For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us

May 24, 2009
Doug Johnson Hatlem


Last month, the New York Yankees played their home opener in the brand new, 1.6 billion dollar Yankee Stadium. On hand to throw out the first pitch was Yogi Berra. Berra is, of course, famous not only for his skills as a great Yankee backstop and slugger, but for the foolish wisdom of his one liners. Most famously: It ain’t over til it’s over. My favourite was offered up regarding a restaurant once frequented by Berra: Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded. And then there’s the one that has some relevance to this morning’s sermon: If you come to a fork in the road, take it.

A previous sermon of mine referred to the radical, revolutionary political potential of the first fourteen chapters of Acts. The fifteenth chapter of Acts is where things begin to change, and understandably so. The church’s missionary effort to gentiles is placed in irreconcilable conflict with fidelity to way of Torah, and the missionary effort wins. The chapter and it’s parallel, almost contradictory, account in Galatians, describe an event that reverberates throughout the rest of the New Testament and Church History even until now. The Jerusalem Council has proven to be the pattern maker for future ecumenical council’s of the church. There is a lifetime’s worth of lessons to be learned from reflection on this material. The events in question privileged questions of sexuality in the moral life of the church, elevated the work of the Holy Spirit in unprecedented fashion, stunningly reversed received wisdom regarding scriptural interpretation, cast the die for Jewish-Gentile relations, and involved many of the most important leaders of the early church in a whole series of disputes that saw elders and apostles arguing vehemently, flipping positions and then redoubling back, breaking off fast friendships, confronting hypocrisy, and standing rigid in the face of opposition. And, as the sermon this morning will suggest, the way things unfold provides both the best argument against and the best argument for accepting lesbian and gay practice in the life of the church. What’s more, we are given genuine clues as to how we are to go about negotiating this divide.

Now, our family was not yet at TUMC when the church wrestled most vexingly with these questions. We have heard much about what happened, of course. As far as I am aware, this was not one of the major texts discussed during the time of biblical discernment. A close reading of Acts 15 might, however, serve to affirm much of the process that has already occurred while giving new insights as we are propelled into a largely unknown future.

No Small Dissension

One of the most common arguments against a traditional view of sexuality in the church is often trotted out with great fanfare. It goes something like this, why do you only pick and choose a few pet texts from Leviticus to force down people’s throats? Are you wearing clothes weaved from two different types of thread? Do you send women in your house out to live in a booth in the backyard for several days every moon cycle? Maybe you will drag your children before the elders of the city to have them stoned to death the next time they talk back to you? The answer to those genuinely entertaining questions is not terribly complex. Simply put, the Jerusalem Council decides that Jewish sexual law applies to gentile Christians and almost nothing else does. And there is no indication that Paul ever questions this suggestion, even while he fudges a good bit on some of the other conclusions of the council. However, it is far from sufficient to leave things alone at that. For the way that answer comes to light in Acts 15 can only make biblical conservatives shudder mightily. Paul’s party pushes for and wins with a theological position that is nothing less than completely novel. It flies in the face of what everyone else in every other Jewish faction has thought for a very long time. It appears to directly contradict Scripture as Scripture has been read for generations and generations. Let us look closely at what is going on in Chapter 15 of Acts, and in Paul’s account of the events in Galatians 2.

As chapter 14 of the book of Acts ends, Paul and Barnabas have returned to Antioch from missionary travels. And when they arrive, according to verse 27, they “related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the gentiles.” Everywhere it is reported, the earliest disciples receive news of this open door with great joy. But then, as chapter fifteen opens, “certain individuals” show up from Judea. “Certain individuals” spells trouble for certain. Their teaching? Gentile disciples had better be circumcised or they cannot be saved. Now the Jewish tradition most definitely understood there to be good non-Torah observant people, god fearing people, people worthy to have as friends and sojourners in their midst. But such people were clearly not considered to be included in Israel’s covenant with God. They were not Israelites; they were not citizens of God’s kingdom. They were landed immigrants at best. Lazarus Rising has as its theme verses, the text from Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth. When Jesus less than subtly suggests that the reign of God is open to foreigners, he incites an execution mob. The same tensions run high here.

