Hard Words

By Elizabeth Baumann

Reading from Acts, 15:1-11

1 Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. 3So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”

6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”


Up until today we’ve seen Paul and Barnabas besieged by opposition from outside the Church. With today’s lesson the focus changes to the internal debate about whether Gentile converts need to become Jewish. Paul, who has been joyful in persecution, shifts to playing rhetorical hardball within the Church’s walls. We can easily imagine his arguments from his letter to Galatians on the subject, where he famously — or infamously — hopes those who insist on being circumcised will go ahead and just castrate themselves while they’re at it.

Is this a Church we can recognize? One we can even imagine, in which a debate openly rages?  You don’t have to hang around a church — or any group of people — long before a conflict arises. It’s harder, I think, to imagine a church where rhetorical swords are drawn and verbal bullets fired in theological battle. We live in an age of “agreeing to disagree”: avoiding controversial topics, being considered offensive and divisive if we don’t, and failing to see how theology makes any difference. We tacitly assume that church is a place where we should feel encouraged, comforted, and fed, rather than unsettled or challenged.

If Paul lived today, I have no doubt he would be notorious. Almost no one would want such a divisive trouble-maker in their church. He’d have his “cult-following,” and many others would make fun of him. It was probably a lot more like that in Paul’s lifetime than we often think. But what was the fruit of the division he fostered by debate, the trouble he caused? It preserved for us the concept of the fullness of grace and freedom. Maybe we should be a bit more grateful for occasional hard words, for a little bit of trouble.

Elizabeth Baumann is a seminary graduate, a priest’s wife, and the mother of two small daughters. A transplant from the West Coast, she now lives in “the middle of nowhere” in the Midwest with too many cats.

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