15 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.” 2 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. 3 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 brothers and sisters.
4 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. 5 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.”
6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7 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. 8 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us, 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10 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? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Sin and strife aren’t just something that happens to us as individuals; it is something the church struggles with as well from the earliest times. Today’s scripture passage, called the Jerusalem Council, demonstrates an early church meeting in which a serious discussion with disagreement and dissension took place. When we do it in 2023, it is nothing new. The current situation of the United Methodist Church unfortunately illustrates disagreement well as hundreds of churches separate from the United Methodist Church over the issue of LGBTQ+ rights.
Conflict is inevitable in our personal lives, communities and churches. We don’t always know how to engage in conflict in healthy or Christ-like ways. Some of us avoid or ignore conflict, while others of us act poorly in conflict and in ways that harm, rather than heal.
In fact, we often act in ways that make it harder on ourselves and others to move on from conflict to relationship. By things like by requiring uniformity in thought and belief. Sometimes we even act as though unity is impossible in our lives, culture, and world. What do you think? Is there anything that would make a more peaceable approach to handling disagreements?
Conflict happened in this scripture text, and it was neither ignored nor did it blow up. We can learn from this text. An interesting note is that the Gentiles who are the object of all the religious quarreling don’t actually have a presence or voice in the conflict. This is not necessarily a way in which we should follow the early church, but it may lead us to reflect on how often we at our annual conferences, like them, quarrel about people in the church who don’t have a voice or aren’t present.
The conflict at hand is whether new male Gentile believers must be circumcised to be in the community of faith. Some people in the community believed this was such an important ordinance that all new believers should follow it. However, disciple Peter questions how much good it is actually doing or whether the rule is serving anyone well (v. 10). For those on both sides of the issue, the future of the church is at stake. They were afraid.
How did they ultimately navigate this difficult disagreement? Did they find common ground to stand on and was it enough to reach a resolve? It seems like the first step of engaging conflict in a Christ-like way — and letting the grace of Jesus take the lead — might include the work of identifying, understanding, and addressing our own fears, as well as the fears of the other with a grace-filled response.
Some other aspects of how this disagreement was navigated by the early church might very well teach us today how to navigate the waters of dissension and disagreement:
It is important to have discussion with people who have wisdom at different levels of authority (v. 2), “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.”
It is important to gather to consider the issue (v.6), “The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter.”
It is important to witness to and remind others of the Holy Spirit’s activity (v. 8-9), “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us, 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.”
Finally it is important to remember that God loves them as much as us (v. 12-13). “...we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
An eternal truth is that conflict happens. But as 1 John 4:18 states: “Perfect love casts out fear,” which is another eternal truth. Our challenge and take away is to learn to engage one another’s fears with a Christ-like response. And in that way we would create a path toward greater unity when we have disagreements and conflict. Listening to and addressing one anothers’ fears in love can help cast them out — a first step toward greater understanding through God’s grace. And finally prioritizing grace can lead us to become stronger and healthier in our relationships with God and one another.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, Not one of us likes conflict and disagreement and dissention in our personal lives or in the church. Help us learn Your better way to deal with conflicts and to strengthen eveeryone’s faith. Amen.
9 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem, 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
“For several days [Saul] was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.”
Over the past few years there has been an increasing temptation to make judgments about people and write them off if they don’t think like we do. You only have to check out Facebook occasionally to see some of those judgments. Or to be the recipient or the propagator of such a post.
Have you ever heard someone say something that kept you from connecting, or interacting with, or seeing their potential? Most of us have at one time or another. I think it is human nature to seek out others who agree with us even when those we disagree with may have something that would be important for us to hear and to learn from.
When we think about persons with opposing viewpoints and beliefs it would be difficult to find a better example than the two men in today’s scripture. Both Ananias and Saul believe themselves to be faithful and doing what they were supposed to be doing. They both refer to the voice speaking to them as “Lord,” connoting reverence toward something outside of themselves.
Saul persecuted the faith of Christians because they did not believe like him. Ananias had preconceived ideas about Saul and wanted nothing to do with him either (v. 13-14).
From Anaias’ perspective, it is easy to see Saul’s persecution of Christians as hateful. It may be easier for us to relate to Ananias. He wanted to nothing to do with Saul, but “for the right reasons”- Saul was terrorizing and killing his people! Scripture tells us that Saul was full of “threats and murder.”
The degree and expression of the negative feelings that Ananias has towards Saul are certainly less harmful than Saul’s towards the Christians, but notice that in both cases God seeks to overcome the judgment and animosity with connection for the sake of the gospel, which is God’s great project of love. How Saul mistreats other people as he seeks to be faithful is what needs to change.