The apostles and elders engage in ‘no small dissension.’ According to one side, God’s covenant is not available to foreigners as foreigners. They must assimilate. They must accept the rules and lifestyle of Judaism. If you are going to become a Canadian, you’d better be prepared to live under Canadian law. Paul says not so. And the ultimate trump card in the argument is signs and wonders from the Holy Spirit.

Gentile converts to the way of Jesus are included in the covenant, even without keeping the law, according to Paul and Barnabas. The proof is in the pudding. They have the Holy Spirit and that is plain to everyone. But even though this argument wins the day, controversy continues even to the extent of splitting those on the same side from each other. According to Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas break company over the inclusion of John Mark, whom Paul considers a bit flakey. But according to Galatians 2, the “circumcision faction,” as Paul tersely labels it, ultimately leads astray even his faithful friend Barnabas.

It should be noted that here in chapter 15 and throughout Luke and Acts, the Pharisees are not at all the big enemies of the church that they might seem to be elsewhere. In fact, at this point, being a Jesus follower and being a Pharisee are quite compatible. According to verse five, faithful followers of Jesus “who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up” and argued against Paul. Earlier in chapter five, Paul’s teacher, the Pharisaic master Gamaliel, had come to the defense of the apostles in the face of an enraged crowd that wanted to kill them. Gamaliel is not sure of this new fangled Jesus stuff, but he wants the apostles to be given a chance. In short, he too appeals to the power of God’s Spirit. He reviews the recent history of strange teachers and says, listen, “keep away from these people and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” Wise words, indeed!

Ultimately, when ruffled feathers are smoothed in Acts 15, Peter and James have come to agree with Paul and Barnabas. Paul’s law free undertaking with the Gentiles is affirmed in large measure. “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden …” No further burden than these four essentials: Verse 20, gentile Christians are “to abstain from things polluted by idols [hand up 1] and from fornication [2] and from whatever has been strangled [3] and from blood [4].” Hundreds and hundreds of laws that apply to Jews and Jewish Christians have been dispensed with for the sake of the mission to gentiles. But there are some that are said to hold. Critically, the ones that do apply are ones that also applied, even in the Torah, to non-Israelites, to sojourners in the land, even, in a very strong sense, to the people of the land before the Israelites arrived. Look with me if you will at some of the verses in Leviticus that sandwich teachings on sexual matters.

Leviticus 17:10-12
If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; … No person among you shall eat blood, nor shall any alien who resides among you eat blood. And anyone of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who reside among them, who hunts down an animal or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth.

Then come the sexual requirements, requirements that include some difficult instructions even for those of us in heterosexual marriages,

and afterward, Lev. 18:24-30

Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations, either the citizen or the alien who resides among you … otherwise the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it v omited out the nation that was before you. For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people. … I am the Lord your God.

In other words, these matters are a kind of natural law. Those rules that apply to resident aliens and that applied to the people of the land previously continue to apply to Gentile Christians. In theory, they apply to everyone. At least everyone who inhabits that particular land. Laws concerning multiple threads and how to treat slaves and all the other curiosities used rhetorically against certain teachings in Leviticus do not apply. The sexual code does. Now, Paul clearly massages things when it comes to those provisions concerning what kind of meat it is okay to eat. He is of the general opinion, it would seem from passages in I Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans, that there is a wide freedom in dietary matters, though there are some cautions to be taken nevertheless. However time and again, Paul denounces idolatry and fornication, often pairing the two, interrelating them in the same way as prophets such as Isaiah, prophets from whom Paul draws so powerfully for this theological stances.

So maybe this is the end of the matter. Case closed, right? Well certainly as to the substance of the decision there can be little doubt. But what about the means of getting there? If Paul and the early church could appeal to the signs and power of the Holy Spirit to radically reorient received wisdom, couldn’t such a thing happen once again? This, in my view, is the most powerful way to justify gay sex biblically, and New Testament scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson have read Acts 15 and argued that the Spirit is doing a new thing once again. Professor Johnson concedes that the conclusion of the Jerusalem Council placed Christians under rigorous demands with respect to sexual behaviour. However, Professor Johnson uses the same appeal to the Holy Spirit doing a new thing to undo those very demands.

