July 22nd, 2018

But That’s Not the Way We’ve Done it Before
Part 2 of 4: Discerning God's Will
Acts 15:4-14, 19

A few of you are old enough to remember those days when the leader of the Sunday School was called the “Sunday School Superintendent.” And, if you’re old enough to remember Sunday School Superintendents, you probably also remember the Sunday School report given by the Superintendent each Sunday before worship commenced. He or she would detail that day’s attendance and do their best to make those who had not attended feel the appropriate amount of guilt.

Somewhere back in the early 1970’s, Baptists tried to make the Sunday School organization sound a little less like a Bible factory by doing away with the title “Superintendent.” Instead, the person occupying that position became known as the Sunday School Director.

Shortly after the name change, I was attending worship in a little country church. I happened to be seated behind two little ladies who were probably old enough to remember when the church first got electricity. As we were waiting for the worship service to begin, the pastor announced, “Brother Johnson, our Sunday School Director, will now come and give the Sunday School report.

As Brother Johnson walked toward the pulpit, one of the ladies seated in front of me turned to the other, and with a face that indicated her obvious disgust said, “Sunday School DI-REC-TOR. Sounds Russian if you ask me!” Seemingly, she was not at all pleased with the name change.

I tell you that story to reinforce a truth we all understand. Change doesn’t come easily. Whether you’re changing the name of the Sunday School leader, changing the style of worship, or changing some significant routine of your life, most of us meet change with a certain amount of resistance.

That’s particularly true in the church. Nothing can more quickly endanger a pastor’s tenure than to say, “I think we need to make some changes around here.”

Of course, most of you know the age-old theme song of the Baptist Church, don’t you? It goes like this:

We have never ever done it, that way before.
And if you want to change our way, just go out the door.
The same old way has worked just fine for centuries galore,
‘Cause we’ve never ever done it, that way before.

Like I said, change doesn’t come easily.

That’s not only true in contemporary society, but it was true in biblical days as well. Whenever God chose to do something new, his new way was often met with considerable resistance.

Today’s text details one such episode. It details the struggle faced by the early church when God called upon the church to change its attitude toward Gentiles.

Before I read the text, let me give you a bit of background. As you know, for thousands of years, the Jewish people considered non-Jews, or Gentiles, to be an inferior race. In most cases, they chose to have nothing to do with these Gentiles who they considered physically, spiritually and morally unclean. After Jesus died and rose from the grave, the early church started in Jerusalem, the center of Judaism. And as you might expect, the Jewish Christians carried their Gentile prejudices with them into the church, meaning that the early church was made up entirely of Jews – no Gentiles allowed in the Jerusalem Church.

Then God began his process of change. First, a deacon named Philip had a divine encounter with an Ethiopian Gentile who accepted Jesus and wanted to be baptized, and without the Jerusalem church’s permission, Philip baptized him.

Then, Peter, a church leader who, at one time, detested Gentiles, found himself led by God to the home of a man named Cornelius, not only a Gentile, but a high-ranking Roman soldier. And before the day was over, Peter not only baptized Cornelius, but he ended up baptizing his entire family as well.

Then, Paul and Barnabas, good-old-boys with a thoroughly Jewish background, suddenly sensed God calling them to be missionaries to – that’s right – to the Gentiles. And soon, they had not only baptized a few Gentiles, but baptized enough to start a significant church in the city of Antioch.

Of course, this sudden change in Gentile status didn’t go unnoticed by Jewish traditionalists in the Jerusalem Church. When they heard about this rash of Gentile conversions, they were ready to tar and feather these "Gentile lovers." Soon, the church found itself dealing with a major controversy, a controversy that dealt with discerning the will of God. Was it God’s will for the church to accept Gentiles?

The old Jewish die-hards said, “God has always done his work through the Jewish people and we don’t think he’s ready to change. But there was another group led by Peter, Paul, and Barnabas who said, “Can’t you see? God is doing something new, something he has never done before. He’s treating Gentile Christians just like Jewish Christians, allowing them to become part of the church simply by placing their faith in Jesus Christ.” And so, you had two groups with distinctly different opinions about the will of God.

Now, given that background, let me read today’s text found in Acts 15 verses 4-14 and 19.

4 When they (Paul and Barnabas) came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James (who was the church’s pastor) spoke up.
“Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Peter has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles . . . 19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.

Obviously, for time’s sake, I have read only an excerpt of a significantly longer passage that gives more details about this church squabble, but hopefully, I have read enough for you to get a feel for the early church’s attempt to discern the will of God.

Last week, I began a series of sermons about discerning the will of God. In last week’s sermon, I told you we cannot discern God’s will until we realize that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways. So if we want to make sense of God’s will we must let God be God and realize that his will may not conform to human logic.

Today, I want to continue the series with a second truth we must consider in order to discern the will of God. To discern the will of God, we must open our lives to change. That’s right. To discern the will of God we must be willing to do things differently.

That’s exact what it took for the early church to understand the will of God. To understand God’s will regarding the Gentiles, the church’s Jewish members had to embrace change. They had to change the attitude regarding Gentiles they had embraced for thousands of years. They had to view Gentiles from a completely different perspective, a perspective they had never before embraced.

As we see in today’s text, the church leaders finally decided to make that change. Of course, some of the old guard continued to resist it; but in the end, Gentiles were welcomed by faith alone; and before long, Christianity spread more rapidly through the Gentile world than it had through the Jewish world. Yes, in order for the church to spread as God intended, the Jews in Jerusalem had to be open to change.

Have you ever heard the idiom, “set in one’s ways?” Someone will say, “You know, he’ll never change. He’s just set in his ways?” The old English idiom comes from 14th century carpentry, and it conveys the idea of an object that cannot be moved because the mortar around it has hardened or “has become set.”

If you’ve ever used mortar you know what I mean. Let’s say, you’re putting up a mailbox post. You dig a hole in the ground and then you fill the hole with wet cement. While the cement is wet you can nudge and adjust the post in the wet cement until it stands perfectly straight. But once the cement has hardened, or has become “set,” you can do nothing with the post, even if it’s terribly slanted.

Sometimes, that’s the way we are with God. Sometimes we become “set in our ways.” Like a post in hardened concrete, we refuse to move, even if God is nudging us, trying to straighten us up.

So how can we discern the will of God for our lives? We need to be like people standing in wet concrete, people who can be nudged and pushed by God until he gets us exactly where he wants us. If, instead, we become “set in our ways,” unwilling to move, unwilling to change, we end up being people who may set up crooked, never experiencing the perfect will of God.

Last week, we voted to enter a process of spiritual discernment, a process of seeking out God’s will for our church’s future. We’ve made a commitment to pray for our committee and to pray for our church. But as we seek God’s will for our church, we need also to pray for God to open our hearts to potential change. For unless we’re willing to change, we may never reap the blessings of God’s divine will.

So what are the changes we need to make? I don’t know, God has not yet revealed that to me. But I do know this. Change must come if we want to be in God’s will.

I’m willing to embrace that change and to lead you as congregation as we seek God’s will together. Are you willing to embrace change, too – in your hearts, in your lives and in your church? I believe you are.

With apologies to hymn writer, B.B. McKinney, let me share the hymn that ought to be our prayer if we sincerely want to know the will of God.

Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
Break me, melt me, mold me, CHANGE me.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.

Change. It rarely comes easily, but if we sincerely want to know God’s will for our lives, and for our church, we must come to him with a prayer that says, break me, melt me, mold me, change me.