Stay in the Ship

Date: July 27, 2014 Author: Dr. Jerry Tankersley

This is a podcast of the Sunday Sermon and worship service at Laguna Presbyterian Church. Dr. Steve Sweet is preaching from Acts 27 as we complete our sermon series through the Book of Acts. We are reading from the NRSV.


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Ten years ago at this time I was on a C.S. Lewis Study Tour with my friend John Huffman. We were able to join the C.S. Lewis Society Study Group at the last moment because there was still room and the price had been reduced. It was a rare opportunity and experience that began in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at Lewis’ birthplace, took us by bus to Dublin, and then on to the Sea Cloud 2 for a several day and night cruise across the Irish Sea between Wales and Ireland. The final destination was Oxford, England and The Kilns, Lewis’s home of many years as he taught at Oxford and Cambridge.

On the way Douglas Gresham, C.S. Lewis’ step son read to us in the evenings from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Chronicles of Narnia. How wonderful those evening were in a group of Lewis scholars and devotees having Lewis’ stepson reading to us as Jack Lewis had hoped The Chronicles would be read and enjoyed by parents and children having their imaginations stirred.

A chapter in The Dawn Treader tells of the storm that occurred on the Narnian seas not long after the four children from England had been drawn into the Narnian magical world and placed upon the ship. The Voyage began in beautiful and calm weather. But soon a storm of wind and waves beat upon the small ship. Eustace the beastly little boy retreated to his room and described the experience day by day in his journal. All he longed to do was to escape from the ship named the Dawn Treader. His daily postings were totally nasty and critical of everyone on board.When at last they made it through the treacherous storm they arrived at a bay on an island. As soon as possible Eustace took leave of the others and became lost in the mountains. His adventure led him to a total transformation at the hand of Aslan the Christ lion. He discovered how important his friends were and why it was necessary for him to cooperate and to hold tight to the ship that had weathered the storm.

Ten years ago, on the Sunday morning off the coast of Wales we prepared to disembark the Sea Cloud to boat to the shore on a small Tender to hear the great Anglican evangelical pastor, John Stott, preach in his home parish in St. David. At the last minute we were warned that the process of getting into the small boat that would take us to shore had become very dangerous. A storm was coming. The Tender was being slammed against the side of the Sea Cloud. The force was so powerful the Captain warned that if your leg was caught in between the Tender and the Sea Cloud it would likely sever your leg. I decided against it and stayed on board the Sea Cloud for morning worship.

By noon time the winds and the waves were increasing. The issue was whether or not the few brave ones could actually make it back to the Sea Cloud. They did so and the Sea Cloud began its journey across to Ireland, but it was a journey that would take us into the North Atlantic for a part of the way.

By dinner time I had already taken two or three sea sick pills. I had been asked to say the evening prayer before dinner. As I worked my way up the stairway of the Sea Cloud and moved toward the beautiful dining room, the moment I smelled the food I knew I would soon barf if I joined the assembled folks. I passed word on. I felt like such a weakling.

What I did not realize was that we were entering the North Atlantic and the winds of Hurricane Charlie that had devastated parts of the U.S. were now blowing upon us. The ship was being pounded by 30 to 50 ft waves. Food, dishes, and bottles of wine were being thrown across the dining room. Almost everyone was getting ill, even the crew. Dinner was impossible.

I went back to my room on the lower deck and lay flat on my bed and held on for dear life. The nausea diminished. I could not have managed to write in a journal as Eustace did. As we crashed through the huge waves and the ship was buffeted by wind and waves I read about our destination the next morning. It was to be Cork, Ireland. This was the last port of call for the Titanic before it had its tragic encounter with the iceberg in the North Atlantic. This completely terrified me. What kind of omen was this?

My friend John brought me another pill and reported what was happening to everyone on board. I held tight to the bed so as not to be thrown around the cabin. The last thing I wanted to do that night was to abandon the ship to go overboard seeking to save myself. I was prepared to go down with the ship knowing that my only hope of being saved was by staying in the ship and riding out the storm. I wondered if Douglas Gresham’s reading the evening before had been a prophecy about what was happening to us. C.S. Lewis’ narration of the storm that hit the Dawn Treader was a perfect description of what was happening to us. It was like being caught up into that story.

Jesus and his disciples knew what it was like to be caught in wind and wave storms on the Sea of Galilee. On more than one occasion the disciples thought they were perishing. In Mark 4 they went to Jesus who was asleep in the bow and cried out, “Lord do you not care that we are perishing?” He awakened and commanded the storm to cease and it did so. The disciples were in awe. They asked, “who is this that commands even the winds and the waves?”

On another occasion Jesus came to them walking on water in a night time storm. They thought he was a ghost. Peter cried out to him, “Allow me to come to you walking on the water.” Jesus invited him to come, but within a couple of steps Peter began to sink and cried out for help. Jesus caught him and placed him back in the boat and Jesus climbed in as well. Not once did Jesus ask his disciples to step out of the ship in order to escape the storm. Rather, he rode out the storm with them. He asserted his authority as Lord of the sea and of the chaos that the sea represented for the Hebrew mind.

Sometime in the middle of the night I heard the ships engines of the Sea Cloud begin to relax, and I relaxed and went to sleep trusting that we were safe. A calm came as we entered the protection of the island of Ireland and we made it by morning time into the safe harbor of Cork. It was an experience I will never forget and which I do not want to repeat.
In the midst of a storm at sea, when the chaos seems to be threatening the order of the world and the life of Jesus’ disciples, we dare never abandon the ship of the church.

The poet Homer from 7th century B.C. Greece told the story of the hero of the Trojan Wars returning home to Ithaca in hopes of being reunited with his family. He and his crew had to sail by the island of the Sirens where the female voices sang so beautifully that they led seafarers to jump ship to swim to their sure deaths. The sailors prepared. Odysseus melted wax and stuffed it into the ears of his men so they would not hear the music and jump overboard. He commanded his men to lash him to the mast of the ship. He warned them not to release him no matter how hard he begged them. As he listened the desire to abandon the ship to swim toward the beautiful music was overwhelming. Thankfully, the ship made it beyond the Sirens music and Odysseus stayed with the ship because he was lashed to the mast.

