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Speaking to the Soul: Conflict in Hindsight

Speaking to the Soul: Conflict in Hindsight

Week of Proper 18, Year Two

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 40, 54 (morning) // 51 (evening)

Job 29:1; 31:24-40

Acts 15:12-21

John 11:30-44

Our second reading today presents the proceedings from the Jerusalem Council. According to the fuller report, representatives of some competing Christian factions go to Jerusalem to “discuss this question” of whether Gentile converts should undergo circumcision. The apostles and elders, along with Paul and Barnabas, welcome each other, meet together, consider together, and debate together. Eventually, they reach a compromise.

As our reading today reports, the council decides to advise the Gentiles to follow just a few essentials of Mosaic law: no eating food sacrificed to idols, no “fornication,” and no improperly slaughtered meat. Just the basics. The problem with this account, though, is that it glosses over the heatedness of controversies among early Christian leaders, including the brazenness of leaders like Paul, the recalcitrance of leaders like James, and the wavering of leaders like Peter.

In the section preceding today’s reading, Peter gives a speech that sounds much more like something that Paul would say, asking the elders, “why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” In today’s reading, James (leader of the church in Jerusalem) seems to be easily persuaded by Paul, and he announces to the council, “I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.”

Paul’s letter to the Galatians paints a different picture. There, Paul tells his readers that he avoided consulting with the Jerusalem church for several years, spreading the good news based on his own experience of the risen Christ rather than with the guidance who actually knew Christ during his lifetime. He describes James as the leader of “the circumcision faction,” and Peter as waffling and “self-condemned” for stopping his practice of eating with Gentiles when he knows that James is watching him.

Perhaps Peter and James did come around to Paul’s point of view, or to a compromise position, after a while. But the author of Acts might not wish us to remember the audacity of those who didn’t consult with others, or the entrenched resistance of a faction, or the back-tracking of those who couldn’t go through with change. Fortunately, we have, at the very least, Paul’s letter to the Galatians as a reminder . . . and as a consolation when meetings, discussion, consultation, and debate don’t deliver the unifying compromises that we hope for. Not yet, anyway.

Lora Walsh blogs about the Daily Office readings at A Daily Scandal. She serves as Priest Associate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and assists with adult formation and campus ministry at St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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