Last summer when our family was in Washington DC I had the chance to sneak off on afternoon to see the National Cathedral. It is an Episcopal Cathedral, built in the 20th century, but made to resemble some of the great European cathedrals from centuries ago. Actually, everyone calls it the “National Cathedral,” but its actual name is “The Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.” This is represented architecturally by the two identical soaring towers at the west end of the cathedral, which some affectionately call “Peter” and “Paul.”
It’s no accident that the cathedral has this name…Peter and Paul are the two most well known followers of Christ in the New Testament. Peter, the close companion of the earthly Jesus, and then a bit later Paul, the zealous Pharisee and persecuter of Christians who had a dramatic encounter with the risen Christ…and changed history forever.
So what are these two pillars of the faith doing arguing with each other?! And what could be so important that the argument gets recorded in the New Testament? Before we read, we have to know more of the context, or it really will make no sense. So hang in there!
Last week, we heard Paul ferociously defending the uniqueness of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. He was aware that after he had taught the young churches of Galatia a liberating message of forgiveness and grace, other teachers were coming through and trying to add requirements onto the message. Specifically they were insisting that new converts be required to add some of the Jewish law, like circumcision and dietary practice…to the Jesus gospel. Paul was clearly upset.
He then recounts the story of his disagreement with Peter when they were both in Antioch. Apparently Peter was struggling with the difference between what he had experienced and what he had grown up with. Peter had been raised in the Jewish tradition, with all of the laws and interpretations that came with it that governed his behavior as one of God’s people. A strong part of that tradition was that God’s people did not the same kind of food, nor did they eat with those who were Gentiles, non-Jews. It was very clear, in dietary laws and with the practice of circumcision, who was an “insider” and who was an “outsider.”
But Peter had his own conversion (recorded in Acts 10). Peter once had agreed “it is against our law for a Jew to visit or associate with a Gentile.” But God soon moved him to realize that “God does not show favoritism…everyone who believes in Jesus Christ receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” It wasn’t about “insiders” and “outsiders,” but rather how God desired all people to be brought “in” through Christ. God’s people were one people. And after God showed this to Peter he happily joined in eating and being in community with Gentiles who had come to believe in Jesus.
At that point, Peter and Paul were in total agreement. The issue came when those other teachers began to add the requirements of the Jewish law to the Jesus gospel. When they showed up, Peter couldn’t stand the heat. He reverted to the Jewish law and separated himself…and quit fellowshipping with those who did not keep the law. And so these two towers wrestled.
Let’s read now, from Galatians 2:14-21.
Most of you know I love sports. Pretty much all sports, and as both a participant and a spectator…I love sports. Baseball, basketball, football, running, golf, biking, and more recently, the kids have me into soccer.
Anyway, there is a relatively new phenomenom now that they call “extreme” sports. These are different from the mainline sports I just listed. Extreme sports are…well, extreme. They are high speed, high risk, high adventure, usually dangerous kinds of activities. Now people do things like “slackline walking,” where a rope is placed between 2 adjacent peaks and a person essentially tightrope walks…2900 feet above the floor of the Yosemite Valley. Or there is “basejumping,” which is essentially parachuting. But it’s parachuting off of buildings, antennas, bridges or cliffs. It’s often done illegally, and its particularly extreme because the heights are so low that they barely offer time for the jumper’s parachute to unfold. Most jumpers don’t even carry a backup shoot like you would in parachuting off a plane…because if you had trouble with your shoot, there’s no more time. Or, I read about one guy who is going to be attempting to snowboard…down one of the faces of Mt. Everest!
The interesting thing is, the events get more and more extreme. Whether to please themselves or to stand out from others, participants seem to have to try something newer, steeper, bigger, more dangerous. Most of us are not quite so bold. We might ask, legitimately, why the big risk? Why color so far outside the lines? We might say “be a little more balanced, a little safer, little more moderate.”
