The following sermon was preached by Dr Thomas Winger in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service on the occasion of the Festival of St James of Jerusalem, Brother of Jesus and Martyr, 23 October 2019. The text is Acts 15:1-22a.
Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ: A search of my sermon files reminded me that two years ago I preached on Acts 15 in the wake of LCC’s restructuring convention. It gave me some ammunition to complain about the way we run our church. Don’t do it that way; do it this way. This account of the Church’s first council has been mined for all sorts of polemical nuggets. Lutherans often observe, contrary to papal claims, that James, not Peter, was the Church’s first primate. I myself have written that the text gives no support whatsoever for Missourian ideas of church governance, as all the decisions are made by the clergy without a lay vote in sight. At the same time, the only figure in the story to whom the term “bishop” is applied is God, who “visited” (ἐπεσκέψατο) the Gentiles to make of them a people for His name (Acts 15:14). But as much as I think questions of church order should be answered from Scripture, these issues are a distraction from the real point of the story. To read it this way is to fall headlong into the trap already tripped by the Judaisers.
These men from Judea had come down to Antioch, the mainly Gentile city where believers were first called “Christians”, carrying a message they pretended came from the apostles: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1). In other words: it’s not enough for the Gentiles to put their faith in Jesus, but they needed to enter the kingdom through Moses, like any Jew. Now, it turned out they had no support at all from the apostles. In his subsequent episcopal letter James, with diplomatic reserve, distanced himself and the apostles from these men and their unsettling message. I wonder about their motivation for imposing the Law on the Gentiles. Was it the jealousy of an older brother who thinks the younger one has life too easy? Was it an attempt to wield power and gain influence over the junior elements of the church? Or was it genuine spiritual concern that the Gentiles should do all they thought God required of them? I have my suspicions. Paul and Barnabas weren’t impressed with their demands, either. But their evidence of Gentile conversions failed to persuade the Pharisees who spoke up in favour of this “Jesus Plus” religion. The debate was only silenced when Peter served up a rather stunning volley. In effect, he turned the Judaisers’ argument of superiority on its head. From his own experience with Cornelius, Peter knew that God had blessed the Gentiles with the Holy Spirit who, through Baptism, cleansed their hearts by faith. If God had made them His own apart from the Law, who were they to impose it? And then from his own experience he also confessed Israel’s failure to keep the Law. In other words, if God’s chosen people found it an intolerable burden despite His presence among them through the Temple and the covenant and His redeeming acts, how could they press that yoke down upon the Gentiles’ even weaker necks? And so while admitting his own people’s failure, Peter comes very close to expressing the Pauline principle that God gave the Law not to save us but to bring “knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20).
We call the idea that obeying the Law can save you “legalism”. It’s legalism to burden consciences with “Jesus Plus” notions like Sabbath observance and a requirement to tithe. It’s legalism to suggest that you suffer because God is punishing you for disobedience of His “rules”. It’s legalism when pastors guilt their people into taking on tasks by suggesting church work is more pleasing to God than caring for their families, … and it’s legalism when congregations do the same to their pastors. As Peter put it, don’t let yourselves be burdened with a burden that even our fathers were unable to bear! But there’s also much mischief in the use of the term “legalism” today. It’s not legalistic to call you to faithful attendance at God’s services, to draw you away from the distractions that you think are more important—whether it be work, study, rest, or play. Condemning these selfish pursuits is the right use of the good Law, as Paul put it to Timothy (1 Tim. 1:8). And calling you to be present where God is giving His gifts and to rejoice to receive them isn’t legalism but the Gospel call itself. So also to cling firmly to the liturgy and hymns of the historic Christian Church, to call for regular reception of the Lord’s Supper as Christ wills it, to reject distortions of the Sacrament like the use of grape juice or individual cups isn’t legalism but faithfulness to the Gospel—for the Lord’s Supper is the Gospel, as Luther said it. To cling to God’s gifts without letting go is the very opposite of legalism; we must defy the demands of those who would rob us of the Gospel through mistaken notions of freedom. For freedom from the Gospel is simply a paraphrase of the Law.
God offers us true freedom. God unburdens us. It’s truly remarkable at that first council of the apostolic church that Peter, Paul, and James speak with absolute unanimity against the Judaisers. But there’s a reason they can do so. Each in succession appeals not to the words of men or their own ideas, but rather to the work of God. Peter recalls how God called the Gentile Cornelius and his household to faith in Christ. God cleansed their hearts and gave them the Holy Spirit. He’s so impressed by the power of the Gospel that he effectively turns the Judaisers’ argument on its head: far from the Jews being superior to the Gentiles, he can only but hope that his kinsmen, who so tragically failed to bear the burden of the Law, might be saved like Gentiles—“through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (15:11). And then it’s Paul’s turn to show the work of God, who did signs and wonders among the Gentiles to express His great joy at their Law-free entrance into the kingdom. And finally James speaks. Rather than pronouncing a personal judgement, he simply proclaims God’s Word. Through the prophets God had announced that He would restore the house of David and call the Gentiles into it. On them, too, God would place His name, as He did with the water of Baptism. If then God Himself unburdened them through this washing and laid on them merely the weightless yoke of His name, how can we trouble them more (15:19)?
I wonder whether Peter and James had in the back of their minds the remarkable call of Jesus:
28 Come to Me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light. (Mt. 11:28-30)
That’s His call to you today, a call to unburden yourselves at His altar, to place your heaviness of heart upon His shoulders, to lay your guilt and sin on His back, and to take up in exchange the weightless burden of His Body and Blood, His righteousness, His life. Stagger to Him in your exhaustion, rest in His arms, and let Him carry you on the long journey home to your Father.