Club or Church ? Lev 11:1-12; Ps 26; Gal 2:11-14; Mark 7:1-23 St Mark’s9.4.16
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”” (Gal 2:11-14)
Introduction (Continuing our series on Galatians).
I was at a dinner recently where a friend described how he had been to a professional meeting and where he talked with a woman he didn’t know well. She proceeded to criticise him for the rest of the evening; his crime, belonging to an all male private club. Most people in Australia think of the Church in this way; after all, a club is a society that exists for the sake of its members, has a clubhouse, people pay fees to belong and expect certain services for their money. Members are insiders who understand the club culture while others are outsiders. Today’s passage describes a fight over the future of Christianity, would the growing Gentile Church become like the Jews, inward looking and clubbish, or would it be a dynamic group of people always looking to help the needy outside its borders. This little story of the clash between the two greatest apostles of all time, Peter and Paul, is a shocking episode in Church history. It is such an embarrassment that some of the Early Church writers came up with ingenious interpretations to remove its offensiveness (Clement of Alexandria, Jerome). The hard truth is that even someone who had been as close to Jesus as Peter could turn into a hypocrite. And if that happened to Peter, what makes us think it could not, or has not, happened to us?
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” (v.11). Most people fear confrontation because it makes them feel uncomfortable, but Paul felt so strongly about the situation in the church of Antioch that he felt he had no choice but to confront Peter publicly. Please note that this is a different scenario from that described by Jesus; ““If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Peter hadn’t sinned against Paul personally but had openly denied the truth of the gospel (Matt 18:15). If Paul had remained silent he would have sinned against the Lord cf. 1 Tim 5:20. No-one enjoys rebuking others openly, and even when I have felt constrained to do this, and the correction has been accepted, other pastors have made it very clear that they were embarrassed by my initiative. When we were attending one church I sent the pastor an email challenging him about how his preaching avoided the biblical language of judgement, wrath and eternal punishment. When we did get to talk face to face to my amazement he repented with tears and thanked me for calling him calling him back to the gospel!
When Paul says Peter “stood condemned” he means that this great apostle who was personally commissioned by Jesus to preach the gospel had a guilty conscience. He knew he had done the wrong thing by his Lord and the Church. Apparently when Peter was confronted by Paul he was left speechless, that’s what a guilty conscience does to you, it robs you of moral and spiritual authority. If you have a clear conscience before God nothing and no one will be able to stop you speaking of Jesus; that’s what this famous quote is trying to say, “What goes deepest to the conscience goes widest to the world.” (P.T. Forsyth). If however your conscience is compromised you cannot speak with authority. This issue gets deeper and deeper.
If you read through the Gospels many of the important scenes in Jesus’ life happen at the dinner table. One example is found at the start of Luke chapter 15 where tax collectors and other notorious sinners were drawing near to Jesus; “And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”” (Luke 15:2). The Jewish religion of Jesus’ time divided the world into two, just as there was unclean food (pork) so there were unclean people; people you weren’t to mix with because they would contaminate you. All non-Jews (Gentiles) were unclean, sinful and idolatrous. This was Peter’s mindset before he met Jesus. In fact, this incident in Antioch should never have happened.
Years before this story Peter had received a vision from heaven about the Gentiles being accepted by God without their need to keep the Jewish law. The Holy Spirit told him, “‘What God has made clean, do not call unclean.’” (Acts 11:9). In Peter’s own words in Acts, when the Gentiles heard the gospel and believed in Jesus, “God…. cleansed their hearts by faith.” (Acts 15:9). Peter knew just as much as Paul did that God accepted Gentiles by faith alone without the need to keep the Old Testament law (Gal 3:26-28).
Earlier in the piece in the church at Antioch Peter was happily enjoying table fellowship with the Gentiles. But then “certain men came from James”. James was the half brother of Jesus and the leader of the Jewish Church in Jerusalem; some of their members had come to Antioch and were preaching to the Gentiles that you needed to be circumcised and keep the Jewish food laws to be saved (Acts 15:1; 21:20). These men were, in Paul’s own words, “false brothers” (2:4). They were not true believers at all because they were more attached to religious regulations than they were to Jesus. These people preached a “Jesus plus” form salvation; they said that to be saved you needed not only to believe in Christ but also keep the Jewish law. This is not the gospel and Peter knew this. Why then did he draw back and separate himself from his Gentile brothers?