On this view we should reread Scripture the way Paul did. Paul found the portions of the Bible which lent themselves to the views to which he felt led by the Holy Ghost and then confronted in a creatively inclusive manner those texts which seemed to contradict him. That’s certainly a possibility. More than a possibility. In fact, it’s the Biblical way to read the Bible. So a rereading, yes, but to do this really creatively and well, let’s begin with where we are at today at the heart of the matter under contention in Acts 15. The teaching on sexuality and idolatry was a sideshow. The privileging of sexual misconduct as the sin of sins was a completely unintended consequence of the Jerusalem Council. If one wants to know why some kind of sex is the first thing that comes to most adults mind when the word sin makes its way into conversation, this is where the answer lies. Hundreds and hundreds of Old Testament teachings on poverty and property and religion, and human relations generally, have been leveled. What remains are teachings on sex, and the church soon found itself in a contest with Greco-Roman stoic ethics concerning which could more chastely control bodily passion. But, here, the front and center concern isn’t at all sex; it’s relations between Jews and Gentiles.

Jewish Christian Relations

Now when it comes to Jewish-Gentile relations, one half of Paul’s vision has pretty much been hopelessly frustrated. And by the end of his career, Paul had well realized that such was to be the case, though he still had some vision for a different future. Paul wanted gentiles to feel welcomed into the church in a way that would see Jewish and Gentile Christians worshipping God side by side. The mission to the gentiles has proven wildly successful, but the way that success occurred meant that Jews were for all intents and purposes left out of the church equation for centuries and centuries.

Very early on, Gentile Christians took up a perverse interpretation of Paul arguing that continuing to keep the law was a mortal sin. This turns out in the mid 2nd century to be a major bone of contention between an early Christian apologist and a famous rabbi. In the last decades of the second century, the first really strong Pope used just such a logic to temporarily excommunicate the entirety of the churches in Asia Minor for continuing to celebrate Easter on the date of Passover. Eventually the pope was talked down from this condemnation. However, at Nicaea, the doctrine of Torah observance as mortal sin was officially recognized as the orthodox position, and, centuries later, Irish Christianity would have to back down in the face of such claims (again, the date of Easter being the critical question). To show that they really did reject Judaism, the Eastern tradition soon produced and venerated a text that included a prayer for the annihilation of the Jews.

As time continues major theologians such as Jerome, Augustine, and Aquinas weigh in with their particular positions on the issue. For all their differences, they agree that it is a mortal sin for Christians to keep the precepts of the law. Now this left the tradition in somewhat of a quandary since there were things from the Torah (especially the ten commandments) which continued to be taken as binding. Finally a solution was arrived at that divided the law into three parts: moral, ceremonial, and judicial. Keeping the moral law is required. Basically the moral law, according to the theologians who reached this solution, includes the ten commandments and prohibitions against homosexuality. Keeping the ceremonial or judicial law, according to this way of dividing things, denies the sufficiency of Christ and risks eternal damnation.

The consequences of this position have not been good. In the wake of the Holocaust or the Shoah, a new page has been turned in Jewish Christian relations. The Spirit is at work once again, and it should not be surprising if our relationship to the Torah is once again to be thrown into question. Perhaps there are ways to reread the Torah and present circumstances in a way that blesses same sex unions. I know of at least a couple of Orthodox Jewish scholars and rabbis who have engaged in such attempts. Or perhaps we are in a new era in which even the few provisions of Torah which the early church found binding for Gentiles converts will now be abolished too. Perhaps the really radical way to reform the church is to sever the last linkages between the Law of Moses and the Gospel of Christ.

