One of the wonders of this weekly “Pastor’s Corner” for the Looking Up blast is that I get to pick up slack from the week before, especially when sensitive issues, which deserve more commentary and require more nuance, hang in the balance. Acts 15 with its recounting of the Jerusalem Council presented a welcome opportunity to reflect upon the nature and urgency of God’s grace in salvation – how it is absolutely free and how it is absolutely costly, at the very same time. Towards the end of the passage that formed our focal point for the sermon, the apostle James summarizes the findings of the gathered leaders of the church: converted Gentiles should not be troubled with supplements to saving grace; in other words, they do not need to pursue circumcision and keeping the law of Moses in order to receive full welcome by God and full acceptance by His Church. Yet James also advises that some instructions be given to these new believers so that the fledgling fellowship of Jewish and Gentile Christians will not be compromised, fragmented, or fraught with judgment. The instructions are what we need to return to, briefly, in order to gain a fuller understanding both of the absolute freeness of grace and its precious cost.
The instructions from James and the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:19-21) are not stipulations for securing salvation nor add-ons to grace. Rather, they function as practical pathways for expressing grace received by faith alone. The costly grace of God won for us by the finished work of Christ does not give us the freedom to live our lives however we please without regard to God himself or our neighbor. Grace received freely and now operative in the lives of believers is not a cover-up or excuse for self-interest, self-promotion, or self-indulgence. We are empowered by God’s grace to freely rein in our liberty for the sake of service to others and reverence to God. Instead of flaunting our freedom, we labor to avoid unnecessary offense to our neighbors and to render appropriate obedience to God.
Now, how on earth do we make sense of the specifics of their instructions to these welcomed, beloved new fellow-Christians? The letter asks them to “abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” (15:20).
Although there were many barriers to genuine fellowship among these new converts and the old-guard Jewish Christians, the council focused upon two areas that would have been particularly dicey for authentic, rich relationships: one a matter of conscience, stemming from the ceremonial law, and the other a matter of obedience stemming from the moral law:
- The non-negotiable for all believers is to honor God’s creation of and design for human sexuality. His moral law safeguards its beauty, goodness, and sanctity. The permissive and promiscuous Gentile culture would have approached sexuality in terms of self-interest, self-determination, and self-indulgence. All believers (not merely the Gentile converts) are to abstain from sexual immorality, and to underscore that for these new Christians coming from the prevailing culture of selfish use of sex would have been calling them to obey God and to love their neighbors who would have been particularly sensitive about this aspect of being human and being a Christian. Grace enables us to love God and His way in the world, even when, especially when, the cultural wisdom, practices, and norms are vastly divergent.
- The enjoinders to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from “strangled” meat, and from “blood” all pertain to the ceremonial law in Leviticus, which regulated food preparation and health measures for God’s people before the coming of Christ. The Jewish Christians would have practiced these customs habitually for as long as they or anyone in their community could remember, and although they were no longer binding because of Jesus’ work, they still had a powerful sway in the lives of these believers. The Gentile restraint from these types of food when in fellowship with the Jewish Christians would ease the sensitive consciences of the Jewish believers and clear the obstacles to genuine connection. The Gentile believers had absolute freedom to eat or serve whatever they pleased; however, the reining in of their freedom to avoid unnecessary offense to their brothers and sisters in the predominantly Jewish congregations was an act of gracious care and tender love for those with over-scrupulous consciences. I think often of the various approaches to the use and enjoyment of alcohol within the church. Alcohol is a good gift from God, and it is also a source of tremendous abuse and has wreaked devastating harm upon individuals and families. In Hope’s weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we offer both wine and grape juice because we willingly limit our freedoms and try to accommodate our practice to those who have struggled with or for whom (for any reason) alcohol is not helpful. Grace enables us to love our neighbor and accommodate our freedoms to their needs, even when, especially when there is no explicit rule in place to mandate action.
Grace is free because Jesus, indeed, paid it all. Grace enables us to enjoy our freedom as well as to curtail it for the sake of obeying God and loving our neighbor. That is the legacy of Acts 15 and the power of the Gospel for us!
Grace and peace,