Faithlife Sermons

Affirming the Particular

Summer 2019  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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The New Revised Standard Version The Purpose of the Law

23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

We went to the zoo this week. The zoo is an amazing place — especially through the eyes of a 4 year old.
I was struck by something as we left the zoo. All those particular animals are celebrate for the giraffes, penguins, bugs, snakes, pandas that they are. And together, they make a united statement about conservation and care for the creatures of God’s animal kingdom. It is a picture of a unity which celebrates diversity.
Perhaps the zoo is amazing through the eyes of a 36-year-old too.
Summer 2019 - Vignettes on the Letters to the Church
This summer, we’re going to take a dive into a couple of the letters to the church from the Apostle Paul, letters to the Galatians and the Colossians, which give us pictures of how the early church wrestled with their becoming a part of the family of God.
Galatians is a letter to an anxious church, a church uncertain of what tradition they belong to, what their priority is. Paul writes to the church in Gaul to remind them of the Great Tradition they belong to, the one that traces its roots back to Abraham and the promise of God to make the family of God like the stars in the sky and the sand upon the beach.
What does it mean for a non-Jewish audience to belong in the family of God? Isn’t religion just a bounded set of people, a cultural heritage or a social structure built upon ethnic or racial backgrounds?
So what does a church inherit, what does this new community belong to, what is their tether, if they are no longer bound by culture or ethnicity or the standard lines that we draw around ourselves?
We ask this question ourselves, in our own way — if we belong to one another here in the church, as we claim, what are we to do with all the other defining lines in our lives? How are we to truly be free? Are we really supposed to leave everything we are behind, Jew and Greek, Slave and Free, Male and Female, Gay and Straight, Black and Brown and White, Democrat and Republican, Washingtonian, Bellinghamster? Does freedom, does becoming unbound from the structures of law-orient, rigid religion look like just melting into some sort of biege, amorphous goo? When Christ calls us to lose our life, do we truly lose our life, what we are, what we know, what gives definition?
The answer we hear today is Yes. And the answer we affirm today is also...”it’s so much more beautiful and rich and expansive and nuanced and hopeful than a simple Yes”. There is more to this.
Passage Study
Let’s first look at this text. I love this particular nugget of Scripture and find myself repeating it frequently. This verse echoes back for me as I felt God’s call to pastor this church, to be sent here. To a church where we affirm the beautiful unity of God’s people — are church where there is the hope to be unbound from the chains of division. A church of welcome, where coming as you are is actually enough, actually affirmed. Where God’s people, no matter their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, their socio-economic status could belong and be loved — a church that, in my opinion, looks like how the church is meant to be.
Paul is helping these anxious folks in Galatia feel that beautiful release from the law — “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.”
When you’re learning a new game, what do you need? The rulebook. When you’re walking through an unfamiliar city, what do you hold in your hands? A map.
The law is, for the burgeoning church, a map, a guide — the rules of the road. Another way to think of it is that the law is a developmental appropriate tool to get the people where they need to go, to help them learn what it means to live in faith. But the law is never the end goal — it is how you get to the deeper part.
I don’t pull over to the side of the road every time I approach an intersection to remind myself of the rules of the road regarding right of way. I know the rules, I know how to yield and who’s turn it is. (Though, perhaps that’s what’s happening at the traditional “you-go-no-you-go-no-you-go” awkward 4-way stop interactions that we Pacific Northwesterners are so fond of — they’re uncertain of the rules!!)
But at their extreme, the rules, the laws divide us, they tell us who is in and who is out. And if you lean on the laws for too long, you get stuck at the intersection and things go haywire. We start fighting about who’s right and who’s wrong.
We need to take the step into faith and see the expansiveness that lives beyond the law.
And this is where Paul takes the church.
Now that faith has come, that learning beyond simple law following, we are clothed in Christ. Jesus the Christ didn’t need to constantly consult the rule book or constant make claims about how his racial make up was superior to another’s. He held all the complexity of life beyond the law. And the baptized are beginning to follow suit.
And here we get the “kicker verse” — as we are clothed in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Movement beyond the law leads us to a more unified place — where we recognize our common, shared humanity and connection with one another. So good, so beautiful, right? And not only do we find unity, but the final verse of today’s reading shows us what’s behind the curtain — “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” — if you’re in Christ, you do have a home, a tradition, a people who you can claim — you are one of the sands of the seaside, the stars of the sky! You are and you belong!
We can pause here. Actually, we could stop here. This is great news. Our divisions that shackle us are undone. We are unbound from the law, released from our anxiety, free in a united church together.
Maybe we should stop there.
But. Before we do, I want to talk about how dangerous this passage of Scripture can be, how misused it often is, and how careful we must be with it. And…maybe a little more good news.
Story about Lindsay
I used to have a co-worker that I struggled against with a sense of competitiveness. We worked alongside each other for about 6 years, in very close quarters, working in a dynamic environment where creativity and people skills were crucial to stewarding our organization’s vision and mission. As the church is meant to be “one, united” so we also were a community that expected unity of purpose. This was great, in many ways, but also created an environment where I felt like I was sometimes actually competing with my co-workers about who was more caring, more compassionate, more creative. It was like because we were on the same team, only one idea could be heard — the best idea, the most insightful plan, the most courageous offering.
