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Monthly Archives: March 2014

Sermon: Conflict And The Church Community

Acts 15:1-41

Moses

‘Moses’ by Ludie Cochrane on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

So we come to this passage for the second time in our series on conflict (which finishes next week). And this time we come at the story from a different angle. It would be nice for me to get out the sermon from a few weeks ago and repeat it, but not so nice for you!

This time, our theme is about the rôle of the Christian community in transforming conflict. The story features both leaders and regular community members, and various Christian traditions see the relationship between them differently.

So, I could introduce you to a friend of mine who was an Anglican rector. He told me once that he saw his task in the church as being like Moses, going up the mountain and coming back down with the will of God for the community to obey. It didn’t leave much room for the rest of the church family to discern the will of God.

And that was rather like the couple who joined one of my previous churches from an Anglican parish church, where the husband had been on the PCC, but had become disillusioned with a vicar whose attitude to the PCC members was, “When I say ‘Jump’, your only response is to ask, ‘How high?’” This husband was a man of strong opinions, and his face didn’t fit anymore.

At the other end of the spectrum are some Baptist churches, where their belief in the ‘priesthood of all believers’ is so strongly combined with their convictions about every member of the Body of Christ having a gift that the pastor cannot lead at all. He or she is regarded as just one member of the congregation with a specific gift to offer.

Of course, the problem for all parties – as it often is with any conflict – is one of power, and if one person or group can gain or keep some power, then sadly it is not always used for the common good, but for personal gain and protection. What principles, then, will enable a Christian community to work through tough issues?

Firstly, I believe Acts 15 models for us a safe community. When the dispute flares up in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas end up in ‘sharp dispute and debate’ (verse 2) with those who want all the male Gentile converts circumcised. What proceeds from there in the discussion and argument in Jerusalem is a context where any person feels safe to make their contribution. People on both sides are passionate, yet both the traditionalists and Paul and Barnabas can have their say. There is no mud-slinging, and there are no so-called ‘ad hominem’ attacks where someone attacks an opponent’s character rather than their argument. ‘The whole assembly’ (verse 12) is involved, and the issues are thoroughly aired. Nothing descends to the juvenile behaviour of a Prime Minister’s Question Time.

The church doesn’t always behave as well as that. I have seen various forms of bullying in church life – or at least subtle intimidation – where it is made clear that unless you hold a certain view you are unwelcome. To do what the early church does in Acts 15 in creating a safe requires high levels of love and trust.

That is going to involve a lot of challenges to our attitudes and to our default reactions. How easy is it, for example, to think of our brother and sister Christians as our enemies when we think they are terribly wrong? I have sometimes listened to character assassinations and assaults on the integrity of other Christians at Church Councils and other gatherings. I knew a Church Council where members turned up each time, with some of them asking, “Who will so-and-so attack tonight?” And we may believe that people are doing things badly or standing for the wrong things, but we cannot allow the situation to degenerate like this – not if we want conflict dealt with healthily. We need to remember what Paul told the Ephesians in chapter six, namely that our conflict is not with flesh and blood but with spiritual forces. A simple remembering that we are sisters and brothers in Christ is one step on the way to creating a safe community.

Within that, we can resolve to think the best about the people on the other side of the debate from us. I confess I’m not always as good at this I would like to be, because sometimes I am searching in my mind for all sorts of hidden, devious motives that those who take a contrary point to me must hold. And while I am not calling for us to be naïve – remember Jesus called us to be ‘wise as serpents’ as well as ‘harmless as doves’ – there is a real case for believing that people have disputed with us for what they perceive to be good and honourable reasons.

Debbie recently went for a job interview at Christ’s College, Guildford. One of the things that impressed her was the slogan printed on every sheet of paper:

At Christ’s College everyone is special, made in the image of God and needs to be treated with respect.

That gets to the heart of the issue. That biblical approach is core to creating a safe community where even conflict can be dealt with in a positive, healing way.

Secondly, I believe Acts 15 models for us a listening community. When the apostles and elders meet to consider the question (verse 6), there is ‘much discussion’ (verse 7) before Peter speaks up. There is ample opportunity for all to have their say. That requires not only the speaking of the contributors from all parts of the community, but tenacious listening from the apostles and elders who are charged with making the final decision.

