Up Next: make it clear
1 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3 The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. 5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” 12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: 16 “ ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, 17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’— 18 things known from long ago. 19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
Breathing is one of those things that I think we all take for granted most of the time. I mean, it’s something that our bodies just seem to do all on its own. The diaphragm muscle which controls your breathing gets instructions through your nerves from the brain to move up and down so that your lungs will keep on running through this endless cycle of expanding and contracting, filling with air and emptying air, inhaling and exhaling. Your body does this so that the blood running through your lungs can unload carbon dioxide gas which your body does not need, and also load up on oxygen which the cells of your body do need. Breathing is something we all need to do in order for the cells of your body to stay alive.
And so, the brain just automatically tells your diaphragm muscle to keep moving so that your lungs keep breathing. You don’t have to consciously think to send the message through your nerves every time you want to take a breath in, and then again every time you want to send a breath out. Your brain does that for you without you having to make it happen.
Yet at the same time, we can kind of take our lungs off from autopilot and fly manually for a bit. You can control your own breathing to a certain extent. Professional athletes and musical performers train to do this—to control their breathing just right. Singers and those who play a woodwind or brass instrument need to learn how to control breathing in order to play or sing well. Many athletes also work on breathing technique in order to improve their sport. When I was in seminary, I took a preaching class that focused on the physical dynamics of giving a spoken presentation, and part of that class taught ministers how to do certain breathing exercises on a Sunday morning so that we would be able to project our voices better while preaching.
Breathing is one of those things that we all do no matter what in order to stay alive. But even so, there are times and places where some people have paid special attention on how to control breathing in order to have a greater impact on whatever activity it is they are doing.
Let’s face it, for anyone here today who has been a Christian for an extended period of time, there are moments in which it feels like our faith can be on autopilot. It’s not that we have spiritually crashed, it’s not that we’re grounded, it’s not that we are stuck; but rather it feels more like the life of faith is just sort of keeping its own course without any direct intentional action to do otherwise.
We have been talking over the past several weeks about that ‘up next’ moment that may exist in our own life of faith. In these last few weeks that I have to wrap up this series we need to get specific about what that moment of faith looks like in your life. I’ve noted throughout these weeks that the next step of faith will look different for each person here because each person here is at a different point in your life of faith. And so far I’ve been giving some guidelines for seeing the next step of faith; I’ve been giving some hints and suggestions about what that step might look like; but I haven’t really seriously pressured you yet to write it out; to make it explicit. Today we are heading in that direction. Here’s how we are going to tackle it so that I can best help you to make your next step of faith something you can explicitly know and understand and put into words.
What we need to do today is make it clear.
Maybe you are way ahead of me on this one. Maybe you’ve known since the first message of this series what your next step of faith needs to be. Maybe you’ve been here with us all the weeks of this series and you still are uncertain about that next step. Either way, some attention to clarity can help. So, let’s consider today some of the things you can do to help make the next step of faith more clear.
Seek the wisdom of God
The story from Acts 15 is known as the Jerusalem council. It was a moment early on in the life of the New Testament church when the leaders of the church faced some moments of uncertainty about the next steps forward. They had to work their way through that moment of uncertainty and find clarity in what their next step forward should be and how to get there. I think there’s something we can pick up from their example to help us today.
uncertainty about next steps forward
The issue they were facing in the church was uncertainty about the best way to move forward in welcoming and enfolding the new people coming into the church who were from a non-Jewish background. You see, the very first Christians in the church were all Jewish people who had followed Jesus. These were people who had been raised in a Jewish culture. They all knew the Old Testament scriptures; so, they knew all the habits and customs and traditions of the Jewish religious life. Many of these traditions carried over into the early church. The non-Jewish people who were coming to faith in Jesus did not know or practice any of these traditions. The leaders of the early church needed some clarity in knowing the way forward.
God reveals his will in scripture
look for patterns of the gospel
One of the examples that we see in this passage is an appeal to scripture. James seeks the wisdom of God by asking what God has already spoken into the issue. It is a look inside the Word of God for clarity. And notice this; it is not that scripture had a custom answer for exactly the question of how a life of faith was supposed to look for new Christians who were not Jewish. But there is in the Word of God a message that provides a pattern of faith in which we apply our questions of faith to the wisdom of God’s revealed word.