As the Apostle Paul was being transported to Rome by the roman military, he watched carefully what was happening. It was God’s will for him to witness to Rome, to stand before Caesar and to make his case for his freedom. It was now late fall and winter was coming. Wind and waves would pose danger for ships seeking to sail from the east to the west. He warned that they were pressing their luck. The owner of the ship and the centurion would not listen. At last Paul’s counsel proved to be right. The winter winds beat upon them. Control of the ship was lost. 276 lives were threatened. Millions of dollars of products could be lost. But the authorities would not listen to the prisoner.

After many days and nights the people aboard the ship had given up hope. It was at that moment that the Apostle Paul stood up before the passengers and military men and witnessed that during the night a messenger of the God to whom he belonged and whom he worshiped had told him that he would appear before Caesar. They were not to be afraid. They were to take courage. The Lord who had created him, redeemed him, repeatedly saved him through many dangers, would now deliver them all, but all would need to stay in the ship.

When Paul saw that some of the crew were preparing to board the small lifeboat to escape the coming disaster, he warned the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.”

Within the first centuries of the church’s history church fathers began to speak of the church as the ark of salvation. One proclaimed that outside the church there is no salvation. Around the world in churches of all types the ship was often pictured in stain glassed windows and on hangings on banners, pulpits and lecterns.

But why stay in the ship in the stormy waters of chaos? In my family of origin there seemed always to be a threatening storm. I found myself searching for a refuge, a safe place. It was this experience that partially drew me to God and to the church family. When I joined the church and began my journey toward ordination in the Presbyterian Church I thought I had escaped the threatening storms of life. It did not take long to realize that even in the church there was no escape from danger, both internal and external. I could tell you story after story about that. Perhaps this is at the heart of the human condition. In this world the people of God will always be in a ship pounded by all kinds of storms.

In this present time the storms within the church and outside of the church threaten to sink the ship. Congregations are deciding to jump ship, to leave a denomination considered to be deathly ill, dysfunctional, and out of touch with people in the pew. For the past two years our own Presbytery has been in a process of discernment about affiliation with one another. There have been times in which I wanted to strap myself and others to the mast of the ship.

What is the mast of the ship of the church? You know what it is. It is the cross of Jesus Christ. Over and over again in the threatening storms I have lashed myself to the cross. At the cross, God in Christ purchased our souls and translated us into the fellowship of his people moving through the stormy seas of human history in the ship of the church.

I believe that the Christian Church is on a long journey through history and that we have moved through many choppy seas, calm seas, and outright stormy seas. But the answer has never been to abandon ship.


First, because of the Presence of the Word of God.

That Word came by means of the angel of the Lord to Paul the Apostle. He and they were not alone. The Presence of the Lord was with them in the ship. Paul belonged to the One whom he worshiped. He had been bought with a price. He no longer belonged to himself. He had been crucified with Christ and the life he now lived he lived by faith in the Son of God whose Spirit now was alive within his body and spirit. The Lord was at work in leading him to Rome to make his witness before Caesar and the Lord promised to get him there, but he had to stay in the ship along with everyone else. Paul was lashed to the mast, to the cross of the ship.
Therefore, Paul challenged all 276 persons to not be afraid, to take courage, and to stay in the ship. God was able to see them through the storm into a safe port.

I find myself as a pastor in this Presbytery making Paul’s appeal to sister congregations, to brothers and sisters purchased by Christ: “Stay in the Ship” until the destination in the New Creation has arrived. Do not be afraid. Take courage. Trust the purpose and plan of God for his church.

Why stay in the ship?

Secondly, because in the ship of the church is the bread of life.

After more than two weeks of being battered by the storm, all 276 people were famished, hungry, and weakened. Paul stood before them now as the leader taking charge and said, “I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.
After he had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves.” Acts 27:34

It was the unrecognized stranger in Luke 24 who took the bread in the house of the Emmaus disciples, broke it, and gave it to them. In that moment of sharing blessed bread their eyes were opened and they knew that the crucified and resurrected one was present with them.

You see it is in the ship of the church that the Word of God is proclaimed. It is the Word of promise, of comfort, and hope. It is in the ship of the church that the visible Word of the Sacrament is blessed and given to terrified disciples. Here we learn to surrender our lives to the living Lord, to trust in his providential leading, to live into the reality that in life and death we belong to God and God is able to work all things together for good for those who love him.

Horatio Spafford wrote the haunting poem at the very spot in the North Atlantic were members of his family had lost their lives in a ship wreck. Tears must have streamed down his face as he wrote, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, tho’ trials should come. Let this blest assurance control, That Christ has regarded my helpless estate, And hath shed His own blood for my soul.”

Let us stay in the ship lashed to the mast of the cross. He will see us through to safe harbor.

By Dr. Jerry Tankersley

The Invitation

Date: July 20, 2014 Author: Rev. Dr. Steve Sweet

This is a podcast of the Sunday Sermon and worship service at Laguna Presbyterian Church. This Sunday is our VBS celebration Sunday. Dr. Steve Sweet is preaching from Acts 20. We are reading from the NRSV.


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Do Not Be Afraid

Date: July 6, 2014 Author: Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley

This Sunday Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley is preaching from Acts 18:1-18. We are reading from the NRSV.


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Acts 18:1-18


The Apostle Paul had come to Corinth, Greece, because the Spirit of the Lord had guided him to that place. He was on God’s mission. He had not come out of curiosity seeking a vacation or a good time.

In fact, many came to Corinth for a good time of enjoying pleasure. It was a seaport town and seafarers could find about any pleasure they desired in Corinth. It was a cultured, cosmopolitan Roman colony where commodities from around the Mediterranean were bought and sold.

Temples to many of the gods and goddesses of the first century world were present. The Temple of Apollo, the sun god, stood looking over the marketplace. The Temple of Aphrodite stood atop the 2k ft. mountain called the Acrocorinth overlooking the city. Some historians have argued that many prostitutes worked in the Temple or the city’s marketplace. In the Greco-Roman world Corinth developed a reputation.

