We’ve finally reached the end of this journey. We’ve seen the church rise up, thrive through adversity, stand firm in the face of some pretty intense internal challenges, and finally hit its stride here in the most exciting story of all with a church business meeting. Wait…a church business meeting? How could that be exciting? Because this one would set the tone for how the church working well would approach ministry for the rest of its history. You’ve never seen such an exciting business meeting before. Read on to find out what happened and what it means for us.
Knocking Down Walls
Have you ever seen the gameshow Wipeout? It is a favorite in our household. If you’ve never seen it, the basic premise is that a group of pretty average folks are invited to take part in an insane series of obstacle courses. Each course is designed for the contestants to fail and in increasingly embarrassing ways. The bigger the wipeouts, the better the laughs.
Or, for more serious obstacle course fans, have you ever watched America Ninja Warrior. My boys love that one too. The obstacles aren’t quite so insane, but they are challenging at an even more physical level. Only folks who are in the peak of physical conditioning have a chance to make it through the series of challenges in order to have a chance to try and make it up the “warp wall.” Plus, you get the chance to have the hosts shout at you for an hour about how THIS IS THE MOST INCREDIBLE THING THEY’VE EVER SEEN, and who doesn’t want that?
Different as they may be, though, the thing these two shows have in common is that as you go through the courses, each obstacle you face is a little different and more challenging than the previous one. There is a clear goal toward which you are working, and there are folks cheering you on (or at least, they cheer you on in America Ninja Warrior; in Wipeout the host just makes fun of you as you go), but the folks in control of the course want to make it as difficult as they can to reach it. So then, think about this question with me: Do you ever feel like life is a giant obstacle course? There are days it feels like we move from one challenge to the next, each one a little bigger and harder than the last. And all the while, we’re increasingly sure that someone is messing with course to make it as difficult as possible to get to the goal.
Do you know what else can feel a bit like an obstacle course? You may not believe me on this one, but hear me out: Getting into the church. Now, if you’re someone who has been a part of the church—of this church—for a long time, you may find that characterization pretty hard to believe. You can’t imagine why it would be tough to get into the church. This is an easy group of people to be a part of. We’re so welcoming! And don’t get me wrong: We are a welcoming church. I’m not just saying that because I’m a paid spokesman either. Maybe this church is easy to get into, but some churches aren’t. A lot of churches aren’t. In fact, the church isn’t always so easy to get into and sometimes over the course of our history that has been by design.
This morning, at long last, brings us to the final stop in our series, Telling Our Story. I don’t know about you, but it’s a little hard to believe we started this journey on our first Sunday back together. Here’s a number that might shock you: We’ve been doing church like this now for a quarter of a year. It’s pretty wild to me when you put it in those terms. Along the way we have had set before us the church as it was first getting its start. This has been appropriate because in many ways we and churches all over the country have been figuring out how to start over. COVID has acted like a giant reset button on a whole lot of things in our culture. Being reminded of what made us work so well in the first place has been an important thing to have as we figure out how to be the church well in this new world; as we figure out whether we even want to still be the church; as we figure out what we’re willing to endure to be the church.
This morning we have reached the end of the story of the church’s beginning. There’s still more to Luke’s narrative, but what comes next is almost entirely concerned with Paul’s subsequent two missionary journeys. Luke actually accompanied him for these and so the tone of the work changes to be much more personal. He shifts from third- to first-person. And the story of the church isn’t over. We’re still living and telling that one. But there is one last part of this first story we need to see. And this last part is really important.
A bit of background here will be helpful. Remember a few weeks ago when God called Peter to go to Caesarea to preach the Gospel to Cornelius, the Gentile, Roman centurion? Remember when Nate walked you through the immediate fallout of the church wrestling with whether or not the Gospel was really for both Jews and Gentiles? Well, that conversation got cut a little short by the persecution that started when Herod attacked the church. When the conversation was cut short, it wasn’t really resolved. The issue got pushed to the background, but in the minds of many folks, the question hadn’t been answered.
With Herod out of the way and Rome’s attention diverted otherwise for the time being, the church finally got to get out of survival mode and enter into one of theologizing and expansion. A church trying to survive doesn’t worry much about theology beyond the absolute basics. At some point, though, you’ve got to answer those tough questions that pop up along the way. As Paul returned from his first big missionary journey with exciting stories about incredible growth among the Gentiles, things finally came to a head. All the big shots returned to Jerusalem so they could work out some details around this question: Just how exactly could Gentiles come into the church?
