Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7C] - June 20, 2010 (Galatians 3:23-29)

Only very rarely does my wife like to dress our two young daughters in matching outfits when they go out in public. Because they are separated in age by only eighteen months—and because they both have the same hair and eye color—they are often mistaken as twins. I suppose she thinks that they already have so many things in common that at least what they're wearing might help with differentiating the two, or might develop their sense of individuality. I know, however, that there will likely be a time in their life where they won’t be caught dead wearing the same clothes together. In their youth it might be cute and adorable, but when it comes time to choose that first ball gown or prom dress, I can imagine considerable effort will be made to put on something very different from each other. One must only glance out at our own congregation this morning to learn that, if given our preferences, we will always choose to wear something different from everyone else. Even the stereotypical Fathers Day necktie gift is selected with an eye to make dad stand out in some way.

But what if everyone were to wear the same thing? What if we did pull ourselves out of bed each Sunday morning, stuff down a bite of breakfast, and arrive for worship to find that someone had put us all in matching outfits? Well, as it turns out, the apostle Paul said that’s precisely what has happened. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ,” he says in his letter to the Galatians, “have clothed yourselves with Christ.” As it turns out, our baptisms have clad us each in an identical garment, a pure, resplendent one that sets us apart not from each other, but from the world.

At one part in his letter to the church in Galatia, when he is trying to explain how they are to regard each other, Paul reaches for this metaphor of clothing. The point is that Christ’s death and resurrection has formed a new creation in which many former distinctions are no longer ultimately valid, where people view each other simply as another sinner for whom Christ died and rose again. “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, no longer slave nor free, no longer male and female,” Paul continues, elaborating his point. These individual ethnic, social or gender distinctions that would normally be divisive no longer set the believers apart because Christ has united them in his death. When we pass the waters of Christ’s death and resurrection, we essentially receive a uniform, of sorts, matching outfits which enable us to cover over any distinction the world may place on us and instead take on his characteristics of faithfulness and love. That’s what we wear. It’s the inspiration for the utterly un-fashionable robes that we worship leaders wear. It’s also speaks to the white robes that all people traditionally wore right after their baptism, like the one that two confirmands helped Greg Parker step into a few weeks ago immediately following his baptism.

This point Paul is making is radical. He lived in a world that was no less prone than ours to find stability in labeling people and sticking them into different boxes. To proclaim that Christ had effectively done away with those distinctions and put everyone on the same level with everyone else not just in God’s eyes but in each other’s eyes, as well, was earth-shattering. It was life-giving, of course, but also earth-shattering. In fact, the church in Galatia had found it a little too earth-shattering, and they had begun to retain some of those earlier distinctions within their membership.

Apparently what happened is that after Paul had brought them the gospel and helped to set up their congregations, some other missionaries came after him who convinced the Galatians that in order to be a real follower of Christ, all men needed to submit to a certain Jewish practice, the one where they receive a certain little snip. It was a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, obedience to the law.

When Paul gets word that the Galatians were doing this, it sends him into orbit.  He is furious. Nothing, he reiterates, can add or detract from the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. No law, no practice, no custom, was useful in establishing their relationship with God. Christ alone had accomplished that for them. Jesus had brought about this new creation of righteousness based on faith, and the church is charged with living out that new reality, much like a group of people who have all received the same new clothes to wear. Making people submit to any aspect of the law and its requirements only served to break apart that community by setting up distinctions. “All of you are one in Christ Jesus,” Paul says at the homiletical climax of his letter to the Galatians. “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Done deal.

Written two-thousand years ago to a group of smallish congregations in Asia Minor that may not even exist anymore, Paul’s words about the gospel are no less radical and no less hard to live today. That is because the new community that the gospel creates is no less radical today. The gospel does not seek to create a homogeneous community, where everyone is a mindless clone of everyone else, but it does create a community where Christ’s faithfulness alone binds us together. It strives to be a place where no one labels another or creates the atmosphere where one group seems more “saved” than another. Any distinction that we bear due to ethnic group or language group or nationality or socio-economic class or even gender does not ultimately matter in our faith. The church now may not be guilty of the particular problem that the Galatian congregation had—and we can thank heaven for that!—but we still fall short of the vision that Paul puts forth.

