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Fundamentals and Essentials ~ Acts 15: 1-35

I remember the time a new pastor came to our church and the first thing he did was to remove the back four pews in our large, lovely space. He believed it was essential to create intimacy. People got angry, some left the church. It was the beginning of the end of his ministry. What he did touched a fundamental chord in many. I am not lying.

Building the beloved community which is ours in Jesus Christ is not for the meek. Followers of Jesus Christ are always in the tension of deciding what is fundamental and what is merely essential.

By fundamental, or foundational, I mean what is absolutely bed rock to our identity; the core values. By essential, I mean those directives that in any given time or place help us live out our faith. The fundamentals are eternal. The essentials are time-bound.

Parenting can be like this: Love is fundamental, but that love may look different when your child is three and when your child is 17. You have to stay flexible – and that isn’t easy. My parents one time got on me for getting on my kids about the very thing they used to get on me for when I was a kid. Not so important to them now.

Everyday living is a balancing act between certainty and surprise, the givens and then the situations that arise.

At the last Presbytery meeting, we heard another overture on ordination. Going to the Bible for answers is foundational, fundamental, core; while agreeing on what is essential, well….that’s an entirely different matter.

A core value at this church, a fundamental principal is “hospitality” – but how we live that out effectively – is where the challenge lies.

The budget issues we are going through – agitate us again to identify core values from annual essentials.

And then there was the person once who asked me this question: “What do I HAVE to believe in order to be a Christian?”

It was no different back then. In Acts, there were Hebrew Christians, Gentile Christians, and Pharisee Christian. In Paul’s letters there were the Apollo’s followers, the Peter followers, the James followers, the Judaizers. They all claimed to love Jesus, but they had trouble with each other.

Certain Jewish-Christians from Judea were concerned with what they believed was a watering down of the essentials of the Gospel. If Gentiles wanted to be Christians they needed to be Jews first: “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of the Jews, you cannot be saved.” To us, that sounds SO first century – but it almost stopped the Church in its tracks. This issue was so important that Paul and Barnabas were called home to discuss it with “the Church!” and the apostles and elders.

This issue – what one needs to do to be a Christian – was so important in the first decades of the church that Paul writes about it Galatians, chapter 2. I am not going to go deep here. But in Paul’s letter, the issue was still hot and he was still hot about it. By the time Luke wrote Acts, the issue was passé, over, done with – in retrospect, Luke revised the confrontation and smoothed over the differences.

But that is OK. We all do that. It is amazing sometimes what we used to think were SO essential – that now are almost meaningless.

In some ways, this truth is the point of the scripture – things pass, change, faith is shaped by context and time. But the fundamentals are always the same: Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Our job is to figure out what that means every generation. You have to figure out what that means for you.

In the first century, the game changer, the radical new move, was accepting Gentiles. This new reality underscored the first foundational guiding principle of Christian faith: a) God gives the spirit …there is no distinction between them and us.

My favorite definition of church is “here comes everybody.” Back then it was the Gentiles. And the church was never the same afterwards.

No Gentiles, no Romans, no us. No Romans, no empire. No empire, no crusades. In one way, letting the Gentiles in caused more problems then it was worth. It certainly complicates things; the movement started by Jesus was almost unrecognizable.

Today it is new groups, new perspectives. It is a lot more peaceful when we are homogeneous: all white or all black, no gays or all gays, all liberals or all conservatives. But that is not the kingdom. We may have this romantic notion that everyone should agree but when has that ever happened?

And the second fundamental guiding principle of Christianity: b) “we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus just as they will.”

Grace – gift – not earned, not ours to control. God loves you just as you are! That is mind blowing. It is like the sun rising – you can deny it, you can stay indoors, but the sun is going to rise anyway. With God, there are no hoops, there are no formulas: only formation, only a desire to follow, be open – this is fundamental, the rest, well…

Unfortunately, in every age there is a tendency to downplay the foundational guiding principles and focus on the so-called “essentials.” A tendency to eternalize what is really just temporary.

