Sunday, March 29, 2009

Paul Novel: Galatians 4

... Paul, Barnabas, and Titus returned to Antioch with a sense of triumph. Neither James nor Peter had forced Titus to be circumcised, and by their allowance, they had legitimized Paul's mission and message. Peter, not long thereafter, traveled to Antioch, realizing that the city was quickly becoming a center of the Way as influential as Jerusalem. He honestly rejoiced to see the thriving community of faith, with numerous assemblies meeting all over the city on the Lord's Day.

Paul was very hopeful for Peter's complete support at first. Paul made sure that all the Gentile assemblies invite Peter to their fellowships on the Lord's Day. He was initially somewhat reluctant, given that these were Gentile homes, often with Paul being the only other Jew. But he consented, not only because Paul was persuasive, but because he genuinely wanted to see them grow in faith.

The second or third Sunday Peter met in a Gentile assembly, he began to loosen up. The biggest issue was when he met with them to eat the Lord's meal. If he met in the morning for prayer, there was awkwardness of being in a Gentile home. But when he ate the love feast with them, there was the issue of impurity through the meal.

In general, Peter had not spent too much time in his life worrying about such things. He was a fisherman from Galilee, not a member of some Pharisee dining club or an Essene in a commune on the shores of the Dead Sea. Jesus had hardly worried about such things either, taking them into the homes of toll collectors and occasionally eating in the presence of prostitutes.

But not so with James. Jesus' free wheeling fellowship was one of the reasons he had resisted his ministry while he was on earth. And now he was conscious of a large group of believers in Jerusalem who were very sensitive to these sorts of issues. So when the rumors of Peter's incautious dining with Gentiles got back to Jerusalem, James immediately sent an urgent message back to him. One of those who returned with the messengers was none other than John Mark.

The thrust of the message was that Peter had to set the tone for Jewish believers because he was the apostle, the one who had seen the Lord. Maybe Gentiles could escape God's wrath by their confession of Jesus as Lord, repentance for their sins, and baptism in the name of Jesus' faithful death. But Jewish believers were still a part of the covenant God had made with Israel. God's expectation that they would keep the commandments was as firm as ever. Jesus had not changed that. Many believers in Jerusalem might be lost to the Way if they were to find that Peter was being so careless about his purity.

Here was his suggestion. If the Gentile believers would only adopt a few simple practices, then Jew and Gentile would be able to continue to eat together. For example, if they would make sure that the meat they served had not been sacrificed at a nearby temple, that was very important, given how much of the meat in the marketplace was defiled. Then if they would make sure that the animal was drained of blood, not strangled, then no blood would be among the meat.

Finally, Gentiles were notorious for their sexual immorality. If they would keep themselves pure in this way, and be careful about the way they acquired and prepared any meat for the Lord's meal, then it would be possible for Jew and Gentile to eat together. Of course in practice it would not be so simple. Peter would need to make sure not only that everyone present for the meal was clean, but that every member of the household in general was.

Peter tried to put on as good a face as he could, but frankly, it was embarrassing the whole way around. He had planned the coming Sunday to meet in one of the Gentile house churches. He tried to bow out as tactfully as possible at the last minute. When Paul heard of it, knowing that certain men had come that week from James, he suspected that something was wrong.

So he went to Peter, who had not planned to announce the new decisions quite so soon. But Paul's doggedness forced the issue, and all the elders of the city were called together the next evening. The church rejoiced that the Gentiles had received the good news of the Messiah and in their salvation. But Israel was the people of God, and God had given Israel the Law, in which he specified rules of purity and impurity. So the Jews could not eat with the Gentile believers unless they were willing to make their homes clean according to the Levitical laws.

Paul was outraged. He had suspected something was up, but requiring the Gentile believers to make their homes kosher? The absurdity of it all. He couldn't contain himself--didn't think God wanted him to.

"So you--you, Peter--are going to make the Gentiles keep the rules of kashrut? What a joke! What hypocrisy! You, keep the Law? You, who already live like a Gentile are going to force the Gentiles to live like a Jew?

"I've kept the Law. I've kept the Law like no one in this room has ever kept the Law. On my most impure day I kept the Law better than James on his most pure day. I've kept it better than anyone in the entire Jerusalem community ever has. But what I needed was the death of Christ. My attention to the minute works of the Law did not bring me God's favor.

"This is insincere. Worse, it is of the Satan. We all stand or fall before God on the basis of Christ's faithfulness and our trust in it, whether Jew or Gentile. To turn to anything else after the Christ has died for us, is to spit on his grace."

It was a tense moment. Barnabas finally tried to make peace. Paul's bluntness had not earned him any sympathy. If anything it had turned some who would have been sympathetic to the other side.

"Brother Paul," Barnabas said. "It seems little to ask for our Gentile brothers to take a little extra caution in preparing their meals. And even you have not approved of the sexual immorality we have encountered on our mission. No one expects you to change the way you fellowship with the Gentile believers. But this feels right to me and especially right for Peter, since he is as you have said yourself, the apostle to the Jews" ...

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