The thing that specifically prompted this conversation was when some folks came to Antioch from Jerusalem and started proclaiming that the only way for Gentiles to become Christians was to become Jews first. They said salvation was for the Jews and unless you became a Jew, you weren’t going to receive it. Period. Well, Paul and Barnabas had just been out on the mission field and they had been proclaiming just the opposite to a people who were lapping up their message hungrily. They recognized that if these apparently rogue teachers from Jerusalem began to dominate the conversation, the result was going to be fewer Gentiles willing to accept Jesus as Lord. They recognized that the situation they were going to have with the Gentiles was going to parallel the situation the Jews already had: A whole bunch of Gentiles who were sincerely interested, but unwilling to come all the way because the requirements were too stringent. And they understood the eternal consequences of that being the case. It was going to take the leadership in Jerusalem weighing in on the matter to sort this out. Luke reports as much in Acts 15:2:” After Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, Paul and Barnabas and some others were appointed to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this issue.”
Once in Jerusalem, things got tense quickly. Verse 4: “When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them to keep the law of Moses,’” thus laying down the gauntlet.
Now, if you’ve read the Gospels before, you are perhaps fairly accustomed to the Pharisees being the bad guys in the story of Jesus. Well, these Pharisees were actually Jesus followers. They were probably from the large group of priests who came over to the good side that Luke told us about back in chapter 6 before Stephen’s martyrdom. And while they are definitely playing the antagonists in this particular story, can we pause and offer them just a bit of sympathy? It was a big enough deal that they had finally gotten their hearts and minds around the fact that Jesus was the Messiah. That was a win for them, for the church, and for the kingdom. But what Paul and Barnabas and soon even Peter as well were asking them to do was to give up everything they had ever been taught and into which they had invested their entire lives as right and true about God and how to follow Him faithfully. At least, that’s how it felt to them. So we can perhaps understand that were stuck on this point. God’s covenant was with the Jews. It was very clear (to them) in what it demanded of anyone who wanted to follow Him. If you weren’t willing to accept the burden of the Law, then you couldn’t have access to the Father. It was that simple. They weren’t taking this position necessarily because they wanted anyone excluded from the church but because they wanted them to be able to come all the way in and they thought they knew what that meant. But what they didn’t understand—what they couldn’t understand—was that Jesus had fulfilled the Law. He was all anyone needed anymore. The Law was superfluous.
And I know sitting where we are on this side of the cross and looking back with the clear perspective of hindsight (not to mention the fact that none of us that I know of came up in a Jewish environment), the solution to this tension is obvious. Of course Jesus is all anyone needs. We are saved by faith alone through grace and not by works lest anyone should boast, just like Paul wrote…about 25 years after this meeting took place. You see, the folks there were still figuring all of this out. They didn’t know any better yet. The teaching and theology of the church hadn’t developed quite that far just yet. Oh, they had a lot of the essentials down pretty well, and, yes, our salvation by faith alone through grace is fundamental, but it was an idea that was still developing at this point in the history of the church.
Okay, but then why is this important for us? Why should we care about how they worked all of this out? Sure, it’s good to know this was a part of our story, but what else is there? This story matters for us—it matters a lot for us—because of how they resolved this issue and the ministry direction in which that points us today. You see, what the Pharisees were doing was allowing the culture in which they were raised lead them to create some Gospel…checkpoints, if you will…that allowed them to have some control over the flow of who came in the church. And they weren’t doing this out of spite. Much to the contrary, they were doing this out of a genuine love for Jesus and His church. They wanted the church to be pure and clean for her Lord. And they thought—just like people have always thought—that the best way to do that was to create fences to keep out the riff-raff.
