Putting God to the Test

Acts 15:1-11
David A. Davis
November 13, 2022
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When I was an undergraduate, all final exams were given in a huge hall with long tables that stretched the width of the room lined up in row after row the entire length of the room. Chairs were spaced out at the tables not for health and safety but to discourage wandering eyes. An exam for one class was given on one side of the table and on the other side someone was taking an exam for another class. There must have been  half dozen or more classes taking exams at the same time. All the students taking exams were writing answers in the notorious “blue books” and writing in long hand. Proctors roaming the room were graduate students. There was one person semester after semester, year after year, at a table in the middle along the side with a microphone. He was in charge of pretty much everything including the clock. He was affectionately known by all students as Mr. Test.

There was an apocryphal story that hung aground for years of an encounter between Mr. Test and student. Mr. Test had called time, exam over, pencils down. Most students had long since left the room when a student appeared before Mr. Test and asked which pike of blue books was for his class. Mr. Test pointed to a large stack in front of him but said “I can’t accept your exam. It is now too late.” The student, with all the attitude one can imagine, blurted out to Mr. Test, “Don’t you know who I am?” Mr. Test, with an equal among of attitude quickly responded to the student, “I have no idea who you are but I can assure you if I did, it would not make a difference.” The student smiled, said “Okay then” and quickly shoved is blue book into the middle of the pile and ran away.

The only reason that story probably still lingers, the only reason that story is funny at all, is that it hits kind of close to home. How power and privilege and access so often plays out in the world, in our lives, and even when it comes to living out faith. In the biblical text offered for your hearing this morning, Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and later James are engaged in an argument for what is, what became, what remains at the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ; salvation by grace. The reading from last week that told of Paul and Barnabas “shaking dust” and setting out to bring the gospel to the Gentiles establishes the context for this scene we read this morning of the profound theological discernment in the earliest days of the church. Despite ongoing persecution and imprisonment, Paul and Barnabas traveled the region making many disciples. Just at the end of chapter 14. Luke reports that Barnabas and Paul returned to Antioch and told the church “all that God had done with them, and he God had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles.” (14:27). Shortly thereafter, a group of Jewish preachers and teachers came down from Judea and proclaimed to anyone who would listen, “Hey, don’t you know who we are?”

The “no small dissension and debate” between Paul and Barnabas and the other itinerant teachers about circumcision was an argument about whether one had to become Jewish in order to become Christian. As a professor of mine said a long time ago in reference to “opened door of faith for the Gentiles” that it was a matter of whether one had to go through the door of the synagogue to get to the door of the church. The sign of circumcision, the custom of Moses, the law of Moses, it sat at the very core of one’s faith, one’s identity as a child of God for the people of Israel. So, yes, the travelers from Judea were arguing with Paul and Barnabas. “Don’t you remember who we are?”

Notice that Barnabas and Paul were “sent on their way by the church” to go back up to Jerusalem to continue the debate. The elders and apostles of the Jerusalem church welcomed them and were filled with joy as the report of the conversion of the Gentiles was received. The requirement to keep the law was brought up again. After much debate, Peter, the Rock upon which Christ would build his church, stood up to speak. He reminded them God had chosen him from among them to spread the message of the good news to the Gentiles. “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us”, Peter proclaimed. “In cleansing their hearts by faith God has made no distinction between them and us.”  Why put God to the test by imposing law after law that hangs like a yoke around the neck when our ancestors were never able to pull it off. It’s too much, too difficult to bear. “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of Lord Jesus, just as they will.” We will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. Saved through grace. And “the whole assembly kept silent”.

It wasn’t the kind of silence in Luke that the disciples demanded from the blind man by the side of the road who kept shouting “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.: It wasn’t the kind of silence in Luke kept by Peter, James and John after coming down from the Mt. of Transfiguration when they held their tongue and didn’t tell what had happened. This was more like the silence Luke describes after the scribes and chief priests sent spies to try to entrap Jesus with questions. Jesus answer left them amazed yet silent most likely because they didn’t like his answer and they knew they were not going to be able to trap him.

