Paul is still continuing his defence of his ministry to the Christians of Galatia. Recollecting some of the conversations he had with the ‘pillars of the Jerusalem church’ after his trip there he states he was given the ‘right hand of fellowship…’
A few years ago my friend was working for a church in Central London and he told me this story. He drove his Vicar to a large prayer and worship event his church and two other churches were organising at Earl’s Court. As they made the approach to the venue he could see two other cars ahead: a fancy Audi and a Porsche Cayenne. He was driving his Vicar’s Ford Focus C-Max. The Porsche’s doors flung open and a group of large men – all wearing black suits – got out and opened the back door. Out popped the Pastor from one of the organising churches. My quick thinking friend leapt out of his Vicar’s Ford Focus and opened the passenger door just before the Vicar could get out by himself. Both pastors in front were flanked by their large entourage and there was my friend walking along carrying his Vicar’s rucksack with no entourage.
Each of those cars: the big Audi, the Porsche Cayenne and the Ford Focus represent three very different church cultures.
They seem at complete odds – almost incongruous. But there they were all leading and inputting at this huge Pentecost event at Earl’s Court. They were united – a genuine show of solidarity.
I asked my friend what his Vicar made of all the flashy stuff – the green rooms, the cars and the razz-a-matazz – his reply was simple: ‘oh, he loves them, he thinks they’re great.’
There’s a few lessons here I think for us today:
Unity begins in the heart. We often think it’s about worship services and statements of faith. It’s more practical than that. As Paul’s visit to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders there show us:
1) Paul is secure in God. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. ‘Comparison is the enemy of confidence’. It’s hard to have genuine unity with someone if you’re competing with them or on the flip side, comparing yourself to them. Paul is going to meet some serious BNOCs [“Big Names On Campus”] – they’re big names in the early church world. But that this doesn’t faze Paul at all. He’s totally secure in God’s love for him. Why? Because in vs 6: ‘God does not show favouritism’. Which leads me to my second point:
2) Paul is comfortable in his own skin. If we’re not then unity is hard for two reasons: you’ll say anything to be accepted and ‘fit in’ or equally you’ll come across as rigid and defensive. Paul knows he’s loved by God. He’s got nothing to prove. That’s not going to be shaken by others’ views.
3) Unity is not uniformity. As followers of Jesus we already have unity – if we believe in Jesus (Ephesians 4:3) – our job is to keep the bond of peace. Peace, or shalom in the Hebrew – means to be at peace, no conflict – to want the best for someone or more specifically want God’s best for them. Most of our efforts at unity are functional: church services; documents to sign etc… but to Paul it’s deeper. Paul receives the ‘right hand of fellowship’ which means he’s received a blessing, the green light, to get on with what he’s called to do: plant churches among the Gentiles – but the Jerusalem church will get on with what they are called to do. Two separate callings.
Throughout Paul’s tale of his trip to Jerusalem – Paul went with respect in his heart but total clarity about who he is and what he’s about. We will always meet Christians from other churches. We may very well find ourselves having conversations about unity – our calling is to know who God has made us and from that place of security reach out and bless others.
Thank you for the example of St Paul. I pray this day that we may be secure in who you’ve made us and from that place extend grace and blessing to those around us! Amen.
READING: Galatians 2:6-10
As for those who were held in high esteem – whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favouritism – they added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they recognised that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognised the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.