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Peter & Paul
March 17, 2019  (Lent 2)
Rev. Fritz Nelson

Text: Galatians 2:1-14

Domenico Morelli (1823–1901), The Conversion of Saint Paul (1876), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Cattedrale di Altamura, Altamura, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.Paul first meets Peter in Jerusalem around six years after Jesus’ resurrection and about three years after Paul’s vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. Peter had been one of Jesus’ closest friends and was the most influential leader of this new community being formed around Jesus Christ.

While Paul hasn’t killed any Christians for the last three years, he is still better known as a persecutor of Christ than as a believer. Paul showing up in Jerusalem is sort of like your abusive ex-brother-in-law showing up on your porch claiming to have become a completely new man in prison. Now he wants the address of your sister and her children. In Jerusalem Peter barely gives Paul the time of day and won’t even see him until Barnabas, another disciple, vouches for him. Even then the meeting is brief and Paul leaves Jerusalem shortly after.

Fast forward a decade or so. Jesus followers, pushed out of Jerusalem by persecution, have migrated some 400 miles or so up the Mediterranean to Antioch. There, through the power of the Holy Spirit, an amazing community has begun to form.

Jesus was a Jew who, with a few exceptions, primarily ministered among Jews. Jesus’ main disciples were all Jewish as were all the leaders of the church in its earliest days. All good, devout, God-fearing Jews who had been taught from birth to remain separate from non-Jews. Yet in Antioch, non-Jews had begun hearing the gospel, being filled with the Holy Spirit, receiving baptism and – without converting to Judaism, joining the primarily Jewish followers of Jesus for meals. While the young church had experienced such Spirit led insanity before, never had it been seen on such scale or been so publicly embraced.

Paul arrives in Antioch and embraces the diversity. This, he thinks, is what the Prophets meant when they envisioned all nations rejoicing in God’s salvation. Jesus’ death and resurrection makes such communities possible. The power of the Holy Spirit working among the disciples make such communities inevitable.

Others, especially many in the Jerusalem church, are horrified. Peter came up to investigate and joined in the rejoicing. He also joined in the eating. Then other Jewish followers of Jesus come up from Jerusalem and steadfastly refuse to eat with the rest of the congregation. Peter joins them. Before long what had been one congregation becomes two – a Jewish congregation and a non-Jewish congregation, with the first refusing to have anything to do with the other unless they formally converted to Judaism.

At this point Paul flips out. He and Peter get into a drop down, drag out fight over the meaning of Christian community, who is in, who is out, and what is required for salvation. As we continue our series on relationships, lets take some time to see what we can learn from how the two of them fight, based on Paul’s recollection of their fight in his letter to the Galatians.

First, Paul affirms Peter’s calling by Christ, reminding the Galatians: “He (Jesus) who worked through Peter making him an apostle also worked through me.” Paul believed those following Christ were made, by the Spirit, into one giant family. Before criticizing Peter, Paul affirms their common calling, their being part of the same family.

Second, Paul is honest about their differences. He calls Peter out for first supporting Antioch’s vision of Christian community and then joining with the Jewish followers of Jesus from Jerusalem. Paul doesn’t sweep the very real differences under the rug. He doesn’t engage in some wishy washy I’m okay, you’re okay. He lays it out like he sees it.

Third, Paul remains respectful. In some ways Paul has to do this. Peter is so respected an open feud would sink Paul’s ministry even among those who agreed with him. An open feud would also splinter Paul’s own vision of oneness in Christ – the very oneness he accuses Peter of destroying. Paul never questions Peter’s loyalty to the church. He never questions Peter’s faith in Jesus. Like Paul, Peter has given his life to Christ, risked his life for Christ, dedicated every moment of every day, every breath, to the gospel of their Lord. The blood of Christ binds them together and they know nothing – not even their disagreements – can sever that bond.

The homeless services agency I worked with in New York City was proud of its Christian heritage and its specific Christian outlook. In Long Island I was a fairly conservative pastor of my Presbyterian church. In New York City I was the crazy liberal Presbyterian who may or may not have actually been a Christian. When it came to points of doctrine, interpretation of scripture, understanding of Christian community, I was often at odds with many of my colleagues. Yet I never once doubted their faith, their commitment to the gospel, or their desire to make the saving grace of Jesus Christ visible to our community. I never forgot we – my colleagues and I – were equal recipients of God’s grace – a grace broad enough for us all.

We live among those we disagree with. We worship among those we disagree with. In very real ways the underlying issues discussed by Paul and Peter still affect the church of Jesus Christ. Yet their example still serves us well. While direct in their disagreements, they never doubt their common salvation in Jesus Christ. Bound by that salvation they disagree but never belittle, disagree but never split, disagree but never doubt the work God is doing in them, and through them, to make all things new.