Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sermon for June 6th: Galatians

One People of Christ

In 1994, as many of you will remember, the African country of Rwanda was the scene of one of the most horrific genocides in human history. Ethnically, Rwanda is divided between Hutus and Tutsis, and the bad feeling between the two groups ran deep, with many grievances on both sides and a long history of violence between them. The two groups were fairly easily identified as well; one was usually characterized by lighter skin pigmentation that the other, and government-issued identity cards identified people as either Hutu or Tutsi.

The flash point for the genocide was the assassination of the Rwandan president, a Hutu, on April 6th 1994. Within a few days the Hutu-dominated military and government had begun a carefully orchestrated program of killing which led eventually to the deaths of approximately eight hundred thousand Tutsis and moderate Hutus – those Hutus, that is, who were in favour of finding a peaceful solution to the long-standing conflict. Most of the victims were killed in their own villages and towns, often by their neighbours and fellow-villagers. Militia members most commonly murdered their victims by hacking them to death with machetes, although some army units used rifles to do their killing. The victims were often found hiding in churches and schools, where Hutu gangs massacred them. Ordinary citizens were called on by local officials and government-sponsored radio to kill their neighbours, and those who refused to do so were often killed themselves.

All of this is horrific enough, but for the Christian church there is an even more horrible side to this. Rwanda was the most evangelized nation in Africa; over 90% of the population claimed to be Christian, and over 65% were Roman Catholic. Christian teaching includes a strong call for forgiveness and reconciliation, but apparently this was not heeded by the Christians of Rwanda. It is documented that church leaders, including priests and bishops, participated in the killings and encouraged others to do the same. Apparently, to these people, their loyalty to their own ethnic group was more fundamental to them than their loyalty to Jesus Christ.

It’s all too easy for us to point fingers at the Rwandan genocide, but of course honesty will force us to admit that there have been many times in history, especially European history, when ostensibly Christian nations have fought each other. Followers of Jesus Christ have put on the uniforms of their country, picked up rifles and killed other followers of Jesus Christ who happened to be wearing the uniform of another country. Once again, our loyalty to our own nation has been more fundamental to us than our loyalty to Jesus Christ and to his people.

Why am I mentioning this in a sermon today? Because over the next few weeks in our Sunday lectionary we are going to be reading Paul’s fiery letter to the Galatians, and this issue of fundamental loyalty is right at the heart of the message of this letter. To put it in simplistic terms, the issue in Galatians is this: is Christianity essentially Jewish, so that in order to be a good Christian you also had to become a Jew, or is it something bigger than Judaism, with bigger identity markers than the Jewish food laws and Sabbath observance and circumcision? Was God’s intention in Jesus basically to reform Judaism, or was he doing something new, something bigger, reaching out to a multi-national and multi-ethnic community in which all would be united by their common faith in Jesus Christ, even if there were many other ways in which they were different?

Let me give you a bit of background. In the first century AD Jewish people had scattered all over the Mediterranean world; in many cities there were Jewish communities and Jewish synagogues, and while they participated fully in the economic and social life of the cities in which they lived, they also clung fiercely to their Jewish faith and identity. They were strongly committed to worshipping one true God, the creator of heaven and earth, and the Roman government had even given them an exemption from military service so that they did not have to participate in the idolatry that was an integral part of army life. They were meticulous in observing the law of Moses, and particularly the three practices that marked them out visibly from their Gentile neighbours: circumcision, the food laws, and keeping the Jewish calendar, especially the Sabbath. These boundary markers, in their view, were how you could pick out the true people of God; they were like the identity cards that the Hutus and Tutsis carried in Rwanda.

Of course, the first Christians were all Jewish, and they believed that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the one God had promised to send to set them free. But Jesus had commanded his disciples not only to preach the gospel to the Jewish people, but to go to all nations and make them his disciples. So right from the very beginning, there was at least a theoretical commitment in Jewish Christianity to go beyond the ethnic boundaries of Israel and create a multinational and multicultural community, the new people of God, gathered around Jesus, God’s anointed king.

