I’ve been thinking a lot about the very first churchwide assembly. It happened almost 2,000 years ago. I wonder, as those early Christians prepared for that meeting in Jerusalem, if they had any awareness of the significance of what they were about to do. Or were they so caught up in the moment that they couldn’t see how their decision would change the direction of history? Were they busy preparing their arguments and aligning their allies to do battle with the opposition? From what I’ve read, it’s hard for me to believe that they would have approached the issue that divided them with an openness to listen and be changed by the debate. They held their positions with too much passion for me to believe that. And yet, when they got together, something amazing happened.
The status quo was challenged. The Spirit moved. And they could see that God was doing a new thing in the Church. It was no small, incidental belief and practice that was changed, mind you. It was something big, a core understanding about their relationship with God that they had tightly held onto for thousands of years. No amount of talking could have convinced them to change their minds about something so huge. Only God could bring about a transformation like that.
But was it that simple? Is there more to the story than what we read about it in the book of Acts? Were there some who threatened to leave if Gentiles were accepted in the Church without first doing everything that the law had always demanded of God’s people? When things didn’t go their way, did some of them take their Torahs and go home?
That first Jerusalem Council seemed to set the stage for the unfolding drama of Church history. The Church has always been divided over something, and we’re always meeting to work out our differences. We try hard to rise above the pettiness of our arguments, but usually our passion gets the best of us, and we are overcome with a desire to have our own way. And yet, somehow in the midst of all the very human desires we bring to these assemblies, the Holy Spirit is at work, and eventually, God has it God’s way.
As I prepare to make the pilgrimage to Minneapolis for our ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly, I am hoping to keep the events of the week in perspective. This is not an isolated moment in history, unlike anything the world has ever seen. We are engaged in the latest opportunity for God’s people to gather together to consider an issue that deeply divides us. I am confident that somehow, if our closed minds can allow for the slightest opening, the Spirit will slip in.
Thinking about that first churchwide assembly in Jerusalem, something else has occurred to me. At that time, the Spirit pushed God’s people to change so that the Church could become more inclusive. And isn’t that the direction the Spirit always moves us? I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when God has ever led us to become more exclusive. I can’t imagine that would ever be the case. That’s not to say that every decision that has ever been made at an assembly of the Church is the right decision, one that is in accordance with God’s will. There certainly have been times in history when the Church has gotten it wrong. But history also reveals that eventually God has his way with us and we get it right. My prayer, as our ELCA meets together this week, is that this will be one of those times.