Paul & Peter

Today’s reading is Galatians 2:11-21Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Richard & Ian.

Have you ever been told off in public Ian?

I guess for most of us the public telling off stopped when we left school.

When I read this passage it brought back a slightly shameful episode from years back to mind. Laura and I were playing badminton at Kingsdown Sports centre with our very good friends Mitch and his wife Chris. Mitch and Laura were one side and me and Chris on the other. I had placed a shot right on the line but Laura called it out and I disputed it but the others deemed it to be out. I am highly competitive and got very annoyed and every shot that came my way I smashed it straight at Laura. This happened for a few shots when suddenly Mitch said in a very loud voice ‘Richard why don’t you just grow up?’ The entire place went silent and everyone looked in my direction. I nearly died of embarrassment.

So I feel for Peter, publicly being told off by Paul.

So why was Peter castigated by Paul, Richard?

You will remember from Acts 10Open Link in New Window Peter had a vision about clean and unclean animals under Jewish law. In the vision God instructs Peter to kill and eat the unclean animals. Peter protests but in the end God says to him. The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter then received a message to meet Cornelius a God fearing Roman centurion who had received a visit from an angel. The Angel instructed Cornelius to invite Peter to his home to hear what he had to say. At that time Jews would not have anything to do with Gentiles.

When Peter arrived at Cornelius’s home, there was quite a crowd and verse 28 paints the picture well:

Peter said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Peter realises that God has called him to treat Gentiles the same as his Jewish Christian brothers and sisters which he indeed does.

From then on Peter saw no distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians until a circumcision group allegedly from the Apostle James arrived in Anticoch. I say allegedly because it is pretty certain James did not send them but they clearly put pressure on Peter to distance himself from non circumcised Gentiles. Peter caves in and stops sitting with Gentiles in accordance with the Jewish laws.

Peter is therefore guilty of three things:

  1. of hypocrisy by his own standards having declared publicly to Cornelius that God had showed him that everyone was equal in God’s sight. Peter was not walking the talk.
  2. he was also disobedient to God who had told him that he must not call anyone unclean.
  3. He had led others including Barnabas astray

Like me and my badminton game, Peter needed to be corrected!

Of course Paul did not do this to embarrass Peter but to deal with this insidious behaviour in the church straight away before it got out of control. Paul was clear that you could not have two classes of Christian—Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, that is a recipe for endless division and rancour. Last week Lucy spoke of Paul’s message of unity within the church and this is another example of Paul ensuring the church was of one mind under God.

So Ian, following this unity, that’s why this bust up between Paul and Peter is a bit of a surprise, isn’t it?

Yes, indeed. But it’s also so very human—and just like us. We all often struggle with a tension and temptation sometimes between what we believe or following the crowd. We know the dispute was resolved, as Acts tells us. But Paul has to very publicly rebut this, not to save his personal reputation, but because the truth of the Gospel was at stake, and if what Paul was saying was being publicly rubbished, he had to publicly refute it to protect the truth.

Paul could have left it here but he doesn’t—How does he elaborate Ian?

In his passion for the truth, having publicly stood up to hypocritical conduct, there follows in these last verses, 15–21, a very important word. It’s a word which is central to this letter, central to the gospel preached by Paul, and central to Christianity. The word is ‘JUSTIFIED’.

It sounds like a complicated word, doesn’t it?

Yes. It comes up 5 times as verb and noun in these few verses—‘Justified’ and ‘justification’. As Paul continues his response to Peter’s conduct, he introduces us to the central doctrine of the Christian church, the doctrine of Justification by faith.

In the face of opposition and backsliding, it’s vital for Paul to make this clear—otherwise, what does the grace of God mean, and why did Jesus Christ die on the cross for you and me?

In verse 15, Paul says of himself, and Peter, ‘We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentiles… yet we know that a person is not justified by the words of the law (circumcision and all the rest of the law etc) but through faith in Christ.’

