Discernment: A sermon by Dr. Davis Chappell

We’re beginning a new series this morning on Discernment.

 According to 1 Cor 12, Discernment is a spiritual gift. Listed there with wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, tongues & interpretation of tongues – is the discernment of spirits.

  In their book Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church, Danny Morris & Charles Olsen define the word:

  • to separate or distinguish
  • to find the authentic & valuable, & recognize the counterfeit
  • to see the heart of the matter with spiritual eyes;
  • to see beneath the surface, through illusions w/in human systems, and beyond the immediate & transient;


In our fast-paced, high-tech, rapidly shifting culture, discernment is one of the most needed and neglected gifts.  The best definition of discernment is from St. Ignatius of Loyola: “the interpretation of the motions of the soul.”

Cassian, the 4th century Egyptian monastic said: “The monk who discerns is kept from veering to the left in carelessness and sin, sluggishness of spirit, and pretext of control; and is kept from veering to the right in stupid presumption and excessive fervor beyond constraint.”

Acts 15 is a watershed moment in the life of the Early church. There was a conflict brewing in the body that warranted prayerful discernment. Let me give you some context. In the first 14 chs of Acts, the church had been growing like gangbusters. Jesus had said before his ascension in Acts 1:8: “When you receive the Holy Spirit you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the utter ends of the earth.” And sure enough, it was happening!

The movement was growing not only in number, but in diversity.

  Samaritans were responding. An Ethiopian Eunuch was baptized by Philip. A Roman Soldier was converted through the preaching of Peter. The church, which began as a Jewish renewal movement, was now gorwing beyond her ethnic roots.

In particular, the Church in Antioch of Syria was flourishing. They were baptizing people left and right.

After Stephen was martyred, many believers migrated to Syria from Judea and planted a church. They had a missionary spirit. The membership was mostly Gentile. Incidently, this was the first place where people were called “Christian,” which means ‘little Christ.” (Like the term ‘Methodist’ it was not a term or endearment, but of ridicule).

And this is where the problem comes to a head. 15:1 begins: “Then certain individuals came to Antioch from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

Jerusalem was home office for the movement. The Vatican. The Methodist Center. Note how Luke refers to them: Certain individuals.” In other words, they are unauthorized, unsanctioned. They don’t represent the whole. And yet, they feign to speak for the Church.

Who were they? v4 says they were part of the Pharisee party. Zealous for the Law. Jewish legalists.  They were not opposed to the Gentile mission. But they were convinced that these converts must come under the umbrella of the Jewish church; in other words, they must not only submit to baptism in the name of Jesus, but also to circumcision and the law in the name of Moses.

Speaking for the Church, they declared: “You cannot be saved unless you are circumcised.” In other words, “You can’t be a Christian unless you first become a Jew.” “If you don’t accept the Law, God will not accept you!”

A careful reading of the text reveals the crux of the problem.  In v1, Luke calls circumcision a custom. In v5, the Pharisees call circumcision a law. Therein lies the rub. Which is it, a custom? Or a law? There’s a big difference between a law and a custom!

  A custom is a tradition, a ritual, a cultural norm. A law is an imperative, a universal, non-negotiable. I’ve noticed sometimes in the Church, we make customs into law.  When I was a boy, there were some in my church who said women could’t wear make-up, or jewelry. There were some who told our youth we couldn’t wear jeans, or play cards, or dance. The Baptists said we could dance, but we couldn’t enjoy it!?

John Wesley had a wise rule of thumb: “In essentials – unity, in non-essentials – liberty; in all things – charity.” But what do you do, when non-essentials are made into essentials? That’s what these individuals were doing!  It’s a theological problem that if unchecked – will sabotage the nature of salvation, as well as the future mission!

One of the books I read on my study break is called The Pastor Theologian. The premise of the book states that “the church has become somewhat theologically anemic.” And furthermore, “some of our seminaries have become ecclesially anemic!”

Its scary, but true! When this happens the church will eventually become missionally anemic!  If what these Pharisees are saying is true, then Grace is not enough for salvation! You’ve got to add to it! What they’re advocating is: Grace + Law = Salvation. Jesus + Moses = Salvation. This is in opposition to what Paul had been teaching in Antioch, and would teach later in Ephesus. Eph 2:8-9 specifies our theology: “It is by grace that you have been saved, thru’ faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” In other words, Grace + Nothing = Salvation! Jesus + Nothing = Everything!

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul referred to these individuals as Judaizers. And later as trouble-makers! v2 says, “Paul & Barnabas had no small dissension & debate with them.” That’s an understatement! Feathers were flying! The stuff hit the fan!

So watch what happens. It’s a clinic in conflict resolution. The Church in Antioch doesn’t go rogue. They don’t split the body. They don’t start a new denomination. They respect the apostolic community. They’d have never heard the Gospel if it hadn’t been for the Jerusalem Church. So what do they do? They send a delegation to go up to Jerusalem and discuss the issue.

When they arrive, v4 says they are welcomed by the apostles & elders.” See the mutual respect? The mother church doesn’t say, “Here comes trouble!” “Katy bar the door!” They say, “C’mon in!” And they call to order the 1st General Conference. Turns out, they’re Methodists!

Well, where do you think Mr. Wesley got the idea for holy conferencing? He got it here, in Acts 15! It’s part of our DNA.  We do it up right! Charge Conference, District Conference, Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference. General Conference.

