Our sermon Scripture comes from the Apostle Paul letter to the Galatians.
In this letter, Paul is dealing with the question of whether the Gentiles, who were non-Jews, must become Jewish through the keeping of Jewish laws before they can become Christians and be accepted into the church.
Paul’s purpose for writing this letter is to respond to a group of extremists in the Galatian church. This extreme group were strong-willed Jews who had become Christian believers. They are trying to tell the new converts that they cannot consider themselves ‘Abraham’s descendants;’ simply because they believe in Jesus. In these verses Paul makes it clear that all who are baptized into Christ are ‘clothed in Christ.’ There is no ‘Other’ in God’s kingdom, only ‘All.’ How quickly we forget this insight in our daily interactions. We continue to live in a world where we assign names and labels to different groups of people and identify who we think is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’
Before faith came, we were guarded under the Law, locked up until faith that was coming would be revealed, so that the Law became our custodian until Christ so that we might be made righteous by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian. You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Now if you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:23-29
How many of you were ever on the debate team in school? How many of you saw the 2007 movie “The Great Debaters?” Just as a bit of trivia…that movie is based on the true story of the debate team at Wiley College in Marshall, TX, which is one of our United Methodist Colleges supported by a portion of our Connectional giving that goes to the Black College Fund.
There are unique skills of persuasion and convincing that are learned in debate. To debate literally means “to batter.” Not exactly a spiritual gift.
Now, don’t misunderstand me; I’m not knocking debate teams. But, debate is all about winning and losing; insisting on the absolute truth of one’s own position and then trying to change other people’s minds to that position…that is the nature of debate.
Debate is not open to the possibility that one might not have the full truth, or that there may be another right answer or a better way to proceed.
The Galatian church to which the Apostle Paul is writing was embroiled in a controversial debate, and Paul tackles that debate head-on. He sends shock waves through the Galatian Christian community when he writes that the waters of baptism have washed away differences and clothed us all in one garment in Christ Jesus.
Of course the literal distinctions did not disappear…there were still male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek; but through baptism into Christ all have the same family inheritance.
Near the end of our passage, Paul’s cry is really the heart of the entire letter when he says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
When we really think about that statement, it is proclaiming that the good news of Scripture…the Gospel news, is that the world does not include only us and people like us.
The reconciling portion of our church mission statement says, “We embrace every person as a full participant in our church family, including people of all ages, nations, races, abilities, sexual orientations, and gender identities.”
I know that much work went into developing this reconciling statement for our church a few years ago. I don’t know what Scripture might have guided that process, but it sounds like it could have been from the Letter to the Galatians.
In other writings of the Apostle Paul, he says that Christ alone matters…that Christ is our unity, our focus, our example, our beginning and our ending; and from which nothing can take us away or separate us from God.
Yet, so often like the people Paul is addressing in the first century, we today have the tendency to resort to rules rather than grace. The Apostle Paul is saying that grace has that overwhelming ability to equalize us.
Last week at our Annual Conference, I took the lunch hour one day and went to a nearby park. I was in an area of the park that had a few picnic tables and park benches; it also had a simple backstop and a baseball diamond worn into the grass.
I was reading a book at one of the picnic tables when four boys, probably seven or eight years old showed up with a bat, a ball and a few gloves. They stood by the backstop for several minutes and then came over to the picnic table where I was sitting.
One of the boys said, “Can you pitch a baseball?” Before I could answer, he said, “We’ve been waiting for our pitcher, but he’s not here yet; none of us wants to pitch, we want to hit; can you pitch?”
I don’t know if the young boy noticed that I was quite a bit older than the other players or that I was in a skirt and sandals…the distinctions didn’t seem to matter.
I felt so good to be asked to play that I said I’d give it a try. I took my place on the mound, sent one practice pitch into home plate when the real pitcher came running down the street to the park. Even after the pitcher got there, they invited me to stay and play, but I told them I’d better be heading back to the conference.
