A Biblical Case Study in Conference Dynamics

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Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me.  I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.  But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.  But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us– we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you.  And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)– those leaders contributed nothing to me.  On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.  They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.  But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.  And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.  But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”  We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.  But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!  But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor.  For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing (Galatians 2:1-21 NRS).


I continue to be amazed how often I turn to scripture and find striking parallels for modern experiences.  This passage is all too reminiscent of the kind of interactions we find during holy conferencing.  For the most part, those that attend Annual Conference in the United Methodist Church are passionate about their faith and their religion.  There are certainly those that are compelled to attend and begrudgingly do so, but they are the minority.  Most of us care, passionately so.  In a Conference as large as the Virginia Annual Conference, Methodists are drawn together from the far reaches of a large state.  They are not just from diverse geographic areas of the state, they represent divergent cultures, economies, socializations, and religious traditions even within Methodism.  Just as Paul and the original Apostles were distinctly different from one another, so too are those representatives of laity and clergy at the Virginia Annual Conference.  Like Peter and Paul, we are united in our faith in Jesus Christ, our Trinitarian theology, but we express that in often different ways.

The challenge is to come together and exist in harmony, to speak to one another with love, and to honor the other even when we don’t exactly agree.  This scripture passage recounts how Paul traveled to Jerusalem where Jesus’ remaining Apostles were located.  There he gave his testimony and preached his gospel so that they might see for themselves his claim and test his words.  According to Paul, the others realized that Paul was called and that his ministry to the Gentiles was a valid and divinely ordered call.  He was free to go back to his Roman cities and spread the Gospel to the Gentiles living there, while they continued their work among the Jews in Jerusalem.  It isn’t until Cephas/Peter travels to Antioch that we see the first real signs of head butting.

When Peter refuses to eat with Gentiles in front of some of the other Jerusalem Christians, Paul calls him out for his hypocrisy.  Peter has eaten with Gentiles before, so why should he shun them now?  Paul saw it as an issue of not living out the truth of the Gospel.  I appreciate how Paul rebukes Peter.  He doesn’t call him angry, degrading things.  He doesn’t tell him that he is a false believer.  Paul reminds Peter who they are and what they are called as Christians to do.  He reminds us all that we all serve the same Risen Christ who broke our chains of slavery to sin and death.  If I believe that Christ lives in me, then I have to recognize that Christ lives in others, lives in you.  If I am going to live that out, then I have to learn to deal with conflict and disagreement in a whole new way, not the worldly way we all learn, but a spiritual way that Christ himself modeled for us.  Paul’s words, actions, and conduct continue to be a call to all those who attend Annual Conference.  He has set a standard, and we can meet it.  We can do all things in Christ.

Prayer:
Lord Jesus,
Prince of Peace,
You, with infinite patience, bore the brunt of others’ dissatisfaction.
You took ours sins upon yourself,
And died for us.
You deserve disciples who speak with truth and love.
Who do not wage war against those who disagree with them,
But actively seek ways to harmoniously coexist and work together.
Give us the wisdom to see when we are headed down the path of hypocrisy,
And use your Spirit to lead us back to you.
Let our ears be open to the Pauls of our time.
If it be your will, let us speak up,
But help us to do it with grace and gratitude.
In you we find our meaning,
In our meeting, let us put you at the core of all we say and do.
Let our holy coferencing be a testimony to you.
May we honor you in all that transpires in this sacred time.
Amen.


(Image courtesy of iconograms.org)

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