Conflict, then, is at the heart of the Christian story. It is not new, and it can be deadly. How, then, do we handle it? That is the question confronting Anglicans and others right now. The fact that the recent gathering of those who want to see stricter rules and expulsions, to resolve disagreements about who is and who is not welcome at the table of Christ, has been taking place in Jerusalem is especially poignant. For Jerusalem and Antioch were the two places where arguments over the distinct missions of Peter and Paul took shape – one resting on the conviction that adherence to inherited Jewish rituals and codes was crucial to Christian integrity in the future, the other believing that experimentation, change and development were possible according to the operation of the Spirit.
In this struggle, Paul was a liberal and Peter was a conservative, says modern typology. As with today, the reality was much more complicated. The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 (which is a bit hard to tie up with other accounts of the arguments) looks like a classic Anglican-style fudge. Paul, who seems to have lost the tussle in Galatia, not least because he had little scriptural precedent on his side, was allowed to continue his work from several centres in the East Mediterranean without making circumcision a requirement, while the Jerusalem church retained a strong traditional identity.
However, the Council did retain prohibitions against Gentile converts eating meat containing blood, or meat of animals not properly slain. But Paul seems to ignore this among the Corinthians. Likewise, he opposes circumcision in Philippians (“mutilation” he calls it), while praising the same in the different context of Romans and permitting Timothy to undergo the ritual in Acts 16. He was, it seems, a pragmatist and a radical all at once. And while he may have lost influence in Antioch, his revisionism won out in the end – otherwise we, here, might still be eating kosher food. Peter too, whose restrictive ethic was dubbed “clearly wrong” by Paul in Galatians, was prepared to put aside his reservations in the particular case of the converted Roman centurion Cornelius, when a dream persuaded him to relax his attitude to ritual purity.
What Peter says when he sees the undeniable faith of a pagan is, “Who was I to hinder God?” But Paul was the one to recognise most forcefully that, in practice, the love of Christ is larger than our social, cultural and, yes, religious limitations. For social reasons, God-fearing gentiles were not able to become full Jewish proselytes. Nevertheless they were attracted to the monotheism and the ethical rigour of the faith. By sitting on its edges they were therefore able to benefit without having to betray their own cultural heritage. So it was to the edges that Paul went, to discover God at work where many least expected it. The result was that less than 20 years after the death of Jesus, pagans and Jews were sharing table fellowship in Syria.
This should have been unthinkable, and to the purists and rigorists it was. But Paul, remember, preached about of a Jewish reform prophet embodying acceptance by God and triumphing over the power of death without a total embracing of the weight of the Law as a precondition. This was manna from heaven. It pulled in recruits from the gentile fringe while having relatively little impact among the Jews.
What does all this have to teach us today? Well, it might suggest to us that Jerusalem isn’t always right – or wrong! It might make us ponder the idea that if we take the Bible seriously, then scriptural precedent, as St Paul shows, should not become an obstacle to the Good News and to God’s gracious work among those we may have come to think of as unclean or unworthy. The mission of Acts is to the ends of the earth, not to the end of our tethers. Certainly, it should make us question those ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ labels that get used these days to tell us who the goodies and baddies are. When the Gospel of God’s life-changing love in Christ is unleashed it subverts those categories too, which is why people who posit Jesus against Paul and then dismiss Paul in the name of progress are so mistaken, it seems to me.
I have no idea whether the Anglican Communion will hold together after the next Lambeth Conference. Part of me, to be honest, almost no longer cares. The sight of Christians tearing each other apart is so distressing and counterproductive, that going on perpetuating it through structures and resolutions which bear little relationship to the reality of who we are seems to me to miss the point entirely. That said, I have no wish to excise those I disagree with from the Body of Christ. Peter and Paul, I suggested earlier, held “diverging commitments exercised in great faithfulness to the truth of a person” – Jesus Christ. “And you… who do you say I am?” Jesus asks Peter, and us, according to Matthew.
The answer is that Jesus is the one who leads us beyond what we imagine of limited persons and into the very heart of God. He is the Messiah, the offspring of the Most High – the decisive evidence that God blesses the messy vulnerability of texts, history and flesh; so that none of us dare limit the love that can bend the divine to reach lower than we could ever hope to stoop.
But there is a warning attached to this. In receiving the kingdom of God and preaching it, as we are bound to do, we will continue to draw circles that some will fall within and some without. And for this we are answerable before heaven, as Peter was when the cock crowed before Gethsemane, and as Paul was when he decided to break the religious rules and to join with those who told Emperors that there is another kind of king, Jesus.
Jesus, remember, was clear that the Spirit of the Lord was calling him to proclaim good news to the poor, not the self-satisfied; the sick and the subjugated, not the well and the worthy. In following this Jesus, we will take risks and make mistakes. But that is not the worst thing. The worst thing is to think that it is our rules, structures and institutions, rather than God’s capacity to remake lives, forgive sins and free us from bondage, that really counts.
For “all at once, a messenger of the Lord stood there and the cell was ablaze with light. He tapped Peter on the shoulder to wake him. ‘Quick! Get up!’ he said, and the chains fell away from Peter…”