I must say that my first reaction to the inclusion of this reading in the Narrative Lectionary was one of doubt and trepidation. Would Sunday’s sermon turn out to be little more than an intellectual exercise lacking any application to the life and faith of my congregation? However, thanks be to God, some thoughts are beginning to form which might be of benefit to you:

🟣 You could take this opportunity to talk about the ways in which your denomination makes decisions. The meeting of the Council of Jerusalem has a pattern to it which is remarkably close to the way in which matters are discussed in many denominations today, including my own. Reports were given, scripture was quoted, theology was discussed, experiences were shared and a decision was made. Opening this up might help the many in our congregations who have long since been disenfranchised from the decision-making of the church. This may be the time to educate about what happens in assemblies and synods and to explore the belief that God is at work in and through flawed human beings and faulty processes.

🟣 You could preach on the value of sharing personal stories, and especially in listening to the experiences of others. The Council of Jerusalem heard Peter’s story of his meeting with Cornelius (Acts 10), perhaps much shortened because they’d heard it many times before! They also heard from Paul and Barnabas about their time as missionaries to the Gentiles. Personal stories are what we remember long after the debate is over. They make us realise that we are not simply arguing over some abstract theological point, but that our discussion involves real people, loved by God. They help us to see where God is at work. It’s notable that the Council didn’t hear from any of the Gentile believers themselves. We are very good at talking and making decisions about people; not so good at listening to them. Who do we need to get to know? Whose stories do we need to hear?

🟣 You could challenge your congregation to consider what they unknowingly require from those they are seeking to reach. How much do they hope and pray that new people will come to join THEM in what THEY are doing? The Jewish followers of Jesus, who also identified as Pharisees, were possibly only seeking to include the Gentile converts within their circle with their demand for circumcision. After all, we don’t get to hear their side of the argument. However, they were asking each (male) Gentile believer to embrace massive change, pain and inconvenience, rather than being willing to adapt to accommodate people from other backgrounds. Many years ago some young teenage men joined my home church. They were told they shouldn’t be wearing baseball caps to church. They attended the bible study where one of the first things they learned was that as Christians they were expected to now abstain from sex outside the marital relationship. They didn’t stay long after that. We wanted them to adapt to our way of doing things.

🟣 There is the saying that the beautiful thing about compromise is that, in the end, no one is happy! You could preach on the compromise reached at the Council of Jerusalem (verse 20) and how that decision allowed unity to be maintained. You could explore that this decision would be outgrown – we don’t adhere to these three rulings nowadays – some solutions are only for a time, and we shouldn’t be afraid to revisit them. Before long, the early church would move on to other issues and concerns, and in his letter to the Galatians (3:28) Paul would declare that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile”, which leads us nicely into the next three weeks in the Narrative Lectionary.

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Rev Dr Jean Kirkwood is a Church of Scotland minister serving in the east of Scotland.

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