In most parts of life, moderation is a virtue. Many of us would think that about faith as well. Moderation is a virtue. We’ve seen the terrible costs of religion that is over the top. We see people angry, practically foaming at the mouth arguing for their faith. We have countless of examples of murder or war breaking out in the name of God. Suicide bombers or kamikaze pilots who believe they honor God by blowing people up. It makes us want to say, “let’s not be so extreme.”
The problem is, when I read a pretty worked up Apostle Paul in Galatians, he seems to have crossed over a line. When he argues with the revered Apostle Peter, when he walks away from his entire past life, when he begins to say things like “I have been crucified with Christ…it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…” it seems like he’s gotten a little extreme. He might be taking this faith thing a little too far. It nearly and then finally cost him his life. Paul makes me a little nervous, to be honest.
Why does Paul go after Peter? And why does he come down so hard on the Galatians? It’s because he’s already been down the road of trying to define people…and himself…who’s in and who’s out…based on adherence to law. To ritual. To tradition. To his culture.
Remember, Paul was a big success! You know how the business section of the newspaper sometimes does a feature on someone who has received promotion after promotion and is now the CEO? Paul was a rising star, he had done everything right. He’d played by the rules, colored within the lines. Educated, articulate, persuasive, a leader, mentored by a famous rabbi, zealous, passionate, triumphing over enemies, filling the jails with the heretical Christians . That was Paul. He was a huge success, and was living out his life knowing that by birth, by tradition, by law, by action…he was on the inside. He was one of God’s people. And then God told him…he had it wrong.
Now about 1500 years later in Germany, a man named Martin Luther went through a similar discovery. Luther was a scholar and a monk. In fact, he said about himself, “I was a good monk. If I had kept on any longer I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading and other work.” Luther was trying to compensate for his sins. But he found that nothing he did could satisfy God. Oh, he tried. And the church of his day tried.
Early in Luther’s career he made a pilgrimage to Rome, headquarters for all religious relics from the time of Christ. One thing they had there were the “scala sancta,” the “sacred steps.” These were supposedly the same steps that had once stood in front of Pilate’s palace. It was said that if one crawled, on hands and knees, up the 28 steps, kissed each one and said an “Our Father” on each one, it could release a soul from purgatory. Extreme. Luther crawled up the steps in honor of his grandfather, made it to the top and said “who knows whether it is so?” He may as well have said “God, now have I done enough?”
For Luther, it wasn’t the question of the Jewish law, but the stairs were functioning in much the same way. What did he have to do to please God, how much did he have to do to earn God’s favor, or forgiveness? I think we still have a lot of laws, a lot of sacred stairways. No matter how much we hear the word “grace,” the idea that we must win God over is difficult to overcome.
Luther (and incidentally Luther loved Galatians. At one point he called it “My Katherine,” the name of his beloved wife), he found out that it wasn’t the law, it wasn’t the stairs, it wasn’t achievements or accomplishments, it wasn’t reinventing himself. It was encountering the transforming presence of Jesus Christ. It was the same for Paul. Verse 16 of Galatians 2 says “A person is justified not by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.” It’s Paul’s clearest statement. It meant everything. One scholar even says that the whole rest of Galatians is nothing more than commentary on verse 16!
We rarely use the word “justified” anymore, but it’s an important one in the New Testament. To be justified means to “stand in right relationship with God,” or we might say “to know and be known by God.” Paul gives his own personal bottom line: “And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus.”
Now, if you don’t stop and think about it, this can sound like a nuance: The old Paul might have said “If a person does certain things, he or she stands in right relationship with God.” The new Paul could say “When a person is in right relationship with God, he or she is free to do things.” But it’s not a nuance…it’s extreme. It turns everything on its ear because suddenly the gospel is not just about you…or me. It’s about God.
The relationship is what counts. A relationship which, almost incredibly, we don’t create. In Christ God has moved towards us, in the forgiveness evidenced and made possible by Christ’s dying on the cross, God has set up the relationship and stands open armed…awaiting us. It’s a miracle.
