Acts 15:1-17

Our reading this morning describes a watershed moment in the life of the early church, and perhaps we, too, feel this is a significant – if not a watershed time – for the Baptist church in NSW and ACT, around both how we will respond to the issue of human sexuality and how we will continue to operate, as a church of creeds that fix us to particular points in time or as a church of convictions that shape our ongoing mission and ministry.

But as I have reflected on the events of yesterday, three things have emerged for me.

Firstly, as Simon Carey Holt spoke about last week, what we are doing – wrestling together – is to be expected – is entirely normal – is to be encouraged even.

Secondly, what we are hearing – just as what the Council in Jerusalem heard – are stories of the Spirit of God moving in people’s lives, of signs and wonders.

And thirdly, what we are called to be and do hasn’t changed at all. We are still called to live out the gospel as faithfully as we can as a gathered group of believers here.

Certainly, as Simon said last week, “Since the change to the Marriage Act here in Australia…. we Baptists have had to have some difficult conversations. Both in our local contexts and in our wider associations we have had to wrestle with contentious issues.” And we do this – because as Baptists we don’t embrace a creed that defines the boundaries of who we are – but we hold a common set of convictions (and Simon listed them for us; the church as the gathering of believers, the Lordship of Christ, the priesthood of all believers, Baptism as an expression of faith, the authority of the Scriptures and freedom of conscience) that help us work through and keep working through – keep wrestling with – these contentious issues. And Simon reminded us that even after all the wrestling we will not come away in fierce agreement. We saw that yesterday with a 60/40 vote on pretty much every motion. The wrestling goes on.

When I spoke on this same issue in 2017, I told the story of Chester Wenger, a Mennonite pastor, a missionary who served the church in Ethiopia from1947 to 1967, who in 2014, aged 96, wrote a letter, ‘An open letter to my beloved church’, which went viral.

It told his family’s story – of his son Phil – who, at the end of high school, said to his father he thought he was attracted to men. “Maybe you’ll outgrow this,” his father said, but a year or so later, during a college break, Phil told him. “I haven’t grown out of this. This is real. I am going to tell people that I am gay, and I am going to date other guys.”

Phil Wenger was shortly afterwards excommunicated from the Mennonite church and banned from fellowship. Friends stopped speaking to him and his faith virtually diminished, but his parents said, “Your faith is what is most important to us. Don’t give up on Jesus.”

In Acts chapter 15 we see a far more positive account of the church wrestling with a contentious issue.

Some of you may not agree that the early church wrestling over whether Gentiles could become Christians and remain Gentiles is the same as the contemporary church wrestling with same sex relationships. But both issues are deeply entrenched in culture and theology. For Jewish believers, it was unthinkable that circumcision or dietary laws could be set aside. Nothing in the Old Testament suggested they were anything but permanent. Professor William Loader writes, “Paul was confronted with the power of a first century fundamentalism, which insisted that scripture was inviolable and infallible.” It could not be read any other way. But for Paul it was clear that the gospel, that the underlying values of scripture, revealed that God’s grace and forgiveness and love was offered to everyone and anyone, without qualification of race or gender or level of adherence to biblical law.

And so, the debate was fierce. (The NRSV puts it rather delicately: ‘certain individuals came from Judaea and Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them’.) The actual word in Acts 15:2 has the force of ‘riot’ or ‘out and out brawl’ as in Acts 23:10 where it describes ‘dissension so violent the tribune feared Paul would be torn to pieces.’

And yet, after this dissension and debate what does the church do? Do they avoid further conflict? Do they decide to split from the Jerusalem church? No. They send Paul and Barnabas and others to Jerusalem. They get together so they can dissent and debate – ‘much debate’ verse seven says – some more.

I’ve told you the story before about a married couple who were co-pastoring a church who had a spectacular fight one day in a church meeting, and a local reporter turned up the next week looking for a story. “It’s all fine,” the husband said, “It’s just from time to time we have heated fellowship.”

Heated fellowship. And that is what the early church had. They wrestled together! And it was a sign of their relational strength that they could wrestle and dissent and debate each other without losing fellowship.

Secondly, what happens when we wrestle with issues freely, when we are prepared to listen to each other, is we hear wonderful things. Peter stands up in the assembly and tells them, “God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us, and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.” And the Holy Spirit is not just active amongst the Gentiles, but in being prepared to minister to them, Paul and Barnabas report that the Holy Spirit had done signs and wonders through them among the Gentiles. Being in the place where the Spirit calls us to be empowers both others and us. What kind of difference might this make to our church – here in this place and as a denomination?

Are we prepared to hear the stories of God working in people’s lives? Yesterday at the Assembly Andrew Dodd, who has been assisting us in our consultancy and is the pastor of Hamilton Baptist spoke incredibly movingly of the way they had seen God at work in the lives of LGBTIQ people in their church, and in their own lives as a result, and how this had taken them back to Scriptures and brought them to a new place of understanding…

It was as a similar process for Chester Wenger as he continued to read the Bible and pray and hear the stories of other parents of homosexual children.

In his letter, Wenger writes:

When my wife and I read the Bible with today’s fractured, anxious church in mind, we ask…. What would Jesus do with our sons and daughters who are bullied, homeless, sexually abused, and driven to suicide at far higher rates than our heterosexual children?… We invite the church to courageously stake out new territory, much as the early church did. We invite the church to embrace the missional opportunity to extend the church’s blessing of marriage to our homosexual children who desire to live in accountable, covenanted ways.

