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May 14, 2017

Acts 15:1-18

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman

Every day, we are faced with a multitude of decisions to make. The grocery store alone is filled with thousands of choices. How could anyone possibly need that many options in spaghetti sauce though? And don’t even get me started about toothpaste? Whitening? Sparkling? 360 24/7 coverage?

Decision-making can be difficult at times, but add in another person and it can get downright challenging. As I meet with couples preparing for their wedding and marriage, we discuss how they are going to make decisions. Is their marriage going to be a one-vote system with one partner making all of the decisions? And which partner is going to have that one vote? Or are they going to be a two-vote system? And what happens when it’s a tie?

We all know though that a couple’s wedding is rarely just about the two of them. Humans are social creatures. We live in community. We need community. We are bound together through love, proximity, and interdependence – so we rarely get to make decisions on our own or in a vacuum.

There are many different ways that decisions get made in families and in community. I knew of a Vietnamese family where the matriarch lived in the United States, and the bride, her niece, lived in Vietnam. The matriarch spent a lot of time on Skype, video conferencing with the bride, as the matriarch made all of the decisions about the wedding.

Hierarchical decision making may not be what you are used to in your family however it is a form of decision making we are very familiar with in the corporate world and even in many non-profits and religious communities.

The United Church of Christ’s structure and decision-making can be confusing to some because they are so used to hierarchy. Ours is a flat structure with each of the four settings: local church, association, conference, and national being bound together in covenant relationship. When it comes to decision making as a wider church, our process is to send delegates to association, conference, and national church meetings.

Much like the early church in Antioch sent a delegation to Jerusalem when they needed to make a decision.

Decision might be putting it a bit mildly. Scripture tells us that “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate” with certain individuals who came down from Judea (Acts 15:2). In other translations, it says “sharp dispute”. And that happens when people feel passionate. That happens when the topic to be decided is near and dear to one’s heart.

The topic up for debate, dispute, dissension was whether new believers needed to be circumcised before they could follow Jesus Christ and become a part of the body. Some said, Yes, it “is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5) And others said, No, “God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as [God] did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith [God] has made no distinction between them and us.” (Acts 15:8-9). Why place a yoke around their necks that neither we nor our ancestors has 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.” (Acts 15:11)

The topic of circumcision was resolved years ago. But how the early church resolved this debate and others is a model for us on how to make decisions and resolve differences of opinion in our own families and communities.

The early church did not call it this. John Wesley, the founder of the United Methodist Church, would not have even called it this, but the early church resolved the issue of circumcision using the model of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

You didn’t think you were getting a math lesson this morning, did you? It’s not geometry though. It’s actually a model for theological reflection and Christian decision-making.

Our passage this morning begins with tradition. Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, come to save the people of Israel. Jesus was a Jew, the Jewish Messiah so it only made sense to some that they would continue to follow all of the laws and traditions of the Jewish faith as they followed Christ’s way.

Tradition. But not in the way of ‘we have always done it this way so don’t question it’. Tradition in the way of this is how our community, our people, have known God for generations. Tradition as the tried and true foundation of faith.

In the United Church of Christ, we don’t lift up this corner of the quadrilateral a lot however we are very rooted in tradition. Our rites of ordination and confirmation include the laying on of hands, connecting us back to the apostles. Our sacraments are grounded in scripture and the tradition of the Protestant church. Tradition, what the church has tested through generations of faith, is an important part of decision making.

Paul and Barnabas also believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, come to save the people of Israel, and they also believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish law. Based on their experience of the Risen Christ, it makes sense to them that all will be saved, not through following traditional rules and the law, but through the grace of our Lord Jesus.

Paul had a powerful experience with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Paul was traveling the road so that he could persecute followers of Christ’s way, and as he journeyed with hate in his heart, Jesus appeared to him and Paul was so changed by Christ’s unconditional love that he changed his name and his mission in life.

Peter had also had powerful experiences with Jesus, as Peter followed him for three years and saw Jesus heal and teach and perform miracles. And Peter had a powerful experience with God as three times Peter had a vision of God placing before him unclean animals and instructing him to eat, and when Peter refused, three times God said “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15) Peter was puzzled by this experience until the Gentile Cornelius shared his own experience with God. Peter realized then that God was calling the disciples to include those beyond the Jewish faith in the way of Christ.

Experience – Those moments of quiet prayer when God’s still speaking voice speaks quite clearly to us; Those coincidences that can only be God-incidences because they have put us in exactly the right place at the right time; That gut feeling that God wants you to move in a certain direction. We know what feels real and right about God, and our personal experiences with the Holy are an important component in our individual and communal Christian decision-making.

It made sense to the group from Judea and the believers who had been Pharisees, to follow tradition and the law of Moses. It made sense to Paul, Barnabas, and Peter to follow their experience of God.

Sense. Reason. We cannot check our brains at the door of faith. God has blessed us with these magnificent brains, and God wants us to use them. To think about our Christian traditions; to think about our spiritual experiences; and most of all, to think about scripture.

In this depiction of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, tradition, experience, reason, and scripture all look equal, but truly, it should look like this. Tradition, experience, and reason reflect upon scripture and scripture influences all of them.

As people of the book, as people of God’s Word, scripture is primary in our decision-making – as it was for the early church.

When there was a theological disagreement in the Antioch church and delegates were sent to Jerusalem, it wasn’t so the big bosses in Jerusalem could decide. It was an act of communal solidarity. To discern as a wider church, as an entire body of Christ, what God was calling them to do.

Both sides have the opportunity to present: tradition, experience. And then it is up to James, the new head of the church, to test what is reasonable and how does he do that? He weighs tradition and experience, and looks to scripture.

“After they had finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. [Peter] 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’” (Acts 15:13-15) and James goes on to share from God’s Word, from the prophet Amos.

Every day, we are faced with choices. Every day, we must make decisions. And when we gather in community, when we come together as Christ’s body, as followers of Christ’s way, we use tradition, experience, reason, and scripture to make those decisions.

What does God say in the tradition handed down to us?

What does God say to us when we gather as a community and as individuals for prayer and discernment?

What seems right according to the good sense God gave us?

And most importantly, what does God’s Word say?

We won’t always get the decision right. We won’t always be happy with the outcome, but we will be always striving to follow God’s still speaking voice and do the will of God, here on earth as it is in heaven.