Bruised Reeds, Second Chances and Finishing Well Part 18: Don’t Quit on the Gospel.
But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas (Peter) before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Galatians 2:14 ESV
It is easy to give up on the gospel. I do not mean we will reject the cross. Or that we no longer believe that salvation is found in Jesus alone. I refer to our tendency to give up on what the gospel does in people—in us. We may do this when we feel like people have been damaged for too long. When people do not share our cultural values or cherished doctrinal beliefs. And when we forget what the gospel can do, we often turn on each other, spurn the bruised reed, snuff out the smoldering wick and feel like we have done our duty.
Surprisingly, Peter himself fell into this trap. As Paul recounts the real gospel to the Galatian churches, he tells this story of an encounter with Peter from their Antioch church days. Teachers from Jerusalem came and enforced table separation between the Jewish and Gentile believers. As every good Jew knew, Gentiles were dogs. They knew nothing of the niceties of the dietary laws and the finer points of purification rituals. They also tended to retain the habit of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Besides, table fellowship was reserved for family, and Gentiles—even as Christ followers—would never be that. Peter accepted this conclusion and ate separately with his tribe.
How could Peter, who was the first to publicly proclaim the resurrection of Jesus, have missed the truth of the gospel—that in Jesus two different people groups have been made into one family? Or, the truth that as messy as these people are, the gospel will change them deeply into the likeness of Jesus. How did Peter miss this when he had learned the gospel at Jesus’ feet? Peter who Jesus personally restored because he had not changed his mind about him even after his denial?
This unexpected glimpse of Peter’s journey jolts. Without it, we might have expected that Peter never messed up again after Pentecost. Here is a story of a formerly bruised reed having matured into a godly apostle surprisingly stumbling again. Why? …Because he chose to embrace so-called purity and quit on the gospel.
Paul was appalled and faced him off. In essence, he challenged Peter’s convoluted beliefs. “You live in the freedom of the gospel, but you are now condemning Gentiles believers because they are not living out a culture that has nothing to do with it? Because they are living as Gentiles, which you yourself are doing? INCREDIBLY HYPOCRITICAL! What are you thinking?”
Through this story Paul gives us two teaching points about the gospel. First, the gospel sets us free to live in a complex world, taking off the pressure to conform to our cultural norms as if they matter. As natural as cultural norms may feel, we have to weigh them against the truth of the gospel. For example, the gospel puts us into a family whose members we cannot lightly cast off as nothing to us, even when they see the world through different lenses. Bad mouthing them says more about how deeply our hearts are wed to the gospel than the people we reject.
My friend, Gladys, gets this. When a cross-dressing man showed up at one of our Sunday morning services, she made a beeline for him afterwards. Many people had been avoiding eye-contact with him, but she saw him as the bruised reed he was, needing love and an invitation to be included. She knew he would never get well without a family of believers who took him in and taught him the gospel. No separate tables for her!
Second, when our cultural norms bend us to abandoning the truth of the gospel, we need an honest rebuke such as the one Paul delivered to Peter. Not by blog post or through an open letter. Social media is not our friend in this. Rebuke calls for a face to face meeting in the manner of Paul. Face to face says that you truly care that a brother or sister in the faith stays true to the gospel and finishes well.
I realize that somehow today many of us have not understood Jesus’ gospel deeply enough to live this out. And it is this lack of depth that causes us to fail to treat bruised reeds with the freedom found in Jesus, much less his kindness. There is no lack of books explaining the gospel. I have read many of the recent ones. Conferences are offered to teach its urgency. Pastors join coalitions that hold to the biblical gospel. People are implored to put their faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus so that they will be freed from the penalty of sin. This step promises to lead them to be fully freed from the presence of sin after death. This is all good news.
But it is not all of the good news. There is a missing middle of the gospel that has plagued us and twisted us from being the church where people are rescued, restored and reconciled into being a place where people have to watch their step…or else.
More to come.