Fear, fear of rejection can be a terrible thing. I will never forget the paralysing fear of rejection I experienced before I met Jesus I was so fearful of people that I could not walk down a public street. In this situation in Antioch Peter felt fearful that by mixing with Gentiles his Jewish pedigree was being threatened. This matter of identity goes very deep. When an Indigenous friend of mine became a Christian his father asked to see him in the presence of his brothers. His dad said he could follow Christ just as long as he put his own aboriginal law and culture first. When my mate replied that he had to put Jesus first his dad took up a big beating stick and bashed him. The orthodox Jews of Jesus’ day really did think they were in every way culturally, ritually and religiously superior to all Gentiles and sinners. This is a powerful spiritual reality we might struggle to understand.
Jesus told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went up to the temple to pray; “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11). This sense of superiority is not just a Jewish problem. Without the gospel we will always find some way, education, intellect, wealth, race, nationalism, of feeling superior to others people. Peter might have felt very threatened about losing his Jewish sense of identity, but how did the Gentiles feel when he wouldn’t eat with them?…..(Rejected)
Back in the 1950’s and early 60’s one of the most popular TV shows in America was called “I Love Lucy” starring Lucille Ball. I recall watching her appearing on a programme where various champion athletes were being presented with awards by Hollywood stars. I well remember my mum and dad pointing out that she held her hands tightly behind her back so she wouldn’t have to shake the hand of the African-American sportsman she was supposed to be congratulating. How do you think that made him feel? …..(Rejected)
The intensity of Paul’s rebuke of Peter continues with this very pointed language. “And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” (v.13) The word “hypocrite” comes from the practice of Greek actors holding large masks over their faces. Hypocrites profess to be one thing but act in an opposite way. “Hypocrite” was one of Jesus favourite terms for the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 23:13, 15, 23). His most damning criticism of them, “They don’t practice what they preach”, has been used against Christians in Australia again and again (Matt 23:3). Why?…. (Because it’s often true.) The church is full of hypocrites people say; just look at the Royal Commission into child abuse. There’s no point in denying such accusations. The only person I know who is never hypocritical is Jesus. Paul’s comments reach boiling point when he says “even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” It was Barnabas who was Paul’s early mentor and went with him on the first overseas mission to preach Christ to the Gentiles. Hypocrisy is infectious. Think about some workplace situation where someone is doing wrong; “I know it’s the right thing to dob this person in to the boss but no one else is saying anything, so why should I?”As a result of Peter’s sinful hypocrisy the Church in Antioch split into factions, there was a Jewish group and a Gentile group. None of this had anything to do with Jesus! Paul got straight to the point.
“But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”” Paul is shocked that Peter should by his two-faced behaviour try to “force the gentiles” to live like Jews, especially since he had just recently been enjoying table fellowship with them. Christians too can have a habit of wanting other believers to adopt their own cultural habits. When I was at university most of us had long hair and beards. I remember a certain older brother who worked in the university administration sending over a hand written note to my friend which said, 1 Cor 11:14. “Is the Bible the word of God?” This was a text which according to him meant we should get our hair cut. Thank God we attended a congregation where we were used to turning up in bare feet, jeans and a tee-shirt, and Jesus didn’t seem to care. But back in the 1970’s there were churches here in Perth which threw out their youth who wouldn’t get a haircut. Can you believe it?…. Now to get to the very main point of this passage.
“But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel”. The behaviour of the Christian Jews in treating the Christians Gentiles as if their Christianity was defective was out of step with the gospel. Paul knew that the Gentile believers needed someone to stand up for them and that Peter himself was in danger of losing the spiritual freedom from law-keeping that Christ brings. If Peter had stood firm in the approval of Christ then he wouldn’t have needed the approval of his Jewish brothers. Applying this passage John Piper puts it well; “This is the most important question we can ask about any habit or action or behavior that we have—does it contradict the gospel? Or positively, is it in step with the truth of the gospel? Does our action say true things about the gospel? Does it reflect the gospel? Does it look like the kind of action that would flow from the gospel?”
