Nothing like a good old church fight, huh? Accusations of hypocrisy, special interest groups, theological lines drawn… pull up a chair, get some popcorn, sit back and enjoy! Sounds like the General Assembly arguing over the definition of marriage, who gets to be ordained, support for Israel…
But no! This is happening at the first church council – well, more properly the meeting AFTER the first church council when Cephas (better known as Peter) arrives in Antioch and has a theological smack down with Paul over what to do about those Gentiles who have knocked on the door and then had the temerity to come on inside and sit down… at the head table! … Should they be circumcised? Should they keep kosher? Should they be Jewish first before they become Christian?
The more things change the more they stay the same, right?
Of course this is Paul’s account – and wouldn’t you like to have Peter’s account of this confrontation? I would.
Nevertheless what is at stake in this episode that Paul recounts and interprets is nothing less than the very heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and it IS illustrative, I believe, for us today who struggle with so many issues:
How does one maintain the purity of tradition while allowing newness to break through?
What hymns do you sing, how do you worship, what do you have to believe, what do you have to practice, do? Who gets to control the future? The budget? the building? the programs? o homosexuals have to be celibate before they are ordained?
Who, after all, gets to define the boundaries of what identifies Christianity?
We can’t help it, as people, as humans to construct realities and articulate beliefs and stand firm on conviction; it must be this way.
But conviction alone is a funny thing; have to be careful. I remember a story about a little boy who stood up before his elementary school class (he was probably in 2nd grade) and he defended the reality of Santa Claus with all his might. “Of course there is a Santa Claus,” he proclaimed “who else brings the presents on Christmas morning?”
You can have all the conviction you can muster and still be wrong!
Conviction and certainty of your opinion doesn’t make you right. Christian faith is so much more than simply believing despite the evidence, or how much you hang on to tradition in light of a new reality.
And Paul had been knocked off his horse by a new reality. St. Paul had experienced the “expulsive power of a new affection!” as the 19th Century Scottish preacher and mathematician Dr. Thomas Chalmers called it. Or just like that MiO drink that is advertised on TV – squeeze juice flavored drops into water and “THIS changes everything!” Same thing was said about the IPhone 4… Paul’s experience really DID change everything!
He had the original “come to Jesus moment!” When he regained his eyesight – he saw the world in a brand new way – God had done something so definitively new in Jesus Christ – raising him from the dead – creating a new reality for you and for me to walk in – free from sin – a new creation, God among, God within, God breathed – that EVERYBODY was part of it – no one left out!
Truly St. Paul was the first universalist – of course some people disagreed, and some people had other opinions, and joined other religions and many felt that God’s love was only for those who accepted it – but I think St. Paul saw that in Christ Jesus – EVERY barrier was broken down – even belief barriers. And once broken down you don’t re-build.
Just as the sun still shines whether or not we get out of bed and look… or the clouds cover the illumination of the mother star – so too is God’s love and inclusion poured out on even the most crusty atheist.
This conversion experience gave Paul a new mind for a new age. He could see beyond the boundaries of the page, like any genius who sees what most of us cannot even fathom.
The boundary is ALWAYS being stretched – Gentiles don’t have to be Jews first – it was this first realization of Paul that caused all the other realizations that human boundaries on slaves, women, on GLBT individuals – on anyone, can’t be from Christ Jesus – because as Clover proclaimed last week: Christ has set us free for freedom – not to be enslaved by convention, or by doctrine – or to go back under the oppressive constraints of any order – be it an oppressive relationship, idea, ruts or regimes. It is THIS belief that makes us different than those in ISIS or ideological Christians.
You know the experience of tossing a pebble into a placid pool and the concentric circles expand from the point of entry wider and wider and wider until the constraints of the banks, or the shore stop it…. Well God’s grace that Paul experienced was like that little pebble – although in this great universe there is never a boundary, never a shore – always infinite room to move, grow, include, love.
All the ambiguities of life are held in balance in Christ – it is not black and white – it is all glorious shades of every color imaginable THIS is how it is in Christ…. As St. Paul knows well….
“It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ, who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20)
This mind-blowing new reality that Paul had experienced for himself AND was preaching to others: that God’s acceptance is almost infinitely broad–doesn’t mean we don’t do stupid, even evil things. It doesn’t mean that God’s righteousness doesn’t hold you accountable – to every injustice, to every act of exclusion and unfairness. It doesn’t mean that we don’t sometimes cause self-inflicting wounds and pursue self-destructive practices or get dragged into ruts of our own making …
And yet, as I have said this a million times and now a million and one times: You cannot get outside of God’s love for YOU.
For as Paul proclaims in his letter to the Romans: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 9:35-39)
It is this trust – that nothing separates us from the love of Christ – that empowers you and me to do amazing things – to trust and see beyond touch and sight – to imagine the unimaginable and move towards it! To hold ourselves accountable to glory and righteousness, and forgiveness, and hope – and to welcome everybody – throw the doors wide open – “here comes everybody!”
This is what Paul was fighting for and we should be fighting for this too! For THIS Paul stood up to Peter and to James and to everybody – THIS was the Gospel that Paul proclaimed – not rules but freedom, not restrictions but risky living, BLOW THE TOP OFF and hang on for dear life – because this changes everything!
You want a piece of this action? Come and get it!
Thanks be to God!