Holding up the mirror of truth – Wednesday, 27th week in ordinary time – Galatians 2:1-2,7-14
Perfect and flawless congregations do not exist. If you find a ‘perfect’ Christian congregation please do not join it or else you will make it imperfect by your presence! So, while the Catholic Church is and always will be perfect, (because it is the mystical body of Christ), its members (clergy and laity) are imperfect and flawed.
I say this because preachers often speak of the early church as if they were a ‘perfect’ congregation living a perfect Christian life. They present the life of the early church as hunky dory as if all the members were on some spiritual high. While the Acts of the Apostles may through some examples give us such an impression, several letters of St Paul would demonstrate otherwise. There were congregations that were either errant in behaviour or in their teaching; St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and Galatians being a case in point.
The Galatian Churches that were evangelized by Paul during his first missionary journey were on the verge of what was a schism. There were Judaizers who wanted the Gentile converts to follow the Jewish law and traditions in order to enter into this ‘new sect’ of Judaism. Their assertions were that Paul was not an apostle and his Gospel not faithful.
This was no small community disagreement. The letter of St Paul to the Galatians makes it amply clear that the matter at hand had rocked the infantile Church and Acts 15 tells us that the dispute had to be settled by a council which came to be called the ‘Council of Jerusalem.’ The Council had two opposing sides. Paul asserted the freedom from the law that the grace of Christ gives us. For him, the traditions and the Jewish law were ineffective and the mark of circumcision could not save anyone. Those who opposed Paul’s view, the Judaizers, insisted that the Gentiles must follow the Jewish law and traditions, in particular circumcision.
Paul’s detractors left no stone unturned. They followed him on his missionary trail ensuring that the day he stepped out of a city, they stepped in and in some case their paths coincided leading to major arguments that almost led to a riot. (Read Acts) The Judaizers had now reached the Galatian Churches. In order to negate the validity of the conversion and baptism of the Gentiles, they made personal attacks on Paul and called into question his authenticity as an apostle. If he was not an apostle then how could he make a claim to the Gospel that he preached?
In chapter 1, Paul pulled no punches back. He took on the Judaizers and laid down his credentials as a persecutor who through a personal revelation of Christ had become a preacher. His mandate came for God and not from any human source. Paul asserts that he did not have to consult with the apostles nor was he ever summoned by them to some public hearing. While Paul did make two trips to Jerusalem, to meet with these ‘reputed pillars,’ it was to presents the Gospel that he preached to the Gentiles over the past 14 years. On both the occasions, his mission to the Gentiles was accepted and approved by Peter, James, John and the elders.
Paul is intent on correcting the mistaken notion that either he or the Gospel he preached were in any sense on trial in Jerusalem. We know that the outcome of this meeting that Paul refers to was a division of mission fields; Paul would be the apostle to the uncircumcised and Peter would care for the circumcised.
Yet there were lapses and inconsistencies on the part of both Peter, the prince of the apostles and as well as his own colleagues that angered Paul. These inconsistencies in behaviour were necessitated by the Judaizers who were a formidable force in the early Church. So formidable were they, that when Peter first arrived in Antioch he ate at the table of the Gentiles but withdrew when a group of Judaizers from Jerusalem arrived Knowing their background, Peter knew they would be offended at his fellowship with Gentiles who had not come under the Law of Moses. In their eyes, these uncircumcised Gentiles were not really Christians at all. Therefore, to please them and to avoid a conflict, Peter treated these Gentile Christians as if they were not Christians at all.
We are told that even Barnabas was lured into forsaking his principles and was carried away by the Judaizers and deserted his own convictions. This was amazing. Barnabas was Paul’s trusted friend and associate. Barnabas stood beside Paul when he first met the apostles (Acts 9:27). Barnabas sought out Paul and brought him to Antioch to help with the ministry (Acts 11:25). Acts 11:24 says of Barnabas, he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. Yet, Barnabas also failed at this critical test.
Paul hauls Peter over the coals. Such hypocrisy was intolerable. What a scene this must have been! Such a confrontation must have been hard knowing that Peter was the most prominent of all the disciples of Jesus. Peter was the spokesman for the apostles, and probably the most prominent Christian in the whole world at the time. As hard as this was, Paul did it because he knew what was at stake. This wasn’t a matter of personal conduct or just personal sin on Peter’s part. If that were the case it is unlikely that Paul would have first used such a public approach. This was a matter about the truth of the gospel and it could not be settled behind close doors.
It is important to note however that Paul does not accuse Peter and Barnabas of a fundamental change of mind about the nature and implications of the Gospel but of acting insincerely or hypocritically. In doing this Paul is addressing the Galatians and us, asking them and us not to forsake the truth of the Gospel by acting hypocritically.