(Slide 1) We are continuing in our series where we reflect on what it means to disciple people in our church. Today, we reflect on our vision statement, “We value our church to be a safe place for those who are broken and hurting.” Let’s begin strongly affirming the church in how we’ve pursued living this this out. There are so many ways in which I’ve seen us individually and collectively rally around people to help foster healing. A couple years ago, we got a call from a family in distress. The way this church rallied together in offering support was beautiful—offering a place to stay, food, furniture, and friendship. I asked one person why they said they starting attending our congregation, and their response was telling, “I felt like it would be OK for me to cry here.” We’ve been seeing people come to each other’s support after service, offering prayer and a listening ear. Something that’s really impressed me is that the people here aren’t afraid to say, “I’m sorry”. That takes so much courage, is such a significant way of making a place safe, a place where healing can happen. And I’ve also been so encouraged that when I need to apologize to someone, they always extend grace and kindness back to me. So, I’d like to begin with saying that I’m really encouraged in seeing how our congregation has lived into this statement. I think that this statement is core to our identity. I think that our congregation takes this vision statement very seriously, and is a unique part of our church. We want to be a church where anyone can feel welcome. That’s a pretty beautiful calling.
In the same breath, I’d also like to say that living into this vision statement is one of the most complex things for a church to do well. Each of us might have a different picture of a safe church. Or if I were to ask, “who are people that are broken and hurting,” each of us would probably think of a different type of person. The challenge is that often what one type of hurting person needs to feel safe, might make another person feel unsafe. Being aware of that dynamic is crucial for us to further grapple what it means to live into this vision statement. The passage we read this morning is full of hurting people who have different ideas of what it means for the church to be a safe place.
(Slide 2) In the first verse, we see that some men came from Judea to Antioch saying, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” If I said this from the pulpit, that would make everyone here feel completely unsafe, especially on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation when we remember that we are saved by grace alone. This comment alone could cause people to feel hurt, thinking, “what do you mean I need to be circumcised in order to be saved? I’m saved by grace!” That’s certainly what Paul and Barnabas thought. But before we go on, let’s reflect for a moment on why these men from Judea, theses Pharisees who loved Jesus, thought circumcision was so important. Listen to how God introduces circumcision to Abraham. He says, “This is my covenant which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised… It shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations, every male shall be circumcised when he is eight days old.” God concludes this statement by saying, (Slide 3) “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
Picture yourself a Pharisee. Try and get rid of the stereotypes in your head of people who were as legalistic as you can get. Imagine yourself as a Pharisee, a person who is deeply committed to the Jewish faith, and wants to honour God through keeping the demands of the covenant. You became a follower of Jesus because you believe that through Jesus, God is fulfilling the covenant promises which He made with Israel. Your people already broke covenant with God once, and were sent into exile. Now that you’re closer than ever to seeing God fulfill his covenant promises, can you imagine what it would be like to see Peter, Paul and Barnabas say its OK to just abandon the sign of circumcision. This is the sign about which God said, “Any uncircumcised male who is uncircumcised… has broken my covenant.” Can you imagine how incredibly unsafe that would make you feel? Can you imagine how hurt, or even betrayed you might feel by your brothers who were choosing to get rid of circumcision, which for several thousand years has been the sign of what it means to be part of God’s family? (Slide 4) Those followers of Jesus had a very particular understanding of what it meant for the church to be a safe place for those who are broken and hurting.
Now imagine you’re Paul, and you hear someone come and say that unless the gentiles are circumcised, they cannot be saved. (Slide 5)You remember when God reminded you of His words through the prophet Isaiah, “I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” Can you imagine how unsafe you would feel to hear someone say that believing in Jesus isn’t enough to be saved, they also need to be circumcised. Can you imagine fearing for all the Gentiles who have come to faith, and how hurt and excluded they might feel if you now told them they had to be circumcised?
The debate couldn’t be resolved Antioch, so they traveled to Jerusalem to meet with the Apostles and Elders of the church. That’s when Peter weighed in on the debate. Imagine how shocked you’d be if you were Peter. You’ve had a profound revelation from God. He has shown you not to call anyone unclean, whom he has made clean. You remember the time when you told Cornelius, and some other uncircumcised Gentiles about the forgiveness which Jesus offers, and how Holy Spirit fell on everyone who heard your message. You remember how all the circumcised people who were with you were astonished that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on even the Gentiles. You believe that God Himself has weighed in on the debate by giving them the Gentiles the Holy Spirit, making no distinction between Jew and Gentiles, cleansing their heart by faith. And you are hopeful that, finally, God is fulfilling his Covenant Promises that you read about in Joel, where God says, (Slide 6) “After all of this, I will pour out my Spirit on all kinds of people.” You firmly believe that the Spirit, and not the flesh, is the sign of the New Covenant. That’s why Peter says, “we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.”
(Slide 7) Can you see how both parties would have had an opposing understanding of what it meant for the church to be a safe place for broken, hurting people? What was safe for one group, hurt another group. What caused hurt to the other group, made others feel safe. The upshot of all of this is that both groups felt unsafe, both groups felt hurt.