We have thought about listening earlier in this series, and I offered a definition that ‘listening is not thinking about what you are going to say when the other person finishes talking’. I stand by that, and I want to add some words to it this morning. They come from someone I met on my Bridge Builders course on conflict transformation last September. Chris is an Anglican priest who specialises in reconciliation, and he was on the course seeking further skills. On Friday, he put these observations on Facebook:

Take time and space to listen – I mean, really listen to the other person. Not just to rebut them or defend your self or your belief, but to understand what values are really motivating them and what their needs may be, regardless of agreement or disagreement. The relationship you establish will be richer for it.

It’s challenging, isn’t it? I think I said to you before that like many people, the first thing I want to do in a conflict situation sometimes is defend myself. To be an ‘undefended’ person is scary, but we have to listen in many ways to what others are saying.

The Cantonese word for ‘listen’ is one of those Chinese pictograms made up of a number of elements that contribute to a more complete notion of listening:

The Cantonese pictogram for 'listen'

The Cantonese pictogram for ‘listen’

Some of us just listen with our ears, accumulating the other person’s words in order to establish the facts. This is important, but it isn’t the whole story.

Some of us use our eyes in listening, watching for body language that tells us things the person’s words don’t – sometimes even contradicting their words. This takes us further.

Some of us listen with our heart, paying attention to the underlying feelings of the speaker. This also helps the process in a partial way.

Finally, some of us listen with undivided attention. It’s so much harder to do that today, when we can be distracted by the portable computer that we call a mobile phone in our pockets.

It is indeed difficult to practise listening on all these levels. And not just difficult, it can be exhausting. But a Christian community that desires to see conflict transformed is one that will commit to costly listening. So will we seek the help of the Holy Spirit in order to become a community of listeners?

Thirdly and finally, Acts 15 shows us a growing community. By ‘growing’ here, I do not mean ‘numerical growth’, I mean growth in grace, development in faith. How so?

A lot of good things happen in this story. It starts with people causing trouble, agitating young Christians (verse 1, cf. verse 24). It is contained in a safe community where there is mutual acceptance and good listening, before the leaders (who describe themselves merely as ‘your brothers’) make their final decision, resulting in an encouraging and diplomatic letter to the younger believers in Antioch (verses 23 to 29). All should be well. The new church is glad, the messengers strengthen them and some of them are sent back with a blessing of peace while Paul and Barnabas remain to preach and teach (verses 30 to 35). Happy Ever After?

No. There is a sting in the tail. Of all the people you don’t expect to fall out with one another up until now, it’s Paul and Barnabas. They have stood together in this crisis. They go back several years: Barnabas supported Paul when others were wary of him. But now they have a bust-up over John Mark. Paul says John Mark has shown he’s not up to missionary work and takes Silas as his new partner, while Barnabas does still trust John Mark and continues to work with him (verses 35 to 40). From now on, Acts follows the Paul narrative, and Barnabas and John Mark disappear from view.

You could read this incident in more than one way. You could say that Paul and Barnabas have failed to learn the lessons of the Council of Jerusalem in transforming conflict. Or you could say that sometimes life presents us with situations where there isn’t simply a right answer and a wrong answer. The rest of Acts seems to vindicate Paul, with its remarkable stories of his subsequent missionary journeys. But although Barnabas and John Mark vanish from the narrative of Acts, they are not erased from Christian history. There appears to have been a later reconciliation. In 2 Timothy, attributed to the time just before Paul’s death, the great apostle says to his young lieutenant,

Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11)

Not only that, we have a tradition from soon after the biblical era that John Mark wrote down the reminiscences of the Apostle Peter. We know that document as ‘The Gospel According to Mark’. Paul may have had a dynamic ministry after Acts 15 with Silas and others, but Barnabas’ decision to encourage John Mark, just as he had previously encouraged Paul, seems to be vindicated.

Am I just offering a history lesson here? No. I think this shows the early church in all its immaturity and imperfection, getting things right but also slipping back. However, there was the commitment to growth, the intense desire to go the right way and follow Jesus together.

I expect we can identify with that sense of imperfect community, where one time we seem to do things gloriously well and put a smile on the face of God, yet the next day behave collectively in such a crass, immature way that you wonder whether we are the same bunch of people. And when we do that, we hurt others, as well as making God weep.

The question for us, then, is whether, in the midst of all our failures and foibles, we can radically commit ourselves to growth in the life of the Spirit. The reality is that we are not going to be the perfect community where no-one suffers as a result of our foolishness. We will cause one another pain, however much we may want to be a safe and listening community. Let us not be under any fanciful delusions.

