“Apostles at Odds”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, May 7, 2023
Reading: Galatians 2:11-16 & 19-20
We’re in a series on strange texts in the bible here at TEMC. And a preacher like me has to watch out for a series like this. One great teacher said ‘preachers forget no ordinary civilian comes to church asking “hm, I wonder whatever happened to the Amalekites?’” But we bible nerds care about such questions. So, for example, our text for today comes from the book of Galatians. The Galatians are also known as the Celts, or Celtics. These were people north of the Roman empire whose rule stretched from southeastern Europe to the northern British Isles. Gaul was so named because Gallus is the Roman word for Celt before Gaul became France. The Boston Celtics are named what they are because Irish immigrants to New England were Celts. Banjos and fiddles and penny whistles: Galatian, or Celtic music. Our Welsh community: Celts. My French ancestors: Celts. We just don’t hear about the ancient Celts because they didn’t have a written language, and the Romans, by contrast, could not shut up about themselves.
Those are the sorts of fun facts that help you win at bar trivia, not at life.
So let me push past mere trivia here. Paul recounts a face-to-face standoff with one Cephas, better known as Peter. Here we have two apostles of the New Testament church squaring off. Paul boasts: “I opposed him to his face.” We usually imagine the twelve apostles in deep unity with one another. Paul is sort of grandfathered into the apostles via his vision of Jesus on the Damascus Road. And here Paul goes all High Noon mano a mano with the rock that is Peter. What gives? And why is the letter to the Galatians airing the church’s dirty laundry for all to see?
Paul is an apostle to the gentiles. He’s going to the ends of the earth to say hey, the God of Israel has raised Jesus and is reconciling all things. Judaism was admired in the ancient world for Jews’ high ethical standards, but gentiles didn’t usually want to become Jewish—circumcision, food laws. I mean, Deuteronomy is cool and all, but have you ever had a bacon cheeseburger? They’re good. So, gentiles would admire Judaism but not become Jewish. Paul says the God of Israel embraces you now without you having to become Jewish. You can stay gentile just as you are and be baptized into the church, the people being saved by Abraham’s God. Jews and Gentiles together in one community is a sign that God is finally reconciling all things. Sign me up, I’m in, folks say.
But there are other Christians around with a different view. They’re associated with James, Jesus’ own brother, the leader of the church in Jerusalem. They’re Jewish Christians. They circumcise their sons, keep the food laws, and also believe Jesus is messiah of Israel. And they are coming around after Paul to these baptized gentiles and saying ‘yeah Paul taught you some good stuff. But not all the stuff. You still have to become Jewish. Good job, you’re halfway there. Now, here’s Deuteronomy so you can get busy doing the rest of the stuff.’
One sign of salvation in the ancient church was the common table. Everyone eats together. Rich and poor. Jew and gentile. Male and female. All made sisters and brothers in baptism. It was a sort of social miracle. These groups didn’t usually mix in the ancient world. They still don’t. You can sort of track the whole bible by asking ‘ok, who eats with whom?’ Jesus will eat with anybody. He’s got terrible taste in friends. The church continues that. Tax collectors? Check. Prostitutes? You’re in. Gentiles? Step right up. Jews? Of course, you’re good here. In fact, there’s nobody not on his guest list. The only way to get scratched off is to think you’re too good for Jesus’ table. Oh no, I’d never. Ok, well, knock yourself out—eat alone. This feast is the only salvation there is. This table continues. There’s a reason we eat together around here so often, 6 kitchens in this church. To eat with Jesus is to be saved. Oh and to eat with him, you’re also eating with all his weird friends. Of whom you are one.
Paul hears that Peter is no longer sitting at the table of salvation. Peter has heard from Christians in Jerusalem like James, the Lord’s brother, that they’re nervous. Jewish customs are being neglected. ‘We need to back away from this lawless fraternizing and stick to our own ways of eating. Be nice to the gentiles and all, but don’t eat with them.’ Peter backs away. And Paul can’t even. He blasts Peter straight to his face and then brags about it. Peter hasn’t been berated like this since the Lord called him Satan. Paul blisters him, we record it and call it scripture forever. ‘How dare you. The table of the Lord includes all of us sinners, but now you’re too good for it Peter?’
