(This is an excerpt from a longer piece documenting The Warehouse’s journey in becoming formed as a discerning community and some lessons we have learned as we have journeyed. If you would like to know more about this, please feel free to contact us – we would be more than happy to share.)
Identifying as, and nurturing ourselves towards being, a “discerning community” is rooted in 4 deeply held beliefs/truths*:
- God is already actively at work in the world: God is already working for justice, for the restoration of all that has been lost, for deep Shalom between everyone and everything which has been created. We did not begin this work and nor will we end it.
- God is constantly revealing this work (mission) to us and we can receive this revelation: God communes with us in various ways and we can experience God’s daily guidance and heart for us, our work and the world
- Revelation is given to the body, not one individual or group of individuals: no one person or group of people hold/s a specific right to or gift of mediating God’s presence on behalf of anyone else. When a community is formed by people of diverse backgrounds, life experiences, languages, genders, races, ages, etc with each person growing in their gifting and exercising those gifts in freedom, the community is able to be intimately and richly guided and formed by the Holy Spirit as a whole.
- Our work as believers is to discern what it is that God is already doing and to align our activity with God’s: discernment is defined by Ruth Haley Barton** in its most general sense as “the capacity to recognise and respond to the presence and activity of God – both in the ordinary moments and in the larger decisions of our lives.”
While we believe that the deepest and richest revelation is given to the body, we also know that a discerning community is made up of discerning individuals – we cannot hope to listen well and discern together what it is that we are being invited to align to, if we are not practising daily rhythms of discernment as individuals.
I love reading about the Council of Jerusalem. There is so much life in it and so many little details which have helped me (and made me incredulous) as we have been trying to practise being a discerning community. In itself, it represents one of the richest descriptions of a discernment process, but also points us in so many directions before and after that moment.
The Council of Jerusalem can be found in Acts 15. I was going to plunk all the text into here, but I realised it is quite long and so I will rather trust that people will read it and I, instead, will do a broad sweep of what I love about it.
This was around about 15 – 25 years after Jesus had ascended and the Holy Spirit had birthed the Church. There had already been a breakthrough of the Holy Spirit and Gentiles were being baptised in the Spirit and ordering their lives around the Good News of the Kingdom. But, up until this point, I think most of the apostles and others had seen the affirming of Gentiles as a broadening of the Jewish people (as in, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and others could be invited into and grafted into the Jewish family). What this meant was still being worked out. And so there were some people preaching that, if Gentiles wanted to be saved, they needed to be circumcised – in accordance with the Mosaic Laws governing the Jewish community. Paul and Barnabas took huge exception to this, or as Eugene H Peterson paraphrases it, were “up on their feet in fierce protest”. So, the church in Antioch decided to send Paul and Barnabas, along with a few other representatives, to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to give guidance on this question. Richard Foster describes the council that followed as one of the “high water marks” of the book of Acts.
I love the story because it is so…messy!! The journey starts with people arguing fiercely. They get to Jerusalem and tell stories of what they have seen God doing amongst the Gentiles. Then another group starts pointing to scripture to argue for sticking to the Mosaic law. The NIV just says, “After much discussion, Peter got up…”. Those 3 words “after much discussion” make me want to laugh and cry at the same time. Having been part of so many discernment times over the last 8 years, I find it both completely exasperating and joyfully simple that a process which can be so intense that it can sometimes feel like we are going to break the community if we carry on, can be described with just those 3 words.
I wonder if the fact that Eugene H Peterson was a pastor who had been involved in many of these “discussions” gave him more insight into the translation of that passage. His paraphrasing reads, “The arguments went on and on, back and forth, getting more and more heated.” Yup – that sounds more like it. It is messy!! Examining scripture together, comparing notes on experiences, on what we have seen and heard, on traditions we have long held to and which have served us well, on how Jesus’ incarnation, teachings and witness might now change our views on all those things, on what we understand when we talk about salvation, on what we understand when we talk about the movements of the Holy Spirit, on what we see as signs, on how we interpret different happenings in different contexts… All desperately seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all bringing our full hearts, minds, souls, bodies, experiences, perspectives and opinions into the mix to tussle – sometimes feeling like we are all humbly seeking unity, sometimes employing broken human tactics of power to be heard and make sure our opinion is known (or to sit silently and control the conversation that way!)…Taking breaks, processing dynamics, feelings, having people reflect openly about difficulties with each other, figuring out whether we’re hearing people correctly, sticking with each other long enough to understand, courageously choosing vulnerability – sometimes seeing this act break through something which has been hindering the group, sometimes feeling like we took a risk and have now been hung out to dry… Constantly testing whether we are responding to a move of the Holy Spirit or too many cups of coffee, reaching Peace or just fatigue, whether we have been authentic, open and honest, or have just bulldozed others with “speaking the truth in love” as an excuse…
As I write this, I wonder why any community would subject themselves to this! But I know the answer. There are few things as precious and wonderful and life-giving as going through this with a group of people deeply committed to aligning to the work and ministry of the triune God in the world and coming out being able to say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”…to emerge from a time of passionate engagement with a sense of profound unity, to go forward with something which has been deeply “formed” in your group as a whole.
