I doubt if anyone uses a dunce cap to shame children anymore. That does not mean, of course, that the shaming of children has stopped. For that matter, the shaming of adults hasn’t stopped either. Who among us doesn’t know what it’s like to feel like a dunce?
There’s no question that shame can be toxic. If researcher Brené Brown is right, we who live in a demanding world of exacting standards are experiencing shame in epidemic proportions.
Shame researchers like Brown like to distinguish between toxic shame and appropriate guilt. The latter recognizes I’ve made a mistake, and feels badly for it; guilt makes us want to repair the situation. The former declares, I am a mistake, and makes us want to hide.
There are times when we feel like a dunce, and for good reason: we’ve done something wrong, and should have known better. What matters is what happens next. Will we try to make things right, or run away?
As we’ve seen in an earlier post, I believe that the conflict between Peter and Paul described in Galatians 2 occurred before the council in Jerusalem, described in Acts 15.
Why does it matter? Because it adds special poignancy to the words Peter speaks in the council.
It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Peter was in Antioch when a group came from Jerusalem to pressure the Gentile converts into circumcision (Acts 15:1). Peter, bowing to the pressure himself, broke fellowship with the Gentiles. Paul responded by chastising him publicly for the betrayal — not only of the Antiochenes, but of a gospel of grace (Gal 2:11-21).
How did Peter respond? The letter to the Galatians doesn’t say, and Luke doesn’t mention the incident in Acts. Luke simply tells us that the group from Jerusalem got into a ruckus with Paul and Barnabas, who were then appointed to go to Jerusalem to help sort it all out.
Should circumcision be required of Gentile converts to Christianity, as it already was of converts to Judaism? The debate went on for a while before Peter finally stood and said:
Fellow believers, you know that, early on, God chose me from among you as the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and come to believe. God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 15:7-11, CEB)
He’s referring to a story that everyone already knew: his encounter in Caesarea with Cornelius the Roman centurion (Acts 10). Cornelius was a God-fearer, a Gentile who worshiped the God of the Jews without being circumcised. He was directed by an angel to send for Peter. No sooner had Peter begun preaching the gospel when, miracle of miracles, the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius’ entire household.
The sermon wasn’t finished; there was no outward profession of faith. And there was most assuredly no circumcision. But the Spirit was poured out anyway, on Gentiles, to everyone’s astonishment.
Peter believes the story should speak for itself. It happened years ago, but the implications are still the same. Who are we to stand in the way of God? Some of the Pharisees might have bristled at the suggestion that the law was an unbearable burden. But Peter speaks as a common, working-class man of Galilee. For him and others like him, knowledge and observance of the hundreds of rules of righteousness was impossible, and pilgrimages to Jerusalem were costly and time-consuming. If such requirements were burdensome for the rank and file of the Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, what would they be like for Gentile converts?
In the end, Peter takes his stand on grace: everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, is saved by grace, and grace alone.
I like to think that Peter learned his lesson in Antioch. The very story he told to the council, of the divine grace that embraced a centurion’s entire household, is one that he had temporarily forgotten under pressure. But Paul thrust the mistake in his face. And Peter, to his credit, was able to come back around and tell that story again in Jerusalem, forthrightly.
And in Paul’s presence.
With that, Peter disappears from Luke’s tale. It’s fitting that his last words sound an awful lot like Paul.