Have you ever been somewhere you just feel like you don’t belong? Where you don’t fit in? Where you stick out like a sore thumb?
Caron’s a member of the PLC Council. That’s the school where Alex goes. And every year they have a fancy dinner at Concord Golf Club. A black-tie event. Formal gear all around. And even better – it’s FREE!
The only problem is I don’t own a tuxedo. The best I can do is a SUIT. Which is nowhere near black. Sort of a greeny-grey colour.
But last year we went. And I thought, “Blow it! I’m not hiring a tuxedo just for one night. I’m sure there’ll be other blokes there not in tux’s”.
So I dressed up. And thought I looked pretty sharp! Suit and tie. Black leather shoes. (I haven’t really worn a suit much since I moved to Blacktown.) She’ll be right, I thought. After all, it’s only Concord. Not like it’s Rose Bay, or something!
But as soon as I walked into Concord Golf Club. I was faced with the awful reality. I WAS THE ONLY BLOKE THERE NOT IN A DINNER SUIT.
And I felt like I didn’t fit in. I felt like the rules had been set down, and I’d BROKEN them. And that I didn’t deserve to be there.
(As it turned out, there was no doorman. And when we got in, and started to mingle, nobody said anything. They were all very nice. And we had a good night.)
Not fitting in!
Then there’s the other extreme. A of years ago we went for a holiday to my Dad’s farm. Which is at Sofala. And there’s no television. Which is NORMALLY fine. Except THIS TIME, it was State of Origin night.
So I traveled into the Sofala Pub to watch the game. Now, Sofala’s a tiny little town – very quirky. Very close-knit. And when I walked into the Pub, there were about 15 rough-looking guys sitting at the bar. Truckies, labourers, farmers. And a barmaid who wasn’t much smoother. And they all turned to look at me as I opened the door.
I DEFINITELY felt like I was in the wrong place. Like I didn’t belong. I nearly walked straight back out and went home. But everything turned out fine! Except NSW lost the game!
But it’s awful to feel like you don’t fit in. That you don’t belong. There’s rules that everyone else seems to know. But you’ve BROKEN them. And you’re feeling LEFT OUT.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever been in A CHURCH and felt like that! I preached at the Reformed Church a few months ago, and I sat down the front, so I wouldn’t be too far away when it came time to preach. Problem was, EVERYONE ELSE was sitting BEHIND me.
Now, I think I’ve been around churches for a long time. And I sort of know how MOST things go. But I got caught out about three times. Standing when I should have been sitting. Sitting when I should have been standing. Fumbling around in the wrong book trying to find a creed everyone knew from memory.
And feeling like, the whole time, everyone’s eyes were drilled into the back of my head, as they watched me make mistakes.
It was an uncomfortable feeling. Not knowing the rules. Not fitting in!
Invited to the party
And we’ve got a similar situation here in Acts 15. But instead of tuxedos or suits, and bow ties or neckties. It’s something much more important. It’s Jews and Gentiles. And Paul and Peter are standing up for the outsiders. The Gentiles.
It’s a problem that’s been building all the way since Ch 6. How much should Jewish Christians be looking OUTSIDE THEIR OWN NATION for converts to Christianity? Is God just the God of ISRAEL, or the God of THE WORLD? And when someone becomes a Christian, do they need to become a Jew FIRST.
In fact, it goes all the way back to Ch 1. Before Jesus returns to heaven, he promises his disciples that he’ll send the Holy Spirit in a few days. And they reckon that means it’s nearly time for ISRAEL to be restored. And so they say, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to ISRAEL?”
And Jesus says, “Don’t worry about ISRAEL. God’s plans are much bigger than that. He says (Ch 1:7)
It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, AND TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH.”
And the story of Acts so far has been how the gospel message has out. It’s made it outside Jerusalem, through Judea. And into Samaria.
Then Peter gets a vision to visit some GENTILES in Caesarea. And Cornelius is converted. And he receives the Holy Spirit. And Peter says “I now realize how true it is that God doesn’t show favoritism 35 but accepts MEN FROM EVERY NATION who fear him and do what is right… EVERYONE who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
God’s even inviting GENTILES to the party.
