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February 11: Transfiguration of Our Lord

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step 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 force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” – Galatians 2:11-14 

Kristen and I attended a Broadway musical in 2016. There were a lot of amazing things there, but a subtle yet powerful thing was the quality of the makeup. I could tell from the bio pictures in the Playbill booklet that most of the actors were in their 20’s, but there was no way you could tell the actual age of any of them on stage. The makeup was just that good.

The ancient Greek theaters didn’t have the chemical technology to do this, so they used masks, which actors held in front of their faces on the end of a stick (there are carvings and mosaics from the period, which is how we know). Unlike the Broadway production we attended, this didn’t fool anyone, but it did allow the spectators to enter further into the story. The Greek word for play-acting (people pretending to be something they aren’t) is the word from which we get the words hypocrisy or hypocrite. Obviously, even by Paul’s day, the words did not merely mean actor anymore. Hypocrite or hypocrisy meant to them what it means to us. Thus, Paul writes, “The rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.”

What was it at the center of this “hypocrisy”? “For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” It’s hard for us in America to feel the seriousness of this today. If we are going out to eat with colleagues, classmates, business associates, or new people at church, we don’t ask about their ethnic background or (especially!) whether or not they are circumcised. That said, some do divide along lines of skin color, vocal accent, or religion (especially if clothing indicates the religion). Just as circumcision was a powerful symbol of family identity for some in the original Galatian audience, so, likewise, was table-fellowship.

Painfully for Paul, “even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” It must not have lasted long for Barnabus, because Acts 15 says that he was arguing right alongside Paul, thankfully. It’s rather obvious that Paul would confront Peter “to his face” about this, but what’s perhaps not immediately obvious is why this would be considered “hypocrisy” or play-acting.

Interestingly, Paul distinguishes between the real-Peter and the play-acting-Peter: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Peter has been holding up a mask on a stick in front of his face because real-Peter knows in his bones that in Jesus Messiah God has created one new family of Jews and Gentiles alike. It’s similar to when Peter had walked on the water for a while but then faltered in faith and sank. Peter had preached the good news of the gospel, but then some “men from James” came and he knew they were tough characters, so he instead held up the mask of Jewish respectability. Like that great makeup, other people fell for it too. Paul called him out on it as he was sinking.

What masks of respectability do we hold that obscure the goodness of the good news from time to time?  When we do this, we are hypocrites and need to repent. The goodness of the good news is the koinonia fellowship, meaning that there aren’t several tables, or different parts of a table. There is one table, and all are welcomed to any seat who love Jesus Messiah.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

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