‘..he cautiously pulled back’ (Galatians 2.12)
…Peter regularly ate with the non-Jews. But when the conservative group came from Jerusalem, he cautiously pulled back and put as much distance as he could manage between himself and his non-Jewish friends… (The Message, Chapter Two)
The second chapter of Galatians is one of the most important chapters in the bible. It goes to the heart of what the gospel is about and I want to explore some of it today. If you do not have a copy of the Message then I recommend that you get one. It makes abundantly clear in everyday language exactly what was going on and what was at stake.
In this letter St Paul is justifying himself and his message to the Church at Galatea. He is trying to show them what is at the heart of the Christian message. The ever-present battle going on in all the Christian communities at that time concerned the relationship of the Christians to the Jews. In each city abroad there was a Jewish group and as Christ had been a Jew, and as Paul was a Jew and as the other Christian leaders in Jerusalem were Jews, it is clear that there was an area of confusion about just how Jewish a new Gentile Believer had to be. Were they to conform to Jewish thought and practice – or had the coming of Christ done away with some or all of that?
We know that in Jerusalem the Jewish element was very strong. We know that the first tranche of Christians were predominantly Jews. It is obvious that an intense dispute developed about how Jewish a Christian was meant to be. Was a Christian meant to follow the old ways, the precious Jewish way of life? Or was he to follow only part of it? If only part – which part? It was the first test for the early Church and it went to the very heart of what being a Christian meant.
The debate swayed back and forth. The Jewish Christians could not ignore the fact that non-Jews were attracted to Christianity and that some became true Christians. Did such converts have to assume all the practices of the Jews – for example, should they be circumcised?
This was a key debate that affected all Christians at that time very deeply.
Into this situation came St Paul. His conversion was so fundamental that it completely changed him. A Jew of the Jews, he became a Christian radical. He was, perhaps, too radical for those Christians who wished to combine their Jewish faith and customs with the New Faith. Paul must have seemed a heretical threat to the very basis of the new faith to those Jewish Christians who were holding onto their Jewish faith. He not only preached a new solution to old problems, but he also appeared to jettison the old certainties of the old religion.
Paul had deliberated long and hard after his conversion, and came to the conclusion that new birth was the crucial condition of being a Christian. But he followed on with an equally important condition for a Christian – that thereafter he should live as someone inhabited by Christ (‘in Christ’), obeying what Christ told him to do. In theological terms this was a determination to live by the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. The ego had to be replaced by Christ at the centre.
These two conditions were laid down by Paul as essential conditions for being a Christian. And – equally important – nothing else was required. It was all contained in these two requirements: that one replaced one’s ego by enthroning Christ at the centre of one’s life, and thereafter one lived obedient to the Spirit of Christ every moment. He called it living by grace. Baptism was a sign of the new birth. Communion was obedience to Christ’s command. But these two conditions were the defining conditions for a Christian.
He reached that simple yet profound simplification of what it means to be a Christian after a lifetime (albeit a young life!) of zealous study and practice of the Jewish faith, and by several years of thought and study after becoming a Christian.
That simplification made him the perfect person to reach out beyond the Jews and the Jewish world into the Gentile world. What was the Gentile world? Quite simply it was the rest of the world. The teeming millions – all the other countries of the world. He could speak to them with a simple message: Receive Christ as Lord and obey the indwelling Spirit of Christ day by day. To be born again, to follow Christ’s teaching and understanding of the Father God, and copy the way Christ had lived, was example enough. No Circumcision. No Jewish ritual. No Jewish law. Nothing of the old religion was to be brought over – that would have been, in the words of the Master, like sewing old cloth on a new garment.
Once Paul’s brilliant mind had seen the light of the gospel in these terms he went into action and started touring in the Gentiles areas – that is everywhere outside the Jewish territory. He always met the Jewish community in these locations first, in the hope that they, too, would see the Christ as their Messiah – but mostly they didn’t. They preferred – and who can blame them? – the old Jewish ways.
Inevitably his authority was questioned by some. He maintained that his authority was from Christ. But, at one point, he felt it necessary to obtain the sanction of the undisputed leaders of the Christians in Jerusalem. So he went to Peter. And Peter and the others in Jerusalem accepted him as what he felt he was – the Apostle to the Gentiles. Implicitly, they accepted his teaching.
No doubt they had some reservations about Paul’s teaching. He seemed to be very radical. They thought of themselves as pretty revolutionary – but they were living in Jewish Jerusalem, in the centre of the Jewish nation, surrounded on all sides by Jews. They were trying to make headway in preaching Christ as the Messiah, but met a great deal of Jewish resistance and opposition.
So they were, no doubt, glad that Paul was taking his new and revolutionary ideas out of the Jewish arena and into Gentile areas. They blessed him and sent him on his way. The only condition they laid down was that the Gentiles should not eat meat sacrificed to idols, and that they should not give offence morally.