A few years ago I attended a fairly large gathering of pastors convened by some influential Christian leaders here in Perth. Each of these well known preachers spoke in turn and then opened the floor for responses. An older friend of mine spoke first, but when his remarks were totally dismissed I knew I had to say something despite feely very uncomfortable about it. So I went to the front and pointed out a major biblical truth that was completely omitted in what the convenors of that meeting had said. None of them answered my point and I am not welcome in that group any more, but my conscience is clear. When I got back to my seat a couple of the young ministers said, “You don’t fear anyone do you.” Of course this isn’t true, but it’s not how you feel that counts, it’s what you do. Paul took a stand in Antioch because he knew if the fear-based hypocrisy of Peter was allowed to go unchallenged the disease of compromising the gospel with legalism could spread throughout the Church. History has vindicated Paul and today the Gentile churches across the globe enjoy the freedom from having to keep the Old Testament law. We may be free from food laws, but it would take a bold or foolish person to claim that the average church is free from the inward looking behaviour that is characteristic of clubbishness.
A famous Archbishop of Canterbury once stated, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” x2 (William Temple). This is God’s design, but I have been amazed over the years at how few people really want the church to grow through giving to the community outside its walls. On our journey here at St Mark’s we have come a long way since Alison came 3+ years ago, but we must keep taking stock of where we are up to in terms of looking beyond ourselves. In the last few years we have multiplied our giving to mission agencies that operate outside the church, but around 90% of our finances still go to taking care of ourselves. The Benefit Shop (Op Shop) has a good ministry, be it would be more Benefit to the community if all profits went to help those who are not church members. I was praying very early Friday morning and I clearly sensed that the Lord is unhappy about our evangelistic endeavours. We are under the discipline of God and he is calling us to radically reorder the church so that Alison can be released back into her original calling as an evangelist (Heb 12:5-11). Which is why God brought her to Australia and to us! She needs clear space to get onto the streets, into businesses, pubs and the homes of non-believers so she can have extended conversations with them and lead people to Christ. Bringing the lost to Jesus was Paul’s great priority and the bottom line for the controversy we have read about today. What would an evangelistically reordered church look like?
Last week I was down south speaking at the Yarloop Christian Fellowship whose motto is “We’re here to rebuild you.” This group started a couple of years ago with a small team travelling down to Yarloop to talk and pray with the people in the town in order to plant a church there. Then in January bushfires devastated the community and drove many people into trauma and poverty. But in the wisdom of God this disaster has opened a door to the gospel. Many folk are now far more open to care and prayer and Yarloop Christian Fellowship has been distributing significant amounts of donated money no strings attached to those in need, and doing it far more efficiently that the government and charities. You can sense the pleasure of Jesus in this and I could sense people in the district softening to the gospel. This is an example of the church as a “society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members”. the difference between Yarloop Christian Fellowship and the average church has nothing to do with denomination, doctrine, age, class, education or wealth; the difference has to do with the power of the good news of Jesus. Any church which truly centres on Jesus will be welcoming to all comers and will be led in creative ways to meet the needs of outsiders for the glory of God. If we ask God for ways of giving outside of ourselves into the community he will give us strategies to do this and we will see local people soften to the gospel and we will see people converted to Christ. I believe this, do you?…..
Churches have a reputation of being like clubs because clubs are powerful things and people love their clubs deeply. (Anyone football follower knows that it’s more than a game.) Only one power is great enough to break down our hypocritical nature and move us out from our natural clubbishness into the community. If you look around the walls of our church you will see we are surrounded by symbols of this power in The Stations of the Cross. Jesus was crucified in order to pour out his life through the Church into the world. At every baptism and confirmation service we hear the question, “Do you turn to Christ?” To which the candidates answer?……“I turn to Christ.” Do we turn away from every element of self-centredness and cubbishness to Christ today; this is a very hard decision but the blood of the cross has power enough to strengthen us to make it. Let us pray.