Acts 15:1-31, Gal. 2:1-21 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Peter vs. Paul Ordinary 19 J. Shannon Webster Summer Sermon Series August 7, 2016
You just heard two different texts that were descriptions of the same meeting. Did it sound like the same meeting to you? No matter how we try and free ourselves from it, there is this idea in the back of our minds that Scripture is somehow magical – that God leaned into a scribe’s ear and dictated word for word what we have, in English, in the Bible. But it didn’t happen that way. Our Bible is far more interesting than that, containing history, fables, philosophy, theology, prophecy, poetry, lists and records, letters, hymns, parables, comedy, tragedy and even wild visions. It is our family story, un-sanitized and telling it like it was. That’s what we have with these two texts. They don’t reconcile.
We are deep into our summer sermon series, “the Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” where we are trying to look at Bible stories through the lenses of the lesser or often ignored character. But who would that be today? Peter and Paul are rightly represented as the two giants of faith in the early church. Peter was Jesus’ right-hand man, the one he named “Cephas,” (“Rocky”) and said, “On this rock I will build my church.” Which is why the Pope’s of the Catholic Church are said to be in the “shoes of the fisherman,” the Petrine succession, inheriting that office from Peter to this day. On the other hand, Paul was a Pharisee and persecutor of the Church when he was thrown face down and blind on the Damascus Road in a bizarre encounter with the risen Christ. Paul never knew Jesus before the crucifixion, but after his conversion was the tireless evangelist, building the church into an international organization, crafting our theology, writing a third of the books in the New Testament in the form of letters to his churches. And yet Peter always seems to get top billing, from the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul in the Episcopal prayer book to Peter Paul Almond Joy (if you remember the candy bar) to Peter, Paul and Mary. (Okay, those were real people, but why not Paul, Peter & Mary?)
What I’m trying to point out is that these two men were the formative figures of our faith, after Jesus, and they were not friends. In fact, they do not seem to have liked each other. I find that interesting. Does that mean anything for us today?
Luke, who wrote the Gospel by that name, was also the author of Acts, our first text. Luke wrote at least 50 or 60 years after the death and resurrection of Christ, so he is passing on to us what was told to him, about this important meeting. The meeting has come to be known as the First Council, or the Jerusalem Council – year 48 (Christian Era), it was the first churchwide decision-making assembly.
At issue was, what is the church? Hans Kung reminds us: “The primitive church, small and unimportant, was regarded as a Jewish ‘heresy”, the ‘sect of the Nazarenes.’”1 This dispute was internal to the Christian part of the Jewish community. It was not the larger Jewish faith as a whole raising the issues, but “the brothers.”2 The issue was this – Paul was starting and nurturing churches in Asia Minor and Greece, among Gentiles, non-Jews. Some Christians were Pharisees. Including Gentiles in the faith made for a relationship problem, largely because of the purity codes and the Jewish dietary laws. That is, they weren’t kosher! The debate was: will Gentiles be accepted as Gentiles, or must they first be converts to Judaism? The church in Antioch (Damascus today) did not require it. Jerusalem did. How could these people be saved without the Torah? Did they even know the 10 commandments? Further, they were ritually unclean. Should the mission even reach into the areas of the Roman Empire where there were few, if any, Jews? Would the church divide along racial lines? Would Paul’s mission to the diaspora (Jews spread throughout the world beyond Judea) end? What constitutes the people of God, and how? It was a complicated issue – maybe not to Paul, but to the rest of the church at large.
Would this new fledgling church, which had survived all sorts of adversaries, persecution internal infidelity and misbehaviors, survive its first real policy fight? As Luke wrote it (and Luke was always orderly, calm and logical), they did so graciously and carefully. The Jerusalem church was never really opposed to Paul preaching to the Gentiles, they just wanted those Gentiles to become Jews within the covenant as they understood it. The Torah was not so much a means of salvation as a mark of identity. They were willing to include Gentiles, but on their terms. The Antioch church did not schism, wash its hands of Jerusalem, and go off on its own, but sent Paul and Barnabas to talk to the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. Fortunately, Peter had earlier received a vision, while visiting Cornelius, a Gentile, that God meant to include Gentiles, and told that story (Acts 10).
