Saturday, January 29, 2011

Who is in and who is out? Peter and Paul and their arguments

The question ripples across the pages and down through the ages:

Who is in, and who is out?

The passages in this week's Daily Office biblical readings ring with an ancient argument between Peter and Paul that may have something to do with that question.

We sometimes lump Peter and Paul, the two giants of early Christianity, together as superhero supersaints. Some ancient icons even show them embracing (see below).

But their differences were many, their distrust of each other was deep, and their disagreement as relevant today as it was in the first century. In reading the biblical texts closely, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Peter and Paul didn't much like each other, and they worked hard at keeping their distance.

We get an echo of their differences in this past week's readings. The other day, we heard Isaiah 49:1-12 with the prophet proclaiming that Israel comes as a light to all nations, not just a small band of monotheistic tribesmen. In Paul's Letter to the Galatians 2:11-21 he proclaims that Isaiah's proclamation has come to life in Christ, and then lays out his grievance with Peter:
But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction [Jewish Christians]. . . But when I saw that they were not acting consistently 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 compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’
We don't get to hear Peter's reply, and that is too bad. But we might get an indirect hint. The next passage in the Daily Office readings is the gruesome story in Mark 6:13-29 of how John the Baptist was beheaded because Herod made a promise to a young woman who had beguiled him at a party. Herod tells her he'd give her "whatever you wish, and I will give it." She demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter, and got it. Life was cheap, and heads could be chopped on nothing more than a party bet amongst the powerful.

I tend to think that story is Peter's reply to Paul. Maybe their conversation went something like this:

Paul, filled with the spirit of Isaiah, says to Peter: "Don't you get it Peter? We Christians are the light to all the nations just as Isaiah proclaimed! Jesus came to set all of us free from traditional religion, from the curse of strict legalisms. You need to drop all of your pointless food rules and sit down to dinner with all of these new people who Christ includes in God's kingdom. You need to show them that they are included."

And Peter, knowing how precarious this new religion is, replies: "Don't you get it Paul? We will lose our heads over this. Many already have. We've got to show respect for the old ways if we are to have any chance of reaching people where they are in this violent world where power dominates and we can be snuffed out at any moment. Be careful Paul, none of this is simple. And, Paul, G-d found people in the old ways; don't be so quick to dismiss them. G-d still dwells with them and they hear him speak in the old ways."

Paul might have replied as he did in today reading from Galatians 3:23-29:
"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise."
And Peter might have countered by quoting today's passage from Isaiah 51:1-8:
"Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many."
Both Paul and Peter right. And both would lose their heads anyway.

Yet it is all too easy to lose sight of Peter and Paul in the fog of time and the caricatures we create of them. We wrongfully project too much of our own controversies onto them. Truthfully, mostly what we get is Paul's view of Peter and very little of Peter speaking for himself.

Their argument was considerably more nuanced than at first glance, and we do well to appreciate the nuances. Peter and Paul -- and Jesus -- were Jewish, and this was an argument among people who felt their Judaism deeply. None renounced being Jewish, all saw in Torah -- the Law -- the written manifestation of God's promise of redemption to humanity. All were looking for how to bring that message among people who were hurting and disconsolate.

In a way, we hear Peter and Paul talking past each other, as we do ourselves sometimes. The two lived in a tension of opposite poles. We live in that tension too, every Sunday in our Episcopal liturgy as we celebrate both the coming of the new and the steadiness of the old traditions.

Peter was willing to include non-Jews in the promises Torah -- a radical position for him to take, all things considered. And Paul held strictly to the Jewish ways, including submitting to purification rituals, even as he argued that these ways were not in of themselves the way to God's salvation. Paul's letters, including the rest of Galatians, are his explanations for how that happens.

And, most crucially, while Paul vigorously argued with Peter (and others), he always sought unity with them in the "Body of Christ." Paul never sought separation; indeed, his argument with Peter was about strengthening bonds, not loosening them. Parting ways was not an option for Paul even among people who don't much like each other.

And the letters of Peter, in so far as we know that they came from Peter, are soaring testaments to how Christ goes beyond the grave and into Hell itself to bring all people to himself. Peter moved well beyond this world and into the next as he sought ways to include all of humanity in the promises of Christ, even those people who had lived before Christ. In a way, Peter's sense of inclusion was bigger than Paul's, and so we might forgive Peter if he was a bit bewildered by Paul's accusations.

In the end, both Peter and Paul are including everyone in the promise of salvation, and on that we can rest our hope.

Icons thanks to Padre Mickey's wonderful blog.

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I am away at our annual Vestry retreat. We are building the retreat around Paul's Letter to the Ephesians 4:1-16. Please keep us and St. Paul's in your prayers.

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