At it’s heart, this story in Acts 15:1-17 is about a community trying to define itself. Does it want to be known by the rules it keeps or by radical inclusiveness?
The story starts with a group of new Jewish-Christians arriving in Antioch, which is where Paul and Barnabas are. This group, insists that non-jews who want to become Christian must adopt Jewish law and customs. Paul and Barnabas argue about this with them. Eventually, the community decides to refer the matter to the apostles and elders who are in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas head off to Jerusalem for a consultation.
There was a big debate. We think of debates as having rules. This was basically everyone weighing in with their opinion at the same time, all shouting over each other. Once the argument had blown itself out, Peter steps into the silence and speaks. He suggests that the law was central to the Jewish faith but that something new is emerging which is not based on the law but on Jesus. It is the relationship with the Risen Christ that is central to this new faith.
The early church struggled to make sense of who they were. Would membership be based on old traditions passed down through generations or would it be based on something different? Jesus consistently questioned laws that were interpreted as a way of keeping people outside of God’s grace. Peter wanted the early church to follow in Jesus’ footsteps of creating a community based on relationship.
In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Since that time, Christianity has been associated with governments and power in many places around the world. Christianity was the religion of colonization. Christianity was the rule of the land. Initially, there was little separation between Christianity and government and even though we identify as having separated religion and politics, there continues to be an assumption of shared stories and history.
At the time of the reformation, Martin Luther asked whether the church would be based on rules and traditions that had become a burden or would it be based on something new and different? Martin Luther wanted individuals to have direct access to God without having to go through a priest. This was about the same time that the Bible started being translated and printed into multiple languages so it became accessible to more people. These were radical things but they shaped the protestant church that we have today.
The separation of church and state is a fairly recent phenomenon. We haven’t needed, until recent history, to define ourselves because there was an assumption that everyone around us was Christian even if they weren’t practicing the faith. There have always been a variety of denominations and beliefs within Christianity but always based, to a certain extent, on shared stories and history.
What was at stake in the early church was a question of membership based on following the rules that had been handed down or membership based on relationship with the Risen Christ and the community. In the end, the relational form of membership won out. When Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire it was no longer a relational faith but a faith of government and power and rules. Martin Luther recognized that the faith was falling into the old habit of using rules to keep people away from the Holy and wanted to return to a form of faith where relationship with the Risen Christ was central.
Within our culture, we no longer have the shared history or the familiarity of biblical stories that once could be assumed. How do we define ourselves and our membership without these common touchstones? I believe this is a great opportunity for us to really examine what it means to be a faith filled community. Are we a faith filled community because we all believe exactly the same thing? Are we a faith filled community because we have a set of common rules that all of us follow?
How do we decide who belongs and is fit to be part of the community? Historically, people believed (or at least gave lip service to belief), which led to what was considered appropriate behavior and as a result they belonged. If they did not maintain a lip service to belief or stepped out of appropriate behavior they no longer belonged. My grandmother was raised as an old order Mennonite and when she married outside the faith she was shunned. She didn’t believe in the right way, didn’t behave in the right way and didn’t belong.
A new model of church membership flips this order. We belong. We are welcomed and loved. We have relationship with the Holy and the community. This leads to belief that there is something beyond us and that the spirit is active and present in the world. This belief then shapes our behavior. I like this model because it begins with an assumption of belonging. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. We always belong to God. If our community is faith-filled then we always belong here too. Belief and behavior flow from this sense of belonging.
This is what the early church was trying to get at. In God’s family, everyone is welcome without having to know the shared history and stories. As people are immersed in Christian community, everyone is transformed. Newcomers and long-timers alike are transformed by their interactions as they seek new ways of being faithful in a changing world.