To “Corinthianize” meant to be immoral.

The first time I saw Corinth I said to myself, “this is the Southern California coastline with mountains, oceans, hustle and bustle, people worshiping the sun, happy in the pleasures of which the Beach Boys were singing.

Paul remained in the city for 18 months doing God’s work. His mission became a great evangelistic crusade. In the process a fellowship of believers in Christ emerged made up of Jews and Gentiles, people who had been already shaped by the stimulating culture of the city. To these believers the Apostle wrote at least four letters. He was their father in the faith. He wrote to the church that he had established in Corinth, “We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” 2 Cor. 5:20

The Apostle Paul arrived in Athens and Corinth knowing that he had come on behalf of God. His was a visit into a world dominated and ruled by principalities, rulers, and powers that were often hostile to any authority from beyond. He represented the true Sovereign ruler of heaven and earth and he had come to Corinth to proclaim, to herald, to announce that the Creator and Redeemer of heaven and earth had sent him to establish a beachhead that would lead to the transformation of Corinth’s life.

He set about his task.

Every Sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy came, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus. The Apostle Paul was focused and intentional.

He was proclaiming the good news of the gospel that God in Christ had acted in history to reconcile the world to himself and us to each other. In Christ God had acted to heal the human heart, to bring peace to a broken humanity, to restore the justice of the kingdom of God in every city. He came to Corinth to build the one, holy, apostolic, church of Christ, with the understanding that he was building a temple for a dwelling place for the Spirit of the resurrected Lord.

In his travels in the Greco-Roman world Paul had studied the architecture of the great buildings and temples he had seen all the way from Jerusalem, to Ephesus, to Athens, and Corinth. So he said of himself, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”

He wrote to the church in Corinth, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” 1 Cor. 3:10-17

He knew he was up against it.

He said, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” 1 Cor. 1

Now there are many different strategies for how to build the church of Jesus Christ.

First and foremost the temple of God must be built on a solid foundation and that foundation is Jesus Christ.

We lay the foundation as we teach and preach Christ. The first great end of the church is: to proclaim the gospel of Christ. Everything else we do flows from this proclamation that Jesus is Savior and Lord, the only way to right relationship with God, the way God has chosen to restore a fallen creation.

So Paul knew that he had to build wisely if the temple of God was to emerge amongst the temples of Corinth. Paul reminded the Corinthians, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” 1 Cor. 2:1-5

It did not take the authorities long to catch on to the truth he proclaimed. The kingdom of God had arrived in Paul’s witness. The synagogue leadership cast him out and Paul moved next door in the marketplace to witness to the Gentiles and Jews who would continue to listen. He supported himself by making and selling tents. The authorities sought to silence him. They intimidated him. Yet, the church was growing in Corinth, but not without danger, within and without.

In a time of possible discouragement, anxiety, exhaustion, and fear, Paul was given a vision in the night. The voice of the Lord said to him, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.” Acts 18:9-10

“Do not be afraid.”

Fear and weakness have often haunted disciples of Jesus.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul described the dangers he had faced in doing the mission of God: “He had been imprisoned, flogged, near death, beaten and left for dead. He had been ship wrecked; he had crossed dangerous rivers, been exposed to bandits, threatened by Jews and Gentiles; he had confronted false brothers and sisters; he had worked night and day to support himself. He had been hungry and thirsty, cold and naked; his anxiety for the churches he had established were ever present to him. He knew what it was to be weak and afraid. He had been given a thorn in the flesh that brought him low from time to time. God would not remove the thorn.”

When I first came to Laguna Beach to pastor this congregation I confess I was afraid.

I had every reason to be afraid. I did not know if I had come to build a church or to bury one. Church’s are fragile and the work of building a people, a building, a mission is a terrifying reality. I did not have any secret formula or program. I still do not. All I knew to do was what Paul did in Corinth and that was to busy myself with teaching and preaching the Word of God. I asked one of my mentors what I ought to do and he challenged me to go native in Laguna. You mean with all those artists, new agers, hippies, and Lagunatics? It could have been a great party with drugs, sex, rock and roll. Exactly, he said, you will need to figure it out.

So I jumped in like every pastor who was ever called to build the church. But I have always been aware that I did not have the power in and of myself to do it. So I have had good reason to be afraid.

As a people we have gone through a number of seasons at LPC, within the PCUSA, and within American Protestantism since the 1960’s. We have lived in future shock. In every season I have learned to cast myself upon the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, to study, to worship, to pray, to live, to laugh, to learn, and to get up every morning to face a new day with courage, or just to get up in faith, hope, and love.

It may well have been that the Apostle Paul thought of himself as an Elijah type prophet who was at work challenging the prophets of Baal, the religious spiritual guides of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Elijah had become known as the Troubler of Israel. In a contest with the 400 prophets of Baal Elijah had demonstrated that the Lord alone was God. He had destroyed his enemies in a demonstration of power and Spirit. Fire came from heaven and the prophets of Baal were defeated. When Jezebel heard that he had routed her prophets she promised that Elijah would be dead before day’s end.

Elijah ran away from her. He was afraid. He was exhausted. His spiritual energy was depleted. He traveled all the way to Mt. Sinai where the Lord allowed him to rest, to sleep, to eat, to reflect, and to pray. There on Mt. Sinai where Moses had received the law of God, the voice of the Lord asked him several times, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” All he could answer was to tell the story of his trials and tribulations and how alone he felt in doing battle with the rulers of the world. Finally, the Lord assured him that he did not need to be afraid. Paul heard the same assuring word, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent”.

Many of my pastor friends are afraid at this time and feeling very alone.

Some have become so frightened that they have sought to leave the PCUSA and to find a safer place among like minded people. They cry to God and to their people about the apostasy of others within our denomination, about the theological drift, loss of biblical authority, and cultural bondage of the church. They are afraid. I can understand that fear. I have had it myself and at times had wanted to run to some Mt. Sinai. Some of my friends under the stress of life and pressures of the church have just flipped out into a moral holiday and have fallen in one way or another. The dropout rate of servants of the church has been great.