But are we willing to grow? That is, are we willing to repent of our sins and learn from our mistakes when we have hurt others? Are we willing regularly to examine our spiritual lives, and let others hold us accountable, perhaps in a small group? If so, then just such a growing community will more truly become a safe and listening community, where conflict is not only managed, it becomes an occasion for grace and for the spiritual transformation of those affected.

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Sermon: Jesus Our Example For Mission

John 4:4-42

Jesus?

Jesus? by Isaac Torrontera on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I once heard the great Australian mission leader Michael Frost tell a story of how he had once spoken to a gathering of six hundred Christians. He had retold to them one of the Gospel stories about Jesus, and invited them to imagine themselves as one of the characters in the account. Afterwards, he asked them which characters they had taken on.

To his disappointment, only twelve of the six hundred had imagined themselves as Jesus.

Now I can see why many Christians would be reticent to identify themselves with Jesus. We feel unworthy to do so. But Michael Frost’s point was this: aren’t we called as Christians to imitate Jesus? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be our example? That was how he was hoping people would take his invitation.

And that’s what I hope for us this morning, too – that we shall take Jesus as our example from our reading. Specifically with John chapter four, we are going to take Jesus as our example on the question of mission. We hear a lot about the importance of the church to emphasise mission these days – well, where better to take our model than from Jesus himself? One passage won’t give us an exhaustive treatment of how Jesus models mission for us, but it will give us a good start.

Wind

Wind by Shamin Mohamed on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Firstly, Jesus operates by the wind of the Spirit. I don’t suppose that’s a contentious claim, but let me justify it from the passage. The Lectionary this week starts officially at verse 5, ‘So he came to a Samaritan  city called Sychar’, but I asked for the reading to begin at verse 4, where John writes, ‘But he had to go through Samaria.’

Did Jesus have to go through Samaria? No. If he were a devout Jew, he could have avoided Samaria. Yet he felt a compulsion to go there. I can’t help thinking back to last week’s Lectionary Gospel reading from John chapter three, where Jesus himself tells Nicodemus that ‘The wind blows wherever it wills. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ Jesus has said that his true followers are blown by the wind of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit takes them on all sorts of adventures, detours and strange, unexpected directions.

But Jesus doesn’t just say this about his followers. He lives that way himself. He had to go through Samaria – when really, he didn’t. I suggest to you that Jesus is living out what he had taught Nicodemus – the life of discipleship is one of being led by the Holy Spirit. It is not predictable, it is not conventional; discipleship is not about accepting the norms by which the rest of society lives. It is not about adopting the expectations of wider society in the way we set the course of our lives. It is about being open to the ‘God of surprises’ who may well want to do unexpected things with us. Paul, the great expert on the Jewish Law, becomes an apostle not to the Jews but to the Gentiles. John, nicknamed by Jesus one of the ‘Sons of Thunder’, becomes the apostle of love. And so on.

Could it be, then, that one reason why we have not been effective in Christian mission in today’s church is that we have not allowed ourselves to be blown into places we would never have anticipated by the Holy Spirit? Could it be that we have so swallowed our culture’s norms that that we have not been in the places God intended us to be? Isn’t it so easy to be sucked into the regular expectations of everyday Surrey? I must get the best education. I must get the best paid job. I must live in the nicest neighbourhood. Not that these are always bad things in themselves, but to default to them without being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit is a huge spiritual mistake with potentially massive consequences.

So – is God challenging any of us not just to accept the expectations of our culture but to be ready to go wherever the Holy Spirit leads us?

England World

England World by Doug Wheller on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Secondly, Jesus conducts mission in the world. The action happens at Jacob’s Well – and I don’t mean the location near Guildford where you might pick up the A3. Jesus is weary and sitting by the original Jacob’s Well (verse 6), and that is where the story unfolds.

How remarkable is that? Remember that Jesus conducted much more of his mission in the world than in the synagogue. And then contrast that with us. We conceive of mission in terms of people coming to us, attending our events at church. We’d rather not get out into the world with our faith, because that makes us nervous. If we really do have to engage in Christian mission, then can we at least please cajole people into coming along to something we’ve arranged ‘at church’, where we feel safe?

Jesus would never have got the woman to a synagogue. She wasn’t a Jew. She was female. She was probably regarded as a ‘sinner’.  There was no hope. Operating by the strategies we adopt where we hope people turn up at church would never have reached this woman with the love of God. And increasingly, as fewer and fewer of our population are used to the church environment, the hope that we might just get people along to the place where we feel safe is more and more a misplaced strategy that has more to do with our fears than it has to do with our desire to overflow with God’s love.