And then Saul gets in on the invitations. He and Barnabas head off from Antioch. They crossed the Mediterranean, via Cyprus, And make it all the way into Galatia. Inviting everyone they meet to follow Jesus. And THEY DO.
And now, they’re back in Antioch, taking a well-earned break. And that’s where Ch 14 finishes. With Paul and Barnabas enjoying meeting with God’s people in Antioch. People from ALL SORTS OF NATIONS. Jews and Gentiles. Romans and Greeks. Syrians, Phoenicians and Cypriots.
All sorts of people that God’s accepted. Saved because they have faith in Jesus. See it there at the end of Ch 14? V27.
On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and HOW HE HAD OPENED THE DOOR OF FAITH TO THE GENTILES.
And so, you’d think the matter was settled. That there was an open invitation. To EVERYONE who trusted in Jesus.
But that’s not the case. Almost immediately, there are problems. Party-poopers. Who’re worried about all the party-crashers. Worried about people who don’t know the rules. Or who don’t keep the dress-codes.
Look at it there in Ch 15 v1.
15:1 Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, YOU CANNOT BE SAVED.
Can you see, this is way more important than a question of rules. Or minor points of theology. WAY more important than different races having different ways of doing things.
It’s the GOSPEL ITSELF that’s under attack. The very SALVATION of these non-Jews. Under threat from the message of LAW. Jewish law. The LAW OF MOSES in the Old Testament.
It’s not about different ways of doing things once you IN the party. But all about YOUR ENTRY REQUIREMENTS TO BEGIN WITH. The dress-code to get past the bouncers at the door.
One of the movies out at the moment is called “Wedding Crashers”. About two single guys played by Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, who crash wedding receptions. They reckon they’re a great place for a free feed, and to pick up s. And have a great time at someone else’s expenses.
And that’s exactly what these Jewish Christians reckon the Gentiles are. Party crashers who won’t play by the rules.
Paul and Barnabas are INVITING ANYONE. Telling people who follow gods like Zeus and Hermes to turn away from their WORTHLESS GODS – and turn to Jesus. And they are. Which is all very well.
But the worst thing of all, is that they haven’t even mentioned the DRESS CODE. They haven’t even mentioned the RULES. The LAW OF MOSES; so you’ve got these non Jews who think they can be CHRISTIANS… without being Jewish first.
These Jewish Christians are saying, if you want to come to Jesus, you’ve got to go through the right channels. And first of all, if you’re a bloke, it means you’ve got to be CIRCUMCISED. The ritual for becoming a JEW. Which I guess meant you’d have to be VERY COMMITTED to the idea.
And if you DON’T, you can’t be a Christian.
Now here’s a problem. I mean, what’s that say for all the people who’ve just been SAVED back in chapter 14? Or Cornelius back in Ch 10? Who God poured his Holy Spirit onto – even though he wasn’t circumcised? Or Sergius Paulus, the Roman pro-consul of Crete?
It’s really saying God’s got it wrong!
Theology Worth Arguing About
And so Paul and Barnabas SEE RED. Verse 2, there’s a sharp dispute and debate. Because THIS IS IMPORTANT. Let me tell you, there are people who want to say Christians shouldn’t argue about little things like theology. Well, this is PURE THEOLOGY. And it’s WORTH AN ARGUMENT.
Because if these visiting teachers from Jerusalem have got it right, THEIRS IS NO GOSPEL AT ALL for anyone who isn’t Jewish. And that includes YOU AND ME. It’s not a message of GOD’S GENEROUS MERCY AT ALL. It’s a list of RULES.
So Paul and Barnabas and the church decide they’ve got to go up to Jerusalem, and get it sorted out. In Jerusalem they call a meeting; good Presbyterians say it’s the first ever PRESBYTERY meeting, and we’ve been doing them every month ever since.
And so verses 3 and 4, you see Paul and Barnabas going down through Phoenecia and Samaria on their way to Jerusalem; and everywhere they’re stopping off and telling people what’s been happening up North. That GENTILES had been converted as well. Not given the law. But GIVEN THE MESSAGE OF JESUS.
