Damariscotta Baptist Church
Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Growing personal relationships with God and community

07/31/16 Sermon - Define Grace

“Define Grace”

Acts 15:1-35


Before we look at chapter 15 more closely, I want us to remember the big picture. Luke wrote this book as a sequel to his first book, “The Gospel According to Luke” both are actually a letters to his friend Theophilus. In this sequel Luke writes to share with his friend exactly how the early church came about and the events and happenings that occurred in order for the Christian church to develop and survive. The Christian church began in Jerusalem, with Peter and the Apostles leading the way. There was a decision to go beyond Jerusalem, so Peter and the disciples went out into Judea and Samaria. This was where the elastic of the Christian Jewish Church began to stretch. As it was stretching, a zealous Jewish leader by the name of Saul decided it was his job to protect Judaism from the Christian radicals. One day, on his way to persecute them, he met Jesus face to face and was blinded and then converted.

Unfortunately his Jewish friends disowned him and the Christian church didn’t trust him, so he escaped and was out of the picture for about twelve years.

Peter was the head of the church at this time. However, things became difficult for the church. James was killed and Peter was imprisoned. Leaders were being persecuted left and right.

It was at about this time that Barnabas reunited with Saul whose name was changed to Paul (to protect the innocent) and they were sent out on their first missionary journey, by the church in Antioch, throughout the Gentile regions. We were told through chapters 13 and 14 that many of the Gentiles turned to the Lord and accepted Him and entered the family of God. Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch to share with the church of their adventures and how much God had done through them. Verse 27 of chapter 14 reads,

Upon arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.”

Therein lays the problem.

By opening the door of faith to the Gentiles, issues existed for the Jewish believers who had started the whole thing in the first place.

First, it was difficult for the Jewish believers to accept that Gentiles could believe and be part of the family of God without accepting the obligations of the Jewish law.

Secondly, it was near to impossible for those Jews who were abiding by their Jewish law to participate in fellowship meals with Gentiles who did not observe the law because that would make them ritually unclean.

So in order to fix the issue, some men came from Judea had taken it upon themselves to come to Antioch to teach the Gentiles that unless they were circumcised according to the custom of Moses, they could not be saved.

Paul and Barnabas were irate and up on their feet in protest.

The church in Antioch decided the best way to solve the problem was to send Paul, Barnabas and a few others to the church in Jerusalem and seek the wisdom of the apostles and leaders there.

When they arrived in Jerusalem Paul and Barnabas were welcomed by everyone. They spent time sharing what happened on their first missionary journey and how God had used them to share the gospel with the Gentiles. It was at this point that some of those who were part of the church group known as the Pharisees, spoke up and insisted they should have the Gentile believers circumcised, in order to keep the Law of Moses.

Two opposite opinions of what should be done and neither was willing to budge. This required a special meeting to consider the matter. The “First Council” was born. The purpose was to bring the leaders together to discern how God was acting, so that everyone could be doing God’s plan, not each other’s plan.

They began, like any good council meeting, with arguments going back and forth and not any side gaining any particular support.

Before they were about to beat each other up, Peter stood up and reminded them of his experience with Cornelius. Peter specifically pointed out that God’s discerning process  was to look at the person’s heart, and it was the heart of a person that was His basis for giving the Holy Spirit to a person, just as He had done to them. God made no distinction between Jew or Gentile, both required their hearts to be purified by faith.

It was a difficult pill to swallow for the Pharisaical party. Everything in their life consisted of rules and regulations. But salvation isn’t a human thing, it is a God thing.

It’s called “Grace” no matter from where you begin.

It doesn’t matter how many rules you have, they don’t work when it comes to salvation.

The question, of how the new acceptance of Gentiles was to fit into the history of the Jewish religion was a good one.

But when it came right down to it, the argument that Gentiles had to do something was counteractive to what God had already done.

Salvation was free and was to extend to the ends of the earth, the Book of Acts states this clearly at the very beginning in chapter 1, verse 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.”

The phrase “to the ends of the earth” is where the potential of universality exists. This was difficult for the first church to understand and is still a difficult phrase for the Christian church today.

Up to this point the Jewish believers had an established way of worship that had been happening since Father Abraham.

Let’s not think for one minute that within the synagogue everyone agreed on how things were to be done. There were Pharisees and Sadducees to name just a couple of groups that were constantly arguing on how their faith should be experienced. However, there were distinct behaviors that were observed by all Jews that they participated in that set them apart from the non-Jews.

Being circumcised and not eating with Gentiles were two of those behaviors that were being addressed during this First Council meeting.

These actions were getting in the way of what God was trying to do. The need to step out into the unknown and follow God, much like Peter had to do when he walked into Cornelius’ home for the first time, was what the First Council was being asked to do.

With the Holy Spirit’s guiding that was exactly what they managed to do, in verse 28 we read,  It seemed to the Holy Spirit and to us…”

The Christian church hasn’t changed much. Change is difficult for most everyone. God knows that. That may be the reason He requires us to follow Him, instead of us being the leaders.

Much like the early church, were we to follow what we think is comfortable and correct, not a lot would be accomplished.

Stepping out into the unknown on our own is scary, take the picture of Peter, the head of the Christian church at the time, knowing that as a devout Jew if he were to take one step into Cornelius’ house he would be not only considered “unclean” he would be disavowed as a Jewish man who upheld the very laws God supposedly stood for. His exemplar status would have been ruined. Yet, we are told, Peter chose to follow the Holy Spirit, not the church’s rules. The rest is history.

Which brings us to the history we are creating today,

A question that needs to be in the forefront of all we do is: “Are there any actions we are doing or not doing that are getting in the way of what God is trying to do?”

What an excellent item to put to prayer for our church and our church leaders. If you are looking for what you can pray for Christian leaders today it could be, “Dear God, Please keep the leaders of your church from doing any actions that would get in the way of what You are trying to do.”

God is still reaching out to the ends of the earth with His gospel. Sometimes He asks us to join Him. So this prayer also works for individuals, for ourselves.

Are we allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us, or are we doing our own thing and asking the Holy Spirit to bless it?

Do we have expectations of others to be doing exactly what we  are doing in order to be following God?

And then defending those actions because they have been a part of our religion since the beginning of time?

When we should be looking at the heart of the individual and asking the Holy Spirit to direct them in the actions that they pursue?

When it comes right down to it, letting go of what we do as Christians is difficult to do.

The Pharasitical group in today’s Scripture realized their demands were getting in the way of the Holy Spirit’s work and they managed to write a letter with “guidelines” not demands, that was sufficient to keep relations congenial between them.

They ended their letter with, “And God be with you.”

This process it what is known as “grace”. Grace is defined as: “The free and unmerited favor of God,” For all who desire it, God gives it.

No strings attached.

Grace is often easier to receive than it is to give.

Let’s think about that.

The acceptance of grace results in salvation from one’s sin and entrance into the kingdom of God, here on earth and ultimately in heaven.

No strings attached, at least as far as God is concerned.

May we follow God’s example.

Let’s pray.