Jesus is again acting out something from earlier in John’s Gospel. Not simply the previous chapter, as with following the wind of the Spirit, but the first chapter, with its great Prologue about the Incarnation, where we read that ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (1:14). Jesus is dwelling not in the safe religious space but in the world. And if we are to imitate him, then we must do something similar.

So when a person tells me that they aren’t playing any part in the life of the church because they don’t have a job in the church, I don’t believe them. They are being sent to practise their faith in the world.

I say this as a minister where the expectations of many church members in various churches I have served would cage me inside the church. I have to work at making my connections outside the church. For some while now, that has been in our children’s school community, but that is lessening as the children get older. It is increasing on a Saturday morning as I stand on the touchline watching my son play football, and as I talk with other parents. But as the children’s independence increases, I shall have to be quite intentional about finding my contacts outside the church.

What of us, then? Are we willing to spend time outside the safe environs of the church community for the sake of the Gospel? Some of you have ready-made communities in the work place. Others of you will have to look harder. But please don’t build your whole life around this building.

It's a drag

It’s A Drag by MTSOFan on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Thirdly, Jesus goes to the weak and the marginalised. Why did the Jews despise the Samaritans? Go back to 2 Kings 17 and you see. Samaria was more or less the northern kingdom that had so betrayed the faith of Israel that it had been conquered by Assyria in the eighth century BC. After that conquest, Assyria had placed members of other races and faiths there. As a result, faith in Samaria became no longer concentrated exclusively on Yahweh but a compromised mixture. They included idol worship in their religious practice. Anyone with a devotion to ‘pure’ Judaism would find these elements distasteful, if not horrifying.

And not only is Jesus talking to a Samaritan, he is talking to a Samaritan woman. Remember that the pious daily prayer of many a devout Jewish man went like this: ‘Blessèd art thou, King of the universe, who hast not made me a slave or a Gentile or a woman.’ Second class just doesn’t seem to cover it.

Furthermore, this particular Samaritan has a reputation. She has had five husbands, and is now living with a man outside marriage (verses 17-18). Now I used to think this meant John was painting for us the picture of a deeply immoral woman – I remember preaching on this passage as a young Local Preacher and saying she was someone who would go for anything in trousers. But later I realised that wasn’t fair on her – not in a culture where only the men could initiate divorce. She is a broken woman. Men have treated her like an object to be tossed away when no longer required. She can have no reasonable expectation that this devout Jewish man will treat her as anything more than dirt. She is socially and religiously unacceptable.

Except this is Jesus we’re talking about. Jesus, who did not live in fear that he would be contaminated by those who did not meet the highest standards of ritual purity. Jesus, who knows that his following the wind of the Spirit and his commitment to mission in the world have on this occasion led him to this woman – this broken, hurting, rejected woman.

And here is the application for us. Isn’t it easy for us to stay with the nice, clean, safe people – the good churchgoers and if not that, then the pillars of the community? Isn’t it simpler to mix with people from Horsell but not those from Sheerwater?

Actually, no. It isn’t a question of it being ‘easier’ to mix with the ‘right’ types. When we do that, we’re not simply taking the easy option, we’re giving in to temptation.

And neither do I want to see us succumb to patronising other people. This is, after all, the week in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has told us that ‘hard-working people’ (that favourite expression of politicians) like beer and bingo.

What I’m calling for is genuine love for those who are different. I’m saying that Jesus went to the wounded with a message of God’s love for them. To the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well he offers ‘living water’. She is dry, and he offers her divine refreshment (verses 10-15). She is interested in worship God aright, and he promises the help of the Holy Spirit (verses 20-24). She longs for the Messiah, and unlike many other people he meets, Jesus is open with her about who he is (verses 25-26).

While we accept the conventions of society rather than allowing ourselves to be blown by the wind of the Spirit, our faith will atrophy, just like muscles in our body that are never used. While we stay safe and warm, huddled up in the church community, rather than venturing into the world that God loves, we shall never encounter the people God has called us to serve in his name. And while we ignore or despise the weak and the troubled, we shall not have the privilege of encountering many people whom God loves so dearly that his Son Jesus Christ was born, died and was raised from the dead for them. In short, without following the example Jesus sets for us in John 4, our faith is dead, and our churches wither.

But when we are open to being led by the Spirit, God will take us to new, surprising and fruitful places for his mission. When we are willing to go into the world and meet people where they feel secure, God has us beginning to act in faith, and he can use that. And when we are willing to share and demonstrate God’s love in Christ with people who don’t meet our standards of respectability, then God may well be taking us to the very people he has prepared to respond to the Gospel.