Back to the story…
After a huge amount of discussion and feeling like they could actually break, Peter stood up and addressed them with regard to his own experience of the Holy Spirit in this instance (we’ll get to his journey soon). Eugene H Peterson describes the recorded response to Peter’s address: “There was dead silence. No one said a word. With the room quiet, Barnabas and Paul reported matter-of-factly on the miracles and wonders God had done among the other nations through their ministry. The silence deepened; you could hear a pin drop.”
And then James articulated what was beginning to emerge as the discernment from the group. The bible tells us that “everyone agreed”. What had started out as at least 2 strongly opposing camps didn’t end off with a decision or a majority vote which people had to live with; there was no “walk out”; there wasn’t even an “I am not at peace, but I yield to the greater discernment of this group”…everyone agreed. And they were able to articulate a clear, detailed answer to those who were not in the room.
I do just love this story. Paul, having experienced this unity and clarity so deeply, could write passionately to the Galatians and say, “If you still believe that people must be circumcised to be saved, why don’t you just take it all the way and castrate yourselves…come on!!” and then, a few chapters later, we read that he took Timothy and circumcised him…
How does this story help us with the task of discernment today?
Even if there is not a recipe and a step-by-step guide for this kind of Corporate Discernment, there is definitely deep wisdom that we can draw from each other and those who have gone before us. I loved something in the forward to Ruth Haley Barton’s book “Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership”. Leighton Ford writes, “I read a story about a disciple who asked his master whether there was anything he could do to make himself grow spiritually.
The master answered: “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”
Disconcerted, the disciple asked what then was the use of the spiritual exercises the master had taught him.
And the master replied: “To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”
To illustrate the same point on a lighter note: during one of our morning prayer times, we were reading Luke 4 together and someone mentioned how wonderful it was that, when Jesus commanded a demon to come out of a man it had been tormenting, Luke includes in the story that the spirit came out without even injuring the man. A colleague remarked that that doesn’t happen all the time and told us a story of someone coming under the power of the Holy Spirit and falling over…onto a person standing next to them and injuring the other person! I listened to the story and thought, “Well…that isn’t really the Holy Spirit’s fault…if we are going to live lives and conduct community times that are expectant of the Holy Spirit moving in all sorts of ways, we must be intentional about creating spaces for that to happen!” In this instance, the space was a literal one: if one of the ways we have seen the Holy Spirit’s work manifest in people is by them falling over, we really should be moving chairs, making sure there are cushions around and maybe even appointing people to be “catchers”! In less concrete, but still as practical ways, if we as a community are living in expectation and anticipation of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we have to create spaces to allow ourselves to be guided and to be able to respond with our lives to that guidance.
I’m going to try and do this with as much detail as possible, but without getting cumbersome! Again, a “drive-by” of the earlier chapters in Acts gives us a clue into the daily reality and rhythms of both James and Peter (and probably Barnabas as well). We know that the believers all gathered daily – in the temple and in homes – meeting together, breaking bread together, sharing not just food, but they had “everything in common”. We read that the believers devoted themselves to learning, to fellowship and to prayer and that they were praising God continually. And that the authenticity of the Good News being shared was also being witnessed by the accompaniment of signs and wonders. We know that the apostles prioritised their role of teaching the scriptures (so much had to be re-read, re-examined in the light of the life, teachings and witness of Jesus, and taught faithfully to those who had joyfully received the good news of the Kingdom) and prayer (Acts 6). In Acts 3, we see that being devoted to prayer included going up to the temple for the “hour of prayer”.
About 10 years after the daily ministry and discipling by Jesus had transformed into the daily ministry and guidance of the Holy Spirit, Peter was in Joppa, praying on a rooftop. While many bibles just say he went up on the roof to pray, Brian Zahnd*** has pointed out that the actual understanding of this is that he went up to the roof for “the prayers”…giving us a clue that Peter was practising daily rhythms of prayer – and not set by himself, but rather as part of a larger rhythm of the believing community. Having ordered his life in such a way that he was open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Peter had a vision which changed the course of the Church significantly (although, at the time, he had no clue what it actually meant). We read that the day before that, Cornelius – in Caesarea – had been praying at the 9th hour, which we also know from Acts 3 is the “hour of prayer”…the passage doesn’t make it explicit whether he was following the daily prayer rhythms of the community, but at the very least we know that he was making space to pray! During this time, Cornelius received an angelic visitation with clear instructions and acted on them.
