Commentary on the Lectionary Text: Galatians 2:11-21

by David Hawkinson

The text is written to respond to the most significant crisis facing the new church communities. That crisis had to do with the difficult problem of entrance into the fellowship of Christ. But, be clear about this! It is about entrance and nothing else! At hand is not the issue of "whether or not humans abstractly conceived can by good deeds earn merit to be declared righteous; it is the condition on which Gentiles enter the people of God," E.P. Sanders, Paul, the Law and the Jewish People.

To keep this in focus will avoid the misconception that Paul is directing his message against Judaism as a religious system built upon salvation through works. No such Judaism exists! On the contrary it is precisely his understanding as a Jew — that entrance into the covenant community is through the grace of divine election — that he is able to include gentiles into that community.

Paul argues that Peter betrays his own tradition by asking others to accept what he, a Jew, did not have to. This is to change law from the means of disciplining and structuring a community into an entrance requirement to that community. To follow the law is no longer an obedient response to grace but a burden prior to receiving the gift of acceptance.

This passionate defense of being "righteoused" by faith is then an internal question within the Christian community and not an argument with Judaism per se

This helps to focus the tension and explains the anguish behind the personal conflict with Peter and Barnabas, whom Waldenström rightly understands as under self-condemnation through their actions. (Notice however that Waldenström will not allow this tension to linger, since it would provide a serious division within the body).

Yet, even at this point, we should be careful not to accuse Peter too easily of failing to understand the priority of grace. Peter, himself forgiven the denial and abandonment of his Master, surely understands God's love and human worthiness. The pressures upon these persons are real and demanding. The problems urgent and complicated. They arise in a time when the entire Palestinian community is being pulled apart by powerful centrifugal forces. Only a few, with waning strength, are trying to hold it together.

Into this condition enters the outsider, who comes without acknowledging and accepting the norms of tradition and there also to claim equal status with those for whom eating kosher food and circumcision were signs of divine acceptance rooted in ancient biblical sources. What happens to community when the strangers begin to come?

Perhaps it was Paul's own passion for the outsider and illegitimate ones, arising from his special call, that led him to accept an ecclesiology that was often confused and inexplicable. From his Rabbinic heritage, which fully expected the Gentiles to come into the covenant during the messianic age, there was no solution offered to the problems mass conversions posed for community stability and health. The recent flood of refugees into many neighborhoods bears witness to these powerful rending forces.

Paul appears to accept the existence of the dilemma if it meant allowing room for +1 those elected by grace. For there really is no solution! At least, not yet! The Rabbis left the problem to the Messiah to sort out when he came, Paul agreed that the resolution of true community remained a future event. He called the present, faith acting in love. Gal. 5:6, Love, not as yet complete, not yet enough to provide the bond of unity in any completed sense, yet confident that such a time would come (as heard in conversation with John Weborg).

This was also the instinct of those caught up in pietist renewal. They called for conversion as necessary for entrance, but refused to make the experience stereotypic. They identified themselves as a 'believers church' but retained infant baptism.

Such confusion is not easy to live with nor is it easy to explain when people ask who you are. The lack of clearly defined norms of doctrine and practice create stress and tension which, from time to time, threaten to break the body, and sometimes do. Still, all our attempts to study the nature and dynamics of groups and so direct them will not solve what must remain a future event. Further, attempts to solve the problem of diversity within community can become a mask to control who can come in by defining how one gets in. In this spirit, order takes priority over welcoming the stranger. But then, there is the Spirit of God who does not ask for our permission to call whom he wants. The question remains if we are open to the work he determines to do by allowing the confusion to exist. As is written by Arthur W. Anderson:

"We have only one big fear and that is God. He is Absolute. He is Unconditional. He is our kingdom, our first love, our one flaming passion. Let the rest of life fall where it may. Seeing people come alive at this center is the one preoccupying passion. Structures are necessary but they can be blown aside in a hurricane. Programs are important but they are not the real point. When God is loose in the church we tremble with glory — and celebrate the whole order of life."

That is faith lived in love!

David Hawkinson is a teacher of Bible, editor of Pietisten, and Pastor of Covenant Community Church, Jericho, Vermont.

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