I encourage you all to read this carefully again. This is the heart of our Christian faith.
So, what does this word mean?

‘Justification’ is a legal word, and is the exact opposite to ‘condemnation’. If someone is condemned in a trial, they are declared guilty. If someone is ‘justified’, they are declared not guilty, or innocent. Things are made right again. We are ‘righteous’.

This can sound complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Our consciences (certainly mine does!), tell us that sometimes we are not righteous—in our thoughts, words and deeds. There is only one person who is righteous, and that is God. When those two things come together—God’s righteousness and our unrighteousness, we see clearly the things that separate us from a pure and holy God.

I believe that it’s a basic human need to be in harmony, in union with God, to be in a whole relationship with him—that everyone has, in that familiar phrase, ‘a God shaped hole’ inside them waiting to be filled.

God in his love, grace and mercy, took the steps himself, to put things right between us all, to see that justice was done—by sending Jesus to show us the way, the truth and the life, and paying the price for us, by his death and resurrection on the cross.

Being ‘justified by faith’ means making the choice, taking the personal step, to believe in the truth of Jesus Christ, to follow him and his way, all the days of our life. When we do, we are ‘Justified’—made right with God, declared not guilty—because Jesus has borne the cost on the cross, and cleared the ways for us to be back in a whole relationship with God. Our old lives die on that cross too, and we are raised/resurrected too, to new life with and in Christ.

And no hoops to jump through, no ‘works’ to do?

Absolutely not—and this is why Paul was so passionate. It’s a delusion; it’s a lie of the devil, to think that we can somehow earn our way to heaven. If we do this or that, if we try a bit harder, if we fly a bit higher… It also flatters our own egos to think that we can control things.

The great theologian John Stott put it this way. ‘Nobody has ever been justified by the law, for the simple reason nobody has ever perfectly kept the law… strict adherence to its demands are beyond us.’

The passage shows us that Paul’s detractors tried to then somehow blame Christ if we still make wrong choices. Paul dismisses this, and reminds us that when we take that step of faith and commit our lives to Jesus, not only are we justified (made right with God), Christ lives in us and with us, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We may fail sometimes, but we know and recognise this, and want to change and grow. This is because Christ is in you and with you. ‘I am a new creation, no more in condemnation, here in the grace of God I stand.’ We are justified by faith in Jesus alone. This is the truth that Paul so passionately and courageously stood firm on. And we shall be thinking more faith or observing the law next week.

Someone helped me to remember what ‘justified’ means, by suggesting I think of the word as meaning ‘Just as if it had never happened.’

What can we bring out of this for our daily lives

  1. Sometimes loving correction is necessary within church communities. We have all got to be able to give and take loving advice. This is not easy but sometimes it is necessary.

    Many years ago a friend of mine was asked to step down from a church ministry for a period by the minister because of something they had done. He returned to that ministry when he had participated in the annual act of commitment where everyone was invited to renew their baptism vows.

    Q: Sometimes loving correction is necessary, as well as standing firm to the truth of our faith.

    When do you find it difficult to ‘stand’, and perhaps easier to go with the crowd?

  2. That we should be careful not to judge other Christian brothers and sisters or other Christian denominations or practices—we are all one under Jesus Christ.

    I was brought up in quite a rigid and sectarian way—in fact in our house Anglicans were pretty well written off as nominal Christians, which means that they weren’t Christians at all, they just went to church—apart from my saintly Grandmother that is! In turn I vowed I would never darken the door of a free church or a Baptist church ever again when I left church at 15—God in his graciousness dealt with my bias as over the years I have preached quite a lot in free churches and Baptist churches. It was a joy to spend time with my brothers and sisters from other denominations.

    Q: What can bring us together as Christian communities, and what ‘works’ may needlessly separate us?

    Q: Do you sometimes spend too much time ‘striving to succeed’, rather than resting in and trusting our faith in Jesus Christ?

There will be a video version of the service.

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