The Jerusalem Council
15 Some people came down from Judea teaching the family of believers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom we’ve received from Moses, you can’t be saved.” 2 Paul and Barnabas took sides against these Judeans and argued strongly against their position.
The church at Antioch appointed Paul, Barnabas, and several others from Antioch to go up to Jerusalem to set this question before the apostles and the elders. 3 The church sent this delegation on their way. They traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, telling stories about the conversion of the Gentiles to everyone. Their reports thrilled the brothers and sisters. 4 When they arrived in Jerusalem, the church, the apostles, and the elders all welcomed them. They gave a full report of what God had accomplished through their activity. 5 Some believers from among the Pharisees stood up and claimed, “The Gentiles must be circumcised. They must be required to keep the Law from Moses.”
6 The apostles and the elders gathered to consider this matter. 7 After much debate, Peter stood and addressed them, “Fellow believers, you know that, early on, God chose me from among you as the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and come to believe. 8 God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. 10 Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.”
12 The entire assembly fell quiet as they listened to Barnabas and Paul describe all the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through their activity. 13 When Barnabas and Paul also fell silent, James responded, “Fellow believers, listen to me. 14 Simon reported how, in his kindness, God came to the Gentiles in the first place, to raise up from them a people of God. 15 The prophets’ words agree with this; as it is written,
16 After this I will return,
and I will rebuild David’s fallen tent;
I will rebuild what has been torn down.
I will restore it
17 so that the rest of humanity will seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who belong to me.
The Lord says this, the one who does these things
18 known from earliest times.
19 “Therefore, I conclude that we shouldn’t create problems for Gentiles who turn to God. 20 Instead, we should write a letter, telling them to avoid the pollution associated with idols, sexual immorality, eating meat from strangled animals, and consuming blood. 21 After all, Moses has been proclaimed in every city for a long time, and is read aloud every Sabbath in every synagogue.”
Thoughts on the passage:
"What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself" – Blaise Pascal from “Pensees”
Essentially, what Pascal is saying in this passage is that there is a God-shaped hole in each of our hearts that only God can fill. We might try to fill this hole with other things, but nothing is going to fill it properly except God.
I heard this quote this week and almost immediately it resonated with me. As I think about my own life and the lives of others, what I see over and over again is a struggle to fill this hole we all have inside ourselves. Often, we do it with things that are not God and when we do, we struggle. At the same time, when we let God into our hearts, we find a sense of abiding peace and comfort we know at no other time.
We know what happens when people try to fill this hole with something else. In our need, we turn to so many things besides God. We turn to drugs or alcohol to fill the hole. We turn to work. We turn to wealth and try and buy that happiness. We turn to ourselves, trusting in our knowledge, our own strength, our own abilities to fill that hole. None of that works. It might help for a while, but it is like trying to dig in wet sand, the impact we make does not last.
Maybe you would not have used these exact words, but I suspect that all of us at one point or another have felt that hole in ourselves and we have filled it at times with God and at times with something else. Think about what happened when you used something other than God to fill it. Remember the disappointment and longing you felt when whatever you did was not enough. Now, think about those times where you have felt God come and fill your heart. Think about the moments in your life when you have felt the overwhelming presence of God’s love and grace. Suddenly, that pain and longing goes away. You knew a peace that surpasses understanding, a blessed assurance, an amazing grace!
Now, if we have all felt this and we all know this to be true for ourselves, one of two things is true. Either we are the exceptional people who are so broken that we need God and nothing else will suffice or everyone is broken like us and everyone has this same God-shaped hole in them that needs to be filled. I don’t think I am that special and I don’t think I am that broken that I alone am in need of God. In fact, I am almost sure that others in the world have this same God-shaped hole in this same longing and need to have that hole filled. If that is the case then I need to be doing what I can to help them fill that hole.
The final lesson in Vacation Bible School this week was “God sends me” which focused on the story of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles. Paul had a God-shaped hole in his heart. He had tried to fill it with the Law and the teachings of God, but had not actually filled it with the whole being of God. His attempts to fill that hole with the law were destructive, not just to himself, but to the early Christians he was persecuting. Then he encountered Jesus and suddenly that hole inside him was filled in a new and unique way and he was transformed. From that moment on he made it his mission to help others fill that same hole inside of themselves.
Our story from Acts 15 is about that the Council of Jerusalem. This is a gathering of early Christians who are debating about what is going to be done about Paul. Many of the early Christians in this group were Jews who had heard about Christ’s teachings and been baptized. For them, the way to fill that God-shaped hole was through obedience to the laws (particular the laws around purity and circumcision) and through a faith in Christ. Paul however was reaching out to Gentiles, those who were not circumcised and did not follow the purity laws and simply offering them Christ. Paul defended what he was doing by talking about the transformation that was occurring. In the end, he was able to persuade the Council to allow him to continue to minister to the Gentiles and to not require them to first become Jews before they became Christians.
This is a pivotal moment in the history of the church. By unleashing Paul as a missionary to the Gentiles, the nature of the church was radically changed both in its practices but also its growth as Paul went forth and began preaching and establishing Christian communities around the Mediterranean. I want to underscore this because this is not what my sermon is about but it is important to remember.
My point in looking at this passage is to hear in Paul’s words the reminder about that God-shaped hole. Paul went out to people who were hurting and needed to hear the Gospel and he helped fill that hole in them with Christ’s love and grace. He took seriously the idea that as disciples of Christ we are supposed to go and make more disciples, not because we need to fill our pews, not because we need to fill our offering plates, but because there are people out there who are hurting, with God-shaped holes in their hearts and they need those holes filled and we need to do it. God is sending us!
Questions to Ponder:
When is a time you have felt that God-shaped hole in your heart?
What did it feel like when you filled it with something else? What did it feel like when you filled it with God?
Who is someone you know who is hurting because of that hole in them?
God, we are all broken and we are all hurting. We all have this deep longing in our beings for a relationship with you. Fill that hole in our hearts with your love and grace. Pour your spirit into each one of us that we might be full. May your love and grace overflow from us that we might help to fill others with your grace and love as well. Help us to reach out to others who are hurting so that they too might be filled. Amen