So “What do I have to do?” In the Acts account there are three essentials.

“Abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols.”

You couldn’t rightly call yourself a Christian and go to a sacrificial party for Artemis, and you shouldn’t even eat the meat that had been ritually set aside, even if you found it in the day-old section of the market. Of course, Paul changed this essential pretty quickly. It has no bearing on us today. We make it into a metaphor for something else, perhaps – but this essential is no longer binding. Things change.

“Don’t drink blood” and “Refrain from eating what is strangled.”

Yuck. OK. I can live with that, I think. But…I like my steak rare. And there are a lot of Presbyterians in Scotland who will no longer be able to eat blood pudding (they really do have it over there…. They mix blood with meal and fry it up! It isn’t bad if you don’t know what you are eating.)

“Restrain from fornication.”

That one still makes sense. I looked at several commentaries about what this meant and all of them reported that it means no adultery and don’t have sex with your first cousin. (Makes you wonder what those Gentiles were up to.) Sexual fidelity and not mixing the family gene pool with cousins make moral, spiritual and medical sense.

But are those our essentials? Is that Christianity?

The Christians in Antioch heard the exhortation, and “they rejoiced.” If I told the new members class that these were essentials of Christian faith, I suspect the response would be: “Huh?”

It is a good thing to try to measure faithfulness – it holds us accountable.

The Ten Commandments is one example. It is still normative.

Micah focused in on three: Do justice, love kindness and walk with humility before our God.

Jesus said: “love God, love your neighbor.” The Ten Commandments distilled down to two!

Here in Acts it focused in on three main identifying marks which seemed to reflect the Seven laws given to Noah according to the Rabbis.

Paul, in Galatians, remembered that the church leaders told him only to “remember the poor.”

In another place Paul told the Philippians (4:8ff): “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, thing about these things.”

In every age, and in every life, you and I must deal with the tension of tradition and experience.

In every age, in every life, the same question arises: “God, what would you have us do, have me do, now?” In every age, and in every life, the same struggle between the fundamentals and the essentials, between your particular story and God’s timeless narrative.

In Jerusalem and Antioch in the first century, the question was, “God, what shall we do with the Gentiles?” The answer – the Foundational Principle – was that there are to be NO DISTINCTIONS!

During the Reformation, the question was, “God, what defines us now that the Pope doesn’t?” The Foundational Principle was GRACE.

In the mid-20th century, the question was, “God, what do we do about Adolf Hitler?” The Foundational Principle was “ONLY GOD IS GOD.”

In the 1960’s, the question was, “God, what do we say to a world on the brink of a nuclear holocaust and to a nation whose cities are on fire with racial unrest? How do we listen to voices long silenced?” The Foundational Principle was RECONCILIATION.

And now, today, here, the question is, “God, how shall we confess who we are and live out our faith on the East Side of Cleveland right now? What are the essentials when there are black Christians and white Christians, and gay Christians and Jews and Buddhist and Muslims, and “Spiritual but not religious” folk and all the expressions of faith that were unknown before?” (If only it were just slave and free, Gentile and Greek, male and female.) The answer to today’s question, the Foundational Principle, may be the same one that challenged the first-century church: THERE IS NO DISTINCTION AMONG THOSE ON WHOM GOD HAS GIVEN THE SPIRIT.

The answers will arise in part by looking to the past, to the tradition. The answers will arise, in part, by paying close attention to the context, to present reality. The answers will arise, in part, by trusting in the future and not being afraid that you might be wrong.

The answers will come as we remember the fundamentals of this text: you are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, and there is no distinction between them and us.

This passage gives me peace that the next crisis won’t be the last one. Our decisions, that are made with such seriousness, may change with time, but the grace and mercy of God won’t. Remember the foundational principles, and hold everything else loosely.

Today I will close, quoting verse 28: “For now I will impose on you no further burden than these essentials: claim that you are beloved child of God and then go live as if you believe it!”

If you do that, you will do well. FAREWELL!


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