Acts Then and Now

By Jay McKell

It is worth noting that the meeting of the 221st General Assembly begins only six days after the church has once again celebrated Pentecost.

As we know, Pentecost is often thought of as the birthday of the church.  This story in Acts 2 is one we are familiar with: the tongues of fire, the gathering of devout Jews from places with difficult-to-pronounce names, the bewildering ability to understand one another’s languages followed by Peter’s sermon quoting the prophet Joel who tells us “God declared, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams … then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

In similar manner devout Presbyterians from places with difficult-to-pronounce names will also gather together on June 14 not in Jerusalem but in Detroit.  While almost all will speak the same language, it is quite likely this ability to understand one another may be challenging.  Yet we can be assured that God will pour out God’s Spirit on this General Assembly gathering as together dreams are shared and faithfulness is pursued.

Thirteen chapters later in Acts there is another story of a smaller but no less important gathering which was also held in Jerusalem.  In reality it is as earth-shattering an event as Pentecost.  This time it is Paul who stands in the spotlight.  Already there is controversy in the church.  That first gathering on Pentecost saw the church united in spite of the diversity of languages and homelands that characterized those Jews.  But by chapter 15 this unity is threatened.  That’s because of a big disagreement: did the converted Gentiles who were wanting to affiliate with the young church need to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses or not?  (In other words, did they have to become Jews before they could become Christians?)

Obviously there was a lot going on in the first fifteen chapters of Acts.  The early church confronted many matters regarding its identity and its understanding of the faith Jesus proclaimed.  There was uncertainty, perhaps distrust and doubt, as believers with diverse opinions talked with one another. What did it mean to be a church?  How should believers act?  What should they believe?  All of this culminated at this Council at Jerusalem, a gathering not unlike the 221st General Assembly.McKell

Of course this matter of circumcision, which really was not about a surgical procedure but instead was about changing hearts and
minds with regard to the broadness of God’s welcome, was resolved.  The Gentile converts were welcomed into the church with “no further burden” placed upon them.

Is there a lesson here?  Could the commissioners to this year’s General Assembly learn something about the matter of marriage equality by reviewing the actions of the early church in Acts 2 and 15?  I believe it could.  God’s welcome is wide.  Ancient and outdated barriers are cast aside and grace abounds.  May that reality characterize the decisions of the 221st General Assembly just as it characterized what occurred on Pentecost and again at the Council of Jerusalem.

The Rev. Jay McKell is on the Pastoral Care and Counseling team at Village Presbyterian Church, Prairie Village, Kansas, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Covenant Network.

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