June 23, 2013
The Rev. Canon Mary Holmen
Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39
From the epistle reading: “In Christ Jesus you are all sons and daughters of God through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
When the apostle Paul wrote to the churches he had founded or visited, he never dreamed that his letters would one day be collected into anything like “sacred scripture”, a second part of the body of writing and teaching that had shaped and nourished him. For Paul, the scriptures consisted of the books of the Law, the writings of the prophets, and the Psalms, Proverbs, and other wisdom writings. The gospels had not yet been written down, but collections of stories about Jesus and teachings or sayings of Jesus were circulating orally. And there were others besides Paul setting down their thoughts in letter form.
Paul’s letters were private correspondence between him and various Christian communities, and were very often written in response to particular problems or questions within a community. What we have, in Paul’s letters, is his half of an ongoing conversation. We are overhearing a dialogue, and we have to infer the other half from what Paul says. So here’s the situation. The letter to the Galatians is written to a community of Gentile Christians living in a part of Asia Minor that had been inhabited by so-called barbarians and later incorporated into the Roman Empire. Paul had visited the area on his first missionary journey, proclaimed his message, and established a church. After he moved on, the community was visited by Jewish Christians, those who kept the Jewish law in addition to their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. These people started telling the Galatians that they also needed to adhere to the Law of Moses, including the dietary laws and the law of circumcision. They accused Paul of watering down the faith to make it more acceptable to Gentiles.
Well, Paul is simply furious. He says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” “Not that there is a different gospel,” he hastens to add, “but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” In fact, says Paul, if anyone proclaims a message contrary to what he proclaimed, that person should be accursed! Let them go to hell! Paul even calls the Galatians names. “You stupid Galatians!” he says. “Who has tricked you into believing something different than what I said?”
When Paul speaks of “my gospel”, he doesn’t mean only the message about the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. What Paul is really talking about is the impact of Jesus on him. And the word that comes up over and over again is “freedom”. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” he will go on to say in this letter. For Paul, the good news of God in Christ is that he, and by extension all humankind, is set free from bondage to sin and death, free from divisions, and free to love and serve in a new way. What today’s gospel reading tells us in narrative form, Paul declares by way of theological reflection on the Christ event.
Today’s passage has some very important things to say to us about the nature of our commitment to follow Christ, and the nature of the community to which we belong. It speaks to us of overturning the existing order of things, and inaugurating a new order or way of being.
We are sons and daughters of God through faith. This is the conclusion of a long and involved discussion of the relationship between the law and faith. We are not justified, that is we are not made right with God, by works of the law but through faith in Christ Jesus. No one can be justified by the law, says Paul. If it were possible for anyone to be justified by the law, then Christ would have died for no reason. Now, Paul explains that the law was a custodian, a guardian or a kind of babysitter, until the time when Christ came to justify us by faith. The law kept us in relationship with God, but when Christ came the law’s role was ended. This is the first example of the reversal I mentioned. The time of the law’s rule is over; the age of faith has begun. The faith that justifies us, or makes us right with God, is not something we can produce on our own. It is a gift, and it comes from God.
Many of us think of faith as a set of beliefs or doctrines, so that to have faith means to believe the correct things. Certainly faith has taken on this meaning when we talk about the faith of the church. But that is not at all what Paul means. Faith for Paul is a response to God’s action. God was in Christ, he says elsewhere, reconciling the world to himself. Faith is the response of trust in God’s action of raising Jesus from the dead – trust that that action really does bring us salvation. So we need to be careful not to reduce faith to an intellectual exercise. We are called to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Faith is a total response that involves all of who I am – my whole being.
We also need to guard against making faith into simply another work. For example, we read stories of Jesus’ healing ministry in which the person’s faith, they are told, has made them well. It is all too easy to suggest that if someone is not healed, then there must be something wrong with their faith. That’s a terrible message to give to someone who is struggling to make sense of why this has happened to them. And it also makes faith into another work, something we can do, and if we try to do it harder or better, then things will be all right. The truth is that faith is a gift, and we cannot get it or increase it by our own efforts. Faith comes from God.
It is this faith that makes us sons and daughters of God. In a human family, when a couple adopts a child, that child is legally, and in every other way, a part of that family, just as much as the couple’s naturally-born children. They all share the privileges and responsibilities of membership in the family, the bond of mutual support, and the right of inheritance. So it is in God’s family. Jesus Christ is the one Son of God. We are children “by adoption and grace”, and we share in the inheritance promised to Abraham, the promise of blessing for all the nations. Membership in God’s family no longer depends on race, or who your parents were. Membership is open to anyone who responds in faith. That’s the second reversal.
We are baptized into union with Christ. Baptism is the public affirmation of faith and the way that we are brought into the family. Baptism is the sacrament of justification, the sacramental action that makes visible our relationship with God. When we are baptized into Christ, we put on Christ. Paul was later to take this idea and develop it further. In the letters to both the Colossians and the Ephesians, Paul tells us that the one who is baptized has put off the old nature and has put on the new nature, created in the image of Christ. This is the third reversal. The standards of behaviour that worked in the old order, the old way of being, are no longer acceptable. We are to put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and forgiving each other. This leads us into a third point.
All who are baptized are one in Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” says Paul. As the community of the baptized, we belong to a new order in which all the things that divide people are abolished. The world loves to erect barriers to separate us from our sisters and brothers – barriers of race, religion, language, social status, income, and gender. These separations have become one of the most severe problems affecting our world. Our membership in the body of Christ is counter-cultural. It does away with the status quo and puts us all on an equal footing with our sisters and brothers. If we permit distinctions to arise, we not only break unity with each other, but with Christ.
At the same time, Paul makes it very clear that baptism is not simply an individual commitment. Baptism makes us part of a community of faith. There is no such thing as private Christianity. Yes, we each have personal experiences and a personal relationship with God, but they happen in the context of the community of the church. We share a common history, a common journey, a common mission, and a common hope. Years ago, when the apartheid government of South Africa confiscated Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s passport, the message from the rest of the Anglican Communion was clear: touch him, and you touch us all.
So there are three things we find in this reading concerning our commitment to Christ and our membership in the Christian community:
- God makes us his children through faith
- We are baptized into union with Christ
- In Christ we are all one.
This leads inevitably to my fourth and final point.
Christian discipleship is the process of living out our commitment day by day. The man who was healed in today’s gospel story begged to go with Jesus. Jesus sent him away, saying, “Go back to your home, and tell what God has done for you.” Our most immediate mission field is right outside the doors of this church, in our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our community clubs, our neighbourhoods. That is not to say that mission in places further away isn’t important too. We have opportunity to respond to many needs in our local community and around the world. Again Paul says, “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” One of the Elders I work with says that the only prayer that is necessary is “Migwetch – thank you.” The only possible response to what God has done for us is gratitude and loving service. A faithful heart is a grateful heart. Our first task is to learn to tell on our own doorstep what God has done for us, and we then will find a heart to tell the same story in the wider world as well. Amen.