This reflection was given during the Eucharist at a local retirement village and nursing home. The Scripture it references is Acts 15:1-21.
Today’s reading puts before us Luke’s account of one of the very important decisions of the early church; where it was agreed that the Jewish law was not binding on the gentile Christians.
While that’s a very important decision and there are lots of things one might say about it, the aspect I want to draw out today is the part played by different people in arriving in that decision. Paul, Barnabas, Peter and James are all recorded as having had things to say, and as agreeing to the decision as it was eventually made.
The story doesn’t end there, of course, and in his letter to the Galatians Paul complains that Peter has not always acted in accordance with this decision. And it’s interesting too that in today’s passage Peter claims to be the apostle to the gentiles, and in his letters, Paul thinks that Peter ought to be a leader of the Jewish Christians and leave the gentiles to Paul. Clearly their relationship was complex.
And yet today the church has set aside as a memorial of both of them, together; Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles and Martyrs. Even though they disagreed, and obviously fairly bitterly at times, the church has set them side by side as examples for us of how to live the faith; and ultimately, how to die for it.
And the conclusion I draw from that, is that disagreement amongst Christians is not a disaster. It is not necessarily a sign that one is more faithful to God than the other. Rather, the rich variety of the people of God might be God’s gift to us, as we each contribute to the kingdom of God in our own ways.
This gives me the freedom to pursue my own path with integrity, without necessarily needing to condemn others as wrong.
So what do we do with that? We celebrate diversity in the Christian life. We give one another permission and encouragement to be each who God has created, gifted and called us to be, even when that’s very different for some of us than for others. We work to preserve and learn from the distinctive insights, traditions and practices which have come down to us from generations past. That’s how we can remember and honour Saints Peter and Paul, two very different men who each nonetheless contributed indispensably to the foundations of the church.