Can We Talk . . . and Listen? Click here for audio
Acts 2:1-4, Acts 15:6-21
Pastor Marty Raths
I had not thought about it in years, until this past week. As a part of her routine, the comedian Joan Rivers would frequently ask, “Can we talk?” And I thought about this as I was reflecting on the story of Pentecost. What struck me about the story was the realization that an important part of it has to do with communication. The experience of the Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to proclaim the good news in such a way that pilgrims from all over the world were able to understand it each in their own language.
And one of the insights that I took away from this is that the Holy Spirit is present wherever there is real communication between people. Wherever two or more are gathered, and there is communication, heart to heart, the Spirit is there. But sadly, such communication is hard to come by these days.
I mean there is lots of talking in our world. But that is not communication. Talking is one way conversation, a way for us to make our case in the hopes of persuading someone else to see things our way. But communication is two way, with both sides speaking and listening, with each side sharing from their perspective, while being open to the perspective of the other. Communication is not just asking, “Can we talk? It is also asking, “Can we listen too?”
But as I look at our world, there seems to be a lack of real communication. So I started looking at other stories in the Book of Acts, and I was struck by how many of them have to do with communication. In fact the Book of Acts is a sort of manual for communication, for how the Holy Spirit can help us to communicate in our personal relations, in our relations with one another within the community of faith, and in our relations with people in general. And one of these stories having to do with communication is the story of the Jerusalem Council.
Just a little background to this story. There was disagreement in the early church over the status of the Gentiles. Remember that all the first followers of Jesus were Jewish, but as the gospel spread, more and more Gentiles entered into the church. And there were some, chiefly James and some of the others in Jerusalem, who believed that the Gentiles needed to abide by the practice of circumcision and the dietary restrictions found in the OT. In other words they needed to become Jewish first before becoming Christian. But Paul and Barnabas disagreed, stressing that it was by grace alone that we are brought into a saving relationship with Christ.
That is the background. But what I want us to consider is the foreground, how the Holy Spirit led them to deal with this conflict. Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with Peter and James and the others. They chose to deal with it face to face, which means that they chose not to go the way of avoidance, which is the way we tend to go when there is conflict.
Paul and Barnabas chose not to rely upon second-hand information, upon what others might have been saying about the matter, and surely things were being said, human nature and the church being what they are in such situations. No, they were not going to come to any conclusions, or to make any decisions, based upon rumors, or assumptions, or conjectures about the other side. They were going to meet face to face, going straight to the source, to find out Peter’s thinking from Peter, and James’ from James.
They chose not to triangulate as well, dragging third parties into the middle of things, trying to get them to take their side in the matter. For Paul and Barnabas the matter was between them and some in the mother church in Jerusalem. Now they could have gone to another church to complain about the “we have never done it that way” group back in Jerusalem who were unwilling to change, unwilling to accept that it was a new day in the life of the church, that the Spirit was doing a new thing. But they chose not to do that. No, they were not going to involve others who were not a part of the conflict, and who were in no position to resolve the matter. They chose gospel over gossip.
But how often do we do the opposite of Paul and Barnabas, settling for second hand information, which is maybe half-truth at best, or complaining to someone over here about someone else over there?
But genuine communication happens face to face. That is when the Holy Spirit can do its work. It is no guarantee. Things can still not work out, even when we communicate face to face. There was that possibility even with the Jerusalem Council. But if Paul and Barnabas had chosen not to go to Jerusalem, choosing instead the way of avoidance, or of church gossip, then there was no way that they were going to be able to work things out.
And then at the council itself, they listened to each other. Luke makes a point of telling us that when someone spoke, the others were silent. They listened. Wow. Contrast that with the shouting matches that too often pass for communication in our day. This is a good reminder that in our communication with one another the loudest voice, or the most insistent one, or the most accusatory, is not necessarily the truest voice, or the most faithful one, or the most loving. And at the council there was none of that. Each one in turn spoke their mind, sharing the convictions of their heart, while the others listened.
Now in a way this is basic stuff, kindergarten kindness really. When someone is speaking, everyone else should be listening. But too often as adults we forget the lessons we learned, or should have learned, in kindergarten. We so want to make our point, so want to convince others, so want to insist that we are right, that we do not really listen to what someone else has to say, especially when they may have a point of view different from our own. And in the process our hearts do not deepen, they harden, which I believe accounts for a lot of the polarization and conflict that has become so much a part of our common life.
