The Daily Office epistle for today was Galatians 2:11-21. In it, Paul talks about his confrontation of Peter, whom he calls by his Hebrew name Cephas: “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” (Galatians 2:11-13). How many of us are like Cephas? I know that I am.
I preached this past weekend on the difference between piety and holiness. Piety I’m defining as living and speaking correctly according to your value system (and often a self-perceived audience for which you’re performing), while holiness describes the intimacy with God people sometimes refer to as having the heart of Christ. The circumcision factions of our world create the pieties that we feel obligated to observe, whether it’s politicians tagging their speeches at the end with “God bless America!” or postmodern Christians like me naming our white male privilege as the front-end qualifier for everything we say.
We often throw people in our lives under the bus as part of our display of piety. We give a cold shoulder to the Gentiles we used to share a table with. When I was in my early twenties, I was very good at denouncing white suburbanites like my own family in order to prove that I was hip to the radicals I wanted to fit in with. I’m not saying everything about the social critiques I parroted was false, but I was definitely arrogant about it in order to mask a tremendous insecurity inside of me.
Some of that carries over in my writing today. It’s hard to disentangle the performance I’m putting on for the circumcision factions in my head from genuine prophecy that God puts into my heart. There’s always a mix of flesh and spirit. More recently, I have felt this need to prove that I’m really an evangelical, which is sort of strange since I’m serving as a pastor in a mostly mainline church where people scratch their heads at the controversies that I wrestle with.
I think I’ve shared before a conversation where I felt like Cephas being called out by Paul. I was at a gathering of ministers two years ago, sitting with a female pastor and a radical womanist seminary professor named Youtha Hardman-Cromwell. I have no idea how the conversation came up, but I shared with them the story of how going to a mostly gay church with a female pastor in Ohio was where I discovered the real gospel for the first time. And then I said, “But of course I couldn’t write about any of that in my commissioning papers.”
Commissioning papers are what Methodist clergy candidates submit to a board to determine whether they will graduate to the next level of ordination. I’m very much like Cephas. I change my story to fit whichever circumcision faction I’m trying to fit in with. I’m sure the reason my “I’ve got gay friends” story came out was because I wanted to impress the womanist seminary professor, the same way I use stories about my South Texas grandpa for credibility with a different crowd.
I can’t remember exactly what Dr. Hardman-Cromwell said or if she even said anything at all other than to look at me with a searing pain in her eyes, but I can’t recall too many other moments when my heart was filled with more shame. That memory has confronted me ever since then. God gave me my own Cornelius encounter just like He did with Peter in Acts 10, and so I have no problem eating with the Gentiles until the circumcision faction comes along.
Maybe it’s not an apples to apples comparison. But I do believe I have a duty to testify that I saw more Galatians 5:22 fruit among the gay people in my Bible study small group in Toledo, Ohio in 2002 than I’ve seen in a lot of other Christians. Whatever that means in the balance with everything else, God won’t let me be a Cephas about what He’s shown me no matter which circumcision factions excommunicate me from their orthodoxy as a result.
There are plenty of circumcision factions in our world. Political correctness has become a pretty fierce one in the last twenty years. I get mad whenever I feel like I’m having to cow-tow to it. Sometimes we think we’re pulling an anti-Cephas by swaggering around in political incorrectness, but that often means we’ve just exchanged one circumcision faction’s piety for another. It’s such a hard thing to speak and live with integrity. The best I know to do is read God’s word each day and allow it to confront me like Paul confronted Cephas in today’s reading.