture, and despite its weaknesses it held the church together under stress until the Gentiles outnumbered the Jews and the issue dissolved. But this decision enabled the church to turn from being a Jewish sect into a universal fellowship. The Church turned from being dominated by Jewish tradition to being open to Western influences. It turned the church from the old world and thrust it into the new. The freedom remained and the chains dropped off and every tradition we inherited was affected. Because of that decision 2,000 years ago, I, as a Christian, could walk into an Amsterdam shop and order roast pork, but the Dutch Jewess who ran the shop could not serve it. She had not received that letter. I had.

Gordon Moyes

Send an e-mail to Gordon Moyes

Return to TRA home page