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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 189

The fatal moment


We are now well past the ten year point since the Lambeth Conference of 1998. Distance of time allows some clarity about the past, and the journey travelled perhaps enables us to better understand what has been happening. Looking back enables us to evaluate how we have done over the past years, and perhaps helps us to begin to prepare for the future.

I was reading Galatians this morning and it seems to me that Paul, in that difficult situation outlined in the first two chapters, has lessons to teach us. He is looking back and recording for his readers what actually happened when Peter visited Antioch - probably around AD 50-55. He was also writing for any other church that might read his letter, so one could say he was perhaps recording the facts for posterity. What happened at Antioch, around twenty five  years after the crucifixion, shaped the whole of Christianity. It had a maximum effect on Christians and also on the world.  In one way it was similar to the meanderings of a small stream at the summit of a mountain. It goes one way round a boulder, and finishes up in the Thames, it goes the other way round the boulder and it finishes up in the sea somewhere near Bristol! Huge consequences flow from single acts at a particular moment of time.

So what happened at Antioch around between AD 50 - 60?  Paul had had a revelation of Jesus Christ about fifteen or twenty years previously that had changed his outlook and life completely. Three years after that event  he went to Jerusalem to see Cephas (Peter) and James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem Jewish Christians. In the three years prior to his visit Paul had spent a deal of time re-evaluating his beliefs. First a Jew and now a follower of Jesus he had had to rethink all his beliefs. How could his Jewish beliefs (passionately held) fit in with his new found belief in Jesus, crucified and risen?  He believed that he was called to tell the good news to the Gentiles. But now he wanted to establish contact with the heart of Christianity - the Church in Jerusalem. No doubt he also wanted the leaders there to endorse his call to the Gentiles.  Paul was a man of considerable intellectual ability (see his epistle to the Romans!) and he was also passionate - as shown in his various letters and by his initially undertaking the task of persecuting the Christians. The outcome of his re-evaluation was to confirm his Jewish belief that God had the plan detailed in the Old Testament (Genesis 12. 1-3) - a plan for the whole world enacted and now made possible through Christ.  

Having integrated his new faith with his Jewish roots, Paul started to reach out to the Gentiles. We don’t know much about the early years of that - maybe he tried to take the gospel to the Gentiles in Arabia - but in due course, around AD 50 - 60 (this assumes he was converted around AD35) he decided to go to Jerusalem for a second visit. That was where the centre of the Jewish faith was - the Temple. And that was where the Jewish Christian Church was centred, with Peter the Apostle and James the brother of Jesus. It was also where Jewish Christians, some of whom he had persecuted, lived!

When he arrived in Jerusalem he submitted to the Christian leaders the gospel that he preached to the Gentiles. The leaders of the Jerusalem Church accepted Paul as a genuine follower of Jesus Christ and as a man whom Jesus had called to go to the Gentiles. They accepted his version of the gospel and they did not require the Gentiles to conform to the Jewish rituals and laws when they became Christians. He was commissioned by the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem to do the work he believed Jesus had called him to. Fellowship and harmony reigned. The only discordant note was that Paul noticed that there were some ‘false brethren’ who apparently wanted to query the freedom that Gentile Christians had - but their ideas were rejected (Galatians 2.4-6)  

Paul was brought to Antioch by Barnabas (Acts 11.25) so he knew the Christian community there very well indeed. It had been his base for at least a year. He had friends there - obviously both Jewish and Gentile. Paul had helped build a thriving Christian cell there. One of his early churches. He may have invited Peter to come and visit the Antioch fellowship which almost certainly contained both Gentiles and Jews. In due course Peter came to visit.  It might have been a somewhat new experience for Peter. He was used to the Jewish environment of Jerusalem and the district around. Here he was amongst Gentiles, all of whom were both committed to Jesus Christ and trying to follow the way of Jesus. He obviously felt at home with them. He talked and ate with them - and no doubt they were anxious to learn as much as they could from him about Jesus with whom Peter had accompanied throughout his ministry.

From Paul’s point of view the visit was already a success because Peter was clearly feeling at one with the Gentile Christians - men who did not observe or follow the Jewish customs, but men who knew the Holy Spirit’s indwelling and who were anxious to be more like Jesus.

At this point a group of Jewish Christians arrived from Jerusalem. Apparently they had been sent by James. They joined the party and the discussions. They were followers of Jesus, but they held onto their Jewish customs. They believed that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Law.

They all sit down for lunch. The Jewish Christians from Jerusalem observed the Jewish customs - they only eat 'kosher' food. Certainly they would have refused pork chops! They were followers of Jesus but they still observed the laws of the Jews. They would probably sit on a different table - along perhaps with any Jewish Christians from Antioch who might also still hold onto their Jewish customs.

