Monday, 30 June 2014

Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul



One of the oldest temptations the church faces is fragmentation. We are constantly and continuously tempted to walk away from each other. In university I took a class on Christian history. My professor, Dr. Robinson, held up a book that listed all the known Christian denominations, which at that time numbered at somewhere over 20,000. Many of these denominations consisted of only one church. He then told us his two favorite churches/denominations. One was “the Church of God on Turtle Hill”, the other (in the same town) was “The True Church of God on Turtle Hill”.  It’s amazing how a whole history can be imagined in the one word “true”. You can imagine there was some sort of a disagreement that happened. It could have been over something theological- like how faith and works determine your salvation. But, it might also have been the result of an argument about the color of the carpet. Whatever it was it caused a division in the church and there arose “The TRUE Church of God on Turtle Hill”.
Unfortunately, this is a sad reality in the history of the Church. The largest major split was 1054 when the western church split from the eastern church. Then, of course, we have the Reformation in the 16th century as the western church split into Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. But, this also has happened on a smaller scale more recently as denominations struggled over issues like women in ministry, divorce, new prayer books, or a variety of other things.
This has been a temptation since the very beginning. This doesn’t have anything, in particular, to do with Christianity. Argument and broken relationships are very human. We find it inside and outside religion. Human beings don’t need religion to argue. They are very creative and will find all kinds of things to argue about- politics, money, education, sports, whatever. We find this kind of division inside all religions if they are made up of more than one person. When studying Buddhism in university I read about a group of Buddhist monks that burned down the monastery of another set of Buddhist monks. To argue and fight is quite human, we don’t need religion to do that.
Since argument and division are very human they have always been a temptation in the church. One of the earliest arguments in the church was about how non-Jewish people became followers of Jesus. Jesus, of course, was Jewish. All his disciples were Jewish. Christians believed Jesus was the expected Jewish messiah.  It was a thoroughly Jewish movement. It seemed to make sense that people who wanted to become Jesus followers should, in some way, become Jewish. There were some who believed that males had to be circumcised, that they had to eat according to Jewish food laws, and they also had to live according to the Laws of the Old Testament.
Others said that this movement was for the entire world, Jewish and non-Jewish (Gentile). The Jewish dietary laws, purity laws, and circumcision practices were for the Jewish people, not for non-Jewish people. If Christianity was for everyone in the world, then Judaism and non-Jewish people had to come on equal footing even though Jesus came to the world through Judaism.
So the question the church had to deal with was how Jewish do you have to be to become a Christian? This was a very important question and it had important consequences. To eat according to Jewish dietary laws meant that you did not share a table with people who did not. The Church gathered around a meal of bread and wine. What was at stake was whether Jewish Christians could sit around the table and share the bread and wine with non-Jewish people who didn’t keep the Old Testament food laws.  It was a huge barrier. From a Jewish perspective it just made sense that people would become Jewish as they joined the church.
This question gave rise to a dispute between St. Paul and St. Peter. Paul tells his side of the story in his letter to the Galatians. He remembers the conflict saying, “I opposed him to his face” (Gal 2:11-14). At some point Peter had separated himself from eating with non-Jewish people.         
In Acts 10 we read that Peter met with a man named Cornelius who was a Roman Centurion and not Jewish. Peter spoke to him and his household about Jesus. As an observant Jew, Peter was not supposed to visit the house of a non-Jewish person, but a vision made Peter change his mind. We read that, 
“while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:44-48).
 The Holy Spirit confirmed that Cornelius and his household could come directly to the church without having to become Jewish first.
Based on his experience with the household of Cornelius Peter knew that non-Jewish people could join the church as they are, without needing to be circumcised, or eating kosher, or following the purity laws of the Old Testament. At some point Peter pulled away from what he knew to be right and held back from eating with non-Jewish people, which contradicted his experience with Cornelius. We don’t exactly know why. It may have been that some Jewish-Christians convinced him that it was Important (which seems to be Paul's opinion). Or (this is my personal opinion), it might have been that Peter went along with it in order to not offend the Jewish households where he was sharing the message of Jesus. For a similar reason Paul had Timothy circumcised so that they wouldn’t offend the Jewish community (which seems like a pretty drastic step compared to not eating together). Whatever the reason, others took notice and a division started. Soon there was an issue with Jewish-Christians eating with Gentile-Christians. Paul noticed and when they were together in Antioch Paul called him on it.
I am amazed that there wasn’t a Gentile Church and a separate Jewish Church. That’s what we would do. We have churches that cater to particular musical taste- do you like rock music, classical music, no music, or country? There are churches that cater to liturgical taste- are you high church, or low church? Do you like incense and kneeling? If you like old fashioned language you can go to that church, if you like modern language you can do to that one. There are churches with long sermons or short sermons, or liberal theology, conservative theology, and everywhere-in-between theology. Some will say, well that’s because we are all so different that each church would have something different to offer different people. I have no doubt that God uses the different churches to reach people with a variety of tastes and personalities, but I think our divisions are most often a thing to repent of, since more often than not it is bowing to the god of consumerism. We often allow ourselves to be separated by musical or liturgical taste rather than work for the unity Christ commands.
I am amazed that there wasn’t a Gentile-Christian Church and a separate Jewish-Christian Church. The confrontation between Paul and Peter might have given rise to this kind of a division. Paul was strong in his confrontation. He didn’t keep his opinion to himself for the sake of keeping the peace. This issue was far too important to let it slide. This is a recipe for division. But, that’s not what happens. A council is called at Jerusalem (Acts 15) where certain church leaders gathered, including Paul and Peter. They discussed the issue and come to an understanding as to what needed to be done. Peter seems to have admitted his error and comes alongside Paul in agreement that faith in Jesus is central, not the works of the law. Gentile believers were asked to follow a few simple laws to not offend the Jewish believers in their churches. They come to an agreement and a unified voice even though Paul would not back down from what he believed to be true. They all believed that Jewish and Gentile unity was important and they were willing to work for it.  
In some things Paul was very strong and he wouldn’t give an inch. There were some other things where Paul allowed a person’s conscience to differ even within the church. One example is eating meat that had been dedicated to idols. Some said they shouldn’t support the pagan system that provided the meat, others though it was superstitious to fear idols and didn’t worry about where the meat came from for the sake of eating with family, friends, and business associates. Paul left that up to individual consciences, but with the stipulation not to let your freedom offend someone whose conscience differed from yours. Paul believed that in most things we should be willing to give up our freedom to serve one another and to not offend one another if possible.   
For almost 2000 years this confrontation between Peter and Paul is what comes to many people’s minds when they think of the relationship between Peter and Paul. I suspect it was a small event in their lives and don’t think they held any resentment towards one another. When Peter and Paul are thought of together there is one other thing that comes to mind. Under Nero they were both imprisoned in Mamertine Prison (if a prison is known by name 2000 years later, you didn’t want to go there). 

They were both killed in Rome around the year 64 AD.  As a Roman citizen, Paul was beheaded. Peter was nailed to a cross upside down because he told his executioners he wasn’t worthy to die like his Lord.
As Christians we should look to Peter and Paul and the Gentile-Christians and Jewish-Christians that were under their care. They worked for unity against amazing odds. We need to remember them when we have a disagreement, especially with another Christian. That kind of dispute is bad for the souls of those involved, but it is also poison for the church. That doesn’t mean you pretend everything is all okay. You will likely need to get everything into the air, but unity and forgiveness are worth working for. Divisions and arguments are easy, unity is hard work, but worthy work.

Amen.   

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