Here is where we begin. Step one of bringing clarity to the next move forward in faith is to seek the wisdom of God in the Bible. If you find yourself at a moment when a move forward in faith presents itself, it is always good to confirm that move with the validity of scripture.
God will never call you to a step of faith that is contrary to his Word
Let me say it bluntly; God is never going to call you to move in ways that are contrary to the message of the Bible. Never. Jesus gives commands over and over again in the gospels to love one another and to show forgiveness and compassion. That means you are never going to be called by God in any step of faith that is fueled by anger or hatred or fear, because those things are contrary to the Word of God.
So, if you are looking for an inward confirmation of what your ‘up next’ moment looks like, start by looking at the pattern of faith provided for us in scripture. Look inside God’s Word for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
Seek the wisdom of others
That’s step one. Here is what else we see in the example of Acts 15. These leaders of the early church got together and worked out the way forward in their next steps together. They were seeking the wisdom of others. The way forward in faith did not happen in isolation. It had to be confirmed by other people.
finding a way forward in faith does not happen in isolation
I remember early on in my time as a seminary student, I was encouraged to write out my sense of God’s calling to ministry. This went on to become part of my application for candidacy as an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church. The candidacy examiners who looked over my testimony of calling were looking for two things. They not only wanted to see that I had a strong internal sense of being called by God, but they also wanted to see a record of that calling being affirmed and encouraged externally by other people. There have been studies done on identifying which careers seem most prone to attracting psychopaths. Wouldn’t you know it, clergy is in the top ten. It is comforting, then, to know that in this denomination whenever someone steps forward and says, “God is telling me to be a pastor,” there is a confirmation to ask if anyone else is affirming this calling.
Who do I trust as a godly person?
Who will be honest with me?
Other people can be a very helpful blessing from God to help bring clarity to your next steps forward in faith. Ask yourself, who do I trust as a godly person to be honest with me?
Seek the accountability of the church
We don’t walk faith alone. God gives us steps forward in faith that have built-in accountability. God poured out his Holy Spirit upon the church as a corporate gift for the church. That means the Holy Spirit of God moves and works among a community gathered together in Christ. The life of faith, then, is not meant to be an individual sport. It is not a solo performance; it is a symphony of faith all moving in and among one another by the Holy Spirit’s direction.
The Holy Spirit is a gift to the church to be used among the church
This is why it is such a good thing when we affirm and support one another in the steps of faith that are before each one of us. And this is also the community of grace in which we find accountability for those steps forward. Our ‘up next’ moment can remain clearly in focus when we seek the accountability of the church.
accountability - I voluntarily give others the right to support my steps of faith
I’ll admit, this is a step that many of us would rather avoid. Accountability means that I give other people the authority to hold me to my word and action. Accountability means that I give someone else the right to know what where I am at and how I am doing. The Jerusalem council in Acts 15 dismissed with the writing of a letter and dispatching of representatives to the surrounding churches with a declaration of their next steps forward together. It was not s plan hatched in secrecy and hidden from view. They went public among the brothers and sisters of the church. Now there is accountability.
This is one of the reasons that we have something in our church known as public profession of faith, which we require in order to become a member of the church. It is an acknowledgment and a declaration that we do not journey through this life of faith in God alone, but rather we move and grow in faith together as a church community. And we do that best when we find others in this community to whom we will voluntarily make ourselves accountable.
Now then, once you have searched the Word of God for wisdom in the patterns of the gospel message, once you have sought out the wisdom of a trusted friend or mentor who is not afraid to level with you and be honest with you, then make your next step of faith clear by finding some accountability. As long as we keep our faith hidden it will not move and it will not grow to those next steps. But when we share our life of faith with others in ways that keep us accountable, God uses the full gift of his Holy Spirit to guide us forward with confidence and support.
Make it clear. It’s time to take your faith off from autopilot and practice some deep breathing of the Holy Spirit to leap ahead. Seek God’s wisdom, confirm that direction with others, and give yourself the support and encouragement of God’s people to take that next step in following Jesus.