Peter and Paul

Galatians 2:1-14: Paul Rebukes Peter, Mary not present

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast April 5, 2009

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                       Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this beautiful Palm Sunday. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love. Watching the people in North Dakota laboring for their neighbors has been inspiring. I am happy to report that the Home Church Art Show was a huge success. Thousands of dollars were raised for Sunnyside Ministry. Today begins Holy Week, and you are all invited to services each night at 7:00 in the sanctuary. Next Sunday morning at 6:30 we’ll have our sunrise service in which we remember our brothers and sisters who have gone before us and profess our faith in God’s grace. There is so much senseless violence and destruction in our world, it is easy to despair, but we can gather to proclaim the Good news and lift our eyes to a brighter future.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for my family. I want to thank all of the people who came to the funeral, sent notes, and gave words of encouragement after the death of my nephew, Erik. I want to thank Dr. Moore for doing the lesson last week on such short notice. My whole family would like to give a word of thanks to Rev. David Merritt, the pastor of Hope Church for helping us endure an ordeal we never thought we would face. When I was a young minister, I assisted in an Episcopalian funeral. At the end of the service, the priest leaned over and whispered, “liturgy works.” It is true. There is something powerful about having rituals already prepared for those times when grief overthrows your mind. There must have been 70 people playing in the band for Erik, and the music brought us some comfort. One of my students recently presented his Senior Project on the theme of God and humanity suffering. He used 20th century German theologians and American pop music to discuss the role that music plays in helping us face suffering, despair, and death. Shortly before 3 p.m. this Friday in the sanctuary at Home Church we will read those Jesus words of dereliction: Eloi, eloi, lama sabbathani and wait until Sunday for the answering reply: The Lord is Risen!

Peter and Paul:        Today we are continuing our study of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. I’ll be reading from the first part of chapter 2, which includes one of the few times in the New Testament that we see conflict between the apostles. The argument between Paul and Peter presented in this chapter has disturbed Christian theologians for centuries. Sts. Jerome and Augustine disagreed strongly over how to interpret this conflict with one of them arguing that Peter and Paul were play-acting rather than really fighting and the other asserting that this was a genuine disagreement. This was just one of many things that the two saints fought about. Medieval theologians spent a great deal of intellectual energy trying to prove that Jerome and Augustine were play-acting, and that Peter and Paul were play-acting. You’d think that the church was a dramatics society.

I think we are all disturbed when our authorities, our fathers and mothers, our saints, and teachers are revealed to be imperfect humans. We want them to be perfect, but the fact is that even apostles and saints sometimes make bad decisions. Rather than being disturbed by this, we can take comfort from these ancient disagreements as we struggle to make sense of the gospel in our time. We, imperfect humans, will be the authorities and saints for those who come after us. We have to do the best we can with the information we have, but we will make mistakes. Hopefully we will learn from them.

Read 2:1-14

Jerusalem Council?             Paul must have been a Moravian at heart because he addresses a doctrinal controversy by telling a story. He tells the Galatians about going to Jerusalem to meet with the pillars of the early church: Peter, James, and John. These were the chief among the apostles and had known Jesus, but Paul tells us that he was not awed by their authority but he wanted to come to an agreement with them. By the time he met with them, he had been preaching about the resurrection of Jesus for fourteen years, and his work among the Gentiles was generating controversy. Paul took along two co-workers, one of whom (Barnabas) was a Jew who traced his ancestry back to Levi. The other (Titus) was a Gentile who had been baptized in Jesus.

Scholars debate whether this meeting Paul is talking about is the famous “Jerusalem Council” described in Acts 15 or perhaps an earlier meeting discussed in Acts 11. Paul’s description of the meeting sounds similar to the Jerusalem Council, which was called specifically to address concerns over Paul’s evangelism. But there are some key differences in the two accounts. The meeting in Acts 15 sounds like a church council, but Paul says he met in private with Peter, James, and John. It is possible that he did meet privately with them and reached an agreement that was then discussed with others in the Jerusalem Church. That still happens, by the way. A committee has been meeting privately to discuss ways to improve our church’s administrative structure. They have agreed on a plan, which we will then discuss at synod. Fourteen years later, there may be different versions about what happened.

