An Example Sermon on Change

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Here is a sample sermon that explores one of the first – and highly significant – changes the early church made. It has been reworked into a generic sermon for this site. Feel free to take it and reshape it for use in your setting.

What About the Gentiles?"

Text: Acts 15

Rev. Peter Coutts

September 2000

Talk of change is in the air in many congregations. The issues can be small or large, common to all churches or unique to one congregation. Despite this variety, however, change is seldom viewed as easy in churches. It takes careful, patient effort, because people can have strong feelings about what is at stake. So it has always been. Today I want to help you to appreciate that the church, down through the ages, when it has sought to be sincere, faithful and honest, has frequently come back to times of reflection on who we are and who we ought to be. To help you appreciate this, let’s consider this morning the most sensitive issue to face the early church: what to do about the Gentile converts to Christianity.

We don’t always appreciate that the Church, when it first came into being, was composed exclusively of Jews. The Messiah was to be their King, His coming was foretold by their prophets. They simply assumed that Christ was an extension of their traditional Jewish faith. As a result, it wouldn’t occur to them to wonder about the Jewish law or their traditional days of celebration. These first Jewish Christians worshipped in the Temple and they still attended the synagogue. But then, as the Church, they met in homes for worship the first day of the week. In many ways, Christ and Christianity was simply added onto the faith of their fathers.

But then changes started to happen. God gave Peter a vision to tell him that the Jewish food laws no longer held for Christians. Then, right after that, he witnessed the first conversions of Gentiles to the Christian faith. Seeing the power of God now extended to Gentiles, he accepted this as God’s will, baptized the converts, and stayed and ate with them for several days (Acts 10). The Jewish purity laws forbade this kind of consorting with Gentiles, but Peter sensed that God was bringing about something new and unexpected. When Peter returned to Jerusalem, the Jewish Christians there were horrified that Peter would actually stay and eat with Gentiles. But after hearing Peter’s story, the Jewish Christians sat silently stunned in amazement, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!" (Acts 11.19). Jesus was not just for the Jews after all.

This change was something the Jewish Christians accepted in principle, but in time the implications began to surface. The growing numbers of Gentile Christians began to add issue after issue after issue. Jews generally saw the Gentiles as an immoral lot: both in simple human terms, but also in the fact that the Jews followed a rigorous ethical code laid out in the Torah. Gentiles weren’t concerned with food laws, like the Jews were, or Sabbath worship, like the Jews were. The history of the Jews, which shaped Jewish worship and life, was irrelevant to the Gentiles. It was all very well for Paul and Barnabas to forge ahead with evangelizing the Gentiles, but it was beginning to look like two different Gospels were coming into being: a Gospel of freedom in Christ preached by Paul, and what was essentially a Jewish Gospel.

This growing unsettledness in the church came to a head when some Jewish Christians arrived one day in Antioch (a Roman city), and taught the Gentile Christians there that salvation in Christ required circumcision. From Abraham on down, for 1,800 years, circumcision was the sign that you were a member of God’s people. "Of course we would still practice this" Jewish Christians assumed. Some who were leaders in the church in Jerusalem had previously been Pharisees – scriptural and legal experts in the Jewish faith. "The Law of Moses must be kept" they asserted (Acts 15.5). Add to this the confusion which resulted when Peter and Barnabus – who first felt free to socialize with Gentiles – began to back off from that sense of freedom. According to Paul in Galatians, Peter feared the faction of leaders in the Jerusalem church who wanted Jewish practices imposed on Gentiles (Galatians 2.11-14).

What was happening at that time, in their struggle to define "what the church should be", has been common in congregations ever since. People divided into different camps. People entrenched in their positions, trying to win, rather than work together to seek out God’s will and achieve what was best for all. Powerful, intimidating coalitions were formed, significant enough to intimidate even the likes of Peter. Leaders swung back and forth in which side they were on, adding to the confusion. Something had to be done.

The church in Antioch commissioned Paul and Barnabus to go to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and church leaders there, in the hope of resolving the situation. And it was. In the end they agreed that circumcision and other Jewish practices would not be binding on Gentile Christians. Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, would be encouraged to share together in one common fellowship and faith. But the church leaders asked the Gentiles for one concession: please respect three of the Jewish food restrictions. If the Gentiles accommodated the Jews in this way, fellowship together would be made so much easier.

It is quite a story. While circumcision is not much of a topic for debate anymore at a meeting of the Session, the debates of our current age can take on the same form and experience the same tensions. Just as one example, it is common for churches to say in principle, "we need to support our youth, for they are the future of the church". But then the congregation goes on to expect teens and young adults to conform to worship styles and church organizations which are many decades old – practices which hold little meaning for the emerging generation in this day and age. How much that sounds like what the Jewish Christians were doing with the Gentile ones.

While the topics may have changed, the debates remain the same. But what we can take away from this passage is the approach the church leaders used in resolving this issue. Their starting point was a question: "What is God’s will for the Church? What are we called to be?" This is a vastly different starting point than, "What do I want?" In the meeting they considered the experiences of people: they thought again about God’s vision to Peter, they listened to Paul talk about how the Holy Spirit was moving and bringing great numbers of Gentiles to Christ. They considered the word of Scripture – James read from Amos and Jeremiah. And, finally, they demonstrated respect for everyone – for the needs of the Jews as well as the Gentiles.

I think this is a good blueprint for us to keep in mind in the midst of the talk of change which is so common in congregations. Rather than get too tightly caught up in "what I want" or too trapped within the walls of the church building in our discussions, we need to remember the bigger picture as a context for our specific issues. What does God call the church to be? How do we live as this kind of church in a society that is so different today than it was even 40 years ago? What do we hope our congregation will be 20 years from now? What do we have to begin to do today to make that dream a reality? And, as we talk about these things, how do we as individuals demonstrate our respect for different people with different thoughts and ideas? How do we meet different needs while still setting one single direction for our church?

If we focus on our calling, if we bear each others burdens, if we remember that we are the people who will make tomorrow’s church (either by action or default), and then, in this context…. If we are diligent to resolve our issues, this church will become more settled, more confident, more determined, and we will know that we are becoming more and more the Body of Christ. And that, at the end of the day, is what God wants