A Rewind at the Love Feast

Have you ever wanted to do things over again— perhaps do something different, or something the same but better. I rewind things in my mind and try to “fix” whatever I did poorly, or not as well as I could have. One of the joys of blogging is the ability to do just that. Go back and fix whatever wrong-headed opinions I had` before, or perhaps simply say it better or with less grammatical or typographical errors.

There are stories in the Bible that I would love to see a rewind made. Obviously, I am not speaking of changing the Bible, but simply wondering if the participants in the bible story would like to amend their words or behavior. This is actually one of the wonderful things about the Bible that “heroes of the faith” are shown as humans, with both strengths and weaknesses. In the church age thinsg began to change when it became impious to show such people in ways that were not laudatory. This pattern of sanitizing the records of Christian saints was so prevalent that one argument for the early date of some Christian writing was willingness of the writers to show Christian saints “warts and all.”

One story in the Bible that I wonder if the participants would have liked a rewind is found in Galatians 2:11. The story, related by Paul says:

“Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he wold eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? …” (Galatians 2: 11-14 NKJV)

This passage is generally taken by commentators as an example of Peter behaving badly. I have a study Bible with me (“The Nelson Study Bible”). In the notes for this passage, the commentators say things like, “Given Peter’s immense influence, Paul had little choice but to point out the hypocrisy directly.” “… the behavior of Peter in Antioch was contradictory and hypocritical.” “Peter’s example was so divisive…” “Peter’s actions did not represent conviction, but hypocrisy.” “Peter’s hypocritical example implied that Gentiles had to behave like Jews in order to receive God’s grace.” Clearly, the commentators have taken a position that takes Paul’s actions and perceptions quite uncritically.

I struggle with this passage, and even more so with many commentators. First and foremost, I don’t see anything in the passage that indicates that Peter was guilty of hypcrisy. Perhaps it could be generously stated that he behaved in a manner that some would be tempted to interpret as hypocritical. Of course, perhaps he DID do something wrong, but if he did, the text doesn’t clearly indicate it. After all, adapting to the culture of those you are ministering to is considered a good behavior, not bad. Behaving as a Gentile with Gentiles and a Jew with Jews could arguably be described as good missiological practice. In fact, Paul did exactly that at times. Now some would argue that the fact that it is in the canon of Scripture it must indicate the truth that Paul’s charges are completely correct and Peter was completely in the wrong. However, often godly principles in the Bible are revealed through stories that are in themselves contrasting rather than supporting godliness, or containing ambivalent behavior. Also, the point of the story was that “all people are justified equally before God” NOT “how I was completely right and Peter was completely wrong.”

Secondly, even if you feel that the context suggests that Peter did something wrong, that doesn’t mean that Paul was in the right. In fact, even if you feel that the story must accurately indicate a failing of Peter (and don’t we all have failings?), there is nothing explicit (or I would argue implicit) in the passage that the Holy Spirit found Paul’s behavior without fault.

Instead of arguing that one must be completely right and one completely wrong, is it possible that both were right… and both were wrong? Real life is often muddy that way. Only rarely is one side of a disagreement completely right and blameless and the other side completely wrong and deserving of all blame. If this story is real, as the text indicates, most likely such muddiness exists here as well. And I have to wonder if one or both of them would have liked to have a rewind.

I might imagine such a rewind as being something like this:

Paul came over to where Peter was dining and said, “Brother can I speak to you on a matter privately.”

“Of course,” responded Peter. They went outside to a quite place and Paul spoke.

“Peter, I see you separating yourself from the Gentiles for at the love feast just now. In the past, you joined with all Gentiles and Jews to eat. I felt that you provided a great example to all parties that God is not a respecter of persons— all are equal before Him. But now associates of James from the church in Jerusalem visit and suddenly you are separating yourself off from the Gentiles. It seems hypocritical to me.”

“Paul, I don’t really see it as hypocritical. Here in Antioch there is a strong culture of accepting each other regardless of our background. That is something I really love about this place. But the church in Jerusalem is not like that. While all of the leadership understand that we are equal before God, there is still a strong sense that being Jews is a key part of their group identity. Many of them still go to the temple regularly and participate in many of the festivals and activities of the Jews. Perhaps their attitude is immature, but sometimes one has to adapt oneself to the immature because they are not ready yet for the more challenging things. It is not hypocritical to feed a baby, while expecting an adult to feed himself. One needs special care and another doesn’t.”

Paul responds, “Peter, I see where you are coming from. But I think you need to know something about Antioch and many of the churches that are up here. They are not as mature as you think. They struggle like a yoke of oxen with each ox trying to go in a different direction and a different speed. There is a lot of tension between Jews and Greeks, Rich and Poor, Slaves and Masters, and more. One thing I appreciate in the love feast is that it models, symbolically, what we are and what we are meant to be— one family of one God and Savior. You may be acting in consideration to our brothers from Jerusalem, but there is a cost. That cost is the confusion it causes here in Antioch.”

“Paul. I did not know the challenges you and Barnabas and the rest have here in Syria. I will talk to our brothers from Jerusalem. I think I can explain it to them in a way they would understand. This may be a good time for them to learn not just through words, but through actions.

Peter and Paul returned to the love feast and had a joyous time.

Frankly, I like the sound of this story better. Now you may not feel the same. You may feel it is unrealistic because people tend not to deal with disagreements in such a tranquil thoughtful manner. But I can’t help but think that Paul and Peter would have preferred this rewind if they thought about it. That is because in the first story, arguably, both Peter and Paul were wrong. Peter was wrong in that he adapted culturally to a small number of people from Jerusalem without understanding that it would be interpreted by people in Antioch as either hypocritical, or supporting a racist or separatist perspective in the churches of Syria. This would be quite consistent with the impetuousness that seems to be part of the personality. of Peter. He could definitely act in ways that failed to consider the repercussions on others. Paul, on the other hand, has issues with anger. That anger sometimes leads him to lash out. (Let’s be honest, telling Galatian church members that they might want to consider emasculating themselves certainly points to someone who struggles with anger management.) Paul sees Peter respecting the feelings of the churchmembers of Jerusalem while undermining, intentionally or not, the work of the leadership at Antioch. So Paul publically lashed out at Peter.

Both were wrong, but both were right. Muddy… just like real life.

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