Thou Shalt (Or Not)…
(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Acts 15:22-35
Many years ago, back when I was a fresh-faced teen revelling in the post-A-level freedom of failing to get the grades required to study in the hallowed halls of Crewe and Alsager College of Higher Education, I fell in with a crowd of youth workers who ran a weekly worship event in Swindon called “The Gap”. Launched in response to Billy Graham’s UK mission of 1990, “The Gap” sought to bridge, well, the gap between young people and the established fusty churches, the like of which I had spent many happy hours growing up in.
Part of the programme of activities for us fine young things (between weekly commitments to lugging around stage lighting, PA kit and musical instruments) was to spend time learning some basic theology.
Apart from the many bizarre and joyous moments that I carry with me from that time (and this is not the time to go into those details), one enduring image has also ingrained itself into my memory. In the room where we learned the basics of Christian life, faith and action was a poster with the slogan “What can I get away with and still go to heaven?”
A good question, if treated not just wryly but also taken seriously.
For a teenager brought up in church but alongside those who said that the church is all about “do nots” and “thou shalt nots”, it was refreshing to know that there were limits to the prohibitions. Now, I’m not suggesting that we all rushed out coveting our neighbour’s ox, or built graven images in our spare time, but it was a reminder to us that we can get rather too bogged down in what we perceive God not allowing.
Take our reading, for example.
It comes hot on the heels of last week’s reading, where we had the background to the conflict that is hotting up within the church. Paul and Barnabas have returned to Jerusalem, full of stories of dissention in the ranks and dodgy theology being espoused by the Jewish contingent, only to find that they’ve been beaten to it. The same dodgy theology is being espoused within the inner circle of believers, much to Paul and Barnabas’ chagrin.
Fortunately, or rather, sensibly, the response is unequivocal in its rejection, and a letter is drawn up. Two others from the Jerusalem church community, equally as trustworthy as Paul and Barnabas but as yet unknown to the believers at Antioch, are sent to be first century Postman Pat (and Jess the cat) and deliver this missive of direction to the Gentile believers.
The letter is duly read out and great rejoicing follows as it proscribes no delicate surgery, but some rather sensible food guidance and sexual health recommendations. Nipping, as it were, in the bud the requirement to follow the full catalogue of Levitical laws, the Gentile Christians could live within a set of boundaries that were for the flourishing of the church.
The specific prohibitions around food and sex were counter-cultural enough for the time, a challenge to both the Christian community that didn’t need to, nor want to, conform to the flexible attitudes of the prevailing culture beyond its walls. But they didn’t bring in rules that were alien to the life of the church, nor would bind them up in a guilt-laden life of failure and obedience.
There is also grace that flows through the letter. The rules, albeit far more simplistic even than the 10 Commandments, stem from the Jewish tradition and law. Though the food laws in Leviticus stretch on for many chapters, and sexual ethics and practice are dealt with in much greater detail, the Gentile church are left fully knowing where their roots lie.
And then there is a simple beauty in the closing of the letter: “You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.”
In the first sentence there is no condemnation or judgement, just encouragement, which will probably have been more effective than a categorical “Thou shalt not”. That’s not to say that it is in any way wishy-washy or half-baked; rather, there is a clear sense that these guidelines are for the benefit of the church members, rather than to appease a judgemental and vengeful God who arbitrarily casts commands around like seeds from a sower’s basket.
We use the word “Farewell” as a synonym of “goodbye”, a term of departure, but there is more to it here than that. To say to someone that you mean them to fare well means that you want them to face the world in good heart and with good outcomes. In the context of the instructions contained in the letter, there is an encouragement that following the Christian way is a challenge that is to be a positive one. You would hardly wish someone well if the hoops they had to jump through were too difficult or onerous, or downright impossible.
The family Graham are keen listeners to the BBC’s loosely cricketing-based podcast “Tailenders”. Hosted by (at the time of writing) the Radio 1 Breakfast Show DJ Greg James, guitarist from the defunct band The Maccabees Felix White and the world record wicket-taking fast bowler James Anderson, the show has a dedicated following of cricket-lovers and people who just like to feel they are being allowed to eavesdrop on 3 mates having a chat in a pub. They have a catchphrase that they use: every time you hear the phrase “Go well”, there is the response “Cheers”. The origins of this are to do with interviews seeming to finish in a similar vein and it has become a family favourite within the household. You might even notice that it cropped up occasionally in church on a Sunday morning (it makes a change from “Peace be with you”).
The reason that I bring this up is that the closing of the letter could be summarised using this same simple form: “Go well.” Whether the church responded with “Cheers” is undocumented, but the sentiment remains the same. The church community in Jerusalem wanted to build up their brothers and sisters in Antioch, to inspire and to bring life-affirming encouragement rather than life-limiting rules and restrictions.
So, that’s what we can distil from this today; an encouragement to be who God wants us to be, to act in the way God wants us to act and to do what God wants us to do, in the freedom of the Good News, within the limits of God’s love and grace. Not a case of “What can we get away with and still go to heaven” where anything goes as long as we hope that God doesn’t notice (he will), but rather let’s be realistic about who we are and what we’re capable of – the burden that God gives is promised to be light (c.f. Matthew 11:28-30), even if the life we live is hard. And, at this time when rules are less than clear, and certainly restrict the way we would want to live, that’s the best news we can hear.