Let me give you a parallel from 50 years ago where I come from. North Carolina is, of course, part of the US south, with its legacy of slavery and segregation. It’s also a great lover of basketball, official state religion. And my college, Davidson, was set to sign its first black player, the best high school player in the state, one Charlie Scott, now a local legend. Scott and his dad drove into the town of Davidson one day to prepare for college. They sat down at the local diner and, you knew where this was going—they weren’t served. A rival coach from another college heard of this, the great Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina, and he invited the Scotts to Chapel Hill. He marched them into the finest restaurant in town, which also had a segregationist policy. But they loved Coach Smith and UNC basketball more. So, they served the Scotts. He went on to be an All-American and to take UNC to several Final Fours, once beating Davidson on a halfcourt shot by Scott to get there. Now careful with that story—the Scotts were the ones in danger, and we southerners still love a white saviour story. But who eats with whom still matters. Who won’t eat with whom still matters. My fellow North Carolinians realized we love basketball more than racism. Paul says to Peter hey, we love Jesus more than we love our food customs. So, let’s eat with all his friends we wouldn’t have chosen. This is not a mere “issue,” a question for debate. Eating together is salvation. It’s the body and blood of the Lord, and lives are at stake.
Paul blasts the idea that anybody needs anything more than Jesus. Anything at all. Jesus is enough. You don’t have to add on Torah. You may get the impression sometimes that we need more. Some Pentecostals leave you thinking Ok, Jesus is good and all, but you really need to speak in tongues to be a complete Christian. Nope. Jesus is enough. Some Roman Catholics give the impression that Jesus is great and all, but you really need to be in relationship to the pope in Rome to be a real Christian. Nope. Jesus is enough. Lots of us Christians have done this to our gay sisters and brothers. Yeah I’m glad you’ve met Jesus, but you really need to sort out your love life it you’re going to be part of our church. Nope. Jesus is enough. Sometimes rich churches can do this with poor people. Sure, you love Jesus, but man, you need some nicer clothes, and maybe a job, and geez you smell. Nope. Jesus is enough. Many Christians do this with political affiliation—and not just conservatives in the US, but liberals in Canada too. Nope. Jesus is enough. There is no second level past Jesus. He is enough. Christ plus nothing. Let’s eat.
Now, I want to show some sympathy for the people from James, for Peter’s scruples. Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Britain, tells a story about being knighted by the queen. The Buckingham Palace people were going over the ceremony and they said, “And then you’ll kneel.” Sacks said, “Uh, sorry, Jews don’t kneel for anybody, not even queens.” Now I admire this. If you’re Jewish, we Christians look like we kneel entirely too often. I mean, millions of British subjects knelt for King Charles III yesterday. Long may he reign by the way. If you’re in some Christian churches, folks kneel all the time: before the blessed sacrament, before sitting down. Our church even has kneelers in it! Ever notice? They’re there! (really uncomfortable without cushions). We Christians kneel too much. Sacks said no. The palace protocol people got back to him. ‘We can make what looks like a kneeler and have it be chest high to you, so all you’ll have to do is lean. Can you lean for us?’ Why yes, I can lean, no laws against that. A lordship is worth a lean.
Peter’s early Jewish Christianity is saying the laws of Moses have sustained Jewish people for millennia. I respect that deeply. But Paul says, well, if the law saved gentiles, then Christ died for nothing. Woah. That’s serious. Now Paul’s saying that Jewish people can follow Jewish laws. Paul himself had Timothy circumcised to show respect for Jewish law. Paul’s saying gentiles don’t have to. Christ plus nothing is enough. Jews can worship Jesus and follow Jewish law. But gentiles should not. Lots of Christian anti-Semitism has come from reading the book of Galatians and thinking it’s against Jewish people as a whole. No, it’s against gentiles following Jewish law. That’s a totally different thing. And while Rabbi Sacks is fresh in our brain, he once welcomed the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, to his London synagogue. The archbishop was asking how Christians can learn from Jews to observe the Sabbath again because we’ve forgotten. And the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people alive for millennia. God does that sort of thing.
Here’s why all this matters so much. When God chose Abraham to save the world, he promised that through this family he would bless the rest of us. That choice divided the world in two. There are the Jews, through whom God saves. And the rest of us, gentiles, non-Jews, who are saved. Here’s the problem. Sometimes one group resents the other. This is true of all humanity all the way back to Cain and Abel. We have an awful history of anti-Judaism in which God’s people are oppressed or killed, often by Christians. Lord, have mercy. And like any people with a proud heritage, Jews can look down on outsiders. Who doesn’t do this? Paul thinks that in Jesus Christ, God has made these two groups one. On the way to God reconciling all things. Every, last thing. So if other Christians are saying that gentiles should become Jewish they’ve messed up the whole story. Instead of the two becoming one in Christ then, Jews and gentiles, the two would be becoming one through conversion to Judaism: food laws and circumcision. No, no, no. Paul says you’ve got the whole story wrong. Jesus’ resurrection reconciles all people to God, not Jewish law. Jewish people can keep their laws, no problem. Gentile people don’t have to become Jewish. All anyone has to be, is made one in Christ, blessed through Abraham.
