Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sermon - male and female, wolves and lambs

Galatians 3:19-29
You are all sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, and heirs according to the promise.

What beautiful words! Everyone who has been baptized into Christ is clothed with Christ, covered with Christ. There are no more distinctions. We are all one. What beautiful words! They sound like poetry… and in fact it is very likely that these words were a poem that people were already familiar with. It is probably the charge that they were given after they were baptized. Picture a crowd of people standing there, newly clothed in white robes, dripping all over the floor, receiving their charge: and an elder of the congregation says to them: now that you have been baptized, you are the sons and the daughters of God. You have clothed yourselves with Christ. You no longer carry the marks of “jew,” “greek,” “african,” “asian,” “free citizen,” “slave,” “slaveowner,” “servant,” “male person,” “female person.” All your personhood has been wrapped in the white robe you now wear. A few hours ago you were all these things – you had rankings and proper positions – someone was superior, and someone was subordinate. YOU were a female jewish citizen, and he a male greek slave – and from now on those things are No Longer True. YOU ARE, as of this moment, all sons and daughters of God through faith in Jesus Christ. There are no more ranks separating you. And this is not a future prediction or wishful thinking. It is true now. It is your new life.
So they said, when they baptized new Christians. So Paul said, to remind the Galatians of their status before God. And so we say. We still say some of the same things when we baptize people. We still read this verse quite often. But do we live it out? Do we live without ranking one another differently? What do you think?

No… as for “no longer Jew or Greek…” well, this is about race. And all races now have legal equality in the US, in terms of civil rights, which is great, but we still separate ourselves from one another. You might not see it here in Wallowa county, but someone once said that the single time when America is the most segregated by race is Sunday morning. In major cities there are black churches and white churches right across the street from one another… yes, even Presbyterian churches.
As for “no longer slave or free,” well, we settled the slavery question in this country many years ago, but even though both sides quoted from the Bible, in the end our Civil War was settled by military right more than by unalloyed ideals. And around the world today there are still men, women, and especially children held in slavery, and there are churches that look the other way and allow their members to participate in this crime.
And as for “no more male and female,” church is actually one of the places where people are MOST likely to be told that men and women ought to occupy different places in society, often arguing that men should work and govern while women raise families and teach children.
Well, maybe we don’t live that out that great ideal to our fullest potential. Let me tell you, though, instead of feeling bad that we don’t live up to our ideals, we can take the easy way out. It’s easier to assume that Paul didn’t mean what he said here. We are in good company – for much of history, Christians have assumed that Paul did not mean it to be taken LITERALLY. A few quotes from Biblical scholars: one: “the passage has nothing to do with the abolition of slavery.” (Ernest de Witt Burton, 1920) another: “it is impossible for Paul to have in mind an emancipation of slaves and women,” and this is spoken “purely religiously,” (Albrecht Oepke, 1937). And another: “all metaphysical, historical, and natural distinctions stemming from the old eon are abolished sacramentally i.e. in a hidden but real way.” (Heinrich Schleier, 1971) (all three quoted in: Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians. Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1979, p 189).