It was the summer of 1998, the summer before we came here to Bethany. We had three kids between 6 and 11. We had rented a van, and we were driving on a little country road in rural Idaho, having just visited my sister. I was driving, Anne was in the back with the kids, and my Grandpa Charles was in the front seat. You need to know…I loved my Grandpa Charles. And Grandpa really had had very little to do with faith in his life. For years, whenever I had tried to engage him in a conversation about Jesus, he nicely sidestepped it. Just wasn’t interested, and never really had been.
That’s why when Grandpa all of the sudden decided to have a theological discussion, I was pretty surprised. Right out of the blue, he says
“Well Dan, I’ve been a pretty good person, tried to treat people right, so I guess when I die it will all work out.”
I slowly realized he was talking about heaven! And his statement had the whisper of a question mark at the end of it. I sighed. I couldn’t believe this conversation was finally coming up right then. The kids were about ready to melt down, and it was hot and dusty. I knew we’d have about one minute. I said
“Gramp, the way I read the Bible, it’s not about what you do…it’s who you know.”
He sat up a little straighter. “What?,” he said.
“It’s not about what you do…it’s who you know.”
And in just the few more seconds that we had, I tried to explain that what God wanted was a relationship with us…now, and in eternity, and that relationship was possible because of God’s grace in Jesus.
Things erupted in the back seat, and our conversation was over. A month or two later, we were back in Minneapolis where we lived, and the phone rang one night and it was Grandpa Charles. We chatted on the phone a bit, and then again out of the blue he says
“Dan, I been thinking about it, and I think you’re right.”
Now I like to be right as much as the next person, but I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.
“Right about what, Gramp?” “It’s not about what you’ve done, it’s who you know.”
You see, he’d been mulling it over, thinking it through all that time. I think that was the last real conversation I ever had with my Grandpa. The next time I was in Idaho was to do his funeral. It wasn’t about laws, or rules or sacred steps. It was about a Person.
When Paul learned it didn’t depend on him, but on Jesus, everything changed. He was free to respond to God instead of trying to get God to respond to him. It utterly changed him. He became “dead” to what had once been his motivating force. So much so that he could say this:
“I have been crucified with Christ.”
That’s extreme. It doesn’t mean that Paul was nailed to a cross. But it does mean that Paul responded to Jesus so passionately, it was as though his old self, his old drive, his old ego…had died on the cross with Christ.
“It is no longer I who live…but Christ who lives in me.”
There was now a power in his life greater than his old self. There was a driving force beyond living up to the rules, beyond picking himself by the bootstraps. It’s interesting that the word in greek for “I” is “egw,” related to our word “ego.” In fact, Eugene Peterson records this verse in The Message as “I have been crucified with Christ…my ego is no longer central.”
Do you see why Paul had to get in that fight with Peter. When Peter acquiesced to insisting that certain things be added to the free Jesus Gospel, pulling people back to trying to be good on their own…it was salt in an old wound. Paul was saying “Peter, I’ve gone down that road. It’s a total dead end. I’ve tried earning my way to God. I’ve been freed from that. Don’t ask me to go down there again. And don’t put it on other people." Even Paul’s voice expresses some of the wonder: “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God…who loved me (& the sense is even me!) and gave himself for me.
If we tasted the freedom that Paul did, that Martin Luther did, that I think my Grandpa Charles did at the very end…what might it look like? The possibilities are endless.
- I have a friend who turned down a much better paying job to take one that allowed him to see his family more.
- I know a woman who spends several hours 2-3 times each week sitting with a young couples’ aging parent…to give the couple time to be together.
- I have another friend in business who has turned down clients, sacrificed significant profits, because he just couldn’t agree with what the their business was about.
- Our friends here at Bethany, the Groves, are moving to Nepal, for heavens sake! to work with Wycliffe.
I wonder if there is someone at your workplace you might befriend and encourage…even though other people might see them as your “competition?”
If we were free to live in response to God…not trying to draw near to God by living well, but living well because God has drawn near to us in Jesus…It would be countercultural. It would be different than we were raised. People might look at us funny. It would be extreme. But then…the Jesus Gospel is extreme.