So – which of us is willing to follow the example of Jesus?

And to do it this week?

Sermon: Conflict In Action – Negotiation

Well, long time no see. I had a couple of sermons it seemed diplomatic not to publish here. I have also been dealing with the suffering and decline of my mother, who eventually died a fortnight ago. Tomorrow I come back from some annual leave and compassionate leave. Below is what I plan to preach.

Acts 15:1-41

Negotiation

Negotiation by Nick Thompson on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Conflict is regularly in the news, and especially at present with the dispute between Russian and Ukraine over Crimea. We have a Russian President in Vladimir Putin who clearly wants to flex his muscles as if the Cold War were still going on, just with changed national boundaries. He can threaten both Ukraine and the EU with reduced gas supplies. We have lofty moral statements from British and American leaders, who of course would never contemplate illegally invading another country. Hopefully at some stage the sabre-rattling will end and negotiation will begin.

And we are not immune to major conflict in the church. I am thinking here less of the individual conflicts in a congregation when people upset each other, but more about the major arguments that happen across the wider church. The media loves to report on the convulsions of the Church of England over women bishops and gay rights. It mocks the church, because these issues seem settled in the wider society, and because the world just doesn’t understand the care and caution with which churches try to handle their disagreements, in an attempt to reflect the Spirit of Christ. (Or at least that’s the theory.)

Now you may think this isn’t so relevant to you, as a regular Christian who doesn’t get involved in wider church politics. But it does affect you. The decisions made affect you. The media coverage affects you. information is available at hand for you to have an opinion on these things, and they become topics of debate and even of division in local churches.

So let us look at Acts 15, where we come to the first major dispute for the whole church in her history. There had been small, local disagreements before, but the question here about Gentiles joining the People of God went to the heart of the Gospel. How did they handle their negotiations between parties that started out so far apart in order to come to a common mind?

Firstly, let us look at the content of the arguments presented by the differing parties. We have a number of authoritative sources to which the different campaigners appeal. They look to a number of different authorities that we still use today.

We begin by hearing those who want the Gentiles to be circumcised. They call on tradition: ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the Law of Moses’ (verse 5). This is what has been handed down to us, they say, and this is how we have understood it.

Next, when the apostles and elders meet to consider the issue, Peter addresses them using reason. He points to the way he knew God had accepted the Gentiles by faith and then says, ‘why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?’ (Verse 10)

After that, Barnabas and Paul give an account of their experience: ‘telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them’ (verse 12).

Finally, James speaks up and quotes from Scripture: he cites the prophet Amos and comes to a conclusion from there.

These are the four building blocks of Christian truth – the tradition of God’s people (that is, what has been handed down to us), the use of human reason in a holy and wise way, the appeal to experience in the sense of saying, this is what we believe the Holy Spirit has been doing, and finally comes the authority of Scripture.

Each of these plays a part in the early Church’s decision here, even tradition, which you might think they reject, given that the final decision goes against the traditionalists. But no, because although the tradition is changed, there is a sensitivity to those who value tradition in the letter sent to the Gentile believers at the end – hence asking them to abstain from certain foods and from sexual immorality (verse 29).

Reason is important, too. The old Sunday School song was not ‘Jesus wants me for a zombie’, God wants people who will love him with their heart, soul, mind and strength. Provided we seek to use our minds worshipfully they will make a vital contribution. And that isn’t just for intellectuals: the one who uses reason in this passage is Peter, the former impetuous fisherman.

Experience counts for a lot, too – not in the sense that my experience always trumps your argument, but in the sense that we believe God is active and at work in his world, and so we want to know what the signs of the Holy Spirit’s activity are. That’s what Barnabas and Paul describe.

But Scripture is the ultimate yardstick. While it is too crude to treat it as ‘the owner’s manual’ or as a much neater and more systematic collection of books than it actually is, it nevertheless serves as the framework for God’s authority in Christ, and hence that is decisive for the Christian. ‘O make me a man of one book,’ prayed John Wesley. He used the other sources – reason, tradition and experience – but Scripture was the most important source of knowing God’s authority for him.

Secondly, we need to look at the method used. It’s one thing to talk about these four sources of truth – Scripture, reason, tradition and experience – and to suggest that Scripture is the most decisive for the Christian, but it’s another to put it into practice. You don’t have to be around the Christian church to know how this can go all wrong. Bible verses can be used insensitively, taken out of context and you can pick different verses that seem to support contradictory positions.

