“Goat Lake (Glacier National Park)” photos by Josh Paulson
My friend, Josh, worked as a park ranger in Glacier National Park.
One day Josh invited me to go on a hike with him to Goat Lake. I had never heard of Goat Lake before, but I figured since hiking was a such big part of his job and since he knew so much about Glacier, it must be a good hike. I volunteered to drive. After we had been driving for a while, I asked where the parking lot for the trailhead was, Josh told me there wasn’t really a trailhead for this hike … and there really wasn’t a trail for this hike either. When he said that, I should have been more scared than I was.
Josh pointed out a steep ravine I should park my car below. We strapped on our backpacks. Josh started to walk straight up the ravine … I think Josh overestimated my hiking ability. He climbed higher and higher. He was so much faster than I was. I was further and further behind. I guess it made sense, I spent my summer driving a cash register and hiked whenever I had a chance. He spent his summer hiking.
He didn’t stop for water. He didn’t stop to catch his breath. He just kept going. I felt like I was playing catch-up the whole time.
Finally Josh stopped, he had to wait a while for me to catch him. Josh pointed out a snow field we needed to cross. He showed me how to kick the heels of my boots into the hard packed, icy, snow so that we could make our way across the mountainside.
I wound up following Josh’s footsteps instead of digging my heels in on my own, but it was still challenge because his stride was a longer than mine.
Eventually we arrived at Goat Lake, it was one of the hardest hikes I have ever been a part of, but it was worth it.
It was discouraging to fall so far behind … it was disorienting to be on the way somewhere, but not being sure where it was we were going … not having trail markers to help me know how much further I needed to go and to assure me that I was on the right track was uncomfortable … It was hard to have to trust Josh so much and at the same time to be so far away from him … playing catch-up is hard … It stinks to feel like I am a step behind.
I’m curious if those early Christians felt like they were playing catch-up.
In Acts, it seems like the church is a step or two behind the Holy Spirit … The Spirit is taking these extra long strides … leading the way … doing surprising things … I’m curious if they felt like they were hiking without a trail and with a hiking partner who just kept plowing along … keeping one step ahead … not taking breaks so they could catch-up … Maybe the church felt a little disoriented as they did everything they could to follow Jesus, but just couldn’t catch-up … Maybe the church felt like they were doing their best just trying to hang on for the ride. They held onto that promise of resurrection … they held onto the goodness of God they had experienced in Jesus … they trusted God with all their lives as they tried to keep on the path … they tried to just keep up as the Spirit surged before them and led them into strange and uncharted territory.
Rick read us a letter church leaders in Jerusalem wrote in response to a difficult question.
Christianity started out as a movement within Judaism, Jesus was Jewish, his first disciples and followers were Jewish, and now people from outside Judaism were becoming Christians. Gentiles, non-Jewish people, were coming to know Jesus … and people wondered what Gentiles’ faith should look like. Did these new Christians need to keep Jewish traditions? Did these newcomers need to keep all those laws? Did they need to keep a special diet? Did men need to undergo the mark of circumcision? What did it look like for a Gentile to be a Christian? What was cultural? What was gospel?
Some Christian teachers came to Antioch from Judea and taught some new gentile believers that they wouldn’t be saved unless they were circumcised according to the custom of Moses. (I imagine that would be an upsetting lesson.) Paul and his friend Barnabas didn’t understand salvation that way … they didn’t understand Jesus and what it meant to follow him that way. They disagreed and argued adamantly with those teachers … I noticed that I tend to see these circumcision teachers as the bad guys in the story, but I am curious if I should be more compassionate toward them. I mean, this was uncharted, unfamiliar territory for all of those Christian missionaries. Maybe they really wanted to make sure these new converts were doing everything they could to have a deep and life-giving relationship with God? We are talking about salvation here … who would want to be wrong about something that weighty.
So, imagine these people who really care, people who are deeply invested and are all taking a risk in following Jesus … people who really want to be on the right track disagreeing … they are doing their best to keep up with the Holy Spirit, but it seems like they are falling behind … I bet their argument would get pretty stuck … no one would want to be wrong about this …
The Antioch Christians decided to send a delegation to discuss the question with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas, and the rest of the delegation shared the encouraging news of the ways God was moving in their community … Then, some Christians who were Pharisees (people with the same background as Paul) stood up and raised the big question, saying it was necessary for gentile believers to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses.
The apostles and elders considered the question … they debated … after a while Peter stood up and shared his experience:
“Fellow believers, you know that, early on, God chose me from among you as the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and come to believe. God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:7-11 NRSV).
Then the assembly listened as Paul and Barnabas told all about the signs and wonders God had been doing through them among the Gentiles.
When they finished, James spoke.
James listened to the conversation … he heard Peter share about how the gentiles experienced the grace of Jesus, how they were given the Holy Spirit – just like the Jewish Christians had. James heard Paul and Barnabas talk about their experience of God’s movement with the gentiles … James took it all in and made a connection with scripture … James said,
“Fellow believers, listen to me. Simon reported how, in his kindness, God came to the Gentiles in the first place, to raise up from them a people of God. The prophets’ words agree with this; as it is written, After this I will return, and I will rebuild David’s fallen tent; I will rebuild what has been torn down. I will restore it so that the rest of humanity will seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who belong to me. The Lord says this, the one who does these things known from earliest times. “Therefore, I conclude that we shouldn’t create problems for Gentiles who turn to God. Instead, we should write a letter, telling them to avoid the pollution associated with idols, sexual immorality, eating meat from strangled animals, and consuming blood. After all, Moses has been proclaimed in every city for a long time, and is read aloud every Sabbath in every synagogue” (Acts 15:13-21 CEB).
James recognized that God was the driving force behind ministry with the gentiles. James quoted scripture with an understanding of God’s consistent work of including people, of drawing in outsiders and bringing them into the family – maybe James even heard echoes of God’s promise to Abraham from long ago in what he was experiencing and hearing … the ancient promise that through Abraham’s family, all the families of the earth would be blessed.
Often the Jerusalem Council, the gathering of elders and apostles James spoke for, gets credit for making a decision to include gentile believers in the church without requiring them to take on the identifying mark of circumcision. I don’t think that is really how it worked. The council didn’t make that decision here. God made that decision. God made a decision and the council discerned how to align the church with God’s action.
There seem to be three pieces to the council’s discernment process: the first is this process takes place in community (we see this when the Antioch church brings their question to the wider Christian community), the second is that there is space for individuals to share their experience of God’s activity (the council listens as Peter and Paul and Barnabas share their understanding of what God has been doing in their lives and in the lives of gentiles), and third, the council considers their experience in light of scripture … scripture is something like a measuring stick, the council measures what they see happening against the overarching themes of scripture. Through this process they discovered that what was happening with the Gentiles was consistent with their understanding of God’s purposes.
Are we willing to engage in this discernment? Are we willing to share our experiences of God with our community? Are we willing reflect on scripture together? Are we willing to reflect on the big, difficult questions that press in on us, by listening to other people’s experiences, sharing our own experiences, and looking to see how scripture can speak to those experiences … it is work … it can be scary and uncomfortable … but it helps us to see where God is moving and it aligns us with God’s action in the world.
God’s same Spirit that moved a step a head of the church is still moving today … It seems like we are still playing catch-up … trying to keep on the path … The Spirit is leading us into a great journey. It is an adventure. It is a challenging journey … it is also the best journey we could ever be part of.