So, by the time Peter was coming down from “the prayers” on the roof, puzzled by what the vision meant, he was met at the door by messengers sent by Cornelius. We aren’t told exactly when he received clarity about his vision, but we do know that, by the time he arrives at Cornelius’ house, he can explain that he understood the vision to mean that he must no longer consider Gentiles unclean – at least to the point of entering Cornelius’ house. Because of his experience with the Holy Spirit in prayer, he is able to consider the scriptures which prohibited him from being in fellowship with Gentiles, and to re-interpret them in the light of the gospel of the Kingdom. As he was speaking to them inside the house, the Holy Spirit fell on all who were gathered and the Gentiles started speaking in tongues. Receiving this as affirmation of his interpretation of the vision and scripture, Peter baptised Cornelius’ household with water, setting in motion (or aligning to what the Spirit had already set in motion!) the journey to the Council of Jerusalem. When he was questioned by the community in Jerusalem, he told them the story – now including two other clues for us: he told them that, as soon as the men from Caesarea arrived at the house in Joppa, “The Spirit told [him] to go with them without the slightest hesitation.” He also mentions that, as soon as the Holy Spirit fell on the group of Gentiles, he remembered “the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So, if God gave Gentiles the same gift [equally] as He gave us after we accepted and believed and trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to interfere or stand in God’s way?””
I am sure that, somewhere in Peter’s thoughts were also Jesus’ words as recalled by John years later: “I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now. But when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, he will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is.” I think it is so important that, if we know our minds and hearts are going to be renewed and continuously transformed by the Holy Spirit, we realise that we are currently holding onto some beliefs and thoughts which are actually wrong (actually need transforming!) and so allow the Holy Spirit to guide us with humble hearts!
Meanwhile, in another part of the Body..because they had been scattered by the persecution which began with the stoning of Stephen, one group of people in Antioch had carried on preaching only to the Jews, while another group (men of Cyprus and Cyrene) started sharing the message with Greek-speaking Gentiles. And, exactly what Peter had seen happen with Cornelius’ family, happened with the Gentiles in Antioch – the MSG reads, “God was pleased with what they were doing and put his stamp of approval on it—quite a number of the Greeks believed and turned to the Master.”
News of this got to the Church in Jerusalem and they sent Barnabas to Antioch to check it out. “As soon as he arrived, he saw that God was behind and in it all. He threw himself in with them, got behind them, urging them to stay with it the rest of their lives. He was a good man that way, enthusiastic and confident in the Holy Spirit’s ways.”
Then Barnabas goes and finds Saul (who had by now met with Jesus Himself in a bright light, been healed of blindness and discipled in the ways of Jesus by some pretty courageous and risk-taking believers), they work together in Antioch and then, in walking out the discernment brought by a prophecy of a devastating famine, they travel to Jerusalem with a gift for the Church there, meet with Peter and the rest of the Apostles, come back to Antioch and, from there, are sent on a whirlwind tour of the Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. They take this journey as a result of guidance from the Holy Spirit:
“One day as they were worshiping God—they were also fasting as they waited for guidance—the Holy Spirit spoke: “Take Barnabas and Saul and commission them for the work I have called them to do.””
And so, by the time they get to the Council of Jerusalem, they have so many stories to tell about what God has been able to do through them for the Gentiles. (Paul also makes mention in his letter to the Galatians that there was some interaction with him, Peter and Barnabas around the Judaizers and the continued working out of what it meant to be Jewish and followers of Jesus. I won’t go into that now because the timelines between Acts and Galatians make my eyes a bit squint and my brain hurt! But I think it is important to note that Peter, even after his vision, his experience with Cornelius and his passionate defense to the church in Jerusalem, still appears confused by what the fullness of the discernment means).
This story is rich with ways in which the believers arranged their lives to be open to the movement and guidance of the Holy Spirit and with how they responded and aligned their actions to what they saw the Holy Spirit doing. Not to drag it out any more, but just to list some of those ways (we do like the “shareable lists”), here are some of the things I see:
- Gathering together
- Eating together
- Praying (including within rhythms of “the prayers”)
- Studying scripture
- Learning from each other
- Paying attention to visions
- Paying attention to angelic visitations
- Paying attention to words of prophecy
- Going out and following the Holy Spirit into new places and contexts
- Listening to voices and experiences of people who are marginalised (considered unclean!)
- Paying attention to the Holy Spirit at work in others
- Reflecting on and growing in confidence “in the Holy Spirit’s ways”
- Recognising and encouraging others in the work the Holy Spirit is doing in them
- Being aware of the prompting/guidance of the Holy Spirit in small actions
- Re-studying and re-interpreting scripture in light of the work of the Holy Spirit
- Sharing with each other the work of the Holy Spirit
- Calling each other to account and questioning where certain actions and beliefs arise from
- Praising God
- Recalling (and re-examining) the teachings and witness of Jesus
- Approaching difficult issues with humility
- Practising courageous vulnerability
- Being willing to speak out about disagreements
- Being willing to seek out the council of more believers when disagreements continue
- Being willing to listen, engage, stick with the disagreement (even as it gets more and more heated)
- Being willing to speak passionately about what you have witnessed the Holy Spirit doing
- Being willing to be silent
- Being willing to keep silent as a group until someone is moved by the Holy Spirit to speak
- Being willing to change entire lifestyles, priorities and beliefs through aligning to the Holy Spirit
In the next sections, I will go into some more examples of corporate discernment journeys as well as specific postures and processes which have helped us as a community to be formed into a discerning community.
*From Frederick Marais’ book: Meeting with God’s Voice – A Guide for Leaders Seeking God’s Agenda for Their Congregation
** Ruth Haley Barton: Pursuing God’s Will Together
***Brian Zahnd: Water to Wine