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Contrary to some belief, Paul is a progressive
Peter is the rock on which Jesus plants his church, if you read earlier this week, you’ll see how he began to create an alternative culture. It’s not perfect, and Paul helps keep it going. Paul stands on Peter’s shoulders, so to speak.
Then called Saul, Paul is one of the haters that the newly converted Jews encounter. He’s a Pharisee, who oversaw the stoning of Stephen. You might know the story, but he experiences radical conversion, as Luke documents it in Acts 9.
Paul comes from the strictest sects, the Pharisees. As Saul, a prominent leader in the Pharisaical group, he softens quite a bit when he’s brought to his knees and his goes blind and doesn’t eat for three days.
He feels called to go and minister to the Greeks, so to speak, the Gentiles. He wants to bring the faith to non-Jewish people and is compelled to do that. He proceeds to push the faith movement even further, having direct conflict with two individuals who were highly regarded at the time, including Peter. He goes against his friend, Barnabas, too.
Barnabas vouches for Paul among the Jewish Christians because they recognize him as Christian-killer he was.
Paul and Barnabas work together to plant the church and be on mission together, they are friends, and they come from the same DNA, worship the same God, and have been given the same work to do.
Barnabas become a Christian, sold his land, and gave it away for redistribution and met Paul and defended him to the apostles. The tension was too high for them to immediately do ministry together, so Paul went back to Tarsus (where he was born) and Barnabas continue to do work in Jerusalem.
They were reunited in Antioch, a city in modern-day Turkey, and the third largest in the Roman Empire. They made it something of a “base of operations” for their missionary effort. Their friendship really thrived in this context—of the same mind, with the same intentions, they demonstrate a really beautiful connection to each other.
They continued to do work together, this time with Barnabas’ cousin John Mark, and spread the gospel in Asia Minor. John Mark eventually left them to return to Jerusalem. During this journey, their relationship changed—up until this point, it is arguable that they knew each other for ten years, and Barnabas was Paul’s “senior” in many respects, but Paul become the more dominant figure and the relationship was possibly strained. When they returned to Jerusalem, and Paul rebuked Peter for treating the Gentiles and the Jews differently, and noted that Barnabas also did, Paul voiced his disagreement. They stayed together after that point, and they did return to Jerusalem and convince the Jews there that non-Jews just needed to love each other and God, and didn’t need to follow every Jewish custom. This is incredibly progressive—and bear in mind, Paul does it for mission, not for popularity or “political correctness.”
He’s hurt by the fact that Barnabas didn’t stand strongly against Peter, like Paul did. Here’s how he described it to the Galatians.
11 When Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For 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. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
Of course, Paul is receiving the Word from the Lord in his leadership here. He opposed Peter directly, according to him, regarding the issue of circumcision. The point is, that conservative Jews thought that circumcision is a necessary and holy part of a faith-filled life. Paul can go with it, to a degree, in fact he circumcises his apprentice Timothy, so that he can actually minister to Jews.
But when it came to the Gentiles, individuals who grew up in Hellenistic culture, the idea of circumcision (and following many Jewish customs) seemed ludicrous. Paul knew that he would lose them altogether if he didn’t adapt. He was trying to adapt the Gospel to a new culture. So made it about the soul, not the body. Paul might tell them (and did),you don’t need to get circumcised, but stop having sex for power, pleasure, and with children.
Paul’s bringing the Gospel to a whole new level. He’s changing the landscape and he wants to change the world. He has the experience, the wisdom, and the status to do it. Armed with a Roman citizenship, a Jewish education, and a God-given passion he proceeds on his mission. And he does so against countless adversities both external and internal.
On Pentecost, we see where the church got its vibrant start. How Peter developed it, began an intentional community that was world changing. And how Paul took it a step further, included the Gentiles with a great degree of ferocity, and further ministered to the Jews through Timothy.
The stories that we could tell are endless, as they should be, since these are really foundational to our whole faith. The model and example of the early church is one we should heed, as should we Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman, Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, Mary of Egypt, and St. Francis and Clare. Simply copying one of those people and recreating what they created wouldn’t be the worse idea, but let’s look to what’s next.
But the question remains for us: what do we need to do to advance the Gospel in this day in age? We are apostles like Paul, and we need to determine how to grow and expand the faith without dumbing it down into something meaningless. What fights are we willing to have, and when do we need to adapt? As we take the mantle and try and do something great, and continue to Lord’s work on earth,
One of the keys is realizing that we adapt for the sake of mission. We create a new culture because we are trying to spread the Gospel. We are helping people find Jesus. We aren’t helping Christians “fit in.” We respond to God and declare a truth and adapt all in order to present his Gospel with great flexibility; but we can’t be flexible with the actual Gospel.
Peter explains utterly clear in Acts 2, and Paul repeatedly does the same thing. Throughout history, I believe the giants in the cloud of witnesses have held to the basic truth of the saving grace of Jesus and the wholeness and fullness of following him.
But they’ve appropriately brought it to the next level. I think that’s what we’re called to do in Circle of Hope, why we would bother to call ourselves the “church for the next generation.” We are trying to do something different, not just for the heck of it, but because we think that’s what Jesus calls his people to do.
So, ask yourself, how do we need to adapt to redeem Philadelphia?