As the Taizé website says of this text, “In the end, all these objections, however legitimate they may seem, had little weight before Peter’s single question: ‘Who was I to keep God from acting?’”3 Luke describes a thoughtful discernment process. The whole assembly was silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul (as they told their story.) We know all these people from other parts of the Bible. James was Jesus’ brother. Barnabas was Mark’s cousin. Silas would be Paul’s cellmate. James, then, said, It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to impose this burden.. (with the caveat about not eating food offered to idols, and to avoid disgusting behavior). James’ summation was sent back to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, and two from the Jerusalem church, Judas and Silas. And so, Luke wrote, everyone lived happy every after.
Or did they? Paul describes a different view of that meeting, in Galatians 2, and remember he was describing a meeting at which he was present! Luke was describing a meeting he heard about. One could say that perhaps Luke was more objective, or maybe was spinning it to make Peter and James look a little better. Paul says, I opposed Cephas (Peter) to his face. There is a difference between Luke’s pro-Peter version and Paul’s side. Luke was preserving the apostolic faith in Jerusalem. Paul was packing for missionary journeys into parts unknown. We don’t know what else Paul may have said, because we don’t know how many of his letters may have been lost. But we know he did not buy what Peter was selling. “The Greeks frowned on circumcision, as an act of personal mutilation,” wrote William Countryman, but the real problem was all the observances that went with that. Those who “started trouble at Antioch required of converts not only circumcision, but the full observance of the whole Torah.”4 And Arthur Knock wrote: “There is on the face of it a cleavage between the Palestinian Gospel of Jesus seen in the synoptics and the Greek teach of Paul.”5
Could the Law, the Torah, be reduced to 10 Commandments? Or the 4 essentials of the Jerusalem Council? Or the Apostle’s Creed, or the Book of Order, or some “4 Spiritual Laws”? Paul said No. Not by law, but by grace alone are we saved. Not by external ritual, but by Christ Jesus himself who seeks direct relationship with us. The great Church historian Martin Marty observes that Paul may have feared further open conflict with the mother church, and went to work with a fervor that made Jerusalem’s claim secondary. He fought them in principle. Outside of Galatians he “never wrote a single word about Peter, nothing about James, he ignored them.”6 From that point on, the Jerusalem (or Jewish) mission, became Palestine, Syria, Egypt and into Mesopotamia, maybe even to India. The work of Paul’s (or Gentile) mission was from Syria into the Roman Empire and the setting sun. Who gets the church’s attention and mission? A church I knew in the Pecos Valley closed their day care program after church members complained “the Mexican kids were touching the door knobs with their little brown hands.” Darn those Gentiles. Contrast that former pastor Ed Ramage’s phrase that we still use: “We welcome those whom God welcomes.”
Scholar Walter Wink warns that, “Not just Judaism, but all religions of the book (Christian and Muslim also), degenerate periodically into legalism,” and that “it is utterly predictable that religious authorities will act decisively to maintain their wealth and power.”7 Jesus himself opposed interpretations of the law that were oppressive to the “little ones,” the rural poor among whom he did most of his ministry. He didn’t oppose the Torah so much as how the powerbase in Jerusalem understood it. Paul didn’t care so much about Torah as about evangelion, Gospel, good news. That he describes in Galatians 3:28-29, There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus and by the promise of God are heirs of Abraham.
“Christian dogma is not the product of a deliberate creation, “ Knock writes. “It comes rather from a number of attempts to meet problems, to avoid error rather than to state and define truth… Paul had to think out problems which the disciples at Jerusalem would not have considered.”8 Paul and Peter found themselves in serious disagreement over the direction of the church’s ministry. They found a way to work it out, a way that allowed the church to go forward. But afterward they went their separate ways – “no kissing and making up.” But where would we have been without either one of them? Their gift to us was no less than the Christian religion. We needed them no less than we need each other. It would seem being right on any one question is not so much what matters. (One of my favorite websites The Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua, has the motto, “We can’t be right about everything we believe. Thank God we don’t have to be.”9) Good thing. We probably have multiple notions of who Jesus is and what it means to be faithful. Put them all together, and perhaps it would still be an inadequate description. Yet here at this table Jesus Christ meets us, not because we are right, not because we earned admission, not because we are perfect, but because we are not. We come flawed and frail, in need of grace, in need of each other, not because we are good, but because God is. And that’s enough.
1 Kung, Hans. The Church, Doubleday, NY, 1976, p. 314.
2 Meeks, Wayne. The First Urban Christians, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1984, p. 112.
4 Countryman, William. Dirt, Greed and Sex, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1988, p. 70.