In our Methodist circuit we publish a series of monthly devotions which are written by and then shared among our members, some in electronic form and some in hard copy for those without access to the internet. During the worst of the pandemic these provided a vital resource for those unable to participate on zoom services that were held while our churches were closed and allowed them to receive passages of scripture and reflections as if they were in church. Despite the churches re-opening, some members are naturally nervous or wary of venturing back again for the time being so the devotions have continued each month covering a specific biblical/theological theme.
For September the topic was the Act of the Apostles, and each week a contributor took one of the associated themes and a reading and produced a reflection which is then shared with those members who have signed up to receive the newsletters. Below I have re-produced my contribution for week one, describing why the book of Acts which tells the central story of the rise and spread of our faith is still relevant for today.
Acts 15: 1-29 – Creating the Template for Christian Faith
This long section was the subject of one of our bible studies last month but one which is important in the story of the Christian Church and why the whole of Acts still has relevancy for today. Acts 15 provides the link between the early years of Christianity from the time of the resurrection, Pentecost, the persecution of the apostles in Jerusalem, to Paul’s first missionary journeys and post-Council; Paul’s second and third journeys and his arrival in Rome from his fourth journey, having helped spread the new faith throughout the known world.
During the study session I asked the following two questions repeated here; –
- Reading vv 1-19 what would you say that the debate that took place among the council was really as friendly and trouble free as the text suggests?
- What modern equivalents can you suggest???
The council meeting does not get off to the best of starts, for there are objections to admission of Gentiles from the Pharisaic element for not having to comply with Torah particularly observing the sabbath, circumcision and food laws, i.e. the laws of Moses. In Judaism righteousness and being saved can only be achieved by works of the law, these mark out Israel from other nations and was seen as a sign among Jews of their being God’s chosen people and his covenant could only be applied to them. Are Gentiles now fully equal members of this new sect without this?
It is here that the leadership of first Peter, then James the Just, is brought to bear on the gathering, as both of these Jewish leaders of the Jerusalem church exhort that to move forward as the body of Christ, there cannot be any partiality toward one group or another, the spirit of the Lord is a free gift to all that seek it. As Peter remarks in verse 12, “On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
For Luke the author of Acts, the outcome is the agreeing of no further burdens on non-Jewish believers other than observing food rights and maintaining sexual morality. The principle reason for including food rights is to ensure that table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers can still take place, and the ban on fornication was considered as a moral practice which everyone should follow.
Since then, there have been many other similar councils and meetings throughout the history of Christianity where far-reaching changes have been enacted. The councils of Nicea in 325, Constantinople in 381, Chalcedon in 451, helped to establish the formal rules and doctrines of the Christian church. The synod of Whitby in 664, which after much hostile debate voted to follow the roman practice of dating Easter instead the Celtic practice thus allowing roman dominance in British & Irish churches, was presided over by the local Abbess, St Hilda, whose influence ensured it ended peacefully.
In more recent centuries we have seen the Council of Trent in 1545 which helped launch the Catholic Counter Reformation, and Vatican II in the early 60’s, called to discuss ways of finding spiritual renewal for the church and as an occasion for Christians separated from Rome, to join in a search for Christian unity so marking the start of ecumenism. In more recent times one can look at decisions made on the ordination of women by the Methodist Church in 1974 (for second time of asking) and Church of England in 1992 and consecration of women bishops since 2015.
What have they all got in common? Like the council of Jerusalem, there would have been strong arguments and emotions on all sides, many of whom would cling to traditional teaching and doctrine and would only reluctantly – although many didn’t – accept the new worldview in taking the Church forward to meet the challenges of the future. Likewise, the changes envisaged by God in Love Unites Us, may have significant repercussions for the Methodist church if not handled effectively by its leadership.
This story of Acts detailing the early decades of Christianity has been mirrored since then right up to the present day. Strong leadership ensured that while not everyone agreed with the new doctrines and teachings (and differences in interpretation sometimes resulted in violence), we see that at the Council of Jerusalem, a template was established which allowed opinions to be heard and decisions made. These ensured that however bumpy, a direction of travel could be created that the majority of believers could learn to accept: for a faith which cannot adapt to change, is a faith that will ultimately die out.
Let us not be the generation which allows this to happen.
Each reflection finishes with a prayer. For my prayer I took this hymn written by John L. Bell (b.1949) which can be found as hymn #675 in Singing the Faith.
- Because the Saviour prayed that we be one
And taught his friends to say, “Your will be done”,
We sense God’s call as in God’s sight we dare
Commit ourselves in answer to Christ’s prayer.
- Our narrow loyalties have had their day
These separate ways, demeaning Christ the Way;
We own the sorry scars that paved the past,
Yet gladly seek the road God made to last.
- We are our Saviour’s body, Christ the head,
First born of God, first risen from the dead.
Dismembered, we debase his holy will;
United, his intention we fulfil.
- So guide us, Lord, and take us by the hand,
And show us how to love and understand;
Reveal, within the differences we share,
The pattern of your glory, grace and care.
- And when our journey here has reached its end
And strangers are the pilgrims you intend,
May we, with gratitude for all you’ve given,
Enjoy you in the harmony of heaven.