Others of us have decided to hang in there and to honor the vows we took within this covenant family. Some of us are planning to gather after the dust settles to see who is left, to meet, to pray, to plan, and to see if we can go on. What if we are left alone, or in a small group of churches that will need to be connected with a larger Southern Ca. Presbytery? Will we be able to stagger on? What does all of this mean for the financial well being of the church as an institution that must pay for buildings and staff, manage pension programs and foundations, and continue to support foreign missionaries whom we have sent to the fields of the world?

Into this moment comes the word of the Lord, “Do not be afraid.”

Why? For I Am with you.

No greater promise than this. “I am with you.”

“If God is for us who can be against us?”

“He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” Romans 8:31-32

The Bible is filled with this promise. It came to Jacob at Bethel. It came to Moses in the midst of his trials with Israel in the wilderness. It came to the shepherd boy David as he faced the giant Goliath. It came to Elijah at Mt. Sinai. “I am with you.” “You are not alone.” “There are 7 thousand people in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”

Jesus also walked that Valley of Fear.

It appeared that his public work was coming to nothing. He felt abandoned by his Father and cried from the cross. Yet, in humble, servant trust he laid down his life upon the cross and cried, “It is finished”, and because of his obedience the power of God in raising him from the dead life, hope, power and love have sprung forth. And just when it appears that all is lost in the darkness, the sun rises, the winds of resurrection life and the breath of the Holy Spirit is blown into the seemingly dead Israel and a New Exodus into life begins.

“Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.” Acts 18:9-11

How could we have forgotten all of you, here Sunday by Sunday, faithfully worshipping, giving sacrificially in love, willingly choosing to do mission with us frightened preachers? There are many in this city who are the Lord’s people. There are many in the PCUSA who are the Lord’s people.

Do not be afraid, but speak. I am with you.
You are not alone.
Get on with the work.

Dr. Jerry Tankersley

How Does the Gospel Play in Athens?

Date: June 29, 2014 Author: Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley

This Sunday Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley is preaching from Acts 17:16-34. We are reading from the NRSV.


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Acts 17:16-34


At last the Apostle Paul arrived in Athens, Greece, ground zero of the worship of gods and goddesses of all kinds. There were so many altars for worship of the pantheon of deities that Paul of Jerusalem became deeply distressed by the idolatry of Athens. He was in the city where the “principalities and powers” of spiritual forces ruled the culture of the Greco-Roman world view and cultural life. And he was there alone, yet Christ was with him as he waited for Silas and Timothy to come.

While walking into the city he had seen an altar to an unknown god. The Greeks were concerned about keeping all the divinities satisfied and on their side. They did not want to neglect any possible spiritual force that might need to be appeased. The gods could become angry and punish a city very quickly unless they received what they demanded.

It was Paul’s first visit to Athens. Up to this moment he had only read about the Acropolis at the center of the city. I think he wanted to see it firsthand. I suspect he had seen it at a distance upon arrival at the seaport.

In 1971 was my first visit to the Acropolis of Athens.
Our group arrived in the evening from Rome. I was so excited to get out early the next morning to see the ancient wonders of the Parthenon, the temple of the worship of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. That building had stood at the center of Athens from the 5th century B.C., built in the golden age of ancient Greece by Pericles. It was and still is an architectural wonder. Phidias, the great Greek sculptor and artist had planned, formed, and installed the famous statue of Athena. It was made of stone, silver, and gold. It symbolized the power and glory of Athens.

During the night of my visit to Athens, I awakened and was deathly ill with food poison. All night long I barfed. We called the hotel doctor early in the morning. I pleaded with him to help me. I had a group to lead. But above all I wanted to sit on the Areopagus, on Mars Hill, and look up to the Acropolis to see the Parthenon. I had taken courses in college in the history of Greece and Rome. This was a moment for which I had lived. I had arrived and could barely get my head off the pillow. The good doctor said, “Don’t worry. You just ate and drank the food and water of Rome. Put some drops of this medicine in a glass of water, drink it, and you will be on the Acropolis by early afternoon.” And sure enough, he was right. I treasure looking at the pictures of me as a young black headed associate pastor reading our morning text to my fellow disciples atop the Areopagus, spellbound by the view of the Parthenon.

This was the place where Paul the Apostle stood and engaged the culture and philosophy of ancient Greece with the good news of the gospel. He carried the message of Jerusalem to the city of Athens. He must have wondered how the gospel would play in this center of paganism.

I have read Tertullian, an early church father’s question and pondered it: “what has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” A profound philosophical, religious question! Each city’s temples witnessed to differing, conflicting world views and understanding of the gods.

Perhaps with fear and trembling, the Apostle Paul walked into the marketplace, the agora of Athens, the center city, the shopping mall if you will, the place where the political leadership gathered in assembly to make the laws and to administer the life of the city.

What a moment it was.

He joined other teachers and their disciples in this center of debate and conflict. He gathered a crowd around him and he began to tell the good news of Jesus and the relevance of this good news for Athens.

Soon he was encountered by both Epicurean and Stoic philosophers with whom he argued. This is what the Greeks loved to do. They listened for a while to Paul, and finally decided he was a babbler who had picked up bits of information and knowledge in his travels. Basically, they decided that Paul was full of it and that he was proclaiming a message about some foreign deities.

The Epicureans had one view of god and the Stoics had another. In the argument with Paul what was revealed was a clash in world views and understandings of God. Recently, N.T. Wright of the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, has written a book entitled, SURPRISED BY SCRIPTURE. In it he argues that we are all mainly Epicureans in the western world, and especially in America.

He wrote, “The founder of the Epicurean philosophy in the 3rd century BC had become fed up with the murky world of pagan religion in general and the Stoic pantheists in particular.” The Epicureans argued that the gods did not concern themselves with our world, whether to intervene in it or to judge its inhabitants after death. In fact, since the physical world continued on its self-caused way without help from outside, physical death simply meant complete dissolution of the human being.