We have invented many categories in order to get around the radical statement of this verse. And it seems that it was even hard for Paul himself to stick with this. It works pretty well in the letter to the Galatians, where he’s dealing mainly with arguments about Jews and Greeks – racial and cultural unity. But in his letter to the Corinthians he had to deal with more specific situations between men and women, and he backed down a little from just saying “you are all one.” In the letter to Philemon he had to deal with a runaway slave, and he did not say “there is no more slave or free…” instead he delicately dealt with personalities and mentioned the slaveowner’s personal debt of love which he owed to Paul. It is hard to stick to the message of “you are all sons and daughters of God in Christ Jesus” when the circumstances of life plainly tell us that some people still ARE women, and some people still DO own slaves. It is a very hard message to proclaim.
But even though many people have taken the easy way out, finding some way to explain this away, today I want us to take the challenge and assume – at least for now – that when Paul wrote this, he meant what he said. We all pick and choose through the Bible, because not EVERYTHING can be the MOST important message. And many people have found ways in which to explain that this particular passage was not Paul’s most important message. At the end of the day you can feel free to disagree with me. But for now let’s “go there” – let’s talk about what this would mean if it really were a central point of the Christian message.
When he wrote this quote, Paul was in the middle of an argument about law and faith. He explains the difference between law and faith in a metaphor of growing up. When we were young we were under the supervision of a “disciplinarian,” or a “guardian,” or a “tutor.” In Greek society this was basically a one-on-one babysitter, a slave who would escort a rich little boy to his classes, his music lessons, his soccer practice – just kidding – and teach him good manners on the way. A young boy could be a very important little man, destined for great riches and privileges, but until he came of age, he was completely controlled by his guardian – this babysitter. Paul says the law was our guardian until the right time came – until we were “of age,” metaphorically speaking, and were given the inheritance through faith in Christ. The law – from the ten commandments all through the nits and picks of what to eat when and how – the law supervised us, hedging us in and telling us what to do and when. It protected us because we were too immature to take responsibility for our own actions.
And when faith in Christ came, it brought us freedom. And now we are free people – Adults – responsible people – no longer needing to be babysat. Or at least… we’re supposed to act like adults. My professor at seminary – a little bit hard of hearing – really loved this verse and he would lean over the podium at us practically shouting “we should be sick and tired of being called the Children of God whenever we go to church! I’m not a child of God, I am an ADULT of God and I’m ready to be treated like one!” I heard that repeated several times during his lectures.
So, that much to say, we should be glad to have the babysitter off our backs. We should be happy that we are now adult sons and daughters of God; that we have graduated from the elementary school of the law. We should be rejoicing to know that we are free and mature and responsible people, who can make ethical decisions even without a law code telling us what to do when and how.

But did you ever meet an adult who still wanted to be babysat? Someone who had been coddled and spoiled in their childhood, and wanted childhood never to end? Someone who never learned a few basic life skills and is always looking for a friend that he or she can leech off of and avoid facing reality…? Ever met one?
I think if we look at the history of Christianity, we’ll see a lot of examples where we Christians look like that adult. Like the guy who picks a girlfriend based on how well she can cook and clean… (cuz he can’t) or the girl who keeps running back to live at home because… well… daddy always fixes her car when it breaks. Like we’ve graduated – we’ve been given a big party and a new car – and we set off into the big wide world to live a life of FREEDOM and excitement – and we just get lost in the wilderness of that freedom. It’s scary. Somebody! Please! Come tell me what to do.
I think this is why we as Christians try to get away from the message of equality and freedom – from that message that we are all one and that there are no more differences between us – and that’s why we try to add some rules back on – because that’s really hard to live in. It is wild – it isn’t tame. It produces tension. Think about that tension.
If a slave and a master look each other in the eye and both really believe that there is no difference between them because of Christ – then they are going to have to do some reconfiguration aren’t they? It’s not going to be "boy! Do this!" And "yessir, yessir." They have to figure it out differently.
If a Jew and a Gentile look each other in the eye and both really believe that there is no difference between them because of Christ – well, that will be hard, because the Jewish person was used to being the expert on religion, and this Gentile was just supposed to look on admiringly from the sidelines. Now they don’t know who should stand where – they will have to negotiate.
If a man and a woman look each other in the eye and both really believe that there is no longer any difference between them because of Christ – this is going to be a difficult one. Life ran smoothly when the wife was silent and the husband ran everything. There was nothing to disagree about. It was never “your way vs my way” – it was always “his way.” But now that their guidelines are only “respect” and “love” – wow, what a mess. It really blows your mind to consider someone else without using any ranks of superiority and inferiority.
Sometimes, if we are taken away from our ways of judging and ranking people, we make up new systems and ranks. We want to lean on law – it is our crutch – our babysitter. Christians are really great at making up new rules. For example, maybe we can get away from the judgmentalism of thinking rich people are “better than” poor people – but then sometimes we invent a whole new judgmentalism. A friend told me that among Korean pastors there is a lot of judgment about what kind of car you drive. You probably would expect that a church would want their pastor to drive a nice car – but oh no, they’re Christian now, so actually it’s backwards. You will be approved of if you drive a nasty old beater, and looked down upon if you buy a newer, safer car. This is, indeed, somewhat in line with how Jesus told us to give away our money to the poor… but it is lawmaking all the same. Whenever we make laws we are going back to that babysitter, with its rules and rankings. We can’t seem to live in freedom for very long without putting up SOME standard of who we expect to be superior and inferior to one another.

