Evangelism: Bringing Joy Not Imposing a Yoke

On those mornings when we do Matins in my parish, we read the prescribed daily Epistle and Gospel readings.   This morning, as we are in the Post-Paschal period the Apostolos reading was  Acts 15:5-34.  Portions of the lesson struck me for various reasons as being very apropos to life in the Church today.

 [5] But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.”

Pharisees to this day continue to rise up and make such demands that religion be treated as law and the law be exactly followed.  Pharisaism is alive and well in the Church.  Issues like these continue despite the fact that the Apostles once ruled on such thinking, rejecting it.  As wearisome as this is, one has to acknowledge it is biblical, even New Testamental.

[6] The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.

How many hours have been consumed and how many miles traveled by clergy to debate such issues?  Yet, the matter is never resolved, there will always be some new issues for people to get upset over and “point the finger” of accusation against others (Isaiah 58:9).  “Others” never live up to those aspects of religious law we think important.   But think St. Ephrem:  Grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, or sister.

[7] And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. [8] And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; [9] and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith.

And to this day, some in the church love to make distinctions between people, separating and dividing.  In St. Peter’s day it was Jew and Gentile.  Now, despite the fact that we are each baptized and have received the Holy Spirit, and that all of us in the Church have heard the Gospel and had our hearts cleansed by faith, some continue to want to make similar distinctions between bishops and believing members, between clergy and laity, between men and women.  Yet like Peter’s Gentiles whom he defended as having been blessed by God, all Orthodox – clergy and laity, men and women – have heard the Gospel, received the Holy Spirit and been cleansed through repentance and faith in and through the Sacraments of the one Church.

[10] Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? [11] But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Imposing burdens and “a yoke upon the neck of the disciples” is still being done today.  The yoke may change, but some see a need to burden others with rules and regulations which have been and are hard to bear.  St. Peter said not to do this.  His successors don’t always pay attention to that particular teaching of his.

[12] And all the assembly kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

Many new believers come into the Church – it is a miracle that people hear the Gospel and embrace the faith.  It happens all the time.  People who experience the joy of the Gospel and believe, receive the Holy Spirit, and they don’t have to know all of the rules and regulations of past generations.  This was a mystery for those first Torah-bound Christians.  How is it possible that God can act in people who don’t know or follow the Law of God?  And note that the assembly of apostles and elders is silent as they think about the growth God is giving the nascent Church.  They marvel at what God is doing rather than machinate about how to impose rules on those newly being born into Christ.

[13] After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brethren, listen to me. [14] Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. [15] And with this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written, [16] ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, [17] that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, [18] says the Lord, who has made these things known from of old.’ [19] Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, [20] but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. [21] For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues.”

St. James many scholars believe was even more Torah-bound than St. Peter.  Yet, he recognizes that God works through the Gospel to change the hearts of non-believers.  St. James advised that we not trouble the new converts with all manners of laws, rules and regulations, even if we believe they are from God.

[22] Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, [23] with the following letter: “The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting. [24] Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, [25] it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, [26] men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. [27] We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. [28] For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: [29] that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

So few rules.  Amazing.  Not 613 laws of Torah, not years of Tradition of the elders.  Four simple rules is all that was required of those new converts to Christianity.  And the Apostles believed this was in agreement with the Holy Spirit!  Just these few things and you do well.  What a blessing!

[30] So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. [31] And when they read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation. [32] And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, exhorted the brethren with many words and strengthened them. [33] And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brethren to those who had sent them.

And such a simple demand from the Apostles is met with rejoicing, not with dejection and despondency.   So little is required, so much is given.  And even with so few requirements, these new Christians are embraced as full members of the Body of Christ.

It is wisely said that there is nothing new under the sun.  Pharisees still rise up to this day to trouble the Church.  The Apostolic wisdom is still needed to recognize that though some of us may have accepted and lived by many religious rules, they are not mandatory for every generation.  They can in fact be a yoke and burden that makes discipleship and salvation impossible.  The Apostles did not drive out of the Church those newly believing members whom God had chosen and inspired with the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.  They did not impose upon the new converts any heavy yoke, but they brought joy to the new faithful.

The Apostles rejected the concerns and fears of the Pharisaical members of the Church, and offered the hand of fellowship to those upon whom they as Christ’s chosen leaders chose not to yoke with Pharisaism.  It is the wisdom of the Apostolic Tradition as recorded in our Scriptures.

7 thoughts on “Evangelism: Bringing Joy Not Imposing a Yoke

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  2. dshortimon

    Thank you Fr. Ted for sharing your thoughts and your heart on this. I too am seeing more and more pharisaism showing up in the church and her different ministries. I am also seeing pharisaism coupled with authoritarianism, which creates a really oppressive environment. I have just stepped down from a leadership role in a ministry that I have been involved in for many years because of the demands placed upon the membership by the local leaders. Demands that are backed up with the attitude of, “Do it because I am in charge and I said so.” I informed them that I could not remain a leader and therefore condone their decisions by implication. It is imperative for all of us in the Body of Christ to shine His light and to stand up for the freedoms that His sacrifice bring to us as Paul did in his letter to the Galatians. I am sure the fight against pharisaism will go on until our Lord returns to take us home.

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