But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’
We live in a time where many people are struggling with loneliness and feel excluded from mainstream society. How should the Church respond? I know a biker who goes to church regularly. He wears a “traditional’ biker’s cut-off: a leather or denim waistcoat displaying various badges, patches and his club’s coat-of-arms (or “colours”). The club’s logo is a symbol of association within the biker community. It is claimed that such clothing exemplifies the stereotypical aggressive biker image.
When he wears his cut-off to church, his fellow Christians seem to avoid him. But when he leaves his cut-off at home Christians are more friendly to him. This is despite the fact that he has been worshipping at the church for many years.
Today’s reading demonstrates a similar situation. A mixture of Gentile and Jewish Christians had been gathering for the deeply symbolic act of eating together. Cephas (or Peter) had been mixing comfortably for a while. When a group of hard-liners arrive, who insist that the Gentile Christians must be circumcised (another act of association) to “properly” be in fellowship, Cephas and the other Jewish Christians suddenly side with them. The Gentiles are seemingly excluded from fellowship. This was no minor triviality but cuts to the heart of the Gospel. Are some people excluded from God’s call to join His community on earth?
This warns us of the damage that can be inflicted on people in the name of respectability. Paul challenged Cephas for his hypocrisy and inconsistency regarding his relationship towards the Gentile Christians. They were completely loved and accepted by God, therefore welcome in His community.
God, thank you for calling us into a living community that you guide through the social wilderness.
Jesus, thank-you that you level the playing field so that we are all equally welcome in the eyes of God.
Holy Spirit, thank you for starting to make us whole – repairing the damage and bringing genuine love into our lives. Help us to be welcoming, Help us to be welcomed. Amen.
Daniel Harris is an ordinand at Westminster College