Wesley believed, as do we, that Holy conferencing is a means of grace, through which the Holy Spirit works in and through the body to discern the heart of God. We got it from Ac 15.  The Jerusalem Church didn’t say, “Let Antioch do their thing. And we’ll do our thing!” They didn’t say, “It’s a free country, let each one do as they please!” In fact, Paul would later say in Gal 5:13, “Don’t use your freedom do indulge yourself, but use your freedom in humility and love to serve one another.”

They didn’t dodge the conflict, or sweep it under the rug! I love what GK Chesterton once said: “I believe in getting into hot water. I think it keeps you clean.”  And that’s what the Church did! v6 says: “The apostles & elders met together for holy conversation & prayer.”

They heard all sides. They spent a lot of time listening! And after much debate, Peter shared his experience of how Cornelius, a Roman centurion, had been changed by the grace of Christ. It wasn’t grace + anything. Just grace! Cornelius, a man who had lived by the sword, who still had blood on his hands, was baptized & received the HS.

But Cornelius wasn’t the only one converted, Peter had a conversion experience that day as well. He testifies that in that experience, he realized that God makes no distinction between Jew & Gentile.  Next up, Paul & Barnabas shared their witness of what God was doing on the mission field. And v12 says the whole assembly kept Silent.

“Silence is argument carried out by other means.” What’s happening through the silence? Discernment! We need more than talking points. We need silent points!  And then Luke says: James took the mic. Not James the apostle, the brother of John, 1 of the sons of thunder. Sons of thunder don’t facilitate such conferences very well! Not James, the son of Alphaeus, 1 of the 12, known as James the Less. Boy, there’s an inferiority complex waiting to happen!  

This is James, the brother of Jesus. He wasn’t even a believer, until after the resurrection. I Cor 15:7 says, “James saw Jesus in Risen glory.” And his brother became his Lord. And now, he’s the leader!

After hearing the experience of the missionaries, notice what he does: He connects the apostolic experience with Scripture.  “What Simeon has said (note, he calls Peter by his Hebrew name. Smart man! The source of the problem is the Hebraic Jews, so he wisely refers to Peter by his Hebrew name) about God’s grace to the Gentiles agrees with the prophet Amos: ‘I will rebuild the dwelling of David which has fallen, so that ALL my people may seek the Lord, even the Gentiles, over whom my name has been called.” He tests their experience with Scripture. He validates experience through sacred canon! And notice, Amos says nothing about circumcision!

James then speaks for the whole Church: “We will not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.” Grace is enough!  He would put it in writing & send it with emissaries to Antioch. He would say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us not to impose this burden on you.” (There’s a key point here. When the Church gathers, it is not for the purpose of ascertaining what the majority thinks. It is for the purpose of ascertaining what the Holy Spirit thinks, and how the Spirit is leading. Its called discernment!)

And notice, they never took a vote. They didn’t ask for a show of hands. No secret ballot. Through holy conferencing they discerned God’s direction. By missional experience & Scripture (also tradition and reason) they found consensus. In fact, it was unanimous! v22 says, “they had the consent of the whole church.”  There’s 1 other caveat included in this text, that is often left out. James adds a PS in the letter. You see it in vss19-21, “We will not trouble you anymore about this matter, but it would be well for you to abstain from eating food offered to idols, avoid sexual immorality & unkosher food. For from the earliest times, Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, with his words being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” What’s that mean?

Is it a new administrative law? No! Its a pastoral word to these Gentile converts. These abstentions are right out of the holiness code in Lev 17-18. (Remember the Gospel movement is not only a hospitality movement, it’s a holiness movement!) These actions are offensive to Jews. He’s saying something very important here, that in our joyous freedom, we miss!

Just as the Pharisees are not to Judaize repentant Gentiles, Gentiles are not to Gentilize repentant Jews! You know what James is doing? He’s preserving the unity of the body!  In the Jerusalem Conference, the HS scores a double victory! An either/or becomes a both/and! There’s a victory of truth in confirming the Gospel of Grace, and a victory of love in preserving the fellowship, by sensitive concession to conscientious scruples.

Martin Luther said it like this: ”We are to be strong in faith, but soft in love.”  John Newton, the former slave trader, who wrote a marvelous hymn about his conversion, said: “You must be a reed in non-essentials, and an iron pillar in essentials.”

How do we know the difference, between essential and non-essential? Discernment. A gift of the Holy Spirit. Given to the church through holy conferencing!

Let me give you an example. Three weeks ago, in a little town outside London, a group of children were having an Easter egg hunt in a field. Two men who had committed a crime came running thru’ the field past the children. A moment later, police in their helicopters flew overhead, searching for these felons. These quick-thinking children, with the help of the adults, got down on the ground, in formation, and together, formed a human arrow, that pointed the authorities above in the direction of these men. Within a few moments, the suspects were apprehended.

It’s a picture of discernment. That’s what happened in Jerusalem. The children of God came together, and by their connection to Christ and each other, they pointed the way to the One who brings about mercy & justice, in whom we find our salvation. And the mission kept going! Its still going! Through you and me!

God help the Church to be an arrow, that points beyond individuals, to the One who is justice and mercy, grace and truth, that through our witness, others would be apprehended by the One has has come, is come, and will come again!

In the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.


Dr. Davis Chappell is the Sr. Pastor of Brentwood United Methodist Church in the Tennessee Conference.