I hope you can feel the force of how radical this is. Peoples have laws. Lots of laws. If you look at our statutes here in Toronto I’m sure it’s a longer list we’re subject to than Judaism ever was by its laws. Paul says that the law doesn’t matter anymore. We don’t need the law to be mora because we’re part of the body of Christ. He lives in us. We in him. He makes us good. Not any law. This sounds like crazy talk. What do you mean you need no law? That’s how lawbreakers talk, scofflaws, former American presidents, tax cheats, people who think they’re above the rest of us. Paul says no. It’s only because in one man, Jesus the resurrected Jew, all humanity is being saved and made holy. That’s how we’re made good. By him. Not by anything else, even something as good as God’s own law.
Now I’m back to Peter and Paul. There’s an icon of the reconciliation of Peter and Paul in your bulletin on page 11. Do you see where they’re doing an awkward middle school dance? Yeah, that’s it. This . . . isn’t in the bible. It never happens that we know of. All we get is this alpha male showdown in Galatians 2, no reconciliation. But the church in her wisdom has figured Peter and Paul must have reconciled, because when God’s people fight, it’s only temporary. It’s always going to be healed. So, it must have been. We just don’t know the story. Peter’s insistence on the goodness of the law for Jews, and Paul’s on the radical grace of Jesus for all people: those can come together. This icon is a selfie of when they do. In the Catholic Church Peter’s and Paul’s feast days are the same day: January 25th. They’re often depicted holding up one church together. They were both martyred in Rome according to tradition. And if they were both willing to die for Jesus that must mean more than any temporary strain between them, however unpleasant.
This says something: Be careful who you quarrel with. And over what. God is going to make you reconcile with them one day. Not necessarily now. Not necessarily soon. Not necessarily in this lifetime. But one day. Have a look at the image of the archer in the bulletin and the one full of arrows embrace. Forgiveness is the only way to life.
In a little country church, I served once two leaders were running against one another for county commission. They weren’t speaking. Neither were their friends and family. This was awkward in a building that only sat 80 or so people. It made the meetings go fast though. The key issue was whether to zone the road the church sat on. It was tradition against progress, old money against rednecks. A novelist couldn’t set it up so perfectly. One day during the Lord’s Supper one of them heard, really heard, Jesus’ summons to the table to eat together. So despite himself he stuck out his hand to the other. The other, also surprising himself, took it. Two enemies reconciled, right before the Lord’s Supper. I asked one why he did it and he said, “that table makes us friends.” He wasn’t happy about it—he would have rather nursed his grudge. But Jesus rejoiced.
Jurgen Moltmann might be the most eminent theologian alive. He’s north of 95 now, a student of Karl Barth’s, converted in a British POW camp. His greatest student is a professor at Yale named Miroslav Volf, an ethnic Croatian. Miroslav was imprisoned and tortured during the Balkan War by Bosnian Serbs. And after a lecture on the love of enemies, his great teacher Moltmann asked him in public, ‘Miroslav, could you forgive the Serb who tortured you?’ That’s serious. Volf paused. He didn’t want to take this question lightly. So, he answered honestly: “Probably not. But as a Christian, I ought to.” Christian faith is a leaning toward forgiveness. Not that it has to be instant, and it should never be thoughtless, or cheap. It can cost as much as Christ’s own blood. But it does have to happen. Either now, or at the table Christ is spreading in his kingdom. Be careful who you quarrel with. Christ is going to bring you both to his table.
In one of John Irving’s novels, two spouses have been stuck in a pattern of confrontation. One recent argument resulted in an injury, and the husband can’t speak as a result. He writes a note to his wife. “I don’t blame you,” he says. Next note. “I don’t blame me either.” Third and final note: “Only in this way can we be whole again.”
This isn’t just a weird text. It’s not just about whatever happened to the Amalekites, or whether a Galatian is a Celt or not (they are—and I still think that’s cool). It’s about the table Christ is spreading. You’re invited. And the guest list includes people you’d never invite to your table, that I’d never invite to mine. It’s such a raucous party because of its host, who extravagantly loves us all. So much so, he’ll not only have us to his table, he’ll melt the animus we have with those we’d rather not be with. He just can’t stand a feast without us all. Without those we’d rather die than eat with. Bring your table quickly Lord Jesus. And make a feast fit for a king for all of us. Amen.