WHEN TODAY’S THEOLOGIANS DISAGREE, it is usually in the pages of some scholarly journal, perhaps as an unflattering review or in a volley of articles. All very professional and civilized.
Things were different in the first century AD. When St. Peter came from Jerusalem to Antioch he found that the Christian community included a mixture of native Jews and Greeks, many of whom were probably proselytes. They believed in one God, followed the morality of the Jews, but were not circumcised. Nor did they observe the Torah’s laws about food or ritual purity.
At first, Peter ate with these Greek believers, an action which was forbidden to Jews. They could not eat with Gentiles. Rigorous Jews, like the Pharisees, believed that tenacious observance of the Torah assured their identity as God’s chosen people by setting them apart from the Gentiles..
When some Jewish believers came from Jerusalem, St Peter and the Jewish Christians of Antioch stepped back out of fear and would no longer eat with theirGentile fellow-Christians. St. Paul’s reaction, as he describes it in Galatians, was direct: “I withstood him to his face, because he was wrong” (Galations 2:11).
St. Paul, the ex-Pharisee, was clear in his reasons for not enforcing Jewish law: we know, he taught, “that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). The observances of the Law were no longer what identified God’s People: acceptance of Christ was. Paul observed the practices of the Law when among Jews, but only as devout customs. They were not the identifying mark of God’s People and they did not generate holiness (righteousness) in anyone. They did not connect us to God – only Christ did that – and there was no reason to separate from believers who do not observe the Law of Moses.
“Then What About Sin?”
First-century Jews were taught that the way to deal with sin is to offer a sacrifice in the Temple. But to do that, a person had to be ritually pure (eat only kosher food, not mix with Gentiles, etc.). So if Christ’s followers did not keep the Law, how could they offer sacrifice and be free of sin?
Paul’s response seems odd to us. When Christians sin, he seems to say, it is not because they are followers of Christ. But – and here is his point – if I try to go back to the Law I am bypassing Christ and in that “I make myself a transgressor” (Galatians 2:18). And here St. Paul is certainly speaking of his own experience: “I died to the Law that I might live to God” (v.19).
He had given up his allegiance to the Law of Moses once he realized that the only true Source of divine life was Christ. To go back to the Law would be to deny Christ.
Many Jews today observe these laws in order to hasten the Messiah’s coming. St Paul would have something to say on this.
The Consequence: We are United to Christ
The first-century controversy over the place of the Law in Christian life would only be of historical interest today except that it prompted St. Paul to think through the issue with a result that touches our faith today.
The result of his thinking is found in the next verse: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). St. Paul teaches, here and elsewhere, that the Christian has an organic union with Christ: “Christ lives in me.”
St. Paul was not promoting a sentimental idea of being emotionally close. He was insisting that the believer and Christ were really one. In Romans, 1 Corinthians and Ephesians he would use the image of the body to stress this organic union we have with the Lord and, as a result, with one another, In Colossians, he teaches that, because of this union, we can legitimately hope for eternal union with God: “To [the believers] God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colosians 1:27).
A Union Formed at Baptism
Later in the Epistle to the Galatians St. Paul would provide the Church with an understanding of how the Christian becomes one with Christ. “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27). With these words – which we sing at every baptism – St Paul describes the beginnings of this union in images we make concrete at every baptism: immersion (baptism) and “putting on” the baptismal garment.
In Galatians 2:20 we saw St Paul say “I have been crucified with Christ.” When we read his Epistle to the Romans we see when that happened for him (and for each of us): “do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3).
St Paul understood that, with our immersion into the water of baptism, we are joined to Christ who died and was buried for us. We are joined to His resurrection by the way we live.
St Paul spoke of having “the Mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16), viewing all things the way Christ would. And he was not alone. We find the same idea in 1 Peter 4:1,2: “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, that we no longer should live the rest of our time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.”
And so what matters for us, according to the apostles, is:
- That we are united to Christ, having been joined to Him through baptism;
- That we are called to reflect that union in the way we live; and
- Doing so connects us to God both in this life and after death.