Wednesday, 3 August 2016

A flashpoint in the church

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned. Galatians 2:11.

Wow! (as they say) – this must surely be one of the most explosive statements in the whole New Testament.

Cephas is another name for Simon Peter. And there’s no point mincing words: Paul and he had a major bust-up in the church at Antioch. A public bust-up (verse 14).

Let’s get the picture straight in our minds… Peter was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles in the early days in Galilee. As intimate with him as anybody could be.  The man who made that great declaration of faith at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God”.  The man to whom Jesus said “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:16-18).

Yes, there were times he got things wrong, and Jesus put him right. But being put right by Jesus is one thing: being put right by Paul – Paul the upstart, the Johnny-come-lately, the man who never even knew Jesus during his earthly life, the man who fanatically persecuted Jesus and his church – well, that’s altogether different.

But that’s exactly what happened.

So what’s been going on?

Antioch in Syria, about 350 miles north of Jerusalem, was a hot-spot in the early church. It was there that one of the most significant developments took place: for the first time, non-Jewish people (“Gentiles” or “Greeks”) began to hear and respond in numbers to the gospel, and to become followers of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.

It must have been quite a congregation! The Jewish members were no doubt recognised by their particular dress, and many were still wedded to Jewish customs and laws. While the Gentiles… well, let’s just say they would have been very different indeed.

But, so far as we know, everyone got on well: all one in Christ Jesus, after all! Worshipping together. Witnessing together. Praying together. Eating together.

But then something seriously bad happened… A group of Christians who were still very traditional in their Jewish ways came to Antioch and started to teach that, even though everyone was a follower of Jesus, it was wrong for Jewish Christians to eat with Gentile Christians.

This was bad enough; but what made it even worse was that, almost incredibly, Simon Peter allowed himself to be persuaded by them. He “drew back and kept himself separate” from his Gentile brothers and sisters. Sad, sad, sad.

And so Paul stood up and denounced him. Can you imagine the atmosphere in the meeting?

Well, this episode is now all ancient history. But there are important things we can still learn from it. Let me highlight just two.

First, Christian leaders can get things wrong.

No surprise there, you might say. But the fact is that it’s very tempting for us “ordinary” Christians to put our leaders on a pedestal and treat them as “six feet above contradiction”. Certainly, it’s right that we should respect, support and pray for those God has set over us (I hope we all do that in our various churches). But they are not infallible. And, like Peter here, they can go wrong.

What makes it most puzzling is that Peter had had a dramatic object-lesson from God – a vision, no less! – to teach him this very truth: all men and women are equal in God’s sight; the old Jew-Gentile divide is abolished in Jesus. (Read about it in Acts 10.)

So, if such a thing could happen to Peter, it shouldn’t surprise us if it happens to those we trust and look up to. It could be a matter of teaching, as here. Or it could be a case of morality, behaviour. Whatever, it can happen.

And that reminds us that when we say or sing “Jesus is Lord”, we really do mean it! Ultimately our trust and faith are in him alone.

Are your eyes fixed firmly upon him? Is your confidence only in him?

Second, there are times in church life when it’s right to kick up a fuss.

I say that with real hesitation! Nobody hates more than me the thought of arguments and confrontations within the church. Aren’t there enough shocking, shameful divisions already?

Each of us should make it our business to bend over backwards to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Jesus, remember, declared “peace-makers” to be “blessed” (Matthew 5:9).

But… and here it comes… In cases where a vital principle is at stake we need to have the courage to lift up our voices and say “No!”. Paul knew that such a principle was at stake here. If he hadn’t made a stand, the early church could have split into two fundamental factions – Jewish Christians on one side, Gentile Christians on the other. And that would have been a denial of all Jesus came to do.

All I can add is this: If you have strong, perhaps angry, feelings about something in the church, don’t act unless, after much thought and prayer, you are (a) really, really, really sure you’re right, and (b) really, really, really sure that it matters that much anyway…

O God, please bless those who lead our churches, giving them wisdom, humility and strength. And help us who are led to do all within our power to preserve God-given unity. Amen.

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