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Faith >

This week's readings (1st Sunday after Trinity)



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 brought into right relation to God (Galatians 2.16). Does Paul have in mind, in these "works", the arrogance of a humanity that sees its justification in its own achievements and so claims the right to a reward from God? No.

The Law was God’s greatest blessing upon his people and was observed by that people in gratitude and faithfulness. In Christ’s death and rising, however, God has offered a greater blessing that restores us to right relations with God, as the Law (Paul now believes) never had.

It is through the "faith of Jesus" that our relation with God is rightened (Galatians 2.16). Paul may well be speaking here not of our faith in Jesus, but of Jesus’s own faithfulness, his obedient trust in God. Our trust is a consequence of Christ’s and inspired by it.

"I have been crucified," says Paul, "together with Christ" (2.19). For he has been baptised into the death of Christ (Romans 6.3). Death, then, has been passed. Paul the visionary, who has been seized up to Paradise, the home of the righteous dead, now lives their life. For that first generation, looking forward to Christ’s quick return, death lay behind and not ahead; the road to heaven lay open.

Jews, Gentiles and the Law’s observance: Luke himself, writing in the 80s, is adamant that within the Church the battle is over. But the Law and its adherents are an issue still, beneath the surface of his story of Jesus. All four Gospels tell a story of a woman who anoints Jesus (Matthew 26.6-13, Mark 14.3-9, John 12.1-8). Luke puts his elaborate version straight after the complaint, recorded by Jesus himself, that the Son of Man is a friend of sinners (Luke 7.34).

Only Luke describes the woman as a "sinner" and Jesus’s host as a "Pharisee", zealous for the Law. Such is Luke’s care for the woman and her acceptance that the end of his story is unclear. At first sight, she has been forgiven because of her love (Luke 7.47). But this runs counter to the rest of the story: to Jesus’s short parable of the debtors; and to his following remark, "Whoever is forgiven little, loves little."

Jesus does not suggest that forgiveness follows love; but that love follows forgiveness. Does the woman, then, love because she has been forgiven? In this case, 7.47 reads, "Her sins, her many sins, are forgiven, [and we know this] because she loves much." It is unclear, though, how she knows of this forgiveness, prior to Jesus’s next and climactic words: "Your sins are forgiven . . . Your faith has saved you."

Luke is drawing — even at the cost of some confusion — the strongest contrast he can between the woman’s passionate trust and the cool courtesy of the Pharisee.

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