So what would life look like if we really were able to accept one another as the sons and daughters of God – and only that? With no qualifications, no ranking systems? If we really matured and took adult responsibility as Christians, and lived as ADULTS of God without looking to be babysat? What would it look like?
Well we know it would be a hard task. But if we really did it, our attitudes would change. No one would assume that they knew someone’s character by looking at their color, their gender, their clothing, their car, or where they lived. We would have to respect each person individually… whether you drove a beat up pickup or a prius, whether you came from an intellectual family in California or from generations upon generations of ranchers, whether you lived in Wallowa River House (a home for mentally ill and disabled folks) or in a mansion out in the hills. There would be no built-in judgment, no looking down on anyone as less than, and no looking up to people as if they were better than us.
But at the same time, I don’t think we Christians would ever look like a group of clones. We could get rid of our positions and ranks without giving up our natural, God-given differences. Everyone is unique, from the color of their skin to the culture they grew up in. These are not erased. If they were…. Paul would have said it a little differently. He might have said “there is no more Greek, or female, or slave, for you are all one like me, the superior form of being, a free male Jew.” It sounds funny, but there ARE some rare early Christian writers who went in that direction, and suggested that really good women could be considered on par with men. That God would miraculously turn them into men so they could go to heaven. No, that is not right. God created us male and female, and saw us and said that we were very good. Paul is not dismissing the fact that we are all different and unique.
What Paul dismisses is this business of either-or; one or the other; there will be no more choosing one and dismissing the other. You don’t have to identify yourself as one or the other. In fact Paul, man though he is, goes on to use some very feminine words to describe his own love for the Galatians: Listen to this!
“My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” 4:19
And regarding slavery, he says that we should stand firm and not be slaves to anything of this world. BUT he also says “through love become slaves to one another.” 5:13
When Paul, a free man, begins talking like a mother and like a slave, we know there is more to this than just erasing social boundaries. He is declaring that there is no shame in being ANY thing at all – no shame in being a woman, no shame in being a slave, no shame in being a free man who voluntarily chooses to love like a mother and serve like a slave.
The only thing that matters is that we belong to Christ. If we are sons and daughters of God, then Christ is our brother. We are all in a new family together, and Paul explains to us how this is going to work… how we are going to put aside notions of rank and privilege, and instead we will look at the image of God in one another.

I want to end by bringing another passage in. My Ugandan friend David Ofumbi preached on Isaiah 11 and it really stuck with me.
“The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.”

David asked how we are going to get from here to there? Clearly, only by the grace of God. But David pointed out a very true point: that it is completely unnatural for a wolf and a lamb to lie down together. And to get to the point where they can lie down together, they are both going to have to overcome their natural instincts. It is natural for a lamb to fear wolves, and natural for a wolf to hunt lambs. The lamb is going to have to become brave, and the wolf is going to have to become gentle. Both have a job to do, to bring about this amazing vision of peace on earth. And they have to trust one another. If the lamb comes bravely up to a wolf that is not gentle… then she isn’t brave, she’s foolish. If a very gentle wolf tries to lie down with a lamb that does not trust him… the lamb will run away.
I think this is also an appropriate image for what Paul is asking for here. In order to live as free adults in the family of God, we all have to overcome our natural instincts. “What comes naturally” isn’t good enough, because what comes naturally is judgment, and discrimination, and forcing people to fall into lines we draw for them. It is comfortable, it is natural, but our human nature is full of sin. To live out the truth Paul insisted upon, we all have to overcome our own nature and take on Christ’s nature. Violent people need to become gentle. Fearful people need to become courageous. Men need to learn to sacrifice like women, and women need to learn to stand up like men. Slaves need to refuse to submit to slavery, and we all need to become slaves of love, for one anothers’ sake in Christ. We can hardly do this on our own power. It is not natural – it’s barely possible – but with God all things are possible.
Go forth today and get beyond what’s natural. Look someone in the eye and know that in Christ there are no ranks separating us from one another. Act as if there were no shame in being ANYTHING that God has created you to be. Look only at the image of God in other people. Don’t just think this way – act this way. Put away all the childish rules of who is better than someone else, and treat everyone as they deserve as a son or daughter of God. And by doing so, may we truly become one body in Christ. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Great message. I would add one classification of those judge by their condition and not their actions under Christ. That is those of varying sexual orientation. Our GLBT brothers and sisters in Christ are looked at by our church and other society as less Christian than others of us.