Restoring Respect in a Pluralistic and Polarized World: The Jerusalem Council

Whether Gentile converts must adopt Jewish laws like circumcision and dietary customs or be free to keep their own cultural practices was an issue that divided the early Church.  Guided by the Holy Spirit and respectful dialogue, church leaders at the Jerusalem Council decided to allow freedom in these matters.  Today, in a polarized society and Church, we must work at restoring respect through things like listening to different perspectives and stories, humility, patience, and seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage:  Acts 15:1-12

Let’s see if you can finish this line: R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to me
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, take care, T-C-B oh (Sock it to me)  (taking care of business)

All I’m asking is for a little respect (Just a little bit)

This song by Aretha Franklin became the anthem for the Women’s Rights movement of the 1970’s.  And it has withstood the test of time; in 2021, it ranked as the #1 song in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

With what’s going on in the world in 2023, maybe we need to make the song the anthem for our time as well.  Because it seems like all around us, in politics, in our schools and communities, there’s a lot of D-I-S-R-E-S-P-E-C-T going on.

For example, last Sunday, former congressperson Liz Cheney gave the commencement speech at her alma mater, Colorado College.

Before introducing Cheney, President L. Song Richardson congratulated the graduates on how they had practiced open-mindedness and critical thinking during their college career.

He said “your liberal arts education has taught you how to think critically, to welcome different perspectives, to see and understand different viewpoints, to challenge and debate each other on the ideas with which you may disagree.”

But then when Cheney was introduced, some people booed, and about half the graduates turned their chairs 180 degrees and sat with their backs to her for the entire speech.

What’s interesting is that it’s unclear why people turned their backs on Cheney—some say it was more progressive students who were protesting her conservative political views,

while others say that people who support the former president turned their chairs around because Cheney called him out for trying to overturn the 2020 election.

Whatever the reason, disrespect is on the rise …there seems to be an increase in lack of civility, intolerance, and inhospitable actions towards people and groups that people don’t agree with,

We see it in politicians and people of different political parties,

And we see it towards people of a different race, or immigrants from a different country, or towards people in the LGBTQ community and those who support them.

There are stories of burning of pride flags outside of schools, and destroying pride-themed clothing displays in stores like Target.

Inhospitality also happens on the other side as well.  My son is the worship leader of an church plant, and they were renting from a church that is a welcoming/inclusive congregation for LGBTQ folks, like ours.

But some people in that host church complained that since my son’s church isn’t inclusive, that they shouldn’t rent to them.  So my son’s church was basically kicked out from meeting at that church building and had to find a new place.

Folks, we live in an increasingly multicultural and diverse society.  At the same time, people’s natural tendency is to be around people who look and think and believe and vote like they do.

In fact, I read an article this week from Scientific American magazine that had research to show that people like to associate with those who are even more politically extreme than themselves.

So this even exacerbates the segregation in our society, and along with it, the disrespect toward those who are different.

Of course, this polarization is affecting the Church and Christians as well.  Sometimes I find that I have more in common with my family and friends who aren’t Christian than I do with those who are Christian.  Is that true for you as well?

Now, there will always be differences in the Church and in society.  And that’s OK, and to be expected in a pluralistic society where individuality and freedom are highly valued.

In a society like ours, things like respect, civility, and tolerance toward those who are different are sorely needed, but with the polarization in our country, these virtues seem to be on the endangered species list.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that Christians are called to be salt and light to the world.  I believe that one way we live this out is by leading the way in showing kindness and respect to all people, no matter how alike or different they are from us.

We need to lead the way in restoring respect in the Church and in our divided society.  And it turns out that we have a great example from the early Church of what this can look like.  It’s what our scripture from Acts 15 shows us.

Acts 15 is about what’s known as the Jerusalem Council, where representatives from different churches came together to talk about the first major issue that was dividing the Church.

The issue was whether Gentiles who were becoming Christians had to follow all of the Jewish laws in order to be “real” Christians and be welcomed as members of the Church.

You see, Jesus’ 12 disciples were all Jewish, and when the Holy Spirit descended on the day of Pentecost, and the church was born, those disciples were part of the first congregation in Jerusalem.

To those in that first church, being a Christian went hand in hand with being Jewish and following all of their Jewish laws and customs, like keeping kosher,   cleanliness laws, and circumcision if you were a male.

So when the disciples, along with newer converts like Paul and Barnabas, went out and shared the good news of Jesus with Gentiles,

There was an expectation that if people came to faith in Jesus that they would adopt all of these Jewish laws and traditions, especially circumcision.

But with the help of the Holy Spirit, Peter and Paul and other leaders were able to see that people who weren’t Jewish didn’t need to become Jewish in order to be Christians.

Their own cultural traditions would be respected, and they wouldn’t have to conform to someone else’s, because these were not essential to the Christian faith.    So they didn’t need to get circumcised or follow all the other Jewish laws.

I remember when I first came into the Mennonite Church, there were some Mennonite cultural things that I noticed as an outsider,  There was 4-part singing, and there were also different foods that were almost sacred to them, depending on which country their ancestors were from in Europe.