To take just one example I could offer among many, I recall being away on a Christian holiday, where one person joyfully (perhaps thoughtlessly) sang along to a song based on a verse from the Book of Malachi which says, ‘God hates divorce.’ The singer had no idea we had a divorcee among us, and still less of a clue that some of God’s displeasure at divorce was about the pain inflicted on people when relationships break down.

Add your own stories – I’m sure you have them.

So how do we use the Bible wisely in negotiating our way to God’s path for us when we are in dispute? The answer I was given when I was a young Christian was about always interpreting the teaching of the Bible in its original context. There is much to be said for the old saying that ‘a text without a context is a pretext’. The apocryphal story of the man who played ‘Bible bingo’ to determine God’s will illustrates this. He opened his Bible, stuck his finger on a verse, and it said, ‘Judas went out and hanged himself.’ Being rather unnerved about this, he opened his Bible elsewhere and again put his finger down randomly. The verse said, ‘Go and do likewise.’ All this could have been guarded against by taking the verses in context and not in this random way.

But even then, interpreting the Bible in context is not enough. It’s not even how the New Testament treats the Old Testament. Think about the Scriptures quoted by the Gospel writers as being fulfilled by the birth of Christ. They generally did not mean in their original context what Matthew or Luke take them to mean when they tell us about the coming of Jesus. ‘A virgin shall conceive’ was originally ‘A young woman shall conceive’, and referred to the coming of a ruler eight centuries before Christ.

But what those writers do there – and which James does when quoting Amos in Acts 15 – is that they interpret the Scriptures in the light of Christ. Amos could not have known that his prophecy about ‘the Gentiles who bear [the Lord’s] name’ (verse 17) had anything to do with faith in the Messiah and the observance of the Jewish Law. But James sees it that way.

And something like that should be our aim, too. When we are working out with other Christians what the way forward should be, and what the Bible above all is saying to us, we need to handle it in what one scholar calls a ‘redemptive’ way. We need to interpret Scripture in a Christ-like way. What does a passage mean in the light of Christ? How does this fit with the climax of God’s revelation to us in Jesus? These kinds of questions will be our method, rather than just thinking, what Bible verses can I shoot at my opponents?

And that leads us to the third and final element of Christian negotiation in conflict: attitude. One way and another, we keep coming back to this, and it’s vital. There is no gloating when the conflict is resolved in Jerusalem. The different parties have come to a common mind without there being any sense of winners and losers. Christian negotiation is not what the world calls a ‘zero sum game’, where victory for one side is balanced out by defeat for the others. It is a common pursuit of God’s will, even if we come from different perspectives – and we must all be open to the Holy Spirit changing us.

Furthermore, the tone of the letter from Jerusalem to the Gentile converts is what some Christians call ‘irenic’ – that is, peaceable. It isn’t a lecture from know-alls to know-nothings. Rather, it says, this is what we have concluded. We would ask you to do this, and we would advise you to do that.

The whole debate and the consequent letter are framed in humility, gentleness and grace. This is a group of Christians living out what Paul described about the humility and servanthood of Jesus in Philippians 2:1-11.

And we need to aspire to this. It isn’t always easy in the middle of passionate debate, but it is vital that humility, servanthood and grace are the dominant tones of our conversation, even of our disagreement. It’s the lack of such things that leads to division and to the demonising of our brother and sister Christians.

For instance: while I’m not in this sermon going to talk about my views on the whole sexuality debate, I will just observe that it is one that could have been conducted in a much more Christ-like way in the church. When pro-gay activists label everyone who disagrees with them ‘homophobic’ or (in one individual case ‘morons’), then what hope do we have? When those who wish to preserve traditional teaching smear homosexuals with the idea that they are latent paedophiles, then that is just as bad. There are dreadful people and dreadful arguments on both sides, to be sure. But there are also people in both camps who want to preserve something important about Jesus and the Gospel. One party is concerned to welcome those who have been pushed to the fringes of society, the other wants to maintain Christian holiness. Both are important to retain.

Can we, when we are tempted to get hot under the collar ourselves about major issues, still retain that humble, gracious attitude that the church leaders in Acts 15 displayed? Can we make sure we are drawing on what each of the sources of Christian truth – Scripture, tradition, reason and experience – tell us? Will we give a priority in all this to biblical teaching, but do so in a way that is in harmony with what we know of Jesus Christ? And can we negotiate our differences in a spirit that is different from the combative, blood-letting approaches of the world – in a style that looks more like the character of the Lord whom we serve?