As I went back into the business of the conference, I held with me the grace extended by that group of young boys…grace that equalized us rather than separated us.
Now, while that is a fairly simple example, I kept thinking, why is it that we want to make the good news of Scripture so hard? Why is it so difficult to give and receive grace?
We work hard in and outside the church to set one group apart from another, don’t we?
The Apostle Paul recognized that the law separated the Jews from the Gentiles. Paul was convinced that in order for Jews and Gentiles to come together at a common table, the matter of the law needed to be resolved once and for all.
Who’s in and who’s out was a critical question for the church in the first century and it still is today. When Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” he has listed some of the most profound distinctions that could be made between people of his day.
Distinctions between Jews, Greeks, males, females, slaves and free, were some of the deepest ways people exhibited power or injustice over others. Paul comes back to this separation by difference again and again.
We could probably keep adding to Paul’s list…In Christ there is no rich or poor, black or white or Hispanic, gay or straight, conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, Catholic or Protestant, hard working or lazy; and on and on.
The point Paul is making is that by our baptism in Christ, we experience an equality that removes distinctions and makes us equally accepted. While we may disagree with someone’s understanding of the nature of God, or disagree with their lifestyle or their politics, is it our job to determine who’s in and who’s out? Are we the guardian of the gate, or the keeper of the truth? Do they have to pass our litmus test before we’ll let them in?
The question gets down to this: What is it that makes us a Child of God? Is it believing the right things? Saying the right things? Or is it something else?
Paul writes to the people and he says to them that “You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus.” You are a Child of God; not because you believe or say the right things but because you belong to God.
It’s about belonging and it is probably safe to say that all of us, in our heart of hearts; in the deepest places of our soul, we want above all, to belong.
When I was doing my seminary internship at a large church in Evanston, IL, one part of my ministry there was to follow up with visitors after each Sunday.
There was one woman who was homebound and who had never been in the church, but she listened to the church service broadcast on the radio each Sunday. One Monday morning, she called the church and said that she wanted to join the church. So I went out to visit her in her home and we had a delightful visit and then she asked if she could join the church without being able to come to the church?
I said “sure,” and then asked her the questions we ask everyone who joins the church—Do you reaffirm the vows that you made or were made on your behalf at your baptism? And will you be faithful to this church and support it with your prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness? With tears in her eyes, she said, “Yes.”
When I was getting ready to leave I said, “I just want to ask you a question. I’m so glad you are now part of our church; we’re thrilled to have you as a member, but why join? I mean you listen to us every week on the radio, you support us financially, you receive the newsletter and other mailings…what difference does it make to have joined the church?”
I’ll never forget what she said. “Oh, you’re right,” she said. “All I can do is listen to church on the radio. But next week when I listen, I will not be listening to a church; I will be listening to my church. And knowing that I belong makes all the difference in the world.”
We want to belong. We were created with the need to belong. And Paul says to us that in Christ we are all children of God through faith; and if we belong to Christ, then we are heirs according to God’s promise.
Some of us have been on our faith journeys as Christians for as long as we can remember. Some may be new to the faith. Some have been part of this faith community for as long as you can remember. Others have just recently joined the church or will be joining in the coming weeks.
But none of us has anything over the other. We all belong. None of us, because of our years in the church, or because of our gender, or race, or sexuality, or income, or physical or mental capabilities, have a larger claim on the love of God. What we all have is our belonging to God.
We belong, not on the basis of who we are or what we have done, but on the basis of God’s embrace of us. As Jesus said on one occasion to his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”
We all want and need a sense of belonging and community and connection that gives life meaning and integrity.
What would the church as the body of Christ look like or be like if we took our need for belonging seriously; and if we made a commitment to set distinctions aside and help one another belong?
These are questions we need to continue to think about and talk about. They are questions that when lived out in community, model for the world a more excellent way.
They are questions that remind us that the great mystery of our Christian faith and the great good news of the Gospel is that by God’s grace we are all children of God and we all belong.
This is the Good News of God this day.
Thanks be to God.