The Early Church: Conditions
Acts 15: 1-12.
I want to talk about the danger of, ‘not quite right.’
We often think the choices we live with are right and wrong. But I would disagree with that. I think the choices we live with are right and wrong and not quite right.
And, I would suggest, one of the most dangerous of these choices is not quite right.
You see the choice between right and wrong is often an easy choice to make. If we see something is clearly wrong then we tend not to make it.
But often not quite right looks very like right.
I used to have a favourite head band when I played squash. Sports players tend to be quite superstitious. If something is working then we tend to stick with it. When I first started to play squash, a problem I had was my glasses used to slide a lot when I got sweaty and I spent a lot of time having to push them back up my nose a lot. Then I got the idea of a sweat band to stop them moving.
And at one point I had this favourite white head band that I must have worn the first time I won and then kept on using it.
And I continued to use it.
Until my wife did a not quite right.
She knew that the whites all needed to be washed together. And to be fair nearly every item in that wash was white, except for the red underwear that she hadn't noticed.
And somehow my brilliant white head band became a florescent pink head band.
Not quite right.
Not that my wife is the only one to make such a mistake.
I once was trying to boil off an alcohol mixture in a test tube and it was going really slowly.
And I knew boiling it off with a Bunsen burner would be quicker.
And that is true, though not quite right.
Because a Bunsen burner does boil off the alcohol, the only trouble is that boiled alcohol is even more flammable in a gas form, and you are creating this gas alcohol near an open flame. I created a fireball in the lab.
Not quite right.
There is a very basic mistake that we can make.
It comes from the question, ‘What does faith look like?’
Well we know that answer, it looks like us.
We are people of faith and we are very sincere and committed to our faith, so if we want to know what faith looks like we look to ourselves.
The problem with that answer is not that it is wrong, but that it partially wrong, it’s not quite right.
And partially wrong can be very dangerous.
Imagine an alien came from outer space and told us that the world was in great danger. This alien told us that he had come from the Intergalactic United Planets and that the Intergalactic United Planets had discovered that the earth was going to destroy itself, that there was not enough resources to sustain the world. And that he had been given the authority to destroy every animal except one.
If he did that then there would be enough resources and the planet could survive.
And he asked me what animal should survive?
I would say humans.
And the alien would say, ‘That’s fine. But what did humans look like?’
And I said, ‘Humans look roughly like me.’
And then the alien clicked his fingers and everything except humans existed.
Except that it wasn’t all humans.
Because the alien took what I said literally.
Only white humans existed.
Only white humans that were five foot seven inches existed.
Only white humans that were five foot seven inches with a bald spot and glasses existed.
And worse than that ...no females existed.
All males are human, but not all humans are male.
And this is what is happening in this passage today.
This is the conflict that Paul was facing in the early church.
The early church started off as a reform movement of the Jewish faith.
Jesus came to fulfil what God had wanted the Jewish people to be.
God had wanted the Jewish people to be the way good news outreached into the world. They were to be a light to the nations, an example to follow.
And Jesus came to show them the way they could do that.
All the disciples were Jewish.
All the original leaders of the faith were Jewish.
But they had such a love and care for non-Jews that they reached out to them with God’s love.
The journeys of Paul and Barnabas and others were signs of that outreach.
And their outreach mirrored Jesus’ outreach.
Jesus came to the Jewish people to reform them and hoped that that would then ripple out to the gentiles.
So Paul and Barnabas would go first to the synagogue and tell them about Jesus, and then hope that would ripple out to the gentiles.
The trouble was that it created a very basic question...what does a Christian look like?
And 99% of these Christians said, ‘Well it looks like us.’
And that looked like a Jew, and acted like a Jew, and was a Jew.
They were circumcised if they were male. They followed strict food laws. They went to the Temple when they could and the synagogue on the Sabbath. They read the Bible which at that point was just the Old Testament.
But what happened when Christians didn’t look like that?
Or didn’t act like that?
There was a group in the church that said, ‘Well they need to act like that and they need to look like that.’
And we now know that they were wrong.
The church would look very different in different places.
In some places it would look like a cathedral with very sophisticated choirs that would play music that sounded angelic.
With others it would look like a house and a few friends round a coffee table.
In some churches they would have incense and statues, in others there would be a simple cross.
In some churches they would sing the old favourite hymns of centuries past, in others they wouldn't have a hymn that was more than 20 years old.
In some they would stand during prayer or kneel during prayer, in others they would sit during prayer.
But that still doesn't answer the question that we first started with...what does a Christian look like?
Let me give you another model to help us with the answer.
What does a family look like?
My family used to be my mum and dad and two sisters.
That family hasn't gone, but it is changed.
Mum and dad have died; they are still with us in our hearts though.
One sister is in New Zealand and she has a husband and two young men. They are part of my family.
Other sister is in Glasgow with her partner and two young men as well. They are part of the family.
Then there is the family I kind of contributed to...Roseanna and Ross and Alexander and Iona and Cairy and James and their husbands and wives and partners and children that they all bring along with it.
Some are single, some are married, some have children of their own, some are responsible for children of others, some have no children.
If you tried to describe it would be a complicated mess.
But if you live in it then you see it is a fluid mix of relationships bound by love and history and respect and care.
What does a Christian look like?
Well if you tried to describe it, it would be a complicated mess.
But if you live the faith you see it is a fluid relationship, like all relationships are fluid; a relationship with God and with others that is bound by love and history and respect and care.
It will be someone who is housebound and shares their concern for their carers or friends that come into the house.
It will be someone that goes off to a foreign country to help as a nurse or in an orphanage or digging up holes for plumbing in a school.
It will be someone who finds God’s wisdom in the words of scripture,
or sees God’s love in the passion of a song,
or wonders at God’s creativity as they walk through a park.
It will be someone who gives generously to a charity for children,
or visits a friend who is struggling,
or who prays for people they may never meet.
It will be someone who finds faith easy and just takes everything on board,
or someone who struggles with understanding how God shows himself in different ways to different people,
or someone who most of the time doesn't bother, just tries their best to do good.
The truth is that Christianity looks like me and it looks like you and it looks like neither of us; for it is a relationship with God, and that relationship is like all relationships.
Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is hard but always it is part of us.
But what that relationship does, is that it changes us, makes us think, makes us try to be better, helps us try to be better. Sometimes by helping us be better, sometimes by helping us not to be worse.
So what do we take away from all this?
Well maybe for some it will be...don’t worry.
Because some folk are always worried about whether they are good enough or not good enough.
If faith is being in a relationship then you are always in a relationship with God.
Maybe we need to work at it a bit, but you are in a relationship,.
I’m always in a relationship with Roseanna but sometimes it needs me to do a bit more work on it.
And now that we know that that relationship can look very different to different people, then we are free to try other things if we want to see it grow.
Maybe go off on a retreat,
or start a wee group with friends to talk about what you think the Bible means,
or go on a walk to the seashore and think about how big this God is that you can’t fit him in the horizon,
or write a letter to God,
or volunteer in a soup kitchen.
The truth is, to be a person who has faith, all you need to do is want to have faith, then the journey starts. As long as we be that person then we will be fine.
Though here is an interesting point...we got into this mess because Paul realised that being Jewish wasn't the only way to be close to God, and he helped the gentiles see that they could go on their own journey, not necessarily a Jewish journey, what could we do to help others on their journey of faith?