After all their wrestling and all their listening, the church in Jerusalem reached a conclusion: that the Gentiles could be embraced as Christians as Gentiles. They said, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” And it is interesting how Scripture is used here. James’s quotation – verses 16 to 18 of our reading – stating that all other peoples may seek the Lord – is not a direct quote from the Hebrew Scriptures, but borrows from Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. The writer of Luke/Acts does not use a specific text to justify the inclusion of the Gentiles, but reads scripture with a new kind of freedom, imagination, and creativity. As one scholar writes, this reading is “not so much like a relic excavated from an ancient text as it is like a spark struck by the shovel hitting the rock”.

The early church did this because they felt the call to live out the gospel as faithfully as they could as a gathered group of believers.

Let me finish with a little more of Chester Wenger’s story. When his son Phil was 29, he met Steve, and they fell in love and began a serious committed relationship. And, in 2004, when Gene Robinson, who was openly gay, became a bishop of the Episcopal Church, Phil and Steve became Episcopalians and joined the church, reaffirming their faith. Ten years later Pennsylvania legalised gay marriage and they were the second couple in the line to be legally married. They held a party and at that party Chester said a blessing, but Phil realised that his father wanted to do more and so, a few weeks later, Chester Wenger conducted a Christian wedding, surrounded by a small group of family and friends in their backyard.

It cost Chester Wenger. After 66 years of ministry, he was removed as a pastor in the Mennonite Church, but he writes in his letter that the discussions he had with the church were filled with grace filled pastoral listening. “I am at peace with their decision,” he writes, “and understand their need to take this action.” You must love the body you are trying to heal.

Chester Wenger passed away last year. He was 102 years of age, and his son Phil said that he had given his life to his family and to his church.

And in a sense, we continue to do the same. We continue to wrestle. We continue to listen. We continue to try to live out the gospel as faithfully as we can as a gathered group of believers. Yesterday’s events have not changed that. Not at all.

Late last night Andrew Dodd wrote in the WhatsApp chat that was running all day, “Wow. What a day. Thank you for all your personal messages of support and for everything all of you have been and continue to do. I and our church don’t feel in any way alone – largely because of your support. [We feel] there is momentum and some optimism – as well as a lot of heartache and disbelief. It looks like our service tomorrow is part lament, part celebration. We know who we are…”

And we too know who we are. Let me close with the blessing Simon gave us as a community last Sunday – that whatever challenges we face we remain a community of thinking people committed to the Word of God, to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, to the shared wisdom of the people of God, and to the proclamation of the good news we have found in Jesus.

May it be so.

Call to Worship (based on Psalm 67)

May God be gracious to us, and bless us,
and cover us with the radiance of grace.

May your way be known everywhere, God:

in the hidden places of our hearts;

in the comfort of our homes;

in every corner of our world;

in the farthest reaches of creation.

You transform us; you heal our lives;

you renew the earth and every creature:

Let our praise for you shake the rafters with songs of joy!

Unison Invocation

God, we remember with wonder and joy
that your spirit is reaching everywhere:
rejoicing in the liveliness of all living things;
touching what is wounded or ill with healing power;
gathering in the lonely, the lost, the least;
soothing ancient animosities;
creating and recreating a vision of hope.

Come now, Holy Spirit.
Let our worship rejoice in you,
and lift our hearts,
and bind us in one family of loving grace.
We ask in Jesus’ name; Amen.

Prayer of Intercession

Loving God, we come to you as sinners who are saved by your grace.

And we come to you as saints, among whom and through whom you are doing signs and wonders even today.

But first we come asking for your mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

This week, Lord, we have seen your path, and turned away from it.
We have seen our brother or sister in need, and we did not turn to help.
Lord, have mercy.
We have said cruel or unkind words,

or refrained from saying helpful words when they were needed.
Lord, have mercy.
We have been critical of those who failed to offer us a helping hand,
while ignoring our own apathy towards others.
Lord, have mercy.
We have used our resources, gifts from you, to help only ourselves.
Lord, have mercy.

But, Loving God, we bring you thanks that in spite of ourselves
you show your love to us in many ways

And you invite us to share in your work of mercy and forgiveness and creativity and love.
Lord, your love sustains us.

We give you thanks for life and breath today,
for health and food to eat.

We hold before you those who are sick or who have been in hospital or who are having tests and treatment – Bev, Siriphan, Sandra and Warwick, Ruth and Don.
Lord, your love sustains us.

We give you thanks for the many people in our lives
who love us, who care for us and whose presence brings us joy.
Lord, your love sustains us.
We give you thanks for this community of faith,
faithful in every season, singing your praises,
encouraging us to give our utmost to our Saviour.
Lord, your love sustains us.

We give you thanks for sending your son Jesus Christ
through whose death we receive pardon,
through whose resurrection we have hope.
God of grace, everything we are belongs to you,
be with us this week as we go from this place.
Lord, your mercy and love sustains us and gives us peace. Amen.

Offering Prayer

Lord, let our congregation be a witness to you:
             immersed in scripture,
             constant in prayer,
             joyful in worship,
             generous in giving.
             A loving, supportive community
             reaching out to those in need.
             Accept these gifts we offer, in Jesus’ name, Amen.


Go into your week
knowing you are
loved perfectly,
saved eternally,
and empowered
as a disciple of Jesus
to share God’s love
with everyone you meet.