I was in Denver, Colorado, and most of my fellow voluntary service workers were Mennonites from Kansas, whose ancestors were Russian Mennonites.  And they kept talking about how they missed their mother’s or grandmother’s Zwieback.  (Here they are on the cover of this book).

To them, being Mennonite meant loving Zwieback.  And without them specifically saying it, I got the message that “real Mennonites love and eat Zwieback”.

So when they brought back some Zwieback after they went to Kansas for Thanksgiving, they gave me some, and I ate them, and they were fine.  But then I made the mistake of saying something like “They’re OK, but they’re basically white dinner rolls.

Now that may be true, but in a way, I was disrespecting their tradition, something near and dear to them.  And over time, I came to appreciate Zweiback more, and we all saw that I could still be a full-fledged Mennonite even if I didn’t eat Zwieback.

But the next time I go to a house where they serve me Zwieback, I will gladly eat it without making any snide remarks!  “When in Rome, or when around Kansas Mennonites, do as the Kansas Mennonites do.”

Now back to early church situation

So one of the first churches that was planted outside of Jerusalem was the church in a city called Antioch, which is in modern-day Turkey.

Antioch was a very cosmopolitan city, it was a crossroads for travelers coming from north, south, east and west, so it’s no surprise that the church in Antioch developed into a very multicultural congregation, kind of like ours here at DRPC.

We know that it was a diverse church because scripture tells us that the leadership team in the Antioch church included Paul, who was Jewish; Barnabas, who was Greek, and Simeon, who was African.

And Antioch, not Jerusalem, became the center of early Christianity.  In fact, it was in Antioch that the word “Christian” was first used.

Antioch was the apostle Paul’s home base for his three major missionary trips; it was like his sending congregation.

It’s clear from what we know that the church in Antioch embraced its multicultural identity in a way that respected and valued their individual cultural differences, while at the same finding a common identity in their commitment to the way of Jesus.

And one of the ways they were showing respect was by not requiring Gentile believers in Antioch to be circumcised.  But when word of this got out to the church in Jerusalem,

some members of the church in Jerusalem were up in arms, and they decided to pay them a visit.  And as our scripture this morning tells us, they gave an ultimatum to the Christians in Antioch:

“Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

And to this they got some pushback.  It says that Paul and Barnabas had “no small dissension and debate with them”.  In other words, things got ugly.  Here is the first recorded church fight in the Bible (a harbinger of things to come!).

So Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. And that’s how the Jerusalem Council began.

And what took place really was a process that I think that we can learn from in the Church today.  I’m going to put up a brief summary of the steps of the process, as outlined in this book by Nelson Kraybill,

“Stuck Together: the hope of Christian witness in a polarized world”  (the book just came out so I haven’t gotten very far yet, but what I’ve read I think is really great.)

  1. Leaders recognized growing tension within the church.
  2. The church created a forum to hear all parties in the dispute.
  3. People involved in the conflict had opportunity to tell their stories.
  4. There was adequate time to air convictions and perspectives.
  5. Someone proposed a way forward that aligned with scripture and addressed concerns by both sides.
  6. Participants in the forum ratified the proposed solution by consensus.

“it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”  (15:28)

From Stuck Together by J. Nelson Kraybill, Herald Press, 2023, p. 129

 The Jerusalem Council is a good model for how we can get along in the Church when there are differences, in an honest and respectful manner.  And I think that much of it can apply to how we live in a pluralistic and polarized society as well.

Kraybill’s summary shows that getting along in a respectful manner involves things like: creating space for people to come together and be heard, listening to their perspectives and hearing their stories.

When we take time to do these things, we can understand people better and gain new perspectives ourselves.  And our respect for them increases as well.

It reminds me of Fei Hung Hsu’s graduation last week, where the head of the school, Dr. David Vanderpool said  “it’s never sufficient to see things in part; we must see them as a whole, to try to see the complete picture.”

You know, in a way, maybe being respectful has something to do with being more “woke”.  I know, “Woke” is a highly politicized word, mainly used to criticize people who are more progressive leaning.

But I like how I heard someone define “woke”. He said Being woke just means being empathetic. And tolerant. And willing to listen. And open to learning.

These are things that we all need in our pluralistic and polarized world, right?  I want to close with a few more thoughts on how we can work at restoring respect:

Restoring respect involves showing grace to people we have trouble loving, and to “agree to disagree” on some things.

Restoring respect involves humility, so we can see the logs in our own eyes, and to say “I’m sorry, I was wrong”, or “Help me better understand where you’re coming from”.

Restoring respect involves having the patience and self-awareness of Jesus, who took time to withdraw to pray and reflect, and refrain from knee-jerk reactions, even in the midst of so many people wanting his attention.

The commencement speaker at Bluffton University this year explained this kind of patience when she encouraged the graduates, to listen before acting, think before reacting, wait before criticizing…”

Restoring respect also involves having compassion to see other people as unique individuals created in the image of God, instead of just putting them in a box and labeling them with the flavors of the day.

In the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s words, we need to see people as “Thous” instead of as “Its”.

And maybe in our journey toward restoring respect it might help to pray the Serenity Prayer more often.  In fact, I want to close with that prayer, and will pause after each phrase so we can reflect on it a bit.

God grant us the Serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
the courage to change the things we can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.  AMEN.