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Arguments & Reconciliation

Preached:  August 4, 2013
Scriptures:  Excerpts from Acts 15

What happens when you get two or more people together?  You discover just how many differences of opinion there are.

Humorous illustration:  How Many Christians Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb? punctuates the vast diversity within the body of Christ. It offers an opportunity to laugh at ourselves, and allow walls of division to fall so the unity of the Spirit can hover among us. I ask for your forgiveness if you come from any of these traditions.

  • Charismatics: Just one … Our hands are already in the air.
  • Pentecostals: 10: 1 to change the bulb, and 9 to pray against the spirit of darkness.
  • Presbyterians:  None … The lights will go on and off at predestined times.
  • Roman Catholics: None … We use candles only.
  • Baptist: ~15 … One to change the light bulb, and 3 committees to approve the change
  • Episcopalians: Three … One to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks, and one to talk about how much better the old bulb was.
  • Lutherans: None … We don’t believe in change.
  • Mormons: 5 … One man to change the bulb, and four wives to tell him how to do it.
  • Unitarian Universalists: We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your light bulb for the next Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.
  • Methodists: Undetermined … Whether your light bulb is bright, dull, or completely out, you are loved. You can be a light bulb, turnip bulb or tulip bulb. A church-wide lighting service is planned for Sunday. Bring a bulb of your choice and covered dish.
  • Amish:  What’s a light bulb?

Christians may worship God thru Jesus but don’t always agree on every point.  Throughout the history of church, we have disagreed about countless theological, and not so theological issues.  I remember when I was the associate at Marysville, we decided to paint the outside of the church building AND put in a new carpet.  Who knew there were so many opinions about color, not to mention trim!  Here are just a few issues we have disagreed about in church over the century.

Drinking alcohol                 Smoking                                            Dancing
Playing cards                         Gambling                                          Abortion
Women wearing pants       Women wearing pants to church Women ushers
The King James Version    Divorced men serving as ushers  R-rated movies
Playing guitars in church     Clapping in church                                   Going to War
Birth control                                    Women pastors                                Homosexuality
Communion: How often? once a week? month? quarter? year?
Traditional worship versus contemporary worship: which one pleases God more?

These have all been or are genuine issues with heart-felt disagreement among the body of Christ. Some of us may find this list funny, but there are people in other places who are deeply concerned about every item on that list. You might say to yourself, “I can’t believe anyone worries about that. There’s nothing wrong with________.”  We wouldn’t even agree among ourselves on what we perceive as silly stuff or wrong.

We Christians disagree – sometimes about the craziest things. Early Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the very beginning. In the centuries since, we have disagreed on every possible theological issue. No matter what issue comes to mind, you’ll find someone who disagrees.

There were two huge disagreements in Acts 15.  The first one continued from Acts 10.  Circumcision – It was a theological problem.  Devout Jews believed that in order to be saved you needed to follow the law of Moses and keep the covenant – and that involved the rite of circumcision. The religious Jews aren’t just trying to cause problems.  They really believe this is true.     They truly believe theologically that this is how to be saved. Still today we debate over how to be saved, or what it even means to be saved. But back then, with all the new gentile converts, there weren’t many lining up at the Priest’s office volunteering to be circumcised. Each group claimed to have the correct theological truth.

At the end of Acts 15 we witness an intense quarrel between Paul & Barnabas.  They had finished a successful missionary journey and were preparing to go on their second journey.

Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back to all the towns where we preached the word and see how they’re doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them, but Paul did not think it wise, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia.

Barnabas said, “Let’s give him a second chance.”  Paul says, “We’re not taking him.”  So they argue over whether to take him.  Barnabas knew he was right. And Paul knew he was right. Who was right? Barnabas or Paul? The Bible doesn’t say.  When they couldn’t agree, they felt there was only one solution: They “parted company.” The word in Greek means “to part asunder”.  The only place I have ever heard that phrase is in wedding vows.  They were so angry that when they left, they didn’t just part company; their friendship was torn apart. Their convictions were so deep it caused a rift. It was like a divorce. They split and went in separate directions.  Barnabas took John Mark and sailed for Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and left for Syria and Cilicia. They evidently left unreconciled.

Luke could have skipped over it the disagreement and said that Paul went north while Barnabas went west and we never would have known why. This text is very authentic &  honest. These were men with human passions, with strong feelings and convictions.

Nothing in the text indicates that they got on their knees and prayed together.  There’s no happy ending.  I find it interesting that Paul ends up writing frequently about the unity of the church when he parted ways with Barnabas.

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. Eph. 4:3
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Rom. 12:18

 It’s difficult enough to agree on little things like how to change a light bulb. But when you look at the political/theological world, there is so much divisiveness & bitterness.  The fractured state of Christianity reflects our human limitation to transcend history.

300 years ago John Wesley wrote a sermon called “Catholic Spirit”.  This sermon comes from II Kings 10 – Jehu and Jehonadab. “And when Jehu left, he met Jehonadab coming to meet him, and Jehu greeted him, and said to him, “Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart? If so, give me your hand” Jehonadab said: “It is.”   There is no inquiry concerning Jehonadab’s opinions. And yet he certainly had some.

And it is certain  that we will not see all things alike. It is an unavoidable consequence of the shortness of human understanding. We will be of several minds in religion as well as in common life. So it has been from the beginning of the world, and so it will be “till the restitution of all things.”

Although our differences may prevent external union, need it prevent union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?  Even though we retain smaller differences, we may help each other increase in love and in good works.

Every wise one will allow others liberty of thinking. He is patient with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question: “Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart?” Every one must be fully persuaded in his own mind and act according to the best light he has.

Questions:  Does Christ dwell in you and you in Christ? Is your faith filled with the energy of love? Do you love God with all your heart, your mind, your soul, and strength?  Is your heart right toward your neighbor? Do you show your love by your works? As you have time and opportunity, do you “do good to all” neighbors or strangers?

“If it be, give me your hand.” I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not. I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot. Keep your opinion and I will keep mine. You need not even endeavor to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points: only “give me your hand.”

Commend me to God in all your prayers. Wrestle with God on my behalf, that God would supply what is lacking in me. Beg God that I may have a fuller conviction of things not seen, and a stronger view of the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Provoke me to love and to good works. Love me not in word only, but in deed and in truth. Retaining still your own opinions, join with me in the work of God, and let us go on hand in hand.

And now run the race that is set before you, in the royal way of universal love. Keep an even pace, rooted in the faith, and grounded in love, till you are swallowed up in love for ever and ever!

We would do well to err on the side of grace.  Though it may seem that we are divided, there is hope in Jesus, who brings us together in Christ and invites us to follow him.

Paul is in jail for the last time. From his prison cell in Rome, he writes to Timothy. In II Timothy 4:11, Paul talks about all the people have left him—Demas has forsaken me. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. “Get JohnMark and bring him with you because he is helpful to me in my ministry.”  In his last days Paul wanted John Mark by his side. What a change from his earlier opinion.  “Bring him to me. I need him.”

Who was right—Paul or Barnabas? The Bible doesn’t answer that question. But that’s not a bad thing. So many of our arguments end up the same way. When it’s all over, you’re never totally sure who’s right.    May we do the work of love together.