I heard a story of three ministers who went on a fishing trip together. They rowed out to the middle of the lake, and the United Reformed Church Minister realised he’d forgotten his fishing line, hopped out of the boat and walked across the water to get it, and back again. Then the Anglican Minister realised she’d forgotten her lunch, hopped out of the boat and walked across the water to get it, and back again. Then the Roman Catholic Priest realised he’d forgotten his bait, hopped out of the boat and sank like lead. “Do you think we should have told him about the stepping stones?” asked the Anglican Minister. And the United Reformed Minister replied, “what stepping stones?”
Today we are in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It has to be said that, sometimes subconsciously, we see ourselves in competition with other churches. We believe the other churches are real Christians and true churches, even if some of their hierarchies may not officially believe that about us. However, I wonder how there’s still a way of thinking that different churches are competing against each other, rather than we are all different players on the same side. If you like our Harlequins is competing against the Methodist’s London Irish for the best players, rather than that we’re all trying to compete as rugby teams against the encroachment of the game with the round ball?
Christian unity, I want to suggest to you, is about challenge and compromise. I’m going to use our reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians to try and explore what this might mean for us. Our reading from Galatians 2 is one of the very few passages in the New Testament where Peter and Paul come together. Peter, the impetuous and enthusiastic disciple, always at Jesus’ right hand, rather like Corporal Jones. Paul, of course, never met Jesus, and only became a Christian years after Jesus died.
In our reading from Galatians 2 we learn something of these two essential characters in the development of the early Church, who didn’t overlap much with each other. It’s a passage which still bears the signs of unfinished business, and some personal rancour. Paul is the sort of person who doesn’t easily let go of hurts – read 2 Corinthians if you don’t believe me – and in this passage is Paul defending himself very intensely and anxiously against Peter, who clearly approaches being an apostle in a very different way.
Peter has compromised, Peter has got himself into a mess, because he’s manifestly a man of good intentions and quick reactions. Peter, as we know from the gospels, is impulsive and often in a mess. He’s compromised the principles which Paul thinks are central, and created a deeply embarrassing situation.
And of course part of Peter’s specialism is the creating of embarrassing situations – look at other passages in the New Testament and remember his encounter with the Centurion Cornelius when he creates a monumentally embarrassing situation of having baptised a whole lot of Gentiles without asking. Sometimes Peter’s impulsiveness leads him into astonishingly creative moments of courage and innovation; and at times it leads him simply into mess. Peter is the apostle of compromise.
By contrast we have Paul’s apostolic ministry. Paul is quite obviously the person with the clear answers. He knows exactly where he stands, and he knows exactly why Peter is wrong. More than that, he comes very close to implying that Peter’s actions and Peter’s words are undermining the Gospel itself. This is not a marginal matter. This is not a matter where pastoral solutions will look after everything. This is the heart, the life blood, of the Gospel, and Peter has lost his grip on it, says Paul. Paul’s ministry is one of an utterly ruthless integrity, a clarity about what Christ means that is incapable of compromise, even at the expense of open breaches in the apostolic fellowship, and no doubt in the wider community. Paul is the apostle of challenge, indeed confrontation.
Perhaps you might find it helpful to think of the distinction between Peter and Paul in something like these terms: Peter knows who Jesus is, and Paul knows what Jesus means. Bert in the Isles of Scilly knows that Harold Wilson bloke who owns the cottage next door for his holidays. He shares a beer in the pub, he chats while they walk their dogs, they share a pipe or two. Fred, on the other hand, was born after Harold Wilson stopped being Prime Minister, but has studied and knows everything about the history, politics, and sociology of Harold Wilson’s governments.
Peter knows who Jesus is: he worked with him in the gospels, he identifies Jesus, and in his relationship with Jesus he’s swept up uncontrollably in a passion that he can’t himself fully understand and doesn’t know how to live up to. And yet he knows who Jesus is and is committed to that person.
And Paul, who never met Jesus, knows what Jesus means. He knows that the fact of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection enters every human life and concern. He knows that what Jesus means is love without limit. He knows that what Jesus means is a kingdom without boundaries and without hierarchy, the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in the one people of God, and the promise of renewal for everyone. He knows what Jesus means.
And those two different ways of being an apostle aren’t always going to sit comfortably together. You can probably recognise something of these two different ways of being in the people you know, and in yourself, but we should resist labelling and boxing people too much, for there’s something of both these two ways running deeply in all of us.
Peter is a compromising sort of man and sometimes that’s right and sometimes it’s disastrous. Nobody tells us in advance, unfortunately, which situation we’re in at any given time.
Paul, who is incapable of compromise and incapable – it sometimes seems – of seeing anyone else’s point of view except his own, is a necessary figure just as much as Peter. Both apostles push us out of what we feel comfortable with.
The comfort and ease of compromise, though, needs the edge and challenge along with it. It’s really very helpful for the Church today to remember not only that there are four gospels, but that there were twelve apostles (and then some). There isn’t one Biblical way of being and doing, there isn’t one apostolic way of being and doing. There isn’t one way of being church, there isn’t one way of living. We need both the compromise of Peter’s way and the challenge of Paul’s way. Compromise is not always the end of the story, and neither is challenge. We need to somehow embrace both.
Challenge-versus-compromise is the paradox and dilemma people meet every day. In the early 1950s the Anglican schools in South Africa were closed by the Archbishop of Cape Town because he and his advisors came with great anguish to the conclusion that they simply could not work with the apartheid system as it was evolving. They could not in conscience continue to teach under those conditions. And they knew that their compromise on that would be what Paul thinks Peter is doing in Galatians 2. There was enormous anger and hurt at their decision. And yet it’s very hard to see what else was available as an option.
Compromise or challenge? Peter was the apostle of compromise, and Paul the apostle of challenge. There’s a time and a place for both, and to always be or do just one, at the expense of the other, is to not what God wants of us. Both ways of being are found within all of us, and the gift is knowing when to use which. We meet this in so many situations today and everyday, but in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, some key messages we can learn and re-learn are that this church and every church are full of people who will think in very different ways from us, and they’ll make mistakes sometimes, just as we’ll make mistakes also. We can learn that other churches may be very different in worship and ethos from our tradition, but they all have an equal important a part to play in being God’s people. So, as always, with both confidence and humility, we can go into this week and try and love God and our neighbour and ourselves.