by Matt Looloian
This is Part 2 of a 3-part series on Unity in Diversity in the local church. Click here to read Part 1.
The Apostle Paul’s visit to Jerusalem recounted in Galatians 2 provides a great framework to consider the important questions of unity amongst diversity in the church. After last week’s blog post about preserving the gospel, let’s talk about the importance of perceiving God’s grace.
…and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. | Galatians 2:9-10
There’s a gospel to preserve. But there’s also grace given from God to other people who disagree on particulars. And the call for Christians is to perceive the grace given to other Christians.
When it says James, Peter, and John perceived the grace given to Paul, it’s specifically talking about God’s grace in calling Paul to be an apostle. It’s about clearly seeing and acknowledging that nothing but the transforming power of God could be at work in a person’s life.
That’s what the Apostles see in Paul. That God really has called this man as an apostle and entrusted him with the good news of Jesus. This is HUGE. They’re acknowledging that this man (who used to kill and persecute their friends and family) is now their equal. Think about the humility this would require from people like Peter – the one whom Jesus told “feed my sheep.” Or John – the disciple Jesus loved. Or James – Jesus’ brother.
As human beings, every natural tendency of Peter, John, and James in this moment would be to retreat and assert their own authority. In fact, when Peter and John are among the twelve disciples, that’s exactly what they argue about constantly. Who gets to sit at Jesus’ right hand? Who will be greatest among us?
Here, they do the opposite of all that. Why? They perceive the grace given to Paul. They perceive that God radically transformed Paul and, through him, is doing something genuine among Gentile people.
This is when the church is young, when the stakes are highest for preserving the truth of what Jesus has done. In that, these Apostles in Jerusalem perceive the grace given to another man. They extend the right hand of fellowship to him; they call him equal; they affirm the validity of his message and the worth of his ministry. Finally, they bless him as he continues the work God has given him to do.
For us, to perceive the grace given to someone else means recognizing that nothing but the powerful, transforming work of God could be at work in their life and ministry. Because salvation is much more about God’s work than our work, God could be working across lines set up by human beings. God could be working in and through people and denominations that aren’t your tribe.
As I write this, I hope people you know come to mind. People who are Christians who don’t run in the same “tribe” as you. People with whom you disagree – maybe disagree with a lot. But, even in the midst of disagreeing with someone, we may also clearly perceive the grace of God at work. Preserving the gospel will always be tantamount. But YES, perceive the grace of God at work in others, because he can use anyone to accomplish his plans.
Matt Looloian serves as a pastor at Liberti Church in Harrisburg, PA. He and his wife, Shea, have three daughters.