1st READING: Psalm 5:1-8
2nd READING: Galatians 2: 9-21
Let’s pray: May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable
in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The ‘rumble in the jungle’...
the ‘thrilla in Manilla’...
Foreman, Frasier, and Ali –
perhaps the greatest boxers of all time,
and whose rivalry, skill, and power
awed, stunned, and entertained millions back in the day.
Ali, who was buried on Friday
in Louisville, Kentucky,
was more than ‘just a boxer’, however.
Since his death, the airwaves and the internet
have been filled with retrospectives, and clips.
Many of them naturally focusing upon his prowess in the ring,
but more than a few noting that this physically powerful man
was also funny, articulate,
and used the power of his fame
– or notoriety –
as a vehicle for social change.
An Olympic gold medal winner in 1960,
the story, told by Ali,
is that he came home from Rome,
went into a restaurant,
and was refused service because of the colour of his skin.
Marching out of the place, he headed for the Ohio river,
took off his gold medal,
and threw it into the swirling waters in disgust.
Throughout the rest of his life,
Ali championed civil rights,
believing and fighting for a society
that would include and embrace all.
And because of his belief in a free and fair society,
he was no stranger to controversy –
from the ‘Establishment’, of course,
but occasionally, from those who were also
championing civil rights –
who felt he should follow their way of doing things.
He was a powerful and passionate man
– a great humanitarian -
and I think the world is a little less sparkly with his passing.
This morning, in our passage from Galatians,
we meet two heavyweights of the faith,
who, according to our text,
lock horns over ways of doing things –
of living out the Christian life:
we come across a face-off between Peter – the ‘Rock’ –
and Paul – ‘the persecuter'.
And in a nod to Ali and co., let’s call this meeting
the ‘shock in Antioch’.
Last week, we talked about the gospel and of transformation and change;
this, in light of Paul’s anger at what had transpired
since he’d last spent time with the faith communities in Galatia.
A quick re-cap:
a group had come along, after Paul had moved on
to preach the gospel to others.
This group had basically told the new believers
that they had to meet certain conditions in order to be ‘of the true faith’;
these conditions being an acceptance of Jewish rites – circumcision –
and of following the law laid down in the Torah.
It was ‘Jesus plus the law equals proper belief.’
And the young in the faith,
wanting to follow Jesus,
had bought the ‘Jesus plus’ formula that this
group had brought among them.
Paul was horrified:
he is quick to rebut the erroneous teaching.
He reminds the Galatians that the gospel is ‘good news’:
is Jesus, and...
only Jesus -
not ‘Jesus and something else’.
just pure, and utter grace from God:
the freedom of forgiveness,
the freedom of new life –
life in Christ.
The old had gone,
the new had come.
And, telling the Galatians his story,
his ‘road to Damascus’ experience,
he reminds them that,
the power of God’s love in Christ alone
was what had transformed him from persecutor to preacher.
The gospel, as we heard last week,
is about change and transformation.
And there’s more:
it’s about welcoming all,
building bridges, not walls.
As Paul continues in his letter,
he tells the Galatians of meeting with Peter –
first, in Jerusalem, and later, in Antioch.
Things initially seemed to be going well in Antioch.
Peter was meeting with the new believers,
in fact, Peter was eating with the new believers...
Peter, who before his encounter with Jesus
would never have ritually defiled himself by eating with non-Jews.
For Peter, there has been a change:
Jesus has broken down the barriers between Jew and Gentile,
uniting them in himself.
Peter had previously had a vision of ‘clean and unclean’ foods,
had seen God clearly blessing non-Jewish followers of Jesus,
such as the centurion Cornelius.
Peter had discovered the inclusive love of God for all,
not just the chosen few.
But there, in Antioch, he has a wobble:
a group sent by the disciple James, comes from Jerusalem to visit.
Peter is suddenly conspicuous by his absence
amongst the Gentile converts,
afraid to be rebuked by this group from Jerusalem.
And his actions cause others around him to wobble –
those disciples who had a Jewish background
also withdrew themselves from their fellow believers in Christ,
with Paul almost spitting out in disgust:
and ‘even Barnabas was led astray.’
Good, solid, faithful companion that he was,
when someone like Peter –
someone who had spent years in the company of Jesus –
comes to town and acts in a certain way,
then, out of respect for his authority and experience,
you’re not likely to stand up and go:
‘um, Peter, I’m not sure this is such a great idea.’
