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Conflicts of Apostles
We in the church have a tendency to believe that conflict is foreign to our life, an alien import from “the world,” with its destructive and deceitful ways. Are we not about peace? Joy? And of course, love? After all, did not Jesus command us to love one another, a commandment that brooks no loopholes? So we should never fight with each other, right? To support this delusion, we like to hark back to a supposed Golden Past, those halcyon days when mighty apostles went about in perfect harmony preaching the Good News and agreeing on everything, presumably because walking the earth with Jesus would have that effect at least on them.
Take for example Peter and Paul. They are always together in our mind. They share a feast, June 29. Since 1908, the Octave of Christian Unity has begun on a feast of St. Peter and ended on a feast of St. Paul. The Washington National Cathedral has two great towers, one for Peter, one for Paul. Even candy bars: according to the Hershey Company’s website, Peter Paul (as in Almond Joy and Mounds) was the name of the founder of the company of the same name (http://www.hersheys.com/products/almond_joy.shtml).
While we should give great honor to these two men, it is worth remembering that Paul and Peter actually fought a great deal. Paul told the Galatians that when Peter came to visit the Gentile congregation at Antioch, “I opposed him to his face, for he was clearly in the wrong.” (Gal. 2: 11) Written after the apostle’s death, the Second Letter of Peter, points out in a gentler tone that Paul’s letters “have many obscure passages” (2 Peter 3:10) which many, who do not presumably belong to Peter’s circle of disciples, misinterpret to their destruction. It is probably an echo of the conflict that pitted the two directly against each other. We do not have reliable biblical information whether they ever reconciled in this world.
What they were fighting over was how to live out the most important decision the church has ever made—that Gentiles did not first need to become Jews before they became followers of Jesus. If that decision at the Council of Jerusalem had been different, Christianity probably would have disappeared. Or else we would be like the Sabeans, the followers of John the Baptist whom this writer met during a trip to Baghdad last February. These people have existed since the prophet died after Salome danced, but they are small in number and although they are very kind and gentle people, they are obscure.
The Council of Jerusalem made a compromise between Paul and Peter, Luke tells us in Acts 15. Gentiles could become Christians, but needed to refrain from “idolatry, fornication, from meat from strangled animals and from blood.” Soon Paul was interpreting these rules in a liberal way, while the Jerusalem conservatives pushed for even more rules, including circumcision. Peter’s position was between the two. He tried to encourage the Gentile mission while trying not to outrage the Jewish Christians, which was the substance of the Jerusalem decision. Thus Peter fell afoul of Paul in Antioch because he avoided eating openly with Gentile converts.
Christians remain divided today. We argue and fight over all kinds of things: fine points of doctrine, which fragment of the whole is the “true church,” the role of women, and so on. We have disputes among churches and we have disputes within churches. Take the conflict currently raging within the Anglican Communion, for instance.
Our habit of blocking out this reality by appealing to non-existent Golden Ages in highfalutin language about peace, joy, and love does us no good. It enshrines our unwillingness to do the hard work of conflict resolution by passing it off as a noble imitation of the saints of old. The result is that conflict goes on unchecked and uncontrolled. This produces all sorts of vileness, from the wars of religion and their enormities to the mean-spirited expulsion of parishioners because they happen to disagree with the rector and the pillars of the parish.
But why should we be dismayed? If Peter, the apostle, and Paul, the apostle, fought and argued until their deaths, why should we be different? Why should we be better than they? There are just a lot more of us now to argue together than there were then.
It is worth noting that both men had a valid point. Paul wanted the Gentile converts to be fully integrated into the church, and was quite intolerant, apparently, of anything less than immediate and full inclusion. Equally intolerant were those who seemed to have rejected the Jerusalem compromise, and struck out in order to “straighten out” Gentile communities like the church in Galatia (judging from the Epistles to the Galatians and Philippians). Peter knew that in order for the Gentiles to be integrated, there had to be a church left after the conflict. So he took a middle course. It does not take much of a stretch to see the same dynamics at work in the Episcopal Church today.
The other side of the story is the common witness of these two men, among such a great cloud of witnesses who have made us all followers of Jesus. Legend tells us that both were executed during the persecution of Christians in 64 AD by the Roman emperor Nero. Most historians consider these stories to have some credibility.
Though Peter and Paul fought a lot during their lives, we hardly remember it. In fact, we like to put them together, from cathedrals to candy. In their witness they were one. The word “witness” in Greek is of course “martyr.” Both apostles gave their lives as a witness to the truth. Not the truth about eating meat from strangled animals! No, they died and now live forever as witnesses to the Faith that we all share. When we can in rare moments glimpse this fact, as through a glass darkly, we can see beyond our divisions. And perhaps, in the same moment, we can grasp what is really worth fighting about in the conflict du jour.
In that first crucial disagreement, there were people who were clearly right and others clearly wrong. And the chief apostle was trying to keep the community together long enough to let the conflict work itself out before it destroyed the church. Events overshadowed them all. A group of Christians kept alive for centuries the concept that Christians needed to be Jewish first. It is a good thing they did not succeed in imposing their view. Had their perspective been a little more influential, perhaps the Church might not have waited until this generation to realize that (in the words of John Paul II) the Jews are our elder brothers and sisters, not Christ-killers.
The current conflict in the Episcopal Church, though it be wrenching, is worth having. We should of course be dismayed when it spills over into passionate declarations of rejection and labeling on both sides. We should each check our hearts for hatred of the other. First we all need to keep trying to gain a glimpse of the Faith we share, that Peter and Paul died for, and see for ourselves that it is worth our all. From this vantage we can ask for and receive the gift that Jesus promised: his peace. It is not that illusory peace we long for which is the absence of conflict, against which the Rule of Benedict warns: “make no false peace.” Jesus’ peace is rather what allows us to continue through the conflicts of this day, or yesterday, or tomorrow. That peace allowed Jesus to rise from his last meal and walk to his death. It allowed Peter and Paul to be one at last, laying the foundation for the billions of Jesus’ followers that today we call the Christian Church. We can ask for that peace and Jesus will give it to us so that we too can rise to our work strengthened to proclaim the Faith in the struggle of today and conflicts yet to come.
When the day comes—when, not if—when the day comes that we Christians will proclaim as one the Faith that we share, then the peace of Jesus will be able to overflow our hearts. Then the peace of Christ that passes all understanding can fill the hearts of all people, forever. Until then, however, let us have it out. Let us caucus, argue, organize. Let us write broadsides and theological treatises (these last are woefully lacking today, by the way). This conflict is worth having, but with only one caveat: all our words and deeds should seek not only to have our perspective prevail, but also at the same time to proclaim the Faith that alone is the ground of our unity in Christ, and the justification for all our passions.
(adapted from a sermon preached January 22, 2004, for the National Service for Christian Unity held at the Cathédrale de St. Michel et St. Gudule, Brussels, Belgium.)
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.