So, James voices his opinion. James is the half brother of Jesus. He is the leader, if not the head of the Jerusalem church. It appears that he has some sort of authority over all the churches, because his concluding remarks seem to decide the matter. (Slide 8) He quotes the greek translation of the Prophet Amos, where God says, “After this I will return and I will rebuild the fallen tent of David; I will rebuild its ruins and restore it, so that the rest of humanity may seek the Lord, namely, all the Gentiles I have called to be my own.” In quoting this passage, James reveals his conviction that God is equipping Israel to fulfill its mission to restore the Gentiles to friendship with God. James recognizes that on account of Jesus these differing nations need no longer oppose one another. So the need for a sign, like circumcision, no longer exists.
(Slide 9) We value this church to be a safe place for those who are broken and hurting. How do we make the church a safe place when the same decision can be both healing and hurtful? I see in James’ response three principles help us begin to determine how to make a church safe.
(Slide 10) First, we can’t compromise the truth of the Gospel to make a person feel safe. When James says, “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God,” he is agreeing with Peter who says, “we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.” James was unwilling to compromise the Gospel of Jesus to make others feel safe. As Christians, we make exclusive claims about who God is and what he’s done. We believe God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe we receive salvation by grace, through Christ alone. We believe that Scripture is the revealed Word of God. These claims might make this place unsafe to those who don’t share these convictions. These beliefs may even be experienced as hurtful, just as some of those Jewish-Christians felt hurt. But its through this Faith that we’re healed and glorify God. So if we let go of these convictions, our church won’t be a healing place for anyone.
(Slide 11) Two, we can sacrifice some personal freedoms and convictions when doing so might help a hurting person feel safe, or might help the church feel safe. James asks the Gentiles to abstain from food polluted by idols. The way most meat was butchered was through first being sacrificed to an idol, and then sold for people to eat. Paul, and other Christians, believed it was OK to buy this meat and eat it at home, even though it had been sacrificed to an idol. But some Jewish Christians still felt this was participating in idol worship, so James requested the Gentiles to sacrifice their personal freedom and not eat that meat so that others might feel safe. We all come to church with personal preferences and convictions. We prefer certain styles of worship. We might prefer sharing in groups or we might prefer hearing a strong sermon. We might prefer following the denominations guidelines on what baptism should look like, or we might prefer the freedom to act independently. We might prefer holding formal membership in a church, or we might prefer seeing ourselves as part of the universal body of Christ. We might advocate for one particular group to feel safe, as I mentioned last week with the First Nations, others might want to focus on a different need. All of these preferences aren’t salvation issues, but that also doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. How we handle them can make a place either feel safe, or make a place feel hurtful. So, we need to discern, with the Spirit, how to make our church safe. Sometimes that might mean that we sacrifice our own personal freedoms, preferences or even convictions. Even though Paul knew that you didn’t need to be circumcised to be saved, in the next chapter he asked his coworker Timothy if he would be circumcised so as not to give offence to the Jews in the area.
(Slide 12) The third principle that I see is about advocating for boundaries when doing so would foster healing and help the church be safe. Sometimes, when we say that we want a church to be safe, we can talk about how we need to be totally accepting. But some behaviours are harmful and destructive, and need to be warned against. A home without any rules is anything but safe. If I didn’t have rules when I was growing up, I probably would have blown myself up by the time I was five. So James says to the gentles, abstain from sexual immorality. The gentiles had a loose sexual ethic. James, I believe, is reflecting the Judeo-Christian perspective that was quite different than the surrounding culture. The belief that the safest place for sex is within marriage, anything outside of that causes varying degrees of harm. Making a place safe for people means that we advocate for certain boundaries to be in place. So we also might need to have a conversation with someone when we see a behaviour is harmful to themselves or to others. This might be a common-sense conversation, or it might be a conversation where we help someone to reflect on what God means when he says, “Be holy as I am holy.”
And if only we always knew which category a situation fit under. Is this a Gospel issue? Personal preference? Or is this an area where a particular boundary might bring healing and safety? And there are certainly other categories to consider. What happens if advocating a particular boundary to a person makes them feel like you’re saying “you’re behaviour is a salvation issue” and compromises the Gospel for them. If you were to ask me what the most challenging part of being a pastor is, I’d say its in trying to navigate around these principles. If you get your priorities wrong, the church can easily feel like a dangerous place that creates hurting broken people. Its not too hard to think of churches that have mixed up these categories and done a lot of damage. But when we can get them right, the church becomes a sanctuary, a place where people find belonging, safety, connection with a church family, and connection with God. Thankfully, navigating this by listening to the Holy Spirit. God is our guide. God will be faithful as we pray for his will. Together we’ll discover what it means for the Church to be a safe place for hurting, broken people. And let’s not forget the reason why we value this church being a safe place for all people. Its because Jesus paid the ultimate price to make a place for us in God’s family, a place where we, a hurting broken people can find and receive healing.