The Gospel Does Not Begin With Us

YouGospel“The Gospel Does Not Begin With Us”
Galatians 3:23-29
Sunday, June 23, 2013
5th Sunday after Pentecost

Depending on your frame of reference, Paul’s words to the Galatians this morning may be troubling or affirming…In the 1st Century church, the issue of group identity was critical…The question really is: “How much like a Jew does a Gentile need to be in order to be a Christian?”  This question is not on our radar…The term “Gentile” is an ancient word that serves no function in our vocabulary.  But, in the Galatian Church, this question is at the center of moral and theological debate.  God made promises to Abraham and to Abraham’s heirs…Gentiles are not natural heirs of Abraham…How then do God’s promises apply?  Depending on who you are, the answer may be difficult to hear.

On the one hand, if the promises only apply to Jews, then the Gentiles are excluded and the crucified Christ is irrelevant.  On the other hand, if the promises also apply to the Gentiles, then it appears that God is one who is willing to break promises.  Either way you hear it makes it hard to realize the witness of the church’s claim to a unified Body of Christ.  Paul’s letter attempts to solve this dilemma by challenging the people to look at this issue through a new lens…He challenges them – AND US – to see one another through God’s eyes and set aside the bias that exists within us…It is a difficult challenge that asks us: “Are we willing to stake our mission and church membership policies on Galatians, especially 3:28?” (Pastor Carol E. Holtz-Martin)  “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ” (Gal 3:28, MSG).

Reading Paul’s letter today can surprise us inside our 21st Century ethos…It is not natural for us to realize that rejection of basic human distinctions is not the same thing as cutting away all the group identifiers that shape us…To become a Christian is not to reject everything else about you…You do not become a Christian and then join the church; you join the church in the process of becoming a Christian…Baptism is not the process of shedding all our group identifiers to stand naked before God and be clothed in Christ…It is discovering that being a member of the family of God is our true group identifier.  I think we tend to forget this in our quest for individualism at the expense of human identity.  We must remember that being clothed “alike” in Christ Jesus does not mean that all our distinctions disappear…Paul’s illustration affirms that our distinctions persist but lack any determinate bearing on our faith.

Finally, to be clothed in Christ – shaped neither by individual categories nor by old distinctions – should mean that relations in the church are best understood as reflecting relations in the Trinity.  Three distinct persons are nonetheless One God.  Many distinct Christians are nonetheless One Church.  And so, I wonder, are we willing to stake our church on Galatians 3:28?

In his book What’s Wrong with the World, G.K. Chesterton wrote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”  When will we try it?  When will “the church” proclaim life-giving truth to the world that God’s Good News knows no boundaries?  When will “the church” tear down its chief obstacle – self-centeredness?  It is difficult for us to grapple with the reality that the Gospel does not begin with us.  When choosing churches, we have gotten into the habit of seeking the comfort of similarity, rather than the presence of the Holy Spirit…We look for convenience and entertainment instead of conviction and truth-telling…We need to realize that the most profound differences between people are nothing compared to the power of Christ to reconcile all things to God…Christ who has accepted and loved us is making One Body out of an infinitely varied tapestry of persons who believe.

There is a famous quote whose source is long-since forgotten, that is often used in Alcoholics Anonymous groups: “It is not necessary that you believe in God.  What is necessary is that you know that you are not God.”  In a letter to the church at Corinth Paul wrote: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:16-17)  We seem to agree that God is willing to welcome all sorts of different people into God’s fellowship…Where we get into trouble is when we take it upon ourselves to decide who God should be willing to accept…We then translate this into how we view others and how we accept –or do not – those people into our lives and into our culture…We tend not to be as open-minded as God is and we want to be sure that only people “like us” are invited to the party…Surely we do not want to feel uncomfortable and, after all, it is our point-of-view that truly matters – right?

I think we want to look at these issues of equality and inclusivity with the idea that the world in which we live is indeed imperfect and some things just won’t be worked out in our lifetime.  Remember the song: “We shall overcome…SOMEDAY.”  Jesus calls us to a radical truth – the kingdom of God is here…among us…RIGHT NOW.  That notion calls us to a very different reality: we must embody astounding diversity that takes us beyond our personal preference, our inclination, and our desire…We must live into new spaces where we are uncomfortable and inexperienced…God’s kingdom is not some faraway realm we will one day cross into…God’s kingdom is here, today and we are sent to witness to the unified Body of Christ…We are sent to stand in the middle of diversity and controversy, speaking God’s truth.  In the midst of complex immigration debates: “There is neither native born nor illegal immigrant.”  In a culture dramatically divided by income: “There is neither rich nor working class nor poor.”  In communities where sexual orientation is the most significant issue: “There is neither gay nor straight, there is only human.”  In a society still polarized by race relations: There are neither people of color nor people of no color.”  At election time: “There is neither Republican nor Democrat nor Independent.”  And, even now: “There is neither male nor female, for all are one in Christ!”  I wonder, how much like us does a person have to be in order to be a Christian?

What Paul is really saying here is that Christ alone matters…Jesus is our focus, our unity, our energy, our beginning and our end…He is truth, path, and illumination…He is the one from which nothing can tear us away – not even death.  In some ways, Paul’s letter to the Galatians manages to offend nearly everyone…Leave it to Paul; that’s what he does!  But what he wants us to do is to look beyond our offended self-absorption and see beyond US and into Jesus’ Gospel…The Gospel does not begin with US and it is about so much more than US…The Gospel is the story of a kingdom, here and now, where God is creating a new family that will find ways to live together in a new kind of fellowship where distinct individuals may be at home in their differences while living within the one family of God.  In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Amen