You’re not likely to...
unless you’re Paul, that is.
Paul’s not afraid of making a stand,
not afraid of rocking the boat.
As he, himself writes to the Galatians:
‘When I saw that they were not acting in line
with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all...’
and then he goes on to show how he publicly called out Peter.
Paul does seem to have a bit of a habit of getting folk
to pin back their ears and listen to him.
But, in this particular matter, Paul is right
and Peter’s done a ‘Peter’ and messed up.
Paul’s one tough cookie –
he’s determined to demonstrate
the all-encompassing wideness of the gospel:
that God’s love is for everyone.
To remind even Peter, that great pillar of the faith,
that in Jesus, all barriers are broken down –
although different, yet all are one in Him:
‘I have been crucified with Christ
and I no longer live,
but Christ lives in me.’
Transformation and change, yes,
along with unity in diversity.
Here Paul is showing
to Peter and his companions from Jerusalem...
to the Galatians...
that faith is about expanding the way we think,
is about refocusing the way we think;
it reorients the heart and soul and spirit.
Within the all-embracing love of God,
in faith, having been loved by God,
we love God in return –
and, in faith, extend that love to all humanity.
‘Through death and resurrection, Christ comes
to dwell in the human heart and to produce a community
based not on social distinctions but on love.’ [Wendy Farley, FOTW, 136]
Another nod to Muhammad Ali:
Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky.
Interesting things seem to happen in that city.
The great 20th century spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, was a monk.
He had spent his life rejecting the world,
encircling himself in silence, and prayer, and meditation.
One day, away from the monastery, and wandering the streets of Louisville,
Merton had an epiphany, a lightbulb moment, if you like.
In his book, ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,’ he writes:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut,
in the center of the shopping district,
I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization
that I loved all these people,
that they were mine and I theirs,
that we could not be alien to one another
even though we were total strangers...’
Merton goes on:
There is no way of telling people that
they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts,
the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire
nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality,
the person that each one is in God’s eyes.
If only they could all see themselves
as they really are.
If only we could see each other
that way all the time.
There would be no more war, no more hatred,
no more cruelty, no more greed...’
A gospel of transformation and change.
A gospel of welcome: of unity and diversity.
A gospel of love.
Love is not always easy.
And there are times when loving some folk
is particularly challenging.
Perhaps a way of walking in love
is trying to imagine how God sees them;
and trying to walk in someone else’s shoes –
to try and imaginatively enter into that person’s life;
to wonder, and to ask what their story might be
before we make a quick judgement.
Loving people when they do things differently
to the way we might prefer is also challenging...
but in love, first ask just ‘why’ they may be doing things that way.
And then, there are those we may see in the media –
people in positions of power who have misused that power in shocking ways –
whether ruling their land with an iron fist of fear...
or ruling the roost at home and making everyone walk on eggshells.
How do we find a way to acknowledge that even those we see as unlovely
are nevertheless, beloved of God -
even though God may weep at the choices they make?
How do we love certain others, when they don’t love in return?
How do we love those who have caused us deep, deep hurt?
So often, it feels easier to harden our hearts;
to become judge and jury;
to choose the way of violence, of vengeance...
or, depending on our situation, of using passive-aggression.
So often, the way of love is held up as weak, as ‘wishy-washy’.
Choosing to love is the hardest thing that we can humanly do.
Choosing to love
Choosing to love
is choosing to follow
in the footsteps of the One
who knew what it was to love fully –
even unto death...
Choosing love is an act of faith
and an expression of hope:
a hope that reaches beyond death and sees new life –
resurrection and reconciliation.
Paul was using fighting words when he challenged Peter.
In a similar way to Muhammed Ali,
this powerful, passionate, and articulate man,
used the power of his fame
– well, his notoriety –
as a vehicle for social change:
However, as he continued defending the good news of the gospel –
Paul was also using his power to effect spiritual change,
by showing the gospel of life-giving grace for all.
For Paul, the gospel – the news of God’s love in Jesus -
spoke of a love wider, bigger, than we can ever fully understand.
A love that, every day, has a new beginning
as we die to self and allow Christ to live in us.
Let us, as Christ’s community,
choose to walk in love now, and every day:
learning to find the beauty and wonder in God,
and in one another,
and let love be our prayer in action. Amen.