Faith column: Grace and glory

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It must have made quite a picture: a tall, bearded man with a somewhat shorter fellow-traveller walking along a road climbing steeply into the Judean hills. The tall one had a ready laugh and knack for storytelling. The shorter one, clean shaven and dressed like a Greek, chiming in on the laughter and sharing the water-skin as the day got hotter. Anyone else who they met or passed on the road that day would have stopped and shook their heads: who would have thought a Jew and Gentile would even talk to each other, much less share such familiarity? It just was not done.

Then the observer might have noticed the third man, pacing along behind them, head down, muttering to himself, stubbing his toes on unnoticed bumps in the road or tripping into pot-holes. Clearly his mind was not on the journey, but was possessed by weightier matters. From time to time he would raise his right hand and make a circle with his forefinger, as if reasoning out complex argument. Then, stabbing the air and making a grunt, he would fold his arms and trudge on, muttering constantly.

His two companions must have had to pause, now and then, to let the little rabbi catch up when, in composing his long treatise, he stopped, staring at the potholes at his feet, and fell behind.

It was not always easy to take Paul on a trip, especially when big circumstances were in play. Barnabas and Titus were steering him towards a momentous meeting in Jerusalem. They were coming from Antioch, their home in the midst of Gentile-land where the Jesus followers had just been dubbed “Christians”. But not by Jewish founders of the faith—well, some of them, anyway.

In the fourteen or so years since he had abandoned his pursuit of Christians, Paul had become, most unexpectedly, a pioneer preaching Jesus to Greeks, Romans, Phrygians, and especially Galatians. The descendant of Celtic mercenaries who had cut their way into the heart of Asia Minor and made a home there, those who had been attracted to Judaism eagerly responded to Paul’s preaching of Jesus risen from the dead and The Saviour’s offer—of Grace.

Paul was thrilled, but others in Jerusalem who were still wedded to the following of Jewish religious and cultural teachings, and who believed that the great physical sign of circumcision—as old as Father Abraham, the sign mark of the people of God—must be adopted by all who believed were appalled, and soon sent emissaries both to the churches Paul had founded in Galatia, and to Antioch, to show the Gentiles the error of their ways.

Claiming the authority of James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus and guardian of the original teaching of The Way, they forcefully argued that the only way of salvation was to join utterly the Jewish people, law, diet, Sabbath and circumcision.

They got to Peter.

He who had preached the Gospel and baptized a Roman Centurion at legionary headquarters in Caesarea Maritima, founding the first Gentile church of Romans—without circumcision, either—now suddenly cut himself off from sharing table and food with the Gentiles he had been living with in Antioch. The snub was open, palpable, and deeply hurtful. Suddenly there was a two-tiered church, judging by the deeds of the Chief of the Apostles.

Paul was, absolutely, appalled. He charged Peter with absolute hypocrisy, and even challenged the calibre of his Faith, openly, and with no mincing of words. Either the Grace of Jesus Christ and Peace to His People on Earth was bestowed by Faith, not circumcision, Sabbath or kosher law—or Jesus had wasted His time on the Cross!

So Paul, Barnabas and Titus made their way to Jerusalem, with Paul, it is very likely, composing his fiery letter to the Galatians along the way. Or perhaps he had it written before he left Antioch.

If not, he certainly had it done after the dramatic day in Jerusalem. That afternoon, in AD 44, the church leaders in council in Jerusalem agreed, Grace was free. Nothing need be added to Faith. With Faith in Jesus, all the life and love of God flowed into the hearts, minds, emotions and even the bodies of the believer. The “Christians” of Antioch, Galatia, and the whole world were equals. Paul went on in his letter to say that every nation, every age, men and women, every race, all shared in the free favour of God. There was nothing to add. Nothing to make us prettier for God to love. Faith expressed in Love, as Paul put it in his letter, was all that mattered. And everything the Church is that is worthy of love and imitation flowed from that awkward trip to Jerusalem, that tense meeting and liberation that followed.

Some things, we have learned, are indeed worth fighting for. Do we fight for Grace, today, or over lesser things?

—Duff Crerar, Grande Prairie Church of Christ