You could sum up Epicurus’ philosophy with the slogan that Richard Dawkins and his associates put as advertisements on London buses two or three years ago. ‘There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ “Don’t worry be happy!” Put happy in a lyric with a great repetitive rhythm and you can sell a million copies.

Draw a direct line from him to John Lennon: imagine there’s no heaven, no hell beneath us; now get on and live for today.”

The Stoics believed there was a divine, rational principle that permeated all of nature. Rational, virtuous men could know the truth by reason and could through rational processes endure any suffering patiently.
Basically, nature was divine.

In these two schools of thought engaged by the Apostle Paul in Athens, he confronted a world that argued there was no god and if there was, he was far away and uninvolved, or whose presence could be known immanent in nature.

When Paul was called before the elders of the city to appear before their council to be investigated as to the content of his teachings, he stood at ground zero with his message of the ultimate truth of the kingdom of God that argued, in the words of N.T. Wright, that “heaven and earth overlap and interconnect” and interpenetrate.” Luke gave us a synopsis of Paul’s message and this message is now inscribed in bronze on the hillside known as the Areopagus. It was written in Greek and stands as a silent witness to the gospel of God at play at the center of Greco-Roman culture and philosophy. How would the gospel play in Athens?

First, he met the Athenians on common ground as much as he could. He witnessed to the mighty act of creation by the Word and Spirit of the Lord.

I think most of the Athenians believed that there was some god or goddess but they did not know how this god was related to human life, human history, and especially to the Greek world. All of Greek culture and behavior was anchored in this Greek world view.

So Paul witnessed that there was a Sovereign Creator God who made all that there is in heaven and earth. However, this God’s presence could not be contained in temples made by human hands. This God needed nothing from humans. In making this assertion the Apostle was calling into question the very foundation of all the temples of the Greco-Roman world. He was turning the world upside down or right side up.

This God revealed and incarnate in Jesus made all the nations and gave to them their allotted times and places. The purpose and plan of this transcendent, yet immanent God was to create a space where humans could search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. “In him we live and move and have our being’. Between the lines we know that Paul was also witnessing to the God that is good and intends to bless all of humanity.

‘’For we too are his offspring.’

“The Athenians were not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” No man made building could contain the Creator’s presence.

Secondly, Paul bore witness to the consummation of the New Creation in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

In the early Christian church the cross of Jesus became the great symbol of the purpose and plan of God for human history and indeed for the healing of creation and human history.
This has always been the case for the church in its mission. The gospel turns the world upside down or right side up by the message of the cross. Within three centuries of Paul’s visit to Athens, the gods and the goddesses of Greece and Rome would fall before the cross.
There is a powerful work of art that is in the Vatican Museum. It pictures a pagan god having fallen before the cross of Christ and is shattered into pieces.

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul wrote that God in Christ made peace through the blood of Christ upon the cross. At the cross the walls humanity had built to divide were shattered; humanity was reconciled, and God’s purpose and plan to unite all things in Christ were fulfilled.

God had set a day upon which the created order would be healed and made right. And to assure humanity of this good news, he had raised Jesus from the dead.

It was when Paul preached the resurrection of Jesus’ body and the in-breaking of the rule of God that the Athenians were offended. For them, salvation meant deliverance from the material world and transfer of the immortal soul into some other place.

Twelve years ago I stood for moderator of the 214th GA of the PCUSA. The pastor who nominated me to our Presbytery was Bill Flanagan, Associate Pastor, SAPC. Bill went to be with the Lord three years ago. This past week while I was in Detroit, Christy, his beloved wife, dropped dead in a restaurant while paying the bill for herself and her daughter. No warning. Flan, her husband had been with me in Columbus, Ohio.

Last summer David Roberson died.
He and Linda were with me to support me in this endeavor that had sought me out.

Last Friday, Ian Ross passed into the presence of the Lord. Ian and Linda have been such good friends since our days in La Canada. They went with us to Columbus as a part of the team. They made me practice on the stage of St. Andrews giving my speech before the Assembly. They were so kind and helpful. That experience helped me begin to overcome my fears of making a fool of myself before the world.

As I prayed in the middle of the night in preparation for that standing for moderator the vision and message Paul’s message to Ephesus and Athens was framed in my mind. It was the message and calling I felt to lift high the cross of Jesus Christ both in the church, in my personal life, and in our world. The PCUSA has always given me the freedom to proclaim this gospel. Nothing has changed.

One of my critics wrote after the election in which I was not elected that I seemed to want to preach to the church. He was right. I wanted to lift high the cross of Jesus by which we have all been invited into the fellowship of the one triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I believed then and I still believe that the source and hope for unity and peace in church and world is found in the message of this gospel of God.

The words of Pastor Joseph Iteri of the PCEA still ring in my ears from 1994. He directed our mission groups eyes to the ceiling of the chapel to the wooden cross. As an African pastor, with all of our history, he said that the only way we could be in one room together was in the blood that was poured out at the cross of Jesus where God made atonement for our sins.

This has been and continues to be the calling of God upon my life. I believe that in fellowship with God in Christ that we are being incorporated into a new humanity, gathered as one people of God who will one day gather at the throne of God our Creator and Redeemer in the worship of the God of love. Until then we work to make the gift of God’s unity visible in the power of love revealed at the cross, and anointed in the Holy Spirit. Until that day we work for the healing of God’s earth and the restoration of justice and social righteousness.

Will the gospel play in Laguna Beach?

You bet it will, by the presence and power of the God whom we have come to know in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

This morning I stand with Paul at the center of a searching and groping city. Find your way to Jesus Christ! Be reconciled to God and to one another!

By Dr. Jerry Tankersley

Music of Hope and Joy

Date: June 25, 2014 Author: LPC Chancel Choir, Bells & Guest Instrumentalists, Organ, Piano

Requiem by Gabriel Fauré

Presented by Laguna Presbyterian Church, Choral and Handbell Choirs, Guest Instrumentalists, Organ, Piano, Keyboard, Linda White Director, Sookyung Bang, Organist

Chamber Orchestra

Viola: Jared Turner, Dan Oguri | Cello: Sara Jay, Debbie Lemmi

Bass: Karen Black | Horn: Laura Brenes

Keyboard: Bobbette Cameron

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Righteous Anger Gone Wrong

Date: June 22, 2014 Author: Rev. Dr. Kathy Sizer

This Sunday Rev. Dr. Kathy Sizer is preaching from Acts 17:1-15. We are reading from the NRSV.