If we are honest with ourselves, then we need to acknowledge from our behavior that we think that what we have to say is more worthwhile than what others have to say. The operative principle is this: if everyone would just listen to me, see it my way, then things would be so much better at home, at work, in our country, throughout the world. So we very much need to practice the golden rule in our communication with one another. Do unto others – and that includes listening – as we would want them to do unto us. If we want to be heard by others, then we need to be willing to listen as well, in the belief that others too just might have something worthwhile to say. At the Jerusalem Council when someone spoke, the others listened.
Granted listening is risky. To really listen, to truly take to heart what someone else has to say, means opening ourselves up to the possibility that we may have to rethink things, may have to look at them anew, may have to consider another perspective. We may even have to have a change of heart. But of course we would rather not do that, and we very much resist doing that at times.
In the comic strip Peanuts Lucy is chasing Charlie Brown. “I’ll get you Charlie Brown! I’ll get you,” she yells. “I’ll knock your block off. I’ll . . . ”
Then all of a sudden Charlie Brown stops running, turns around, stands up to Lucy and says, “Wait a minute! Hold everything! We can’t carry on like this! We have no right to act this way . . . The world is filled with problems . . . People hurting other people . . . People not understanding other people . . . Now, if we, as children can’t solve what are relatively minor problems how can we ever expect to . . . “
And then, while Charlie Brown is in mid-sentence, Lucy winds up and hits him. And as she walks away she says to herself, “I had to hit him quick . . . He was beginning to make sense.”
We do that. Maybe not in quite the same way as Lucy. But there are times when we just cannot be bothered by the good sense of someone else. We just cross our arms and close our minds and hearts and refuse to budge, all but interrupting the communication in mid-sentence, insisting upon my way or no way.
Just imagine if that had happened at the Jerusalem Council, if the participants there had taken that approach. If, at the point when Paul and Barnabas, or Peter and James, began to make some sense, the other side refused to hear it, to consider it, to take it to mind and heart. If they just crossed their arms and said, “No way.” It could have undermined the early mission of the church. Truth be told, we might not be gathered here right now for worship if they had done that. If each side had insisted upon its own way, refusing to budge, they could have destroyed their unity in Christ, and in so doing they could have undermined everything.
Now, after hearing each other out, they began to deliberate, to try to discern what to do about this matter of the Gentiles. They still did not see eye to eye, so what should they do? In their deliberations they weighed both the witness of the scriptures and the testimony of personal experience. The scriptures were clear. All males in the covenant community needed to be circumcised and everyone needed to abide by the dietary restrictions. And yet, by the testimony of Paul and Barnabas, Gentiles were experiencing the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. So what to do?
What we have here is a dilemma as old as the faith. As people of faith, what of the old do we conserve, what of the new do we allow, and on what grounds? The participants at the Council paved the way in showing us how to go about this discernment. In general terms. But, as for the specifics, each generation of the faithful must work such matters out, weighing in the balance the past witness of the scriptures and the present movement of the Holy Spirit.
They appealed to both, sought out common ground, and reached a compromise. Finally, James, as the leader of the church in Jerusalem, stood up to give voice to the decision of the whole group. We will allow the continued mission to the Gentiles, James said, believing that the Holy Spirit is truly moving there, doing a new thing among us. But, even if they are not to abide by all the practices of our Jewish faith, they must abide by the laws that are from of old, the laws that the scriptures have required all foreigners living in Israel to follow. All Gentile Christians must abstain from idols, and from fornication, and from foods that are offensive to Jewish Christians.
In regard to our life together in the faith, there is an old saying attributed to many, including John Wesley, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity [or love].” This was practiced by those first Christians as they worked through their differences, which were as deep as ours are today, and I believe that it remains a helpful way for us to think about our differences and how we approach them. In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity [or love]. And at the heart of this approach is that basic faith practice that Peter and Paul and James Barnabas and the others practiced at the council in Jerusalem. They agreed to talk with one another, face to face, and to listen, and in the process they were able to move to a deeper understanding of their common mission to share the good news of God’s love with all people. Amen.