So Paul went off with his vibrant gospel, preaching that two things were necessary: the enthronement Christ in the heart, and commitment to follow the Spirit of Christ day by day. All life was to be lived in the light of the teaching of Jesus when he was in Galilee.
Now, at last, we come to Galatians Two. In this letter Paul recounts how, after he had first gone to consult the Apostles about his ministry, Peter came to visit the Christians in Antioch. Obviously he would be greeted with joy and great respect. Here was the man who had accompanied Jesus on his journeys. Here was the man who had denied Christ and been forgiven, and then charged with looking after the community of Christians. He sat and talked with them all and he ate meals with them. Nothing strange in that. They became friends.
But then ‘certain persons’ had come from James in Jerusalem. Clearly they were Jewish Christians who retained many, if not all, aspects of their Jewish religion. They clearly required obedience to the Jewish rules and regulations (including circumcision). When they arrived Peter cautiously pulled back from his close fellowship with the Gentile Christians and ‘put as much distance as he could’ between himself and his non-Jewish Christians brothers and sisters. He was fearful of the report that the conservative Jewish clique – the group that was pushing the old rite of circumcision - might make back home in Jerusalem.
As often happens, when one person loses their courage, it sparks similar doubts and fears in others. The Jewish Christians at Antioch now separated themselves along party lines, joining Peter and the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem. You can almost feel their confusion and uncertainty in the text.
Thus division opened up – you might almost say schism threatened. One the one side were the conservatives – wanting to preserve the old, on the other was the passionate and vibrant apostle Paul, who saw deeper into the gospel and into reality, and wanted to include the whole world, without conditions. In the middle were the new Gentile Christians, wondering what was going to happen next.
Does anything sound familiar about that situation? What about an Archbishop who at this time is threatened with schism in the world wide communion of Anglican churches because of the conflict between a conservative element which wants to preserve the old and a newer more vibrant body of believers which wants to include the whole world in the gospel ? An oversimplification I hear you say? But our very reaction shows how deep the roots of the old are in each of us.
No doubt St Peter wrestled with the situation. I do not think it was just fear, of which Paul accused him. The Lord had entrusted Peter with the keys of the Kingdom. He must have also had a real concern for the unity of the emerging church. He lived in Jerusalem with the Jewish Christians – trying to win more and more Jews. That must have been the focus of his thought and prayers. The main problem for him must have been how far they should compromise the simplicity of the gospel for the sake of winning the Jews. Then he came to Antioch and saw the vibrant Christ-like Christian community and he was bowled over. But suddenly the Jewish Christians were here from James – how should he act?
Maybe he was considering how much more difficult it would be to win over the Jews in Jerusalem if they heard about the new Gentiles being accepted as Christians without circumcision.
Fortunately, in God’s providence, there was Paul. And Paul was not going to compromise for the sake of winning Jerusalem Jews. He could see beyond Jerusalem and beyond the Jewish Nation. He could see the whole world out there, waiting to hear the good news of Christ. Good news, which was unencumbered by the old. Good news that did not lay down any Jewish conditions or rules.
And so Paul faced Peter and challenged him. Not so much theologically, but on the factual basis that he had been glad to eat with the Gentile Christians after he arrived, but had changed his tune once these Jewish Christians from James in Jerusalem had arrived. Beneath the challenge about his actions was the deeper theological challenge – were Gentile Christians to be required to take on Jewish rites and ritual?
Galatians does not record what happened next. We don’t know Peters reaction to Paul’s confrontation. No doubt the Gentile Christians had been puzzled and confused to see Peter go back on his openness with them, once the Jerusalem Jews arrived. No doubt they had felt hurt. But they knew Christ. They followed Christ. They would love Peter however he acted. And no doubt, in love, some reconciliation was made, before Peter returned to Jerusalem and to his main concern of reaching out to the Jewish Nation.
Parallels with today are obvious. Not the same issue in detail. But exactly the same issue in principle: the old versus the new. Whether we should remain true to tradition or break open the box, step out and follow Christ, however inclusive and loving he is.
And the problem Peter had in Antioch is the same problem the Archbishop of Canterbury has in London in the Autumn. How far to hold onto unity – how to find a way through that will somehow unite the two opposing factions. How to preserve the unity of the church. And to do that without compromising essential principles.
The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem disappeared for ever. We hear nothing more of them once the Roman blow fell on Jerusalem in AD 70. The temple was destroyed and the people dispersed. The Jerusalem church is never heard of again. But the Gentile churches flourished. They were open to all sorts of heresies and strange new ideas. Some were good and some were very bad. But the church survived them all. By chance? No! It was because it is the Holy Spirit who leads and fills the church – and He preserves what needs preserving and lets go of whatever is tacked on by man’s ideas.
Let us hope that the conservative element in the Church of England worldwide, however numerous and however vocal and however affluent they are, will not impose their old ways on the new and vibrant churches that have dared to find the freedom of living to the full in the free grace of God. We must not cautiously draw back into the old ways, but courageously stride out along the new and exciting path that God reveals to us. Maybe, after all, the Americans have something to teach us in all of this.