What would that community look like? Godly Jews were forbidden from associating with Gentiles and especially eating with them, because they didn’t keep kosher, and so the Jews would be made ritually unclean by their contact with them. But the early Christian missionaries were guided by the Holy Spirit to ignore this. Peter was the first one to take the gospel message to the Gentile soldier Cornelius, and he happily stayed in his house and shared in his meals. And when Paul began to travel across the Mediterranean world, he taught people that it was not circumcision and keeping the ritual laws of Judaism that counted, but rather putting your faith in Jesus Christ, receiving the Holy Spirit, and living a life of love. And you lived this life, he said, not by gritting your teeth and trying to keep a written code of laws, but rather by walking in the Holy Spirit and letting the Spirit transform you into the likeness of Christ.

But the reality was that there were two solitudes in early Christianity. In Israel there were many thousands of followers of Jesus who continued to be resolutely committed to obeying the Jewish law. They were faithful Christians who had put their trust in Jesus, but they also read the Old Testament and saw that after Abraham put his faith in God he was required to be circumcised as well. So they continued to practice circumcision, abstained from all work on the Sabbath day, and kept kosher kitchens. But beyond the borders of Israel there was a second, fast-growing community of Gentile Christians who had relativised the Jewish law, seeing faith, baptism and obedience to Christ as the essentials of Christianity instead.

Apparently it all came to a head in the city of Antioch, where Jewish and Gentile Christians lived together in harmony. As far as we can tell, in those days the central act of Christian worship was a common meal. Nowadays our Eucharist is a formal service with a tiny piece of bread and sip of wine, but in the early church the Eucharist seems to have been a lot more like a pot luck supper with prayers and readings added. And the common meal was of course a sign of the unity of the Christian community; it was unthinkable to Paul and some of the other leaders that there would be two separate community meals for Jews and Gentiles, one kosher and the other not.

It seems as if Peter had come down to visit the Christians in Antioch, seen what they were doing, and happily participated in it. But then some other Jewish Christians came down from Jerusalem, and they weren’t happy with what they saw. To them, God had commanded in the scriptures that we be circumcised and keep kosher. These Gentiles hadn’t been given the full message. Yes, faith and baptism were the beginning, but now they needed to be circumcised, keep the Sabbaths and the food laws and all the six hundred or so commands in the Torah. And if Paul suggested otherwise, then he was a dangerous liberal revisionist who was putting people’s eternal salvation in jeopardy!

This is the situation in which Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians. Let’s be clear: this is not a gentle letter! Paul felt very strongly that Christ had called him and commissioned him, and sent him to the Gentiles with this gospel of freedom. He felt that he was being attacked, and his children in the faith were being misled. So in this letter he argues and rages and exaggerates and twists scripture verses to make his point, all to preserve what he calls ‘the truth of the gospel’ (2:5). We should not read this as a carefully written sermon by a tactful preacher who has pondered for weeks before putting pen to paper. This is more like the inflammatory posts you read on political blogs, complete with insults; at one point in the letter Paul even says, ‘I wish that those who want you to be circumcised would go all the way and castrate themselves!’

So there might be elements of this letter that we find distasteful and obscure, but let’s not be in any doubt as to how important it is. This letter is a charter for Christian freedom and Christian unity. And there are some fundamental Christian truths that this letter sets out which are absolutely essential to us today. Let me quickly list them for you.

