The Church Being the Church

Tuesday, January 29, 2013 -- Week of 3 Epiphany (Year One)
Andrei Rublev, Monk and Iconographer, 1430

[Go to http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html for an online version of the Daily Office including today's scripture readings.]

Today's Readings for the Daily Office
(Book of Common Prayer, p. 944)
Psalms 45 (morning) // 47, 48 (evening)
Isaiah 48:12-21
Galatians 1:18 - 2:10
Mark 6:1-13

Paul is making his case passionately. He is claiming his apostolic authority. He had been a persecutor of the church, but God gave him a revelation and a calling to proclaim Christ. Paul asked for no confirmation of that calling from human beings or from church leaders. He was obedient to the divine revelation.

For three years he worked before meeting any of the church's apostles or other leaders. Then he spent three days in Jerusalem with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, who is traditionally called the first bishop of Jerusalem. They parted on good terms, and Paul continued his missionary work for another fourteen years.

Paul then returned to Jerusalem to meet with the apostolic leaders, a meeting that is one of the great turning points of church history. For more than a dozen years Paul has been organizing churches throughout the Roman Empire. His message has been directed primarily to Gentiles. His congregations include many Gentiles. There is a critical division -- and this is the issue of the letter to the Galatians -- Can Gentiles become Christians without also becoming Jews, observing the Torah laws and being circumcised? Paul emphatically said, "Yes." Other Christian leaders said, "No."

Paul writes that he presented his Gospel message in Jerusalem and the apostles acknowledged his teaching that Gentiles may become Christians without being circumcised and following Torah. The authorities approved of his work as missioner to the Gentiles. Paul notes the test-case. The Jerusalem church accepted Titus among them, even though he was an uncircumcised Gentile. Note that Paul reasserts that his authority is not derived from these "influential leaders." He says he doesn't care what they thought they were as authorities, "because God doesn't show favoritism." His authority is from the revelation he received from God and he is obedient to that vision. He is grateful that "James, Cephas, and John, who are considered to be key leaders, shook hands with me and Barnabas as equals when they recognized the grace that was given to me." (2:9)

Throughout his ministry, Paul had to claim and reclaim the legitimacy of his message that Gentiles can belong to the Church without following the Old Testament laws and customs and without being circumcised. The Church remained conflicted and divided about this issue for his entire life.

In every generation God's people live with some form of conflict. Usually it is a theological conflict between those who sense a call to a new interpretation and those who seek to defend a traditional interpretation. Sometimes it is a call from comfort to discomfort. Change is always difficult, especially for the religious. Our religious trust is grounded in ancient things that have the quality of being unchanging in an unsteady world. But over and over the ancient revelation has shown itself to be alive and resilient, able to be open to new interpretation.

When the Apostolic Council recognized the presence of the Spirit in Paul's ministry among the Gentiles, even though centuries of practice and the word of scripture mandated circumcision and Torah observance, the decision to follow the Spirit rather than the traditional interpretation of the law set a critical precedent for the Church. This letter to the Galatians is part of Paul's ongoing, lifetime struggle to confirm his ministry of inclusion in the face of conflict from those who were certain they were defending their religious tradition. The Church was alive, and Paul's ministry was empowered by God's Spirit.

Historically, the presence of struggle is one of the signs of life among the people of God. There is reason to be encouraged that we live in a time of religious conflict. Traditionally, that has been a sign that God is working among us. Our Church is alive and is empowered by God's Spirit. In this generation, some Pauline Christians testify to the Apostolic Council the grace that God is manifesting among our gay and transgendered brothers and sisters. We will be faithful to the revelation God has given us. It will take more than a lifetime for us as well to see the fruits of God's revelation to us. But that is just fine. It's only the Church being the Church.

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