“We believe that we will be saved through the grace of Lord Jesus, just as they will. The whole assembly kept silence.” One has to wonder what was the greater cause of the silence of the assembly when it came to that last sentence, that exclamation point, that fine point at the heart of the gospel of Jesus etched on the sacred page proclaiming salvation by grace. “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of Lord Jesus, just as they will.” What was more disconcerting to the crowd; the first part or the last part. What was more upsetting, that the Gentiles would be included in salvation or the testimony that even those in the crowd will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus. The easier choice is to assume that the listeners were upset about the inclusion of the Gentiles. But you can’t have the latter without the former. The door of faith can’t be opened to the Gentiles unless, at the end of the day, salvation for everyone is only by grace.

The biggest threat to the sign of circumcision, the custom of Moses, and the keeping of the law of Moses had to have been salvation by grace alone “We believe we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.”  It was the biggest hurdle then and it is the biggest hurdle now in the life of faith. Because it is completely contrary to pretty much everything thing else in the world, contrary to pretty much everything else related to religion and faith, contrary to pretty much everything it means to be human, contrary pretty much to everything you and I have ever been taught anywhere and anytime, and contrary to pretty much everything that bombards us all the time. Salvation by grace. Biggest hurdle then, biggest hurdle now. Unfortunately, it is pretty much contrary to so much of the church’s history, the church’s behavior, the church’s actions from then until now.

I was listening to a blog on a morning walk this week that included audio from the oral arguments before the Supreme Court recently on two affirmative action cases that are before the court. As a kid from a public school in a suburb outside of Pittsburgh who got into Harvard in 1980 because some football coach put a check by my name, I am a product of admissions preference. On the surface, the goal of the lawsuit is to establish college admission as a fully merit based process. I learned in listening to the journalist being interviewed that 25 years ago the court, in an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, believed that the need for consideration of race and ethnicity in college admission would eventually fade as the society became more and more equal and just. That if the process was working, it would put itself out of business and admissions could return to being solely merit based (which of course, it never was).

Perhaps it need not be said, but with or without affirmative action, the college admissions process could not be further from Paul and Barnabas’ teaching on salvation by grace. Yes, I know college admission and the life of faith are not the same. But the threat of a merit-based theology that embraces an individualism, a pull yourself up by your bootstraps, a good old protestant work ethic when it comes to God, salvation, the life of faith, the merit-based theology and spirituality and piety in the life of the church never goes away. It’s not that every now and then in history the church’s begins to lean back toward salvation earned/salvation deserved because the church was so good at grace and the spread of the boundary-less gospel both in word and deed. That the church did so well within and without that equality and justice thrived for a season. No, not 25 years. Not for 25 days. Not for 2000 years. It is more like the church and those in it, have this innate yearning to horde God’s grace and shout “what’s in it for me”.  Hording God’s grace rather than sharing it and all the while living like others who are labeled as different or other or worse don’t deserve it and have to earn it. “Don’t you know who we are?”

“We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”  You can’t have the latter without the former. Any celebration and joy found in the boundless reach of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his grace has to include the knowledge and pretty much the daily discovery that you have been saved by grace alone. You weren’t born into it. You didn’t earn it. You don’t deserve it There’s nothing you can do because it is a gift of God through the faith of Jesus Christ. It’s not because you are religious enough. It’s not because you’re smart enough or humble enough. Not because you go to church. Not because you thank God that you are not like a Pharisee. Not because your grandmother raised you right. Salvation is by grace and yes, God’s love is that great.

The church of Jesus Christ and those in it will never fully embrace, welcome, celebrate “the other”, will never loosen the death grip on God’s grace, will never stop putting God to the test without the fullest, life changing, transforming acceptant of salvation by grace alone; heart by heart. Because you can’t have the latter without the former.