In this famous scripture story it is in encounter with the risen Jesus (for Saul as a blinding light and a voice on the road to Damascus, for Ananias, it is a vision in which he is told “Go to the Street called Straight”) that begins the process of God’s desired change for their lives. It is an encounter with the risen Jesus that has the power to overcome their sins and raise both Saul and Ananias up to be strong, connected, and faithful followers of Jesus, working together for the sake of the gospel.
Perhaps if God could overcome Saul’s violent hatred and raise him up to become St. Paul, the central figure in early Christianity, is there anything that God cannot forgive? Could there be anyone God cannot work through? Sometimes because of shame people hold onto their “worst” or seemingly unforgivable sins. This scripture invites them to see themselves in Paul’s story, one of the worst sinners of all times. Where does God call Saul and Ananias and us to “get up and go” beyond places of shame and fear and judgment?
So for us today, our question is, how do we encourage ourselves and others to respond to God’s call and to become instruments of God? — especially if we feel unworthy or feel judgmental about others? Are there ways that by prematurely condemning or judging others, it is keeping us from seeing their God given potential? Or even interacting with them in the first place? How do we learn to hear God’s truth about others, instead of prioritizing our opinions of them? What kinds of hatred/judgement do we excuse or justify?
Perhaps the greatest lesson today is that we don’t decide who God uses as His instruments in the great project of love.. The call of the Church is to give them and us a space in the band and learn to use our gifts for the work of God in the world. In a divided world, hatred can bubble up even in the hearts of those who seek to do good. The risen Christ moves us from a place of judgement to a place of connection, so that we can work together for the sake of God’s kin(g)dom.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, How difficult it is to journey along with those we dislike and disagree with. Help us to see them through your eyes and the plans that you have for every one of us–friend and foe-to become disciples of you son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas was not with the the disciples when Jesus appeared among them for the first time since his resurrection. [John 20:19-23]. The disciples told Thomas what had happened but he wouldn’t believe what he was told. He had to experience it for himself. [v. 25] But a week later, Jesus appears again.
Thomas’ doubt is not met with condemnation or judgment. Jesus is not threatened or angered by his doubts. In fact, Jesus gives Thomas exactly what he asks for. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” [v 27]. Jesus is gracious with Thomas, honors his doubt and responds with time and space, kindness, and compassion.
As human beings, we too have all experienced doubt. Think of a time when you experienced significant doubt: in the workplace, in relationships, in God, or whatever. Doubts may be small or large. How did you overcome your doubt? What helped you move from doubt to belief? Who did you talk to? Who did you call on? How did their wisdom help you in your time of disbelief?
Skepticism and doubt can be limiting if we remain stuck in it and ashamed of it. But for Thomas, the redemption from his skepticism came in putting it out in the open, asking for what he needed, and allowing the encounter with Jesus to transform him. His encounter with Jesus in his doubt allows him to believe. And provides the guiding principles for him to carry on as a disciple for years to come.
Scripture reassures us that Thomas remained an important member among the disciples even after his doubt about the resurrection. He was among the disciples when the risen Jesus fed them breakfast by the sea [John 21:1-4], and Thomas was in the upper room praying after Jesus’ ascension and return to heaven [Acts 1:12-14].
Not only did Thomas come to believe, but he continued to be one of the earliest apostles of Jesus and a full member and leader of the early church community. Sources tell us that he travelled outside the Roman Empire to preach the gospel as far as South India. He is regarded as the patron Saint of India. Many other churches in the Middle East and Southern Asia also mention Thomas as being the first evangelist to establish those churches. Not bad for a doubter!
One more thing for us to remember is thatthe journey from unbelief to belief requires a grace-filled encounter with the living Christ. Later in chapter 20 of the Gospel of John, Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This verse sometimes leads people to see Thomas’ doubt as a sin instead of Jesus’ alternative that “believing without seeing” is the ideal, the preferred way to come to faith.
Jesus’ kind and understanding response to Thomas’ skepticism transforms him and raises him to a place of trusting belief. If God could work through this once “doubting” disciple, imagine how God can raise us strong from our places of doubt, skepticism, and other struggles of faith because God is not done with us yet! We are all works in progress. “I’m not who I was yesterday but I’m not yet what I shall become tomorrow” moight very well be our mantra. The way of faith is a journey through both doubts and reassurances of God’s love for us. Here are some take away things to consider in the coming days.
When in a season of doubt, ask for what you need in prayer, and believe God will respond.
When people in seasons of loss, grief and great change encounter you — live in a way that they may come to believe that God just very well may make a difference in their lives as well.
Even when you are going through a season of doubt, allow God to use you. And perhaps in being obedient to God’s will you will learn to trust in God’s providence once more just as Thomas did.
And finally, ask for God’s reassurance and act faithfully in spite of your doubts.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, Take our unbeliefs and our doubts and transform them into something beautiful for you and your kingdom.We pray in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
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