“For before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision.”—Galatians 2:12 (NKJV)
We were thrilled to get the invitation. It was two of us from our South Florida church and we were traveling to South Sudan to serve at a Bible training center. We drove through a dangerous, rebel-patrolled region in northern Uganda, crossed the border into war-torn South Sudan, and prepared to teach pastors at facilities that didn’t even have electricity or running water. My partner and I were more disoriented and out of our element than we had ever been in our lives.
After a couple of days of teaching in a classroom where temperatures exceeded 100 degrees, some of our new friends invited us into their home for a meal. We sat on the cool floor of a hut built from mud bricks, sipped tea, talked, laughed, and shared food from a common bowl. We were overwhelmed with the kindness and courtesy of the Sudanese. I couldn’t believe I was sitting on the floor of a mud hut in Sudan in the middle of a war. And even so, I was among brothers.
Something similar was happening in Galatians 2. Peter was sitting with non-Jewish followers of Jesus in the city of Antioch. According to Acts 11:26, this is the place where followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” or more literally “Messiah people.” Whether Jew or Greek, it was in Antioch that racial and cultural barriers were worn thin enough to sit at a table and eat together from a common bowl. Jesus the Messiah had such an impact on people’s lives that change rippled throughout the city and Antioch’s citizens marveled.
Paul writes about his famous confrontation with Peter in this setting. When the church leaders rolled into town to see this phenomenon for themselves, Peter’s behavior flipped. With the Greeks, he was casual and gracious, but with the original church leaders, Peter suddenly forgot he was a Christian and became a traditional Jew. Paul took Peter to task for this and called him out as a play-actor—a hypocrite.
When was Peter play-acting? When he was with the Gentiles or with the Jews? Peter’s brazen hypocrisy should rattle us much more than my original, uncomfortable narrative of genuine cross-cultural fellowship.
The truth is, when we’re in Christ, we must be who we are. No masks or makeup are needed in the Kingdom.