The congregation I served on my internship was partly made up of two ethnic Sudanese refugee congregations who had been bitter rivals in their former southern Sudanese homeland. Even though they were both Christian tribes, they remained mutually suspicious and distrustful of each other in Cairo. We found they had brought their old divisions with them into our congregation. They regarded each other as different tribes. Eventually my supervisor had caught on to their conflict, especially when it came time for them to divide the offerings and Christian aid packages among the members of their respective congregations. They were unable to do it without accusing the other congregation of malpractice. So, my supervisor withheld their authority to divide the offerings themselves until they each agreed to worship together once a month with Holy Communion. Within only a couple of months, something amazing happened. They began to regard each other as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, recognizing each other not mainly as Dinka or Nuer, but as a community which had received the extraordinary gift of faith. Pretty soon, they not only took on the authority of dividing the offerings, but even started planning other events together.

That is perhaps too easy example to get our heads around—pointing out the mistakes of others—but what about the different tribal and affiliations that affect us here in the United States, or even within our denomination? There are many ways in which we still have a hard time realizing we all wear Christ. I think that keeping this in mind is highly important, for example, in the current debate our denomination is having about issues of human sexuality and the definition of marriage. Without realizing it, we can use terms and language that immediately set up unhelpful distinctions within the body. When one group, for example, repeatedly describes themselves as “progressive” or “reconciling” Christians on this issue, they immediately set up a pejorative distinction, leaving others who don’t agree with them feeling as though they are backward or reactionary. As my colleague Pastor Price has noted, when still others set themselves forth as “orthodox” Lutherans, they imply that others who don’t agree with them are heterodox; that is, outside the Christian family. The disagreements that congregations and denominations are having are indeed important, and thoughtful dialogue is vital, but a community of the new creation in Christ should not, as Paul notes, use language and create distinctions that denigrate or belittle a brother or sister who has put on the same baptismal outfit as everyone else.

On the other hand, another pitfall the church must avoid, is in thinking that the church should merely look and feel like an episode of Glee, the new hit series on Fox which follows the triumphs and tragedies of a hapless show choir in a high school in Ohio. For those who haven’t seen an episode yet, the show choir in Glee contains a member of just about every racial, social, and gender group or clique that you can think of in the American high school. There are cheerleaders, jocks, nerds, a guy in a wheelchair, a couple of Asians, an African-American, a homosexual, a townie, and a prep. Part of the reason why I think the show is such a phenomenon is because it does embody and project onto the small screen all the images of a new community based on a Hollywood’s idea of diversity, a world where social and racial and gender distinction don’t seem to matter. As the show choir rallies around the common goal to perform musical pieces with creative gusto, they learn to appreciate one another’s differences.

The community created by the show choir’s director is an inspiring one. They are a new group that somehow manages to eke out a name for themselves by being an intentional hodge-podge of outcasts and misfits, and they genuinely learn to “get along.” But where the community in Glee falls short of the new creation in Christ, by contrast, is that it is still a community based on each member’s trumpeting what they perceive as their own individual identity—and the rest of the members just have to make space for it. In short, they haven’t “put on” any meaningful unifying characteristic. For all the choir director’s efforts, no one has made the choir members truly one: they are members simply because they want to be, and their individual distinctions still seem to matter.

That, in short, is where all human community devoid of Christ falls short, and a church that continues to seeks to lift up such differences as hallmarks of diversity is still missing the point. We can not truly be made one by any other person than Jesus Christ, and the only new creation worth living is the one where we learn to regard each other not as loveable or worthwhile in our own right, but loveable and worthwhile purely because Jesus Christ has died for us. We are loveable and worthwhile, and we learn to live together, because Christ is our ultimate common ground. And our unity is based not in our ability to overcome our obstacles, but in Christ’s victory over even the greatest obstacle. Said another way, if we preach the gospel of Christ, all diversity will take care of itself.

As many of us who have been baptized into Christ, have clothed ourselves in that awesome reality. I don’t know if you’re as happy with this new garment as I am. To be honest, it doesn’t always fit like I know it should, but wearing it with you here on a regular basis is helping to take it in where it’s loose and let it out where it’s a little tight. I can’t help but notice the first thing Luke says about the man from Gerasene who is miraculously cured of his demons: he is found “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind.” That’s us, clothed and in our right mind—when we’re sitting at the foot of the one who has made us one. I’m quite glad we’ve got these new clothes, because in a world that is increasingly fragmented and apt to live by labels, to break us apart into little isolating islands of personal preference, I’m pretty confident that Jesus Christ and his wonderful garment of unity is the only thing out there that can pull us together.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.