Around a Table

There's a professor at ACU named Randy Harris. I was blessed to have him for a class my first semester studying in Abilene for Acts-Revelation and later in my next-to-last semester for Ethics. In my first day in his class, I was fresh from the mission field in Thailand, ready to sink my teeth into some Biblical knowledge that I hoped would help guide me as I sought to be a minister in the future. My enthusiasm bled into my notes, which I saved onto my computer for later perusing. Rereading it years later, I still remember how excited I was to be learning from Randy, especially when I read through my notes, a piece of which I've copied for you to check out below.

Acts 15 Council at Jerusalem Crucial Moment
What must a Gentile do to become a Christian?
Accept circumcision? Nope. Don't hafta be a Jew to be a Christian.
Accept Christ. Boo-yeah.
Food laws? What the what?
One table, not two!
Looking back, I get the feeling that my note taking style isn't especially helpful for most people, especially those who weren't in the class to hear the points that my notes reflect. Which is why I decided to decipher my scribblings.
One of the things that jumps out to me in this passage is that the council decides not to put the yoke of extra rules on the Gentiles, and decides that only the most important rules will be passed on. This seems like a good idea for a group of relatively new believers. The idea of not burdening them with the cumbersome laws from the Jewish culture is astonishing, especially since the Jews placed such a value on their culture. This is not without good reason, either. Though many Jewish customs had been added to and amended over the years, their culture was still a product of God's choosing them. Jesus, Savior of the World, came from within this culture, and though he challenged many pieces of the culture that were not of God, Jesus was most certainly a Jew.
With that in mind, when these Jewish leaders of the early church were faced with wrestling about how to integrate Gentiles into an overwhelmingly Jewish faith, they opted to leave out as much of the cultural trappings of Judaism as they could. Anything they didn't believe was essential was left out of the equation, and the Gentiles were given a short list of what they needed to do. (This was obviously on top of the message that was preached to them by Paul, Barnabas, or other missionaries.)
And what were these stipulations? Avoid sexual immorality and don't eat some stuff. Don't worry about circumcision, you're fine without it.
On the one hand, this short list doesn't seem like the biggest of deals to me. Jesus has already mentioned the sexual immorality thing. Unless the missionaries conveniently forgot to mention the, "Oh, by the way, before you sign on: God doesn't want us to be sexually immoral..." part of Jesus' life and teachings, I think the Gentile Christians are already down with that point. (I don't know Paul personally, but that doesn't seem like the kind of mistake he would make while ministering.)
And to be fair, I bet the Gentile Christians were pretty relieved about the whole circumcision thing. I don't know how much the co-pay was back then, but I'm always thrilled when I learn I don't have to have surgery, and I imagine them being pretty stoked to hear the news.
But I had always been confused by the food laws part of this. Sure, Leviticus and Deuteronomy seemed to be chockablock full of commands about what the Jews could or couldn't eat, but this is part of the new covenant! I thought food laws got thrown out when God said to Peter, "Take and eat," otherwise, I've got a lot of fried shrimp and bacon on my conscience. I guess where I ran into a snag wasn't an unwillingness to give up those foods, but a lingering question of, "Why are these food laws so dang important?"
As Randy explained it, these requirements were imperative for table fellowship. If Jews and Gentiles were going to be a family, they had to eat together. It was a must. Christianity meant shared meals. The Jews were not in a place, theologically, to be alright with those foods. If Gentile Christians brought them to the table, it would fracture their unity. Maybe it would have been easier to split the table, with Jews at one and Gentiles at another, but unity was far too important.
The Jewish Christians were alright with not burdening their Gentile brothers with unnecessary surgery, but they and the Holy Spirit agreed that unity was worth sacrificing for. It was inconvenient and troublesome on the Gentile Christians. It wasn't even something Jesus specified as part of his teaching. But the unity of believers was of such great importance that the sacrifice was made.
I often wonder which part of this story I am called to live on a given day. Will I have to sacrifice freedoms in order to preserve unity, like the Gentile Christians giving up foods? Will I have to sacrifice important parts of my culture in order to ensure that the yokes of my sisters and brothers in Christ are not overly heavy unnecessarily, like the Jewish Christians not demanding circumcision, even though it had long been an outward sign of being one of God's people. Will I need to be like Peter, Paul, and James, speaking on the behalf of others when biases and traditions stand opposed to God's work in the lives of people?
I became excited when I learned what was actually happening in Acts 15. Randy taught me that God's people were trying to find what was most central to the Gospel in this passage, and helped me learn to seek the same thing in my own life. My prayer for myself, our friends with whom we work, and for all seeking to love their neighbors well, is that we can all seek ways to compromise in order to be able to sit down at a table of fellowship.