(sermon note: 05-02 sermon note)
Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.’
The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’
The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it,
and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.”
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a college physics professor who was explaining a particularly complicated concept to his class when a student interrupted him. “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” the frustrated student blurted out. The professor ignored him and continued the lecture. “I mean, why is this even required as a course? Why do I need to care about this?” the student continued. “Because physics helps save lives,” said the professor, turning back to the chalkboard. Not satisfied, the student spoke up again. “So how does physics save lives?” The professor stopped, stared at the student, and responded, “Because it keeps the idiots like you out of medical school.”
Whether you agree with that professor’s judgment of his precocious student or not, he does raise an interesting argument in support of physics, that they save lives. I imagine physics and the laws of physics have saved lives and not just by keeping the less-than-bright students out of medical school. There are laws of physics that when understood and respected can keep us out of harm’s way. In particular, I’m thinking of the laws of gravity and potential and kinetic energies. If you understand gravity, you’re less likely to jump off a building so in a way physics can save lives. But for the sake of quelling his student’s insurrection, the professor’s explanation is just as effective. I don’t think I’d like such a snotty student operating on me one day so I appreciate professors like that one serving as a safeguard!
Of course, beneath his question is a far more profound question that we’ve been asking since the beginning of time: what is it that will save us? We all know that we live in a fallen world, a world full of sin and death. Scripture teaches us this world is the result of our own hubris and desire to be all-knowing and all-powerful like God. Adam and Eve were deceived into believing that they could be like God by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. God found out they had eaten from the Tree and banished them from the Garden. Original sin was born and mankind was forever separated from God’s paradise and cast out into this fallen world of ours. Separated from paradise but not separated from him! God still cares for us and loves us just as He did before original sin but our world is no longer paradise. Our lives are no longer carefree and blissful. They are filled with worry and anxiety, pain and sorrow. Maybe not all our days but enough of them. Paradise has no worry or anxiety, pain or sorrow. And we are all seeking to return to that paradise. We all want to go home, to a place filled with nothing but love and support and encouragement and rest and life. Some of us go about seeking that paradise through worldly pleasures but those pleasures only provide temporary glimpses of paradise. The only true paradise can be found in God. So then we wrestle with how to persuade God to show us his paradise. If only we say or do the right thing, then God will show us his paradise yet again. But then we’re back to square one, trying to do something to be like God, to know the joy found in God alone. The closer we get to that paradise, the further away we become. If only there was an alternative way to experiencing that paradise we all so long to experience…
In our reading for today, we heard how the early church dealt with one group’s attempt to persuade God to show them his paradise or at least ease their suffering. Recall the ritual of circumcision was created to remind us of the covenant God made with Abraham to make him the “father of many nations.” There was a group of people in the early church who distorted the ritual’s meaning. Rather than represent Abraham’s covenant, the group believed the ritual served only to prevent pain and suffering. Circumcision does prevent pain and suffering but that was not God’s purpose for it. God wanted it to represent the covenant He made with Abraham. The issue created the opportunity for Peter to introduce a new teaching. God’s paradise, God’s grace, isn’t something that can be persuaded out of God. God’s grace is a free gift from God. He gives freely of it when and however He pleases. God does all the work in sharing his grace. Nothing we do or say can elicit his grace. We are completely and utterly at his mercy!
Back to our friends in the Garden. They were not only full of hubris and pride, they were also extremely impatient. God teaches us what we need to know when we need to know it. God isn’t selfish with his knowledge. There’s a reason He didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge–they couldn’t handle all that knowledge all at once. God shares his knowledge when we are ready to receive it. God’s grace is similar to his knowledge. He shares it when we’re ready to receive it. And He shares it abundantly! God’s grace is both free and abundant!
Now, why are we reflecting on this teaching in the middle of our Easter season? Let’s remember that profound question raised by both that precocious student and the group of early Christians: what does it take to be saved? Is it something we can do or say? Peter teaches us there is nothing we can do or say to be saved. But there is something we can have to be saved: faith and belief in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And such faith is just as much a gift as is grace. Recall Paul’s wisdom from his letter to the Ephesians, “for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (2:8-9) We are saved through faith and grace, both free gifts of our loving God. All we have to do is believe in Jesus, have faith in Jesus and what he did on the cross for our behalf. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” (10:9-10)
The Easter season is just as much about salvation as it is about grace and faith. God gave us his free gift of grace through his Son as well as his free gift of faith in his Son. Both gifts add up to our salvation. We can find our paradise, our home, in him. What a mighty gift indeed! Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.