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Acts 17:1   After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” 4 Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. 5 But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. 6 When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, 7 and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” 8 The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, 9 and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.

Acts 17:10   That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. 12 Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing. 13 But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Beroea as well, they came there too, to stir up and incite the crowds. 14 Then the believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy remained behind. 15 Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and after receiving instructions to have Silas and Timothy join him as soon as possible, they left him.

Isn't It Ironic?

Date: June 15, 2014 Author: Rev. Dr. Steve Sweet

Happy Father’s Day.  Rev. Dr. Steve Sweet is preaching from Acts 16 and his message is entitled, “Isn’t It Ironic.” We are reading from the NRSV.


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Acts 16:1   Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. 2 He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium. 3 Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4 As they went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.

Acts 16:6   They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

Acts 16:11   We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Acts 16:16   One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

Acts 16:19   But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

Acts 16:25   About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Acts 16:35   When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36 And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; 39 so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.

A Trusted Colleague

Date: June 8, 2014 Author: Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley

This is Pentecost Sunday. Dr. Rev. Jerry Tankersley is preaching from Acts 16 and his message is entitled, “A Trusted Colleague.” We are reading from the NRSV.

Christian Artist and Worship Leader, Rick Muchow is joining our worship team this morning.


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Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us

Date: June 1, 2014 Author: Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley

This Sunday Dr. Rev. Jerry Tankersley is preaching from Acts 15 and his message is entitled, “Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us.” We are reading from the NRSV.


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Acts 15

The church’s first community discernment was called forth by its mission experience. Jesus had told them that they were to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. As the Spirit led the witnesses beyond the boundaries of the Holy Land it soon became apparent that Gentiles and Jews were responding to the message of good news.
The church in Antioch in Syria was becoming the center of Gentile Christianity. Paul and Barnabas had been commissioned by Antioch to take the message to Cyprus and into the Southern part of Roman Galatia, meaning the modern Turkey. When they returned to Antioch in Syria they reported that new churches were coming into being. While the response of the synagogue had not been all that positive to the message that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah, Savior, and Lord, the Gentiles were a receptive field.
Paul’s message was that the God of Israel was the Creator God of all people and had acted to deliver them from the powers of sin and death through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These Gentiles were not required to become Jews in addition to believing in Jesus. Circumcision of the male Gentile believers was not necessary. They had been saved by the grace of God by trusting in the promises of God revealed in Jesus.
But not everyone among the Jewish believers were satisfied with “grace alone”. They believed that to be a follower of Jesus was to be a law observant Jew. This meant that the Mosaic law needed to be embraced by the Gentiles, especially circumcision, kosher foods, Sabbath keeping, and the observing of all the Jewish festivals, times, and seasons.
This issue stirred a major conflict in the first century church. It threatened its unity and peace. The Pharisaical believers insisted that salvation was through faith in Jesus, plus obedience to the law. The Gentile believers had heard and believed the simple message of “grace alone, faith alone”. This was not the last time the church in its mission experience would be required to do communal discernment of the will of God. The resolution of this issue would mean that there would be one church and not two, a Jewish and a Gentile church. But not just that, the whole doctrine of salvation that became so important at the time of the Protestant Reformation would have been in danger. Martin Luther and John Calvin rediscovered Pauline Christianity and reformation came into the life of the church, but not without pain and division.
So the debate and the conflict were so intense that Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas up to Jerusalem to meet with the pillars of the mother church, Peter, James, John, and others. The result was the first council of the church that sought to reconcile these differences for the sake of the peace, unity, and mission of Christ in the larger world.
In the vocabulary of spiritual direction for the church in our times, the word “discernment” of the will of God for the sake of the mission of God has become a major theme addressed by many and sought by us all. This was why the great councils of the church have been called from time to time in the history of the church. The church’s life and mission has been challenged by the world and by its own internal conflicts and needs for revelation, guidance, and truth.
Just this week it is reported that Pope Francis and Bartolomew, the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, will call a joint east / west meeting in Nicaea, Turkey for 2025 to celebrate the results of the first truly ecumenical council in 325 AD. 1700 years ago the united church bishops crafted the Nicene Creed that has affirmed what all Christians of east and west have believed about the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed stands at the beginning of the Book of Confessions of the PCUSA.
The interesting thing is that for the two past years the PLR has been in a time of discernment of the will of God as to whether or not it is time to divide into two separate denominations. Yesterday, Saturday, May 31, 2014, the Presbytery acted on the request of three of our congregations to be released from the PCUSA to the ECO, another new Reformed body that will be of one mind on the “essentials” of the Reformed faith.
Given the fact that the church has been and will continue until the end of time the process of seeking to discern the will of God for its life together and mission in the world, what can we learn about communal discernment from our text in Acts 15?
First, the church gathered for the sake of debate.
This is an important point. Many Presbyterians have dreaded the meeting of the GA each year or the presbytery that meets four times a year. We always get ourselves into trouble when we meet on such occasions. You can count on the media picking up reports and printing them out of context.
I think the risk is worth taking. We believe that authority to make decisions is in the whole body of Christ and its representatives. Unless we meet to discuss and to debate, to have conflict between different worldviews, how shall we ever discern what the will of God is for the larger church.
We have been joined to a body of believers who live under the same confessions and who have been baptized by the Holy Spirit, therefore, we meet to share what the Holy Spirit is saying to us in the body of Christ of which Christ is the head.
This will inevitably cause conflicts because we are different persons. It is a mystery of how it can be that there can be so many different points of view in one congregation. Well, think about your family. How many of us have children or spouses who agree with us on every issue? Many a Thanksgiving Holiday family gathering has been ruined by this diversity. Nevertheless, all of us together are smarter than any of us by ourselves.
The church gathered in Jerusalem to debate the doctrine of salvation. It has been a long time since we had a discussion or debate about the three great Protestant watchwords, “grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone.”
Secondly, the church gathered in Jerusalem to listen.
Paul and Barnabas told of the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. “The whole assembly kept silence, and listened.”
How awesome it must have been to be seated in that collective silence. It is in and through the silence with all the listeners focused on the story that the Spirit gives direction to the people.
The problem for the American Church is that we are growing up adults who have short attention spans. To listen to anything that does not entertain or make its point visually within a couple of minutes we risk losing our audience. The marketers know this. Remember our attraction to Super Bowl commercials. I have come to the place that I would rather watch the commercials than the game. They are far more interesting.
I am afraid that one of the central issues we all have is in learning to sit long enough in silence to really hear what people are saying to us with whom we do not agree. I learned along time ago that I needed to be able to make my opponents argument before I critiqued it. I assume this is what law schools teach young attorneys. Before they can make a case they need to understand and to interpret the oppositions argument. In doing that they discover the hidden assumptions and faulty logic inherent in the other side’s presentation.
But listening in the church is of a deeper quality. Almost always in the church the other’s case has strong elements of truth that may indeed call into question our own understanding of the truth of a matter. Tragically we decide what we want to accomplish and then we gather evidence that we believe will support our assumptions, and in the long run we move a whole people.
In our Presbytery’s discernment process about the PCUSA strong arguments have been made about the theological drift of the denomination. Specific instances have been cited in which biblical authority has been questioned, or speakers noted who asked, “what’s the big deal about Jesus?” It is easy to propagandize a congregation by not telling the whole truth of the matter.
I have done marriage counseling with couples who could not agree on the meaning of a single word in their common vocabulary. It was crazy making. Soon I realized I needed to help them divorce before they killed each other.
Everyone had a chance to speak on the floor of the council and people were expected to listen. Even the leaders sat and listened until it was clear that all had been heard. And then, Peter and James spoke.
Peter called the council to remember the guidance of the Holy Spirit in sending him to the Gentile’s home where as Peter spoke the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles.
But then, James, the brother of our Lord, rose and cited the biblical witness to the will of God. He quoted the prophet Amos who had written to Israel hundreds of years before that God would ultimately rebuild the ruins of Israel and in that rebuilding the Gentiles would be drawn the living God of Israel.
Thirdly, the church gathered to decide the issue.
James declared the discernment of the will of God for the whole church. On the basis of their gathering, of their listening to the experience in mission, and on the foundation of biblical truth, James gave the authoritative interpretation that Gentiles were not to be troubled with becoming Jews before they could follow Jesus.
James commissioned an apostolic letter to be written and delivered to the whole church that affirmed that salvation was by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, based upon scripture alone.
There were only a few realities that the Gentile Christians needed to remember. They were being incorporated into Israel’s ancient story and into a synagogue in which Moses’ law had been read. The Gentiles needed to remember that Israel’s temptations and struggles in maintaining spiritual identity would now be theirs.
The Jewish community had been called to avoid pagan temples and pagan foods that were not kosher. They were to avoid the immoral practices of the pagan temples. The Greeks and the Romans practiced all kinds of sexual behaviors that degraded them. The new Gentile Christians were asked to carefully consider their behaviors out of consideration for weak consciences of others who would spy out their freedom and be led astray by their liberty.
What the Jerusalem Council did was turn away from moralistic legalism, but also away from Gentile libertinism. Grace was grace, but it was not cheap. When Christ died and poured out his blood on the cross, he purchased us for himself. From that moment we belonged to him. And only in and through service to him could we truly be free to be human.
The Council concluded by saying, “Is has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” Acts 15:28-29
The final truth was that the process of discernment was for the sake of the mission of God through the church.
May it be so for the church in our time!