So it created this dynamic where I felt like I was, at least on the inside, competing with this co-worker. She was so incredibly talented at the work we did, she was well-spoken (a trait I very much admire), she was well liked, seemed like she connected with everyone and strengthened our work day by day.
Inside of me, there was this model of a competitiveness because I understood this passage of Scripture to be one of diminishing our particular gifts in service of unity for the whole.
This perspective created tension with this co-worker. It created angst in me. And ultimately, we had to have some hard conversations. I got frustrated. She felt hurt. And I think we were both missing the point of what it meant to work on a team.
A team, a community, a church set free — it’s not a unified whole in the sense that everyone is the same. What I realized in working with this co-worker was that I needed to celebrate her gifts as different and particular from mine. For instance, she was incredibly gifted at training new leaders. She had gift for facilitating groups and inviting people’s gifts to shine. That was (and is) a particular gift that she has that I…to whatever degree I have it myself…I needed to step back and appreciate, watch, and celebrate. I, on the other hand have gifts around musical leadership…a gift that this co-worker, now becoming friend, was able to celebrate in me, to honor and lift up and champion.
Instead of competition, I learned with this person that God’s family can be one of participation. Non-competitive and mutually helping. Championing our particular gifts because they contribute to the whole. They’re not lost in the coming together in community, they’re actually celebrated.
Non-competitive, diversity in unity
Here is where I want to dive back into our text and caution us about how we can read this text.
Here’s one way, which is beautiful in part, but dangerous in how it can play out: There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. — there is no need for diversity because we are one in the family of God.
Let’s explore this line for a moment, because I worry it is a prevalent understanding of this text: There is no political affiliation. There is no race, no ethnicity, no cultural particularity. There is no gay or straight. There is no gender identity. So let go of those, they’re just labels. We’re all Christians now, so leave behind whether or not you’re a Yankees or Red Sox fan; whether you like pickles or not; whether you drive a Honda or a Ford. Leave it behind because we are one now.
See how this is beautiful? And see how this can be harmful? Let go of who God made you to be and melt into the one. Your race doesn’t matter. Your sexual orientation doesn’t matter. Your ideas don’t matter. Your voice doesn’t matter.
You may think I’m stretching here, but think about it? This is the way of fundamentalism, of totalitarianism. We are One. And a few steps down the road…you better not diverge from the one.
Ok, now that I’ve made you uncomfortable or stressed you out a little…let’s think about this a different way.
There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. There are no longer the binaries that we have put upon the world. There a no longer labels insomuch as labels put rigid boundaries upon the complexity of identity and personhood.
What might a non-competitive, affirming reading of this text look like?
How about this: We are one, we belong to one another, our deepest identification is in Christ and Christ alone.
AND, in this, instead of the lines and labels and definitions being rigid barriers that keep us from each other, our One-ness in Christ allows those defining characteristics become celebrated. Back to my co-worker, who, by the way, is the very gifted Lindsay Anderson, who is lectoring today and will be preaching here next week (she’s great!) — when I learned to celebrate her particular gifts, the One-ness of our work was strengthened. I no longer needed to be better than her, or diminish her light so that my light might shine brighter. Instead, I celebrate her particular gifts because they enhance what we are doing together.
Let’s bring this on home and think about the big picture.
We are heirs according to the promise — so we celebrate our shared inheritance by celebrating the myriad of ways that inheritance gets lived out. We celebrate the Jew and we celebrate the Greek. We celebrate the Male, the Female, the Non-Binary, the Transgendered. We celebrate the nuances of sexual identity, racial complexity, ethnicity and cultural heritage — all pieces of a whole and beautiful in their one, particular, rich singular wholeness as well.
Take a practical example: The former reading of this text would say, well “all lives matter.” Yup, sure, we can affirm that, as a part of the whole, we all matter. BUT/AND, in our refreshed, opened up, expansive reading of the text, we, all of us, can say “Black lives matter.” Not because as I white man my race is diminished. But because we celebrate and honor and lift up a particularly marginalized and diminished racial category, the black life. Not at the expense of others, but because in our unity we can lift up the ones in need of support.
Or another — it’s Pride month around the country and in July Bellingham has their Pride festival. We support this movement as a church. We don’t need a Straight Pride festival. Rather, as a united, loving body of Jesus Christ as this church, we lift up the particular and affirm it among our whole, so that the marginalized voices might know they are welcomed, they are loved, they are affirmed.
If there is something this text may be inviting us to let go of, to lay aside, perhaps it is privilege. The privileged ones say “we should be one and let go of diversity.” The marginalized have no voice. This text invites the privileged to yield, it invites the whole community to look for the voices that are silenced, it invites each of us to claim our belonging in the family of God and seek the flourishing of all people, in their particularity and diversity because it enhances and enriches our common life together.
Thanks be to God for a family, a community, a body of faith in which we can stumble our way toward this kind of welcome and belonging. Thanks be to God for the grace when we don’t get it quite right and the encouragement to keep moving along the road. Amen.
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