There is another difference between Paul’s account of the meeting in Jerusalem and that described in Acts. The Acts account says that the Gentiles agreed to some dietary restrictions, namely that they would not eat blood or meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul doesn’t say anything about such an agreement. I think that is because that wasn’t central to his argument. He wanted the Galatians to know that the pillars of the church approved of what he was preaching in Galatia and that they recognized his work as a fruit of the Holy Spirit. The pillars of the church accepted Titus as a brother in Christ even though he was not circumcised. 

Circumcision                        It is very hard for modern Christians to get excited about the topic of circumcision, especially on Palm Sunday. Paul won this argument in the early church and it did not become an issue for Christians again until the 20th century when American physicians decided that circumcision would improve the health of male babies. There continues to be a huge medical debate about this, which you can read on the Internet if you are interested. I’ve got nothing to say about that. The modern debate about possible hygienic benefits or psychological damage of circumcision have nothing to do with the controversy Paul is talking about.

Paul is specifically addressing circumcision as a feature of Judaism, but circumcision has been practiced by many other peoples. Anthropologists look at circumcision as a form of tribal marking, much like tattooing. For the most part circumcision is a religious ritual that marks a boy or man as a member of a tribe. In many tribes, it is a puberty rite, but in others it is associated with marriage. What we need to understand when reading Galatians is that the Greeks and Romans viewed circumcision as a barbaric practice. If you look at classical sculptures, you’ll notice that the classical male ideal meant that the body was whole and unscarred. Circumcision was a Jewish practice that was unacceptable to most Gentiles, even those who were attracted to Judaism. Gentiles who worshiped the one God and tried to live according to his teaching, but who were not circumcised were called often called “God-fearers.” Titus had probably been such a God-fearer before he became a Christian.

Throughout the Old Testament, circumcision was seen as a sign of the covenant, a way to identify who belonged to God and who did not. According to Genesis, God instructed Abraham to circumcise all of the men in his household, especially his sons Ishmael and Isaac, as a way to seal the covenant God was making with Abraham and his descendents. Circumcision was a sign that a boy was in the covenant with God; that he was part of the Chosen People; and that he would be raised according to the Torah. It was a mark that could not be removed (except through rather painful surgery – ouch) and it would remind him that he belonged to the Lord God. All of his actions should reflect a right relationship with God. By the time of Paul, circumcision was a powerful symbol of Jewishness and obedience to the Law of God.

Paul knew all of this. As a Pharisee, he would have known stories of Jews who had been martyred because of their obedience to the Torah, especially the rite of circumcision. Remember, Paul tells us that he had been zealous for the law. Before his encounter with the resurrected Christ, I am sure that Paul would have insisted that circumcision was essential to pleasing God. Two decades after his conversion, Paul still identified circumcision as the sign and seal of the old covenant. Those who chose to be circumcised were obliged to observe the law, but Paul will argue that Christians are living under a new covenant.

Titus               The big question that was disrupting the unity of the church in Paul’s day was whether Gentiles who wanted to be in the church of Christ should be circumcised. Before you say, “no,” think for a minute about the arguments Paul’s opponents probably made. Keep in mind that all of the first Christians were Jewish and they believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. Jesus’ heavenly Father was the Lord God who had made a covenant with Abraham. Jesus’ teachings were grounded in the Jewish Scriptures. Doesn’t it make sense that the followers of Jesus should be Jews? Shouldn’t they take on the sign of the covenant decreed by God?

Paul begins his argument by telling the Galatians that this was not a new debate; it went back to the origins of the Gentile mission. Paul tells the Galatians about his friend and co-worker, Titus, who went with him to the Jerusalem Council. We don’t know a lot about Titus or any of Paul’s co-workers, but it is important to recognize that Paul had friends and companions. It is easy to forget that he did not create the early church on his own; it was a collaborative effort, and Paul readily gives credit to those who worked with him. Paul doesn’t tell us why he took Titus and Barnabas to Jerusalem, but it seems likely that it was because one was Jewish and the other Gentile. They went to discuss issues related to the presence of Gentiles in the church.

Titus was not Jewish. He was a Gentile who was a pagan before he became a Christian. Titus had to learn a whole new perspective on the world and his role in the world, and he was so enthusiastic about his way of life that he worked to convert others to the “Way.” We can assume that Titus was with Paul in Antioch, which was one of the most important centers of Christianity for the first six centuries of the church. It was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians,” and so it is likely that Titus was one of the first Gentiles to be called a Christian.