And everyone who hears about it is glad. Verse 4, they’re welcomed in Jerusalem by the apostles and the elders; and they fill them in on what’s been happening too. And THEY’RE GLAD TOO.
But then time for the meeting. verse 5, and some of the believers from the Pharisee party stand up to speak. These are the guys who’ve been stirring things up in Antioch. And here’s what they say. RULES ARE RULES. “The Gentiles must be circumcised AND REQUIRED TO OBEY THE WHOLE LAW OF MOSES.” Or else THEY CAN’T BE SAVED.
Well, that’s it in black and white.
That’s the big question that’s got to be decided. And let me tell you, it’s important for YOU AND ME. Because we’re GENTILES. Tell me this. (I won’t ask about circumcision – that’s A BIT personal). But what about the Sabbath? What are you allowed to do on the Sabbath? And why?
Or food? Can you tuck into roast pork for lunch, or not? And if you DON’T keep those rules, can you call yourself a Christian?
If these guys are right, then how you answer questions like THAT will decide whether you’re really a Christian.
So what’s the answer? They’re all here. In the minutes of the meeting in Jerusalem so long ago. Listen to the Apostle Peter. He stands up. And makes a stirring speech.
That’s the Peter who in Acts 10 had that dream with the sheet full of unclean animals. And who learned a very important lesson. DON’T GO CALLING PEOPLE UNCLEAN – who GOD CALLS CLEAN. That’s the Gentiles.
And Peter spells the lesson out in verse 9. He says God made NO DISTINCTION between us and them. Between Jews and Gentiles. So why should WE.
He says, God didn’t send them off to get circumcised before he gave them the SPIRIT. So why should WE. He says, God didn’t give them the law of MOSES before he gave them the Spirit. So WHY SHOULD WE?
Read what he says. Verse 9. “He made NO DISTINCTION between us and them, for HE PURIFIED THEIR HEARTS BY FAITH.” Just by accepting Jesus; trusting him; exactly as it was with the Christians who started out Jewish.
Jews were always concerned with PURITY. It was keeping the rules that kept you PURE. But Peter’s saying God’s not interested in that stuff anymore. It’s FAITH that purifies your heart.
The fact is, it’s all about GRACE. That’s what being a Christian is about. Not about RULES. Not about LAWS AND REGULATIONS that somehow let you crawl your way up the ladder to God with a load on your back. That’s not what we’re about.
And that’s just what Peter says. Verse 11. It’s the KEY to understanding what it means to be CHRISTIAN. He says NO. No to all that other stuff: No to CIRCUMCISION and the LAW OF MOSES. He says “NO! We believe it is through THE GRACE of our Lord Jesus that WE are saved, just as THEY are.”
Not as if some of us are saved by keeping rules and others just scrape in by GRACE. Its GRACE for all of us. By the sheer undeserved GIFT of the fact that Jesus came and died a criminal’s -penalty; crucified as the worst of LAWBREAKERS even though he was . So that with the penalty for sin justly paid, God can pour out his mercy on US.
There’s a great scene in the movie THE LAST EMPEROR, about the last Emperor of China; a small boy. Spoilt rotten. Another small boy asks this child emperor one day, WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DO SOMETHING WRONG? To which the child emperor says, WHEN I DO WRONG, ONE OF MY SERVANTS GETS PUNISHED. And he demonstrates, by dropping a bowl and smashing it. At which point, they grab a servant – and they whip him in punishment.
Now that is exactly THE GRACE OF JESUS in REVERSE. Because instead of A SLAVE being punished when THE KING sins, it’s the opposite.
With Jesus and us, the SLAVE SINS. And the KING TAKES THE PUNISHMENT. We do the sinning. And Jesus takes the whipping; there in his body on the cross. And God declares US CLEAN. The debt pain. How GENEROUS is that? How amazing is grace like that?
That’s what Peter’s talking about when he says our RIGHT STANDING WITH GOD comes through the GRACE OF JESUS. Grace means being treated BETTER THAN YOU DESERVE.
And that’s why Peter says NO! That’s why Peter says “We believe it is by THE GRACE OF OUR LORD JESUS that we’re saved.” The only way ANYONE is saved.