Nothing unusual so far - there are two sorts of Christian in the early Church - Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Peter joins the Jewish Christians on their table. Nothing wrong in that. But Paul observes what is happening and as it becomes apparent to him that Peter is holding aloof in some way from the Gentile Christians, he grows uneasy. Maybe these Jewish Christians from James in Jerusalem have been sent to see how far the Gentile Christians are accepted by Paul. Maybe they are here to see how Peter handles the situation. Peter shows signs of siding with the Jewish Christians. Had there been arguments before lunch about how far Gentile Christians should observe Jewish customs?  Does Peter think that a two tier system operates in Christian groups?  Jews with the pure faith, and Gentiles with a somehow inferior faith?

It became clear to Paul that Peter was unwilling for the visiting Jews to take the story back that he, Peter, fraternized freely with the Gentile Christians.

However it showed itself, Paul recognised that Peter was being false to his real Christian beliefs. He had fellowshipped freely with the Gentile Christians before the Jews from Jerusalem arrived - now he had withdrawn in some way and was holding himself aloof.

Paul saw that there were two problems here:
firstly, there was the problem that one group saw itself as orthodox and regarded the second group as in some way deficient, and
secondly,  Peter (along with Paul’s fellow worker, Barnabas) was falling into the same trap and thus compromising the truth that all Christians were equal before God.

It was a moment of truth. Not only did Paul realise the significance of what was happening - he also had the courage to make a stand in public about it. It must have taken huge courage - not only did he have to stand up to Peter, the chief disciple of Jesus and the Apostle to Jerusalem, but he also had to let the split between himself and Peter play out in front of everyone present - the Antioch Christians and the Jews from Jerusalem.

It was a hugely tricky moment for Paul. What should he do?  Have a quiet word with Peter later in private?  Should he explain that he understood the Jerusalem situation, with all those Jews in the Church, but that here in Antioch it was the Gentiles that were the majority? Should he work for reconciliation of the two opposing viewpoints? Try to find common points of agreement? Preserve unity at all costs?

Galatians, chapter two tells us that Paul, in front of everybody, then challenged Peter. About what did he challenge him?  Not about the difference between Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian, because that was accepted. Nothing wrong with Jewish Christians refusing pork! What Paul pinpointed was what he called the hypocrisy of Peter (Galatians 2. 14-21). Previously Peter had accepted the Gentiles as fully valid Christians - now he was indicating by his manner that they were second class citizens of the Kingdom. That something more was being required of them. Paul could not let that pass. If he did he could never preach the full and free gospel for all that he believed God wanted him to preach.

If Paul had let the moment pass then the history of Christianity could have been very different. It could have taken centuries for the truth to be fully recognised that before God we are all equal. That Christians do not need to follow any of the Jewish customs and rituals. That God doesn’t favour the Jewish approach any more than the Gentile approach.   That what matters is the abundant grace of God transforming and remaking each of us in the image of Christ.

I believe a moment of similar gravity happened in this last decade. I don’t know  precisely when, in the great Anglican Communion debate, it happened. It was almost certainly at one of those conferences that the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) called to which all the heads of the other Anglican Churches came. That decision time arrived at the moment  a number of the Heads of other Anglican Churches - including the Nigerian and other African Churches - refused to take Holy Communion with the ABC and the other Heads of Churches for the first time. That was the fatal moment, and the deeply wrong attitude needed addressing. That was the true moment of schism.

Now it may be that the ABC confronted the Archbishop of Nigeria and the heads of other Churches that absented themselves. Maybe he faced them about their turning their back on fellowship in Christ. But if he did, we hear nothing of it. And, just as Paul had to stand out in front of everybody and challenge Peter to his face in public, so surely the same treatment was called for at that moment of decision.

We hear nothing of anything comparable happening. It could have been put in the public area, just as Paul’s criticism of Peter was made public. I think it should have been put into the open for all Christians throughout the world to made their own judgement. It was a moment calling for leadership and courage of a high order. We are all equal before God and even archbishops of African countries can get it wrong. Their action  needed to be held up to Christian examination for the sake of the gospel.

Thereafter there were probably other moments - but as far as I am aware there has been no word from the ABC that there was any failure of Christians charity in what happened. Had it been faced and highlighted there might have been all sorts of consequences. Paul acted without concern for the immediate consequences and it seems to me that the same should have applied to the Anglican Communion situation.

The key issue for Paul was that belief and custom should not be allowed to destroy our oneness in Christ. The key issue today is exactly the same. We can all divide and argue on a hundred different points - but what matters is that we hold our love for one another sacrosanct. When we lose that we have lost everything.  

I criticise no-one. None of us is qualified to criticize. None of us knows all the facts. I only see clearly, with the benefit of hindsight, that schism happened at that moment of withdrawal from fellowship.

The powers that be now pin their hopes on a Covenant. It will be a Covenant that will probably result in the exclusion of at least one Church (the Americans) - and in my book that is one too many. The failure of love between us is catastrophic. Unless and until that failure is recognised and repented of I cannot see any way forward other than a cobbled together worldly makeshift.  

Better is a dish of vegetables where love is, than a fattened ox and hatred therewith.  Proverbs 15.17

Tony Cross
March 2010


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