False Brethren:        Paul reports that there were “false brethren” in Jerusalem who were spreading stories about the Christians in Antioch. The term he uses indicates that these were members of the church who were not true to the brotherhood. They pretended to love their brothers and sisters when they were really looking for ways to hurt them. Paul accuses the false brethren of “spying” on them, which probably means exactly what it sounds like it meant.

There is something pathetic about religious zealots being so consumed by fear of impurity that they would spy on someone in the baths, but similar things still happen in churches. Behind the masks of piety and propriety, people spy on their brothers and sisters hoping to find evidence of sin or heresy. Sometimes they find what they are looking for, but more often they simply sow discord and suspicion where love and joy should prevail.

In this case, the spies learned the truth. Titus was not circumcised. Rather than bend to their will or hide the truth, Paul took Titus with him to discuss the Gentile mission with Peter, John, and James. Paul says that Titus was welcomed by the pillars of the church. For Paul, this was a decisive moment in the history of the church, and he reminds the Galatians that he did not back down on this critical issue. There are times when compromise is necessary, but there are also times when it is wrong. The pillars of the church agreed that Paul should continue to preach the gospel to Gentiles without forcing them to be Jewish.

Eating in Antioch                After Paul reminds the Galatians that the Gentile mission had been approved by those who were considered pillars of the church, he tells them about a particularly painful incident involving Peter. The Christians in Antioch ate together even though some were Jews and some were Gentiles. Table fellowship was one of the most important features of the early church, as Moravians well know. These meals were called the Agape, or love feast, and they were visible signs of the invisible grace of Christian love and unity. Rich and poor, male and female, slave and free ate together, breaking down the barriers that marred the secular world.

You may know that Judaism has special dietary rules, which grew much more elaborate over the years. We don’t know for sure what the rules were in Paul’s day, but there is evidence that particularly pious Jews believed that it was wrong to eat at the same table with Gentiles since they could not be sure how the food was prepared. The NT Agape meals appear to have been like our modern pot luck where everyone brings something to share, thus it would have been hard to keep kosher while breaking bread with Gentiles.

The Book of Acts says that Peter had a dream that showed him that all foods are clean, and so Peter began to eat with Gentiles. Paul agrees that Peter ate with the Gentile Christians in Antioch, but he changed his attitude when certain people arrived from Jerusalem and criticized him for not observing kosher laws. We do not know if James had sent them for this purpose. It is possible that they had simply never seen Jews and Gentiles eating together and were shocked at such behavior. In the 1950s some American evangelicals were sometimes shocked to see C. S. Lewis smoking and drinking wine. Today some Christians are shocked to hear rock music in worship. Paul tells us that nearly 2000 years ago these folks from Jerusalem were offended at what was going on in Antioch and refused to eat with Gentiles.

Peter and Paul:        It is possible that Peter and Barnabas were conflicted. Should they eat with the folks from Jerusalem or should they eat with the rest of the Antioch church? Perhaps Peter and Barnabas thought that hospitality required them to eat separately with the newcomers, but Paul saw this as an offense to the gospel itself. He tells us that he opposed Peter to his face and rebuked him for his behavior. He accused Peter of denying the gospel by his actions.

Just think about the significance of Paul’s actions here. Peter was one of the three most important disciples. According to one of the gospels, he was the head of the church, but Paul calls him a hypocrite. We should not dismiss this merely as an example of Paul’s arrogance and lack of self-control. He makes it clear that he only did this because something important was at stake. This scene is not reported in the Book of Acts, and the only reason we know it happened is because Paul uses it in this letter to the Galatians to illustrate his point that even apostles are not above criticism. Peter was a sinner prone to mistakes, just like any believer. Paul had the authority to rebuke him, not because of his high status in the church, but because the gospel was at stake.

Paul tells the Galatians about this painful incident because he believes that they were in danger of rejecting the gospel by their actions. When we return after Easter, we’ll look at Paul’s argument that Peter was being a hypocrite in his approach to the law.

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  • Rev. Andy Godfrey  On November 16, 2010 at 6:28 am

    I am very much enjoying your articles and finding them very helpful. But can I ask why in the heading to this section you make a reference to Mary – “Mary not present”. I am very intrigued by this comment.

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