Family dinners and dinner parties are great. Gathering around a table with those we love with good food. It makes for a great evening…usually. We’ve all been to that awkward dinner where someone brings up something that shouldn’t be talked about in mixed company. By mixed company, I mean those who we don’t agree with. The topic could be any hot button topic. It gets weird. Some people try to change the subject. There are a few willing to engage in polite banter and agree to disagree. Then, there’s two who get a little too heated and you know there’s going to be some animosity tomorrow.
Paul and Peter whom Paul calls Cephas are at such a dinner. Paul had been preaching the gospel in Antioch to the Gentiles. Peter, Barnabas and others came for a visit to see Paul’s success. While visiting, Peter and his company dine with the Gentile Christians. They have table fellowship. Everything is going great.
Then, James sent some people to spy on what was going on in Antioch. James’ people were strict adherents to the Jewish Law. They saw Peter and the people with him eating with Gentiles and that was not good by their judgment. So, Peter, Barnabas and the others leave the party. James’ people strictly didn’t want Jewish Christians, like Peter, Barnabas and the others with them, Jews who believed in Christ, to eat with Gentile sinners.
I alluded to it in a previous sermon about the book of Galatians. This letter is all about Paul’s defense of what some call the circumcision-free Gospel. I’m going to get into the thick of the conflict, because we can’t interpret Paul’s story about this dinner party and Peter’s behavior without understanding the back story.
Paul has been preaching to the Gentiles. He has been preaching that there is freedom in Christ, freedom from the Law, free grace, freedom. No need to do Jewish stuff to be a Christian. Paul said the Gentiles were justified by faith not by their adherence to the Law which they were never bound to because they’re not Jews.
Some in Jerusalem, like James, thought all Gentiles should become Jew before becoming Christians. Some had even come from Jerusalem to preach to the Gentiles that they needed to become Jews by being circumcised and following the Law before they could really be saved.
I’ve said that much so far in a previous sermon. So, here’s the thick of it. Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem to hash this debate out before the Jerusalem council. The Apostles and elders of the church hear the different claims. Acts 15 says there had been much debate (v. 7). Peter stands up and says, “God has given the Spirit to the Gentiles, just as God gave the Spirit to us Jews who believe. God has made no distinction between them and us. So, why are you trying to place this yoke on the neck of these disciples? We believe that we are saved by grace, just like they are.”
At that, James got on board. He decided that the Gentile believers should not be burdened with circumcision and the Law. This is an important belief. Circumcision and adherence to the Law were outward signs of being in covenant with God. God established the covenant way back with Abraham, circumcision and later the Law were things Jews did to reflect that they were included in the covenant. If the Jewish Christians did not require the Gentiles to become Jews before becoming Christian, the church, the Jerusalem council, the Apostles and the elders, were for the first time truly acknowledging that there was a new covenant in Christ.
That’s a big deal, guys. The church has in effect said God has established a covenant that includes Gentiles that is different than the covenant God made with the Jews. This new covenant is one written in the faith of Christ.
There were a few stipulations for the Gentile believers. The Jerusalem council sent a letter that was to be sent to all the Gentile churches and read. According to Acts 15, we’re still there, the letter said, “don’t eat things dedicated to false gods, don’t fornicate, and stay away from blood.” Seems a lot more simple than the Law and a lot less painful than circumcision.
Now, back to the new covenant and the Abrahamic covenant. Later, in the letter to Galatians, chapter 3, Paul says that God had known the Gentiles would one day be included in God’s family because Abraham was told that all the people of the world would be blessed by Abraham meaning one day all would be welcomed into the family of God. And, it is so, when the Gentiles are welcomed into the family of God through faith. The church has acknowledged God’s grace given to the Gentiles in a new covenant in Christ.
That new covenant brings Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ into one human family of God. Both Jew and Gentile have the same claim to God as the other. Both have the Spirit. Both know the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, it is up to the Jewish church to accept the Gentiles fully and equally into the family of God by the faith of Christ.
A few weeks ago, I challenged us to consider the Apostle John’s challenge to love one another without exception and Jesus’ command to love our neighbors without exception. The implications of Paul’s message to the Galatians, really the whole church, is that no one can any longer claim special status before God. We are all reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.
I said we are called to love one another without exception to their faith, their worker status, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, their wealth, their disease or disability, their nation of origin, how they spend their Saturday nights or what they wear to Walmart. We’re to love them all and Paul’s message is that they are all reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.
I know you’re questioning why I just said they’re all reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, including the people of other faiths or people whose behavior we don’t think is Christian. I want us to consider a translation of Paul’s words that say the work of reconciliation is not our faith but Christ’s faithfulness. Galatians 2: 16 in many translations says: “16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ…” (NIV) But, a translation that is being considered more closely defining Paul’s intended words would read: “16 However, we know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” The difference between the two readings is that the historically accepted translation says we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ whereas the more accurately translated phrase says we are justified by Christ’s faithfulness.
One says our faith and the other says Christ’s faith. This means that our salvation may hinge on what Christ did not what we do. Or, Christ’s resurrection and faithfulness to God’s call to His ministry is more powerful than our faith. What Christ did is more important than our faith. Some might argue that believing is a work, albeit different than trying to earn salvation by adhering to the Law, still believing is work and we are justified by Christ, not work.
You’re probably now thinking about Romans 5:1 that says we are justified by faith, but more recent translations by scholars believe the intention of Paul was once again that we are justified by Christ’s faithfulness, not our faith. (CEB) Now, you’re probably thinking about John 3:16, but I don’t want us to go there. I want to stay with Paul’s theology that we are saved by Christ’s faithfulness, not our faith.
So, metaphorically speaking, we’re at a dinner party, who is it that we don’t want to welcome to our table or be seen dining with?
Who is it that we think isn’t saved or isn’t saved like us because they are different?
Who do we think needs to be like us to be saved by Christ?
Are we willing to let go of our thought that our faith saves us and accept that salvation may be more about what Christ did than what we believe?
I’m not suggesting people don’t need Jesus. People need Jesus. But, maybe the church needs to be less concerned with saving souls from the fiery depths of hell and the suffering of eternal damnation, because maybe that’s not a problem because of Christ’s faithfulness. Maybe we need to focus on giving people the truth about a loving, compassionate Jesus who gives peace to people who are stressed out and a world full of violence. Amen.