First of all, the gospel of Jesus Christ is not primarily about human effort but God’s grace – God’s love, that is, that we don’t need to earn, because it comes to us in Jesus as a free gift. To put keeping the law at the centre of the Christian life is to make it all about human effort, and that’s just a way of puffing us up and making us conceited about how holy we are. Even more than that, it divides the Christian community between the successes and the failures: the ones who are sure of their own goodness and look down on everyone else, and the ones who know they’ve failed and are just waiting for their eviction notice. But this is not the Christian gospel. The Christian gospel tells us that we are all sinners, but that God reaches out to sinners and welcomes them home in Jesus. And when we put our faith in Jesus and are baptized, we are accepted into the family of God, not on the basis of any human effort, but on the basis of the love of God in Jesus. And so Paul says, ‘We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ’ (2:15).

Second, the Jewish law found in the Old Testament is therefore relativised for Christians, whether they are Gentiles or Jews. Paul uses an illustration to explain this to the Galatians. The Old Testament law, he said, was like a guardian or custodian over us before we came of age. When a person is growing up under the rule of a guardian or custodian, they have to do all that person tells them to do until the day when they reach the age of majority. But when they come of age, they are no longer subject to the rule of the guardian or custodian. It’s not that the rule of the guardian was wrong; in fact, we hope that the young person has internalized the best of their instructions so that they continue to live in the spirit of what they were taught. But looking back to the days when they were strictly supervised by their guardian is also wrong; they need to look forward instead to the new era where they can use their freedom responsibly and make wise choices about the way they are going to live from now on.

And so Paul says that a new thing has now entered the experience of Christians: the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is filling us, and he will guide us into the way of Jesus. But this way will not be so much about obeying ritual laws as it will be about growing in Christlike character. Paul sums this up in chapter five where he gives us two lists: works of the old sinful nature, which he calls ‘the flesh’, and the fruit of the Spirit. The works of the flesh, he says, include ‘fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these’ (5:19-21). But the fruit of the Spirit is ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (5:22-23).

So the way of grace and faith emphatically does not mean that we Christians are free to live as we like, sinning happily in the knowledge that God will always forgive us! No, if we are true Christians then the Holy Spirit will be working in our lives, transforming us so that we become like Jesus. But this will not be about obedience to ritual laws and boundary markers; it will be about growing in Christlike character. As Paul says in 5:6: ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love’.

And the Christlike character the Spirit produces in us includes reaching across boundaries of race, gender, and economic circumstances to produce a community united on the basis of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Paul spells this out in one of the best-known passages in this book when he says:

‘…in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with 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’ (3:26-28).

And having been made one in Christ Jesus, how can we divide ourselves up again on the basis of lesser things? How can Gentiles split from Jews and eat separately? How can masters sit by themselves in church and keep separate from slaves? How can rich Christians hoard the wealth of the world and ignore the millions of brothers and sisters in Christ who live in abject poverty? How can Hutus and Tutsis who claim to be Christians go on to murder each other? How can German Christians kill British Christians, and vice versa?

You see, this letter to the Galatians is a fiery charter for Christian freedom and Christian unity. It sets out clearly for us God’s vision of a new community gathered around Jesus Christ, characterized by faith in him and love for one another. It tells us that our fundamental identity is not that we are Jews or Gentiles, or old or young, or conservative or liberal, or catholic or protestant, or Hutus or Tutsis, or French or English, or Canadian or American or Iraqi or Afghan or anything else. To make those things our fundamental identity is to worship false gods and put something else in place of the one true God and his Son Jesus Christ. And Paul will have none of this; to him, these lesser things are unimportant, and taking pride in them is a snare. Rather, he says, ‘May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. For neither circumcision or uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!’ (6:14-15).

So as we read Galatians over the next few weeks, let’s think about that new creation. Let’s not get stuck in the past, where differences of race or nationality or economic circumstance divide us; rather, let’s come together as the reconciled people of God. We have all been accepted by God on the basis of his love for us in Christ; we have all been baptized into the family of God as children of God, and we have all been given the gift of the Holy Spirit to transform us into the likeness of Christ. So what matters any more is not our differences, but what unites us: faith in Christ and love for others. To live by those things is to walk in the way of Christ. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will help us to do this.

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