By Dr. Jerry Tankersley

Grace Alone

Date: May 25, 2014 Author: Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley

This morning is the 6th Sunday of Easter and we continue our Sermon Series on the Book of Acts. Our preacher this morning is Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley. He is giving the message from Acts 15.


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Acts 15:1-11


“We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.” – Acts 15:11

When Peter stood before the assembled leaders of the Jerusalem church to speak about grace, he understood that they knew that he spoke to them by grace alone.

The remembered stories of the 12 on a long journey with Jesus in Galilee and in Judea had not whitewashed Peter’s ambivalence, his spiritual blindness, his moments of profound insight, his passionate commitment to Jesus, and at last his threefold denial that he had ever known Jesus. Peter could not stand before the assembled delegates to the1st Council of the church with any sense of deserving to speak with authority to them.

He had asked how often he ought to forgive someone who sinned against him. For him, seven times were enough. Jesus said seventy times seven. There was one occasion in which Jesus told him he was on Satan’s side of things, that Satan was sifting him.

Yet, Peter had seen the resurrected Jesus and been restored.

Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Three times Peter answered, “yes”. “Then feed my sheep Peter.” In that moment, Peter came to see that the God revealed in Jesus was the God of the second chance.

Grace had overflowed to Peter.

When the Holy Spirit was given on the Day of Pentecost, it was Peter who was given the courage to interpret to the multitudes what was happening. It was a grace-filled moment: a forgiven sinner, a weak man, who had been restored by the unconditional favor of God in Jesus Christ, stood before them. In humility he could stand and speak the truth in love. Salvation is through the grace of the Lord Jesus.

With the Apostle Paul it was much the same. As a devout Jew and lover of the law of God who was convinced that he was legally righteous before God and proud of it, he was at last pressed by his own life experience to confess that as Saul of Tarsus he had been a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence, and this, in the name of his religion, in the service of the God of the Torah. Paul came to see that grace would be the sufficient power of God to sustain his life through many struggles and hardships.

When Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem to meet with Peter, James, and the other disciples, they carried a message of good news that the foundational character of the God of Israel was grace, mercy, and love. They came to Jerusalem to face a church deeply divided in its understanding of God’s salvation story. The decisions that were to be made at this all important council would either make or break the followers of Jesus and the new churches that were coming into being in Asia Minor and in other places. What was at stake was the gospel of Jesus Christ, the future of God’s mission through his people.

