To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
For most churches, Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday are the two annual high-water marks for attendance.
Mother’s Day often comes in third. It has become an opportunity to celebrate the crucial role that parents (especially moms) play in raising up the next generation of Christian disciples. Years ago I remember standing before our crowded sanctuary on the second Sunday morning of May. About halfway through the sermon I asked three questions.
“How many of you are parents or grandparents?” Almost every hand went up. There were plenty of smiles.
“How many of you would unhesitatingly sacrifice your own life to save your children or grandchildren?” The same hands went up again, but this time even higher. The smiles morphed into looks of serious resolve. My life for their life? You bet I would do that.
Then I posed the third question. “How many of you would sacrifice your favorite style of church music or your preferred worship time so it would be easier for your children or grandchildren to hear about Jesus?”
“You don’t need to put your hand up for that one,” I said. “But think about it. Would you be willing to make some kind of sacrifice – not even approaching the ultimate sacrifice – if you knew it would bless somebody else for the sake of the Good News?”
Truth be told, at any given moment a great many of us struggle with that third question. We can become so wrapped up in our opinions about secondary issues – Does Jesus think it’s OK to have a beer while watching a football game? Do electric guitars belong in worship? Is the cosmos billions of years old or has it only been around for a few thousand years? – that we lose our focus on spiritual essentials.
Worse than that, we begin to see those who have different opinions on such questions as our opponents. Christian circles can be tainted by a winner-takes-all mentality. God wants me to come out on top because God has assured me that I am right. And that means it’s time for you to get in line with the truth – which means coming around to my way of seeing things.
The very idea that I should sacrifice my convictions to make life easier for people with less-than-ideal opinions seems ridiculous.
But that is unquestionably what Scripture commands us to do.
One of the most dramatic illustrations of this is reported in Acts 15, the account of what has come to be known as the Jerusalem Council. It’s easy for us to forget that the most urgent question for the early church is something that no longer even appears on our radar: If Gentiles want to follow Jesus, do they first have to become Jews? This was a spiritual question of volcanic explosiveness. Within 20 years of the resurrection, the matter of where Gentiles stood with God had become a kind of magma chamber that threatened to blow the young church apart.
Jewish followers of Jesus had grown up knowing that the Messiah, who was himself a Jew, had been sent to the people of Israel. Surely every Old Testament law and tradition remained supremely important, and ought to be a part of the life of every one of the Messiah’s followers.
But that’s not the message that Gentiles were hearing from missionaries like Paul.
Think about it: If I’m a Gentile male and I hear this news that is so wonderful I can hardly believe it’s true – that the Creator of the universe loves me, and sent his Son to help me when I was powerless to help myself, and now he wants to bless me beyond all reason – do I first have to go and get myself circumcised (which doesn’t sound like much fun) and then scrupulously keep all 613 Old Testament laws for the rest of my life?
Paul said no. A number of the Jewish Christians back in Judea said yes. That was the issue.
The story of the Jerusalem Council is fascinating and well worth reading on your own. What was the outcome? The assembled leaders of the early church agreed that Gentiles did not have to jump through any religious hoops in order to become full-fledged followers of Jesus. It was a spectacular victory for those delivering the Good News beyond the borders of Israel. Acts 15 is one of the reasons that Christians meet on Sunday in a church instead of on Saturday in a synagogue.
But there’s a final twist to the story. The members of the Council agreed to announce their conclusions and recommendations. “We should write to [the Gentiles], telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood” (Acts 15:20).
This seems baffling. The prohibition of sexual immorality makes sense. But do those other issues really matter? After assuring the Gentiles they didn’t have to become Jews, why turn around and tell them that they had to honor Jewish taboos about meat?
The Council was making a plea: Yes, you’re free to eat whatever you want for dinner. But please consider making a sacrifice. Give up any behaviors that might make it hard for your Jewish neighbors to trust Jesus. In a kosher butcher shop, you would never kill a chicken by wringing its neck. Its blood had to be drained. So if a Gentile is sitting down to chicken nuggets prepared in a non-kosher way, Jewish observers would likely be offended.
Yes, we know, said the Council, that you think you’re “right” when it comes to this issue. But isn’t it better to surrender being right so that someone else might have a better shot at walking with God?
Whatever is on our dinner table isn’t going to make or break our relationship with God. Why? Because, as Paul points out in Romans 14:3, food is of secondary importance – and God has accepted the people who advocate bothsides of this question.
So what do we do when we when have disagreements with others about non-essential issues? We choose to do what God does: We accept each other.
The word “accept” comes from the Latin words ad capere, which means, “to take to oneself.” Strange as it may seem, offering acceptance to another human being is actually a form of receiving. If I accept you, it doesn’t mean that I agree with all of your opinions about every subject. It does mean that I welcome you into my circle of care and concern. I take you and your interests – even though you think differently – to myself.
Paul wraps things up in Romans 14:13: “Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother or sister’s way.”
It’s time to ditch the I’m-right-and-I-know-it attitude when it comes to non-essential matters, and to consider the possibility of raising our hands when asked to sacrifice one of our preferences in order to make life easier for someone else.
Does that mean we have to have drums in the sanctuary?
Not necessarily. But then again, you can always say, “Praise God and pass the earplugs!”
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.