Sunday, January 24, 2010

Celebrating Peter and Paul

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me. Galatians 1:11-24

Within two weeks the Liturgical calendar provides us with the opportunity to celebrate both Peter (The Confession of Peter, Apostle – January 18) and Paul (The Conversion of St. Paul, Apostle – January 25). And so in honor of these two Apostles I would like to share some reflections on them. They lived at the same time – though Paul was clearly the younger of the two. They were both very important in the establishment of Christianity. At the same time, as recounted in Galatians (and in the book of Acts) they did not always agree. In fact, that is putting it nicely. But it is hard to get a complete sense of their conflict as we really only have Paul’s side of the story. It is obvious in the letter to the Galatians that Paul is responding to something in particular that has him pretty upset. The issue is the Jewish laws regarding circumcision and the Jewish dietary laws. Do we follow these laws or not? And what about when there are Gentiles present, can we eat with Gentile believers who would be ritually unclean? Paul minces no words. He is forthright and verbally brutal in his response. We are saved by God’s grace. We are not saved by following the dietary laws. And he doesn’t care who disagrees with him. His position is, well, those who disagree with me are wrong – period! James, Peter, Barnabas, whoever. They are simply wrong. In the text quoted above he begins by establishing his credentials. And during this he makes it clear that he knows and has experience with Cephas (Peter). Even so, Peter is wrong on this. We should not allow the rather watered down account of this conflict as recorded by Luke in Acts to affect our interpretation of this conflict as recounted directly in the letter to the Galatians by Paul. There are strong feelings here and there is evidence that this was a major breach between these apostles.

So what is the big deal? And who is right? We look back on this conflict, shrug our shoulders and go “ho-hum” – who cares about the dietary laws. This is a non-issue for us now, and it is hard for many of us to understand the intensity of this conflict. So perhaps we should take another issue and insert it here – say, for example, the resolutions that were passed at the last CWA. This is an intensive debate that is in the process of splitting our church. All that seems to matter is being right. And being right seems more and more to be equated with being the “true” Christians.

In her excellent blog posting, Episcopal Priest and Theologian Sarah Dylan Breuer asks the question: “So who was the nasty heretic who should have been kicked out of the church, or at least out of all positions of leadership: Peter or Paul? Who is it who's not a real Christian: Peter or Paul?” Well? Most of us would be hard-pressed to choose between these two apostles. So perhaps we need to look carefully at our ways of dealing with conflicts on matters of faith and start by recognizing that God is bigger than all of us. “If Peter and Paul can disagree passionately about something that Paul and perhaps even both of them thought was about the very "truth of the gospel," and if we can celebrate them both as apostles of Christ and heroes of the faith, why does it seem to happen so often in our churches today that any serious disagreement about an important matter of faith becomes an occasion to condemn one party as not only completely wrong, but outside the bounds of Christianity itself? And don't say that the difference is that money and property weren't at stake then; when famine befalls the Christians in Jerusalem, at least some of whom seem to have been on Peter's side of this conflict, Paul spends no small amount of political capital to get churches he founded to take up a collection for their sisters and brothers in Christ in Jerusalem. (Take note – those of you who advocate withholding benevolence). So, Who should have been expelled from the first-century communion of churches: Peter or Paul? Whose witness to Christ was superfluous? Whose ministry was not needed? And if these are silly questions to ask about Peter and Paul, what makes them any less silly to ask about any of our sisters or brothers today? Amen!

Sarah Dylan Breuer – – Blog entry June 8, 2007

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