Monday, October 18, 2010

Paul confronts Peter - Galatians chapter 2

I guess few of my readers will have followed the acting career of Ian McShane. He is a man of my age whom I first noticed in a film, The Wild and the Willing about student life in the sixties. He had just started in the business and was immediately noticeable for his film presence. To my young mind the attractions of the film were Samantha Eggar, Lincoln Cathedral and Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a theme from Paganini. It also provided early screen appearances for John Hurt and Jeremy Brett. The latest news is that McShane will appear as the villain in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, released next spring. In the meantime he has graduated into the most prominent player of villains on TV or the Movies. It started with Lovejoy, who was just a lovable rogue antique dealer who had his heart in the right place, but he had already played Judas Iscariot in Jesus of Nazareth. He appeared in Dallas and The West Wing, but reached the epitome of nastiness in Deadwood, which was altogether too unpleasant for me to watch. He has even been a villain in Kung Fu Panda and Shrek. In the recently screened mini-series, Pillars of the Earth he appears as the wicked Bishop Waleran and this is so unpleasant, I doubt that I will watch the remainder. It is set in the Cadfael territory of 12th Century England during the war of succession between Stephen and Matilda. But Cadfael, he ain't.

We always say that English actors make the best Hollywood villains. This is probably because they can act whereas most Hollywood stars just play themselves (but perhaps it's the other way round?)

In the Bible there is one character who keeps turning up as a villain - The Apostle Peter. The Bible certainly doesn't whitewash its heroes! First, he appears to be full of himself with a big mouth, which gets him into trouble with Jesus 'Get thee behind me, Satan!' then he denies Jesus at his trial and has to suffer the humiliating restoration at the Lake of Galilee and now in Galatians we have the unusual occasion when Paul has to call him out publicly.

The back story is told by Luke in Acts chapter 10 and onwards. Peter was staying with a friend in Joppa (modern day Haifa), while in Caesarea, a town about 30 miles north populated by retired Roman soldiers, Cornelius, a centurion and a God fearing man who gave generously to the Jews, had a vision in which an angel told him to seek out Peter. Immediately, he arranged for men to go to Joppa to find Peter. The next day Peter himself had a vision while going to pray on the roof of his friend's house:

He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat."
"Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."
The voice spoke to him a second time, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."
This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

So Peter welcomed the men into his house and the next day returned to Caesarea with them. He began to speak to a large gathering of people there. He said to them: "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection.

Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.

"We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

There it was. A clear signal from God that the gospel was to go to non-Jews, who were not to be encumbered with the old Law and ritual. Moreover, there was not one law for Jews and another for Gentiles. There was now one means of access to God; through Jesus Christ, the resurrected Messiah and "everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." Not just Gentiles but Jews also.

In chapter 11 we read that Peter went to Jerusalem he was criticised by the 'circumcised believers', "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them."

Peter then went and explained everything that happened and by verse 18 we read, When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life."

Luke doesn't tell us when the incident of Paul calling out Peter actually occurred. We know it took place in Antioch when certain men came from James. First Peter, and then other Jews who took their example from him, and even Barnabas, withdrew from eating with the Gentiles as had been their former practice and began eating only with Jews, for fear of the Circumcision Party.

It seems clear to me that this must have been later than Acts 11 and almost certainly after the Council of Jerusalem which is reported in Acts 15, or just possibly immediately before when "Some men came down from Judea to Antioch..." verse 1. Perhaps this incident was what prompted Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem and initiate the Council. At any rate, at the Council both Peter and James supported the Pauline position. For Peter to renege on the Jerusalem Council decision so soon afterwards would seem strange, but in any case he was reneging on his own practice immediately before which had been base on his vision in Joppa. But this is Peter's personality, returning to his default settings. He always was a coward. He did things for show.

Look at Ian McShane's face and you will see the years of smoking and drinking vodka for breakfast and womanizing etched upon it. He may be a changed person now, having been happily married for nearly 30 years and gone teetotal, but the years of abuse are etched on his face fitting him to play villains. How hard it is for the Holy Spirit to keep the man of Romans 7 down.

In any Christian church you will find people struggling with their past. It may be the legalism that they were brought up with; it may be some besetting sin that they can't shake free from; it may be something in their past that they still feel guilty about. The truth of the Gospel, and why it really is good news is that it is in the past.

In Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta he has Barabbas saying in exculpation, "Thou hast committed-- Fornication: but that was in another country, And besides, the wench is dead."

But just being in the past doesn't make it right; what makes it right is that Jesus has taken the punishment for us and exchanged it for his righteousness. We are right with God! As a free gift! Because he loves us! I think Peter eventually got the message.

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