Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, with the following letter: ‘The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled* and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.’
So they were sent off and went down to Antioch. When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation. Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. After they had been there for some time, they were sent off in peace by the believers to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, and there, with many others, they taught and proclaimed the word of the Lord. — Acts 15:22-35
There are times I think that the church runs on meetings. Councils, conferences, synods, you name it, there’s usually some sort of church meeting going on somewhere around the globe at almost any given moment. Some of them are little better known than others, like the Council at Nicaea or Vatican II where momentous decisions are made that affect the trajectory of the church in major ways. The book of Acts recounts several meetings featuring Peter, Paul and James and a cast of unnamed dozens if not thousands. Like a number of our churches, some of their meetings seem to revolve around one specific issue (does this sound familiar?) and is the source of some contention, either mild or heated, at various times among the various players (again, sound familiar?).
This one in Jerusalem was another in a series of church meetings that centered around the mission to the Gentiles and, as one of the major issues, whether or not they were required to undergo a certain bit of body modification in order to be considered Christians. Just what did it take to be a Christian? Some members of the Jerusalem group had gone out unsanctioned and were teaching that, yes, that modification had to take place. Paul and the Jerusalem faction needed to get together to discuss the matter and come to a decision. It would have been interesting to be a little fly on the wall when this took place and to hear who said what about whom and why. At any rate, at least this one concluded with some progress, namely continued support for Paul and Barnabas in their mission to the Gentiles, appointment of two members of the council to return with them, and a letter outlining the basic rules, over and above faith and baptism, that were required of Gentile Christians. The rules were basically four simple ones: no meat previously offered to idols, no contact with blood (rare roast beef and steaks were out), no meat that had been strangled (blood would still be present, therefore making the meat unclean) and no fornication. It was certainly a lot simpler than the very detailed list of Jewish purity laws that touched nearly every facet of life.
Sometimes it feels like we have meetings just to have meetings. There are many times when a meeting is called to consider various courses of action only to have them tabled for more study, a process that can go on for months, years, even centuries. For the Episcopal Church, issues as important and divisive as slavery, ordination of women and GLBTs, even marriage and divorce took and still take a lot of studies and a lot of meetings on a number of levels before the church as a whole acts or acted on them. Some of those issues are still being shifted around from committee to committee, meeting to meeting as they have been for decades. It took us a lot longer to deal with, for instance, slavery and the Church’s position on it than it took for the church at Jerusalem to decide on circumcision and acceptance of the missions to the Gentiles. They moved with what I would guess was all deliberate haste because the issue was pressing. Sometimes I wish the church today had such a feeling of urgency about things that need fixing, and that doesn’t mean just where to move offices or shift personnel.
One of the bright spots of the Jerusalem conference was that it did positive things and in a positive manner. The four “rules” it established for Gentiles were simple, easy to understand and, hopefully, as easily to obey. No “Whereas,” “Therefore be it resolved that” or any other legal jargon, just simple, basic rules. Some of our pronouncements should be as clear and as simple. It was certainly a lot simpler than the very detailed list of Jewish purity laws that touched nearly every facet of life.
Most church meetings invite God to be present but do we always listen to what God has to say about whatever it is we are trying to decide? Some will say yes, others no. Again, like most meetings, we call for more study, more debate, more input from others before we inch toward a decision, almost reluctant sometimes simply because we realize that some will be alienated by our decisions just as some will be welcomed in because of them. Jesus had between one and three years to accomplish his mission on earth; we have had, so far, two millennia to try to implement his teachings and goals and we haven’t gotten it down pat yet. Maybe we need a few more meetings that work with the deliberate haste of the Jerusalem conference followed by some simple, clear rules that people can understand and obey without a lot of angst.
Often at the a meeting’s end, people are sent out with a charge to think, discuss, study and act, whether any firm decision on a plan of action or direction has resulted. Paul and Barnabas, accompanied by Judas and Silas, went back to work out in the Gentile world, doing their best to bring the message and mission of Jesus. There are times to meet and then there are times to get out and do. Maybe it’s time for us to stop meeting and start working. We have the tools, we have the example, and we have the encouragement. Now all we need is the will.
It doesn’t take a lot of people to have a meeting. Some of the most productive ones are meetings of two people, often between just God and self. Those are very cost-efficient, no board room needed, no agenda, and, quite often, not a lot of time. If someone schedules a meeting at work or at church that I am supposed to attend, I usually am prompt in being there. I think I need to learn to do the same with God. Set a schedule for a meeting and show up on time. God can take care of the rest.