Listen church: If we’re not careful, we can do the same thing. It doesn’t look the same, no, but the end result is the same. We create fences in all kinds of ways. And not all of them are necessarily bad. It may be that we create a fence around who can serve in the church and when. We create barriers around who we’ll allow to use our facilities and why. We create obstacles around how someone can become a follower of Jesus. Things like our music, my particular preaching style, the programs we offer or don’t, the kinds of activities we pursue and who we let participate in them, the real openness of our Bible study groups to new people, the kinds of conversation circles we form before and after our services, how well we train up new leaders, whether or not we ask people to wear masks, and on and on all can—if we’re not carefully intentional—create additional requirements we (usually) unintentionally put in place for folks who want to sign up to follow Jesus. The net result of all of this amounts to the fact that while we want new people to follow Jesus, we want them to look a little bit more like us first.
That’s all the Christian Pharisees really wanted here. The Gentiles were so different from them at every point. They couldn’t imagine how it was going to work to have them in the church if they were just allowed in without any kind of guardrails to help them stay in line. So, they were just trying to help clean them up a bit before letting them in. But all that really served to do was to give them a reason to stay out.
So then, how did the church resolve this? Well, the Pharisees spoke. Peter spoke. Paul and Barnabas spoke. And then finally James spoke. James was Jesus’ own brother. Everybody was primed to listen to James. He had become the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He was highly respected by all sides. The side James took was going to win. Everybody knew that too. And what did James say? Look down to v. 19: “Therefore, in my judgment, we should not cause difficulties for those among the Gentiles who turn to God.” Now, he went on to offer some minor caveats to that relating to some issues that were going to be truly non-negotiable for the Jewish-background believers and for the spiritual health of the Gentile believers themselves, but that was it. They wrote up his views in a letter and sent it back to Antioch. “When they read it [v. 31], they rejoiced because of its encouragement.”
And the church just continued to grow. Faster, really, than any other similar movement in the history of the world. You could point to a lot of different things that resulted in that growth, but what happened at this church business meeting lies right at the heart of the explanation. They decided to take down barriers to the Gospel instead of putting them up, and when they did, the Gospel advanced. When we remove Gospel obstacles, the church grows.
The question for us, then, is obvious: How do we do that? How do we go about removing Gospel obstacles? We start by asking and answering a simple question: Is there anything around here other than the Gospel itself that could serve to keep someone from getting to Jesus? And I know we could go overboard in being nitpicky about this and that which could serve itself to distract us from the bigger goal. That’s not the way forward. But think seriously about it for a second. What things are we doing, what customs do we have, what traditions do we honor that are more about members than our non-Christian neighbors? These are things that if they walked in on they would be at best confused and at worst repelled by. Or how about this: What kinds of assumptions are we making as members that non-members aren’t going to make and will be either confused or offended by until they understand them better? If we can get rid of those things, we will see the Gospel advance in ways we haven’t before. When we remove Gospel obstacles, the church grows.
Now, I’m not going to give you the answers to these questions this morning. What I want to do is to frame your thinking about the church. I want to frame how you look at who we are and how we do what we do. I want you to see yourselves—ourselves—through the lens of removing Gospel obstacles. Because, when we remove Gospel obstacles, the church grows. Our goal here needs to be this: To make it as simple as it possibly can be for someone to connect with Christ because they’ve connected here. We want to remove every obstacle to the Gospel save the Gospel itself. Nothing else we do matters so much as that. And when we do it well, the kingdom grows. The church grows. We grow. We see the transformation of the Gospel brought to our community in ways that will make sure it will never be the same again. Listen, we’ve got a great community. The numbers bear that out. So many of the standard points of need with which many communities struggle don’t exist here. What we do have, though, are lots of families and more all the time. We live in a community that is growing and changing and that growth is on the cusp of becoming explosive. The thing about families—about anyone really—is that if they don’t have the Gospel, they need the Gospel. But given our culture, they aren’t going to listen to the Gospel unless it’s coming from a trusted source; a source they know cares for them.
Are you with me? Look at what God’s been doing for the last six months! He’s been building our reputation as a church that cares for its community. That means we are going to have the chance to share the Gospel with more people in more places and at more times. We’ve got to make sure we are ready. We’ve got to remove any obstacles to the Gospel we have so that when folks come here, they slide right into it. Indeed, when we remove Gospel obstacles, the church grows. I don’t know about you, but I want our church to grow. I want to see it grow beyond what any one of us has ever even imagined it could be. And that, not simply so we’re big, but so that the Gospel is expanding and transforming lives in the name of Jesus. Well, when we remove Gospel obstacles, the church grows. Let’s commit to that very thing together.