But then also, perhaps things should move in another direction. Perhaps the Jewish Christian movement of today is a sign of the Spirit suggesting that we should be more inclusive of Jewish law in our midst. Jodie and I have argued this in academic circles. We have been taken with the truth pointed out by John Howard Yoder and a Jewish scholar named Robert Cover that the Torah, in spite of its teachings on the death penalty and war, actually proved to be capable of sustaining Jews as a basically nonviolent people for eighteen centuries from the final destruction of Jerusalem to the reestablishment of the State of Israel in 1948 (and at that point, the Torah generally took a back seat to the law of the state).

And so we are left with a good bit of tension. Acts 15 is both the best place to argue that the Holy Spirit can overturn previous notions of morality and the best place to begin if Jewish sexual law and perhaps even more of the Torah, is to apply for Christians today.

Testing the Spirit

How, then, do we go about figuring out which way to go. Do we impose even less of Torah than the Jerusalem Council imposed? Or do we reengage with Torah in a way that would see us increase our dependence upon it? Or maybe the Jerusalem Council got it just about right, and that’s where we should hold fast. These are big questions. Far bigger questions than can be answered in a single sermon. But there is something here to be quite certain of. The test of the Holy Spirit is most critical. As Gamaliel put it, if it’s of God, it will succeed. Don’t stand in the way. However, if it is a purely human venture it’s bound to fail eventually. I have often wondered what the book of I John means when it instructs Christians to test the spirits to see if they are of God. It seems to me that there a variety of ways possible for doing so, but the truest test seems to me to be Gamaliel’s test of time. If it’s the work of the Holy Spirit, she will sustain it. She will survive it. She will preserve it in the face of grave troubles. Otherwise, even if our ventures show initial promise they will eventually fail. For the book of I John, the truest test of the spirits is whether they confess the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. Combining that with Gamaliel’s test of time, highlights something rather telling. Those movements within Christianity that have denied either the divinity or the humanity of Jesus have never lasted more than a couple of centuries. Initial interest and even robust growth among institutions denying either humanity or divinity to Jesus has eventually given way to steep decline before eventual disappearance. Meanwhile a whole host of churches affirming both have remained alive in some form or fashion centuries and centuries after splintering or being pushed away from larger Christian bodies.

Of course, the answer that the true test of the Holy Spirit is the test of time presents certain problems, most notably that we have to make decisions on critical matters in the here and now without the benefit of decades and decades to see how things turn out – critical decisions which massively impact the lives of real people. We should also notice, then, that there are other signs of the Spirit at work, signs that are less certain, but powerful nevertheless. We should take it as a sign that more liberal, mainline churches seem to be dying out. But how dare we engage in such considerations. Can we really call it a sign of the Spirit that we are witnessing a painful end to our sister congregation at Warden Woods? There are of course important counter-examples to these situations. Many in our church have had a chance at one time or another to interact with the powerful, Spirit filled work of the Church of the Redeemer here in Toronto, a church which firmly supports same sex unions. And then there is Sanctuary, where I work. Sanctuary has no official position on questions around lesbian and gay relationships. There are, in fact, very real disagreements on staff about these matters theologically. But we all agree on how we should care for people, whatever their sexual practices. And so Sanctuary is a place where many, many Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgendered and Transvestive people feel most welcome, including people on staff. Now I mention both Church of the Redeemer and Sanctuary in order to highlight a portion of the Jerusalem Council controversy which I have yet to comment upon. Instead of mentioning the four essential provisions outlined in Acts, Paul states that he was given the Gentile mission and that “they asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.”

Remembering the poor. Both Sanctuary and Church of the Redeemer are shining examples of what it means for a church to remember the poor in downtown Toronto. A place like Sanctuary has very much come to a fork in the road and taken it. And this is where I would like to conclude this sermon, with a plea. A heartfelt call for TUMC not to become trapped in a situation which simply mirrors the unintended consequence of making sexual misconduct the most important marker of Christians ethics. That is, a situation in which a quest for sexual freedom moves front and centre.

As we continue to consider how to become more welcoming and hospitable, let us do so in the much larger context of serious reconsideration of Jewish-Christian relations and of remembering the poor and, most importantly, of careful attention to the signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit.