15 Some people came from Judea and started teaching the Lord’s followers that they could not be saved, unless they were circumcised as Moses had taught. 2 This caused trouble, and Paul and Barnabas argued with them about this teaching. So it was decided to send Paul and Barnabas and a few others to Jerusalem to discuss this problem with the apostles and the church leaders.
3 The men who were sent by the church went through Phoenicia and Samaria, telling how the Gentiles had turned to God. This news made the Lord’s followers very happy. 4 When the men arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, including the apostles and the leaders. They told them everything God had helped them do. 5 But some Pharisees had become followers of the Lord. They stood up and said, “Gentiles who have faith in the Lord must be circumcised and told to obey the Law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and church leaders met to discuss this problem about Gentiles. 7 They had talked it over for a long time, when Peter got up and said:
My friends, you know that God decided long ago to let me be the one from your group to preach the good news to the Gentiles. God did this so that they would hear and obey him. 8 He knows what is in everyone’s heart. And he showed that he had chosen the Gentiles, when he gave them the Holy Spirit, just as he had given his Spirit to us. 9 God treated them in the same way that he treated us. They put their faith in him, and he made their hearts pure.
10 Now why are you trying to make God angry by placing a heavy burden on these followers? This burden was too heavy for us or our ancestors. 11 But our Lord Jesus was kind to us, and we are saved by faith in him, just as the Gentiles are.
12 Everyone kept quiet and listened as Barnabas and Paul told how God had given them the power to work a lot of miracles and wonders for the Gentiles.
13 After they had finished speaking, James said:
My friends, listen to me! 14 Simon Peter has told how God first came to the Gentiles and made some of them his own people. 15 This agrees with what the prophets wrote,
16 “I, the Lord, will return and rebuild David’s fallen house.
I will build it from its ruins and set it up again.
17 Then other nations will turn to me and be my chosen ones.
I, the Lord, say this. 18 I promised it long ago.”
I learned a new word in seminary: adiaphora. Adiaphora means simply those things which are neither commanded by Scripture nor forbidden by Scripture.
What things are commanded by Scripture? Love God. Love your neighbor.
But church as we know it is a lot more than commandments.
What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word “church?”
A building with a steeple? Sunday morning worship? A congregation?
Stained glass windows? Organ music?
The first churches met in homes. No steeples, no stained glass windows, no organs. Worship was on Sunday morning because that was the day Jesus rose from the dead. That practice has remained with us. Many of us believe we can’t start a new week without worship.
What it means to be church, to do church has changed over the centuries. For those of us who were born into the church, the practices and traditions seem necessary. For those who came to church for the first time as adults, the practices may seem strange and superfluous. For those who worshipped for the first time as children, worship can seem boring.
Let’s look at some of our practices.
Let’s look first at our building. What makes this building different from other buildings in town?
The stained glass windows. The altar. The table. The pulpit. The organ. The balcony. Do you know of many buildings with an inside balcony? How about the pews? Where else would pews be considered proper seating? Imagine a movie theater with pews instead of cushioned seats. Why did our ancestors in the faith put out the big bucks for stained glass windows and pews and an organ?
And what about worship? Why do we sing? Why do we always have an invocation, a confession and absolution? Why do we always not only collect money, but dedicate it? We read scripture—that makes sense—but why do we need a sermon? Why do we say the same prayer every Sunday?
And what about holidays? Why do we have a Christmas Eve service and not a Pentecost Eve service? Why do we have Lenten services?
What about committees and councils? What about Sunday School? What about funerals and weddings?
What are we talking about here? Let’s call all these practices traditions.
Why do we cling to traditions? Because we know them. They are familiar, comforting—stress-free, really. No surprises. No having to learn something new. No upsetting routines.
So, this idea of adiaphora—-can we sort out what is commended and what is not commended? Our guidebook is Scripture, of course. Where in the Bible does it say that our churches must have stained glass windows? Nowhere, of course. So why do we need stained glass windows? Short answer: we don’t. Long answer: they serve a purpose.
Starting in the 11th century stained glass windows became a part of church architecture. The first church to have such windows was the cathedral in Augsburg, Germany. Windows could be made larger because of the gothic architecture; the light they let in was considered to be the manifestation of God. The subject matter of the windows was Bible stories, which served as Scripture for the people who could not read and who did not have access to printed Scripture. Most church windows still tell stories, still teach us lessons, still remind of us of who and Whose we are.
What about the pews? Up through the 13th Century, churches were SRO—standing room only—-nowhere and no way to sit. However, after the Reformation, the sermon became the most prominent feature of the worship service and pews were added so that people could sit during that long feature. Can you imagine having to stand during the sermon? or during the entire service?
In our Scripture today, the leaders of the church had to make a decision that was much more controversial than what kind of seating to provide.
God had instructed Abraham centuries before that, as a sign of belonging to God’s people, all males should be circumcised. This became a physical mark of Jewishness and still is. In the days of Peter and Paul, Gentiles—non-Jewish persons—were not circumcised. Because Christianity was the manifestation of Jewish prophecy, because Jesus and his followers were Jewish, and because Gentile Christians followed the Ten Commandments and read Jewish Scripture, maybe they should also have to follow other Jewish rules, like not eating pork or shrimp, and, of course, circumcision. Underlying this concern was how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians could interact with each other. What if someone brought pork chops to the potluck? Would that be disgusting to any Jewish Christians? Do you have a food you don’t like that makes you lose your appetite? For some of us, the smell of liver and onions can make us ill. It’s not a matter of nutrition; it’s a matter of courtesy. To serve something that is knowingly distasteful to someone else is rude.
That was the task set before the Jerusalem council. What is necessary and what is not necessary? By the way, this meeting is the perfect example of how to conduct any church meetings when there is controversy. We’ll save that for another sermon. How many church meetings should have used Acts 15 alongside Roberts Rules of Order!
Adiaphora—that which doesn’t make any difference—-theologically. But in practice, some adiaphora—some of our traditions—must be kept.
I had an hour-long interview with some very knowledgeable church people last Wednesday. One of the things we discussed was that I don’t use the liturgy in our hymnal. In our Lutheran tradition, liturgy is a very important part of worship. Every song, every sung and spoken phrase is lifted straight from Scripture. They are not the words of a poet of the most recent century; they are Bible verses. In most Lutheran churches, the same liturgy is sung every Sunday. In our congregation, I have made a different choice. I build a different liturgy every Sunday. We seldom have two worship services exactly alike. I do that for two reasons: first, the liturgy is challenging to sing and, second, singing the same thing every Sunday can become rote, that is we lose the meaning and just sing out of habit. However, there is an advantage to those words becoming embedded in our brains: they are instantly accessible whenever we need the Word of God int times of trouble or joy.
When I was a child, we sang words from Psalm 51 every Sunday as the offering was carried to the altar: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right Spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence.” How often those words pop into my mind and I’m so thankful that I still know them. I wouldn’t know them if I had’t sung them fifty-two times a year for twenty years. So, perhaps I’m doing you a disservice by giving you prayers every week that are new to you. Why do I give you new prayers, new words? Because you have to really look at them to be able to say them, to be able to understand them.
Which brings up another topic: why do we need music? We don’t, but what it adds to our worship! And hymns! I truly think most Christians learn their theology not from Scripture and sermon, but from the hymns. Because of the way hymns are structured—with rhythm and rhyme, they do stick in our minds. And, more importantly, they are the word of God. Hymns reflect the Scripture. Not everybody knows this, but the pastor always chooses hymns to reflect, repeat and emphasize the Scripture for the day. Every hymn has as its basis words from Scripture. In some hymnals, the Scripture reference is listed next to the author and composer. It’s that important.
So, all these parts of our service—could we worship without stained glass windows? Yes.Could we worship without music? Could we worship by sitting in some other kind of seating? I have a friend whose church is a storefront and he has rocking chairs, folding chairs, upholstered chairs, recliners. How often I have wished we had recliners instead of pews for people whose backs hurt during the whole service.
What we have to remember is that though something may seem unnecessary, it is helpful: helpful for the instruction of scripture. Helpful in directing us to worship God. Helpful for us to center our minds away from the world, away from everyday life, and toward God. John Wesley had a good rule of thumb. He said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Granted, our fancy buildings have become a financial burden. But they help us to worship. One other thing that is absolutely necessary to Christianity is community. We cannot be Christians without being together. Even if we cannot be together in a building, we have learned to accept electronic community via applications like ZOOM.
We have learned that from the pandemic. In fact, the pandemic has helped us to sort out what is necessary and what is not necessary. We have learned that community is what we miss most when we are forced to remain apart. We have had access to Scripture and song and prayer. We have been able to love our neighbor through phone calls and donations to charities and rides to the doctor. But to worship in person, to be praying together, to someday return to singing together, to be able to hear the Word of God together—we have reached a new level of thankfulness.
Phyllis Tickle wrote a great book about the state of the church in the late 20th-early 21st Century. She titled it The Great Emergence. It’s not about cicadas emerging from their beds after seventeen years of sleep. It’s about the church emerging from 500 years of tradition. She says the church has a “rummage sale” every 500 years—sorting through what we are and have and do, discarding what is no longer purposeful and keeping only what enables us to faithfully be Christians.
What do we keep? The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. The forgiveness of sins. Life everlasting.
How do we keep our faith? Through the sharing of our faith in Community with Scripture and Worship and through the Sacraments.
Our traditions do not bring us salvation. Martin Luther gave us good reason to embrace our traditions: “We cheerfully maintain the old traditions made in the Church for the sake of usefulness and peace.” Our traditions give us structure and order and peace of mind so that distractions and obstacles are removed and we can worship as the whole People of God. Thanks be to God for what we have, adiaphora or not. Amen.