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.
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?