In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear brothers and sisters,
In so many icons of St Peter and St Paul, we see the Holy Chief Apostles embracing or exchanging the kiss of peace, but we should remember that the unity between the apostles is one that had to be striven for and only came after dispute and disagreement. The relationship between these very different men, was established through hard work and perseverance, and by allowing the Holy Spirit to act, speak and reconcile them in their lives.
Having been personally chosen by the Ascended Lord (whom Paul had never known during His earthly life) and called to a radically changed life of missionary apostleship and dedication to the Gospel, Saul became Paul, and a feared outsider was called into the apostolic circle, with a specific and heroic task ahead of him.
Saul, the zealous pharisee and persecutor of the first Christians was recast by the Saviour, who turned his life upside down, calling him to set all aside for Christ, looking to the Gentile world, outside Israel, outside the Torah, outside circumcision and the Covenant. The zeal for this vision and mission was to take him all around the Mediterranean world, risking danger, threats to his life and making him a vagrant and a ‘prisoner for Christ’.
For the first Jewish-Christians this challenged the very foundation of their understanding of Christ’s message, the application of the Gospel and the wider meaning of the Cross and Resurrection, outside the Jewish world.
Against a background of suspicion, in today’s Epistle reading, we heard Paul arguing for his place in the apostolic ministry:
“Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.”
Paul challenges them, as if to say, ‘if you want to play a competitive game of measuring labours and endeavours for the Lord, fine… as I can outstrip many of you in what I have already experienced in the preaching of the Gospel!’
Paul and Peter took diametrically opposed views, and Paul saw the Gospel to the Gentiles as the fulfilment of the economy of salvation as envisaged by the prophets, and the meaning of his life.
The holy prophet, Zechariah, wrote that, “Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favour of the Lord… Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’ ”
… and, it was after conflict at Antioch that at the Council of Jerusalem that Peter the Apostle of the Jews, accepted the middle-ground and was reconciled with Paul’s vision of the call of the Gospel to the Gentiles, who – it was accepted – did not need to be circumcised and follow the Torah and Jewish traditions. Men from ‘the nations’ tugged on the sleeves of Paul, that they migt receive the Gospel, so that God could equally be with them.
“My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the Holy Spirit just as he did us. He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts. Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.”
For us as Orthodox Christians, this is the first council of the Church of Christ, and like all true Councils was guided by the Holy Spirit, which led the leaders of the infant-Church through disagreement, dispute and lively discussion to a position where they could be united in proclaiming the Faith of the Church.
In God’s hands, inspired by the Holy Spirit, such disputes become the convincing tool and spiritual-process through which minds and hearts change and are convinced of theological and philosophical Truths – struggling to grasp and understand, rather than passively nodding, with no understanding or conviction.
Peter, and James the Brother of the Lord, with their deeply held Jewish-Christian convictions, and Paul, burning with zeal for those outside the Mosaic covenant, were at the heart of this Council – agreeing and disagreeing, disputing, discussing, looking for common ground and a way forward to reconcile different views, and unite them into a singular inspired vision, determined NOT by them, but by God, in the power and Grace of the Holy Spirit.
This reminds us to be realistic in our understanding of the Councils of the Church, warning us not to dumb them down and transform them into a polite, sanitised theological tea-parties, denying the passionate arguments of those taking part, or the fact that councils involved dispute and disagreement during discussions. Apostles and bishops have needed to sometimes go away, fast, pray and reflect, to be led into and confirmed in Truth.
If we allow ourselves to be tools of the Holy Spirit, with our ears and hearts open to the His voice in others, such discussion can lead us into Truth and Faith. Hearts and minds may be persuaded, changed and transformed, as the Holy Spirit speaks through the mouths of humans – acting though their actions, speaking through their words, being communicated by their enlightened minds, ideas and explanations.
And… even when we find unanimity, this does not negate our different temperaments, methods of communication, particular talents and, as we all dissolve into some sort of homogenised or cloned version of discipleship, but rather weaves us together in Faith and love, in a union which is both united and diverse – made strong, immoveable, and unshakeable in the power and unity of the Holy Spirit.
But for this to happen, our hearts and minds must be open and receptive to His power, and we must pursue the unity of the Church through prayer precisely for this cause, through selflessness and self-denial, through fasting for unity and peace, and through the wider asceticism of Christian living.
Then, like Peter and Paul, we may embrace those very different to us, growing together and converging as we proactively overcome division by seeking reconciliation and unity in Faith and love – but also essentially in TRUTH!
S prazdnikom – a very joyful feast to you all!