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Next Week's Readings



1st Sunday after Trinity

1 Kings 21.1-10 [11-14] 15-21a

Galatians 2.15-21

Luke 7.36-8.3

By Robin Griffith-Jones

LUKE tells with great care of the Church’s expansion. Among those who fled to Antioch after Stephen’s death, some Cypriots and Cyrenians begin to preach to Gentiles. The Cypriot Barnabas is sent from Jerusalem to investigate. He is pleased by what he sees; and takes the opportunity to fetch Paul, by now back in Tarsus, to join him.

Barnabas and Paul are commissioned as missionaries by Antioch’s church. They reach southern Galatia, preaching to Jews and Gentiles. The Jews turn against them; and they declare themselves to be missionaries, from now on, specifically to the Gentiles.

Back at Antioch, visitors from Jerusalem raise an objection: surely any Gentile converts must undertake to observe the Law. Barnabas and Paul go to Jerusalem, according to Luke, to debate such Gentiles’ admission. The set-piece scene of the Jerusalem council is at the very centre of Luke’s narrative (Acts 15).

James, now head of the church in Jerusalem, proposes four rules for Gentile converts to observe. Three ban the use of meat from certain animals: those killed in pagan rituals or in contravention of Jewish laws on slaughter. The fourth bans sexual laxity. The rules match the minimal conditions, stipulated by later rabbis, to which any Jew must adhere even under the direst persecution. The rules provide, as it were, for a minimum of Jewishness. The Jerusalem leaders send Barnabas and Paul back to Antioch with a letter laying down the newly agreed regulations.

It is likely that Paul is referring to this conference in Galatians 2.1-10. (Likely, but not certain: Paul never mentions the decree from Jerusalem.) He and Barnabas believe themselves wholly vindicated. Their converts — Jewish and Gentile — are a single community, and quite properly eat together. Peter, also in Antioch, joins them.

Enter representatives of James. They object fiercely. James is working for the renewed purity of God’s land and people. Gentiles who observe the Council’s rulings — Gentiles, that is, who are now on the borders of Jewishness — are more dangerous to that purity than they had been as outsiders, before their conversion.

Peter and Barnabas stop sharing meals with Gentile members of the church. Paul is on his own. He will later write angrily to the Galatians, invoking the words he had used to Peter. But, however compelling Paul’s words might be in retrospect, they had been ineffective at the time. Paul is defeated. He leaves Antioch as a maverick, never to return.

James’s influence spreads through Paul’s churches. Paul writes to the Galatians to defend his gospel. It is not, he says, through the "works of the law" — that is, through the Law’s observance — that anyone is broug

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