September 23 & 24, 2017 Pentecost 165
Galatians 2: 11-21
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 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, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
Dear friends in Christ Jesus:
Let’s see if we can agree on the right words to use to finish this sentence. “Real Christians. . .go to church every Sunday.” But what if that real Christian is a nurse who is often scheduled to work on Sunday? Let’s try again. “Real Christians. . .always wear a suit and tie to church.” But what if you can’t afford a suit and tie or what if you are a member of the fairer sex? How about if we try once more? “Real Christians. . . .never take so much as a sip of alcohol, because it’s the devil’s brew.” But then how could the Psalmist praise the Lord God who “makes. .. .wine that gladdens the heart of man.” (Psalm 104:15) And why are there so many Biblical pictures of heaven above as a place where there is eternal feasting, feasting that includes God’s gift of wine?
Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s so easy for us, as Christians, to want to be setting up manmade rules that real Christians must abide by if we hope to get into heaven above. One of the most extreme cases of this was recorded some years back in the Chicago Tribune in an article about Zion, IL. The town was chartered by Rev. John Alexander Dowie, a faith healer from Australia who came to this country in 1888. In 1896, he founded his church in Illinois, The Christian Catholic Apostolic Church. He declared himself the first apostle, and liked to go by the title, “Elijah the Restorer.” Then in 1899, he announced his plans to establish the city of Zion, IL. It was to be a place free from the evils of modern society. A religious utopia. To ensure this, in the town’s charter, John Alexander Dowie outlawed sin. Oh, sure, that will put an end to it!
Today we have before us a very powerful portion of Scripture that shows us the dangers of adding man-made rules, in any form, to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have a text that helps us finish our sentence. “Real Christians. . . .are saved by grace and faith in Christ alone. Real Christians learn this through Scripture alone, and thus real Christians live their lives to the glory of God alone!
To teach us the importance of this, our gracious Lord God decided it was worth some of the Apostle Paul’s precious time and pen and paper to record for us a little bit of apostolic history. Here in our text the Apostle Paul records a situation where he had to publicly rebuke the Apostle Peter. Paul explains, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. . . . 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, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’”
This is what had happened. Peter had journeyed to Antioch to visit the church that Paul was working with there. When Peter first arrived he freely associated with the Gentile Christians. That’s remarkable, because in the Old Testament that would have been a big no-no. It would leave a Jew ceremonially unclean for worship. Yet Peter was willing to do this because he knew that the Old Testament Ceremonial Laws no longer applied to New Testament Christians. And he knew that, because the Lord himself had given Peter a vision from heaven to drive home the point. The Old Testament ceremonial laws were all finished. Their purpose of pointing ahead to the coming Christ was complete. So now Peter and all other real Christians are free from those rules!
Peter knew that, and he practiced what he preached when he first came to Antioch. He ate with the Gentiles, maybe even without first performing the required Old Testament ceremonial hand washings before the meal. Maybe he even stabbed a nice, juicy pork chop off the platter and complimented his Gentile hosts on a delicious meal. But all that changed when other Jews came from the church in Jerusalem. We’re told they were of the “circumcision group.” We call them the Judaizers. They were teaching that you had to believe in Jesus as the Promised Messiah and keep the Old Testament Ceremonial laws. Pork? That’s not kosher, you can’t eat that. The required hand-washings? You can’t skip that and be a real Christian. Tragically, once those other Jews arrived, Peter caved in to peer pressure. He let fear take over. Peter stopped hanging out with the Gentile believers. And by withdrawing from their fellowship, Peter implied that Gentiles could not be “real” Christians until they too were circumcised and ate kosher foods.
Now Peter was an apostle, a leader in the early Christian Church. People looked to him for direction. They saw him as an example of what real Christians are. So Peter’s action set off an avalanche as the other Jews in Antioch, including Paul’s mission partner Barnabas, joined Peter in refraining from fellowshipping with the Gentiles. Do you see how tragic this all is? A God-pleasing fellowship was broken in two, all because there were those who said, “Real Christians don’t eat pork. Real Christians, well at least the guys, have to be circumcised. Real Christians have to perform ritual ceremonial washings before the meal.” Even more tragic, not only was a fellowship broken, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ was being compromised. True freedom in Christ was being lost—perhaps even for eternity.
So Paul had no choice but to speak up. He actually confronted Peter about what he was doing. Can you imagine how hard that was? Peter was the spokesman of the Twelve Disciples, a recognized and respected leader in the church. Paul, on the other hand, was a former persecutor of the church. Who was he to say anything? But he knew the truth so he had no choice but to confront Peter in front of the others. Wait a minute? In front of the others? Shouldn’t Paul have talked to Peter in private? No. Peter’s actions were public. His offense public. He had led others astray, so everyone needed to hear what Paul had to say to Peter. In front of all Paul said to Peter, “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”
Real Christians are saved by grace alone, by faith alone in Christ alone. That’s the truth that Paul hammered home when he confronted the Apostle Peter for trying to keep the legalistic Judaizers happy. You and I dare never say, “Real Christians believe in Jesus and must still worship on the true Old Testament Sabbath Day, Saturday. “Real Christians believe in Jesus and must do acts of penance to pay for their sins.” “Real Christians must be born again by making a decision for Christ.” “Real Christians don’t own a television set. They don’t tweet or use Facebook.” No! Our faith is not our doing. It’s not about our rules. You and I are real Christians only because of God the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts. We’re real Christians only because the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all our sins. We are Christians because Jesus lived and died for us.
But wouldn’t it be better if we at least had a few rules to go along with Jesus to kind of keep us in line? Isn’t our freedom in Jesus a dangerous thing? In a way, yes. And that explains the rest of what Paul writes in this section. He’s talking about our sanctification, our lives as real Christians. On this side of the grave, not a one of us will be a perfect Christian. We will all fail in one way or another—over and over again. We might eat too much. We might drink too much. We might swear too much. We husbands may forget to tell our wives we love them. Our wives may spend way too much time reminding of us that unpleasant fact. Our children may have the bad habit of talking back to us. We parents may be sinning by always talking down to our children. Wouldn’t our lives be simpler, and wouldn’t we all sin a little bit less, if we simply had laws that we used to cover every situation in our every-day lives. To be on the safe side, why don’t we outlaw sin?
But that won’t work. Laws don’t do away with sin. And anyway, our Lord already outlawed sin, didn’t he? His 10 commandments stand as his unchanging will till the end of time. But those 10 commandments, perfect though they may be, will never put an end to sin. Only Jesus can do that! And as Paul wants to emphasize in this section, Jesus isn’t failing or falling short just because we sin. His Gospel isn’t somehow deficient, because we sin. Instead that Gospel of Jesus Christ alone is what keeps you and me, real Christians, going. Jesus alone lifts us up after we fall. Jesus alone gives us hope, after we fail. Jesus alone gives us peace inside and renewed strength and purpose every morning, as day by day we get closer to heaven above. The Lord alone gives us the strength to be real Christians who say together with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Don’t compromise the Gospel. It’s Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus. That’s what matters. Amen.