Paul and Barnabas speak. James speaks. And in the end, everyone’s persuaded. Grace wins the day. Grace is what the gospel’s all about.
I mean, it’s incredible, isn’t it, that in the light of that, there are still these people who want to make Christians jump through the hoops. And take on the full weight of the law of Moses. And they MISS THE POINT OF GRACE. They miss the GIFT.
The open invitation to the party. Whether you’ve got a tuxedo or not. Whether you know the page number for a particular creed. When to stand and when to sit.
The only dress- requirement is FAITH IN THE ONE who’s paid for your ticket. Whoever you are. Wherever you’re from.
And that’s good news.
Understanding grace has hands and feet.
For most of you, as Christians, this is something you should UNDERSTAND. But it’s got to be MORE than just head-knowledge.
If you really understand it, then God’s grace, it’s meant to OVERFLOW IN YOUR WORDS AND YOUR LIFE.
UNDERSTANDING GRACE HAS HANDS AND FEET.
And I want to talk about TWO WAYS in which our understanding of grace is worked out.
- First, understanding grace shows itself in the way YOU THINK ABOUT YOURSELF.
- Understanding grace shows itself in the way YOU TREAT OTHERS.
First, How do you think about yourself? What makes you acceptable to God? Is God interested in WHAT YOU DO, or WHO YOU ARE?
As you lie in bed at night/ and think about the day. What makes a GOOD DAY? As you think back over your day, what will make you think it’s been SUCCESSFUL? One you can sleep comfortably with?
For me, it’s often about WHAT I’VE DONE. Tasks I’ve achieved. Lists I’ve completed. Not about what sort of person I’ve been. How well I’ve controlled my tongue, or my eyes. Not about how much time I’ve spent in prayer, or what that prayer was like.
And I think part of that thinking is that we’ve got this tendency towards WORKS RIGHTEOUSNESS. To thinking that we can be more acceptable to God by the THINGS WE DO.
But the reality is/ if we really believe the message of this passage. Then the truth is, if you’re a Christian, THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN EVER DO/ TO MAKE YOU MORE ACCEPTABLE TO GOD.
Because as Peter said “NO! We believe it is through THE GRACE of our Lord Jesus that WE are saved, just as THEY are.”
Believing THAT will affect how you think about yourself.
So, spend more time in your day BEING God’s child. Basking in the glorious warmth of his GRACE and goodness. His AMAZING grace. His acceptance of you as his child, bought with the of his Son.
2. Understanding grace shows itself in the way you treat OTHERS.
As you’re getting older. And wiser. As you’re learning more about Jesus. And what the gospel means. And learning more about GRACE, Are you becoming MORE gracious or less gracious? More patient, or less patient? More understanding and humble and servant-hearted or less-so?
Unfortunately, many of us are LEARNING more about Grace, but ACTING less and less gracious.
Don Carson tells about reading his father’s journal one day. And one comment blew him away. His father was thinking about getting older, and at the end of the paragraph, he wrote a short prayer that said “Lord, keep me from the sins of old men.”
“Lord, keep me from the sins of old men.”
The sins of impatience, and frustration. Of bitterness. And ungraciousness. Of complaining and self-centredness. Of unforgiveness and legalism. Of judging and accusations.
There was a show not so long ago on ABC called “Grumpy old men”. And it was basically interviewing a number of men, who just BELLY-ACHED about everything that annoyed them about life. The pet-hates.
And it was miserable!
Is that what YOU’RE like as you get older? Or are you REFLECTING GRACE in the way you live? As you LEARN more about God, is that reflected in you BECOMING more like God?
Are you more GRACIOUS in the way you treat people? In what you think about people?
Are you more PATIENT with situations. With circumstances that hold you up?
Is God’s GRACE being seen in your life – in the way you treat others?
Are you MORE UNDERSTANDING of people, and their short-comings?
Are you more HUMBLE about YOUR OWN talents and abilities?
Are you MORE SERVANT-HEARTED in the way you treat other people. And how you go out of your way for them?
We’ve been saved by grace through faith in Jesus.
It’s the only way into the party.
God is calling people from EVERY NATION and background.
Are WE as welcoming as HE IS?