The conflict within the church was the truth of God’s salvation. Paul and Barnabas had risked their lives on the first missionary trip into Roman Galatia to witness to the unconditional favor of God revealed at the cross of Jesus the Christ. They taught that God had done for humanity what humanity could not do for itself, that is, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel, took unto himself the powers of sin and death, defeated them in an act of self-sacrificing love, became a sin offering, bore the curse of the law in his own body, and reconciled humanity to himself and us to one another.

If this were not true, then the first church had no future.

This message was good news for Jews and Gentiles. Both Jews and Gentiles lived in a world in which the central religious quest was to stay on the right side of the gods. Often the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods and goddesses were capricious, angry, and demanding of offerings to receive their blessings. You do this for me and I will do this for you. The behaviors of these gods were worse than the behaviors of those who worshiped them. Therefore, the devotees of these gods lived with fear that they might fail to give to the gods what they demanded and suffer the consequences. What might happen to a Greek polis, or city that failed to propitiate the gods and goddesses worshiped in their temples? Zeus might throw a thunderbolt to their city and destroy it! Not much grace there!

When Paul and Barnabas spoke in the synagogues of Galatia and witnessed, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children…” they stirred conflict and controversy.

When they proclaimed that for freedom Christ has set us free from the law, the synagogue went into a spasm.

Freedom from the law was revolutionary. How could it be that one could be welcomed into right relationship with God simply through believing in the grace of God manifest in Jesus? That did not seem to be enough to keep God happy. Therefore, some in the Jewish community and emerging church asserted: “faith in Christ was not enough; that to become a Christian one had to believe in Jesus, but also keep the Mosiac law.”

But the gathered leaders of the Jerusalem church sat down and listened to Paul and Barnabas tell what God had done through them on the mission field. Not only had some law loving Jews believed in Jesus, but God fearing Gentiles had also come to trust the promises of God in the gospel message. Through hearing, believing, and welcoming the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, into their lives, the Gentiles were forgiven of their sins and given a new standing in relationship with the God of Israel. They were given new hearts empowered by the Spirit of God. Therefore, they rejoiced. A new humanity was coming into being. The New Creation was breaking into our broken world. It was springtime. The snow was melting. Hope was alive and planet earth was being reclaimed.

The healing of the Old Creation had begun.

After studying their scriptures together, praying, and listening to the stories of the missionary journey, at last Peter stood, as he had on the day of Pentecost and answered the Pharisaical believers. They insisted that the Gentiles needed to add legal obedience to their faith. It was necessary for the men to be circumcised and for all believers to keep the law of God. Salvation was through faith plus works, not by grace alone and faith alone.

Peter reminded the gathered leaders that salvation was by grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ, and the reception of the Holy Spirit. Salvation was a gift from God. Paul wrote to Ephesus, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Ephesians 2:8-10

And to the Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love, empowered by the Spirit.” Galatians 5:6

In some ways the subject matter of the 1st Jerusalem Council seems like a historical conflict from a distant planet. It may seem like an irrelevant story to the issues before the church in our time. But what might have happened to the history of Christianity if the resolution of “grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone” had not been passed on to us?

Probably the new churches would have become a heretical sect within Judaism and disappeared as another Palestinian religion, or some rendition of Greek mythology. Certainly, there would not have been a Protestant Reformation if Paul and Peter had not stood fast before the gathered assembly that was in deep disagreement and conflict. Thank God the early authorities stood with Peter and Paul.

I would hate to think of the church as a legal community of believers all seeking to work their way to God through good works. Paul and Peter both knew that the church had no future outside of the good news of grace. What has made the church of Jesus a transforming presence around the world has been the truth of the grace of God and the forgiveness of sins made possible through the full meaning of the cross of Jesus.

The first evening of the General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, in 2002, the candidates were presented to the Covenant Network, the progressive group that did not favor me for moderator. After dinner I stood before them and spoke about the nature of the church as a grace filled community of forgiven sinners. I referenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together. That book written to the underground Confessing Church of the 1930’s in Nazi Germany, has guided my spiritual growth.

Bonhoeffer, who became a martyr for the faith, argued that we all come into the Christian fellowship with wish dreams about what sort of community it ought to be. Quickly, we discover that the community is filled with sinners who do not measure up to our expectations. Bonhoeffer said that the sooner that happens, the sooner our wish dreams are shattered, the better. Because it is only then that we discover the truth of the gospel: that we have life together only through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is so easy to preach this truth, but so difficult to live it. As you know, we Presbyterians are rediscovering our need for grace. We have written “grace alone” into our Constitution, but living into the truth with forgiveness and love for one another is increasingly hard and not much fun. At the very moment in which we need one another the most, we are separating, dividing into different camps and expecting to receive God’s blessings because of it. Our debates are about property values rather that gospel grace.

In such historical moments of disappointment and division with the larger church, the Lord places his table before us and invites us to come to it, to eat and to drink of his body and blood, to confess our sins, to repent, to turn around, to confess the faith once for all given to the saints.

The Table before us is the Table of Grace. Here we are called to remember that God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. None of us have the dollars necessary to purchase God’s salvation. Rather, God has purchased us not with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ. Out of divine grace, the Father welcomes we prodigals home. He gives a party, kills the fatted calf, and invites whosoever will to come celebrate. He seeks the lost for the sake of forgiving and restoring them to his family.

To the elder brother, the party and the grace of the father seem like divine injustice. He will not enter the party. He is so self-righteous that he cannot understand the mercy of the Father for legalistic believers or fallen Gentiles.

Yet, I believe in every human heart there is a longing to know, to trust, and to experience the healing grace of God that overflowed for the Apostle Paul and Peter.

This Table is for us. It is for you. It is for me. I need this Table today to hold me fast in the truth of the gospel and long cherished truth of the biblical faith, that salvation is through grace alone, received through faith alone, and which empowers us to continue the mission of God in our time and place.

By Dr. Jerry Tankersley