Sunday, June 20, 2010
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.
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.
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.
Thanks be to God!