Sermon notes: All in the family

(Ben Franske photo; Wikipedia)

SERMON NOTES, PENTECOST IV (PROPER 7) Preached June 20, 2010 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/Ladue

There are few words in the New Testament more inspiring than these: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God in faith… 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.”

There are also few words more radical. In the highly stratified world of the First Century, Paul declares that none of those strata matter anymore when it comes to those who have been baptized into the faith.

Consider just some of the divisions in that time and place. It was a world of Jews and Gentiles, of Roman citizens and Roman subjects and barbarians who lived outside the Roman world, of men and women, of the enslaved and the free, of soldiers and civilians, of those with the power to take human lives on a whim and those whose rights were few.

All of these differences mattered very much indeed to those who lived with them. It was not a world with much in the way of upward mobility; one’s place and expectations in that world were important.

In the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul, writing to a group of churches that he founded, presents a carefully reasoned argument against another group of Christian missionaries. This second group preaches that all Christians must observe the Jewish Law: most drastically, that men must be circumcised, and that all the requirements of Torah must be obeyed by everyone.

Originally, of course, Paul and Peter butted heads on this very question. Peter and the rest of the Church in Jerusalem held that all converts to the Church must obey the Law. Paul said that non-Jewish converts were not bound by it, that the fact of Christ on the Cross made all people into Abraham’s heirs and God’s own acknowledged children.

The two sides held a big powwow in Jerusalem to thrash out the issue. The author of Acts says this resulted in an agreement that Paul would serve as the apostle to the Gentiles, and that those converts would be bound by only a few particular requirements of the Law.

Galatians gives us a hint that perhaps the meeting did not conclude with quite the big group hug portrayed in Acts. While Gentiles were excused, their circumcision was never prohibited. Other early groups of pagan converts to Christianity did accept circumcision; the ancient Coptic church in Egypt still practices it. And now we see that some members of the circumcision party were actively trespassing on Paul’s turf well after the meeting in Jerusalem.

Worse, some of Paul’s converts listened to them, a fact which seems to annoy him as much as the missionaries who are working his territory. And so he sets out his views in a tightly reasoned letter that provides some invaluable documentation as regards both Paul’s theology and the early Church itself.

In the striking words “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,” scholars agree that Paul is quoting an early baptismal formula. Where they don’t agree is in just what he means by it.

In researching this passage, I found two basic tendencies among the theologically opinionated.

In the first, conservative commentaries from various times and traditions ignored the broader implications of this passage. They interpret it to say that women and slaves, if not Gentiles – they seem to think that Paul has left his Judaism behind – would be equal when they reached heaven, but not one minute before.

Otherwise, they were simply and actively hostile to the “female” part of the equation.

Liberal commenters, on the other hand, tend to seize on the passage and rip it out of context to support the full, complete equality of women in every aspect of public, private, and liturgical life. (That would be my own personal tendency.)

And make no mistake: Women, and the proper role and status of women, were the primary focus for both groups.

So what is Paul saying?

Well, he’s not saying that who we are in the world doesn’t matter. Paul remains an observant Jew, and proud of it. He uses the invaluable special privileges of his Roman citizenship – like having platinum status on multiple airlines – to get around his many enemies, and their designs on his life and freedom. That citizenship ultimately gains him a relatively comfortable martyrdom by beheading, rather than having to suffer the horror of crucifixion – the fate of his old foe Peter.

He is also not saying that Gentiles and slaves and women will have pie in the sky by and by. Paul is clearly speaking of his particular here-and-now when he says that all are one in Christ Jesus.

Pamela Eisenbaum, a Jewish New Testament scholar who teaches at a Methodist seminary, takes an interesting – and, I think, valid – middle way in looking at Paul: She thinks he’s talking about family.

The passage concludes, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Back in the Book of Genesis, God told Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. By Paul’s time, Abraham is known strictly as the Jewish patriarch, but God’s promise still holds. By becoming God’s children through faith, the Gentiles also become part of Abraham’s extended family.

Think about the family gatherings you have known. Families squabble, it is true, but they also find a place at the table for every member. Families learn to tolerate one another’s idiosyncrasies; families appreciate one another’s strengths, and excuse each other’s shortcomings. Ideally, families are about acceptance, because they have a background of mutual understanding and love.

Seen in that way, all who are reborn into God’s family through baptism are equal and accepted. There is no Jew or Greek, male or female, black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, among those baptized into Christ Jesus. All are a beloved part of the family.

This does not mean that the world will not continue to observe, or even to insist upon, those distinctions. It does remind us of how closely we’re related even when we’re away from the table in the world outside. It does challenge us to defend our brothers and sisters in Christ – for although families sometimes fight ferociously, they properly close ranks when there’s a threat to one of the members.

From time to time, people try to take chairs away from the table, and move them into the kitchen, or out into the yard, or worse. We need to remember that we are family, God’s family, by virtue of our baptism in Christ Jesus. Instead of shrinking the table, all of us need to find ways to live together. Instead of dwelling on our disagreements, we can remember the abiding, overriding love that binds us together.

Lord, help us to recognize our sisters and brothers in the faith, to recognize you in them, and to love one another through our disagreements. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

- Sarah Bryan Miller

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