Tuesday, June 11, 2019
Sunday, May 26, 2019
5-26-19 “Grace That Bears Fruit”
I want to be the first, and I’m pretty sure I will be, but let me be the very first to wish you all a very Merry Christmas! Because if you look at the calendar, Christmas is now less than seven months away! And even more, those Christmas in July sales are literally just around the corner!
I know you think I’m kidding with you - and maybe I am just a little bit - and I know I touched on this concept no so long ago, but think about what seasons we’re in right now. It’s still Spring, right? Summer doesn’t officially begin until June, but we often say that Memorial Day Weekend - which for this Indiana-born boy means the Indianapolis 500 - kicks off the Summer Season.
Baseball is in full swing, as is golf - the Memorial Tournament is next week (which means it will rain) - but basketball and hockey, both of which began in October are still going and won’t conclude until some time next month. NFL players are in camp right now, getting ready to begin in August. In the winter they talk about people being depressed because of what is called Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD, from the reduced amount of daylight. But right now, I’m kind of in Seasonal Overload Disorder, SOD, because it seems like everything is happening all at once.
And in the United Methodist Church it’s also appointment season, as we well know. The week after next is Annual Conference, so Bob and I will be heading up to Lakeside for most of the week. The big item on the agenda this year is voting for delegates to send to General Conference and Judicial Conference in 2020. And I’m sure THAT will go smoothly - in a “Kum Bah Yah” atmosphere of love and cooperation between Traditionalists, Centrists, and Progressives!
And then Annual Conference will end, as it always does, with what’s called the Fixing of the Appointments. Here it is announced and read into the Conference Journal, all of the clergy appointment changes within the Conference. During this time, each of the District Superintendents take the stage, along with the Bishop, and read aloud the names of those clergy who are being reappointed and to where, and then those clergy come forward and are given an Episcopal letter from the DS and the Bishop, encouraging them as they go into this next season of ministry. And that’s when the final work of transitioning begins in earnest. And for those of you who are wondering, Kim Brown will announce at the end of worship about who is being appointed to Crossroads.
But until then, stick with me, okay?
So feeding into this Seasonal Overload Disorder, is our liturgical calendar within the church. Our opening hymn today was an Eastertide hymn. Eastertide, the period in the church following Easter and leading to Pentecost is the time during which we remember the work and teachings of the risen Christ after he ascended into heaven and before the people received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We often confuse, conflate, or compare the season of Lent, which precedes Easter, with the season of Advent that precedes Christmas, believing that once the “big day” has arrived the season is over, which is actually incorrect in both cases. The Christmas season in the church doesn’t begin until Christmas Day and lasts 12 days until Epiphany. The Easter season in the church begins on Easter Sunday and continues for 50 days until Pentecost, which conveniently, means “50 days.” So all throughout Eastertide we are encouraged to remember and celebrate the resurrection of Christ even as we move toward Pentecost.
In fact, as Fr. Richard Rohr shares, it was Easter and not Christmas that was the big celebration, the big deal for the first twelve centuries of Christianity. Speaking of the followers of St. Francis of Assisi, he writes,
“It was the Franciscans who popularized (and sentimentalized) Christmas. For Francis, if the Incarnation was true, then Easter took care of itself. He taught us to celebrate Jesus’ birth and probably created the custom of the creche or nativity scene…Incarnation was already redemption for him. Once God became a human being, then nothing human or worldly was abhorrent to God. The problem of distance or separation was resolved forever.”
So, he suggests, once God chose to reveal God’s self in flesh in the human Jesus - that is, through Incarnation - once God became human, it was game over. Rohr continues,
“Resurrection is incarnation coming to its logical conclusion. If God is already in everything, then everything is from glory and unto glory. We’re all saved by mercy, without exception. We’re all saved by grace, so there’s no point in distinguishing degrees of worthiness because God alone is good, and everything else participates in that one, universal goodness to varying degrees. There is no absolute dividing line between worthy and unworthy people in the eyes of God, because all of our worthiness is merely participation in God’s.”
Thought of another way, whatever worthiness we have comes not from our works - that is, our service, our belief, our adherence to custom, rule, or law - but it comes from and through God’s freely given grace.
And it’s because this is how we are redeemed, how we are saved - through the grace of God and not through the Law - that Paul is so upset about what these false teachers are telling the people of Galatia and what compelled him to write this letter in response.
So this week we move to chapter five, a critical chapter in the overall message of Galatians. Here Paul reiterates what he has said up to this point and then pushes forward to the inescapable implications of what the gospel accomplishes for us and in us. The chapter begins with Paul’s words that “Christ has set us free for freedom.” And it’s fitting that we talk about freedom on Memorial Day weekend, when we remember those who have fought and died for our country and to preserve our freedoms. And we can think about or understand freedom in different ways. In only days or weeks kids will be out of school for the summer season and in many cases, experience the freedom from responsibility that comes with being a child - a feeling of being carefree, peddling bikes to the playground or to the pool. Others might think of freedom as a choice to live our life however we choose, unburdened by religious morality or authority figures, or even by the constraints of our civil laws. This portrays freedom as a license to do as we please. And then, of course, there is also the liberty to choose among candidates for political office, some of whom might inspire hope in you while others instill fear, so there is a freedom to establish how we are governed. All of these are ways we often think of freedom in the world, and there are likely more.
But we should be clear, the freedom Paul is talking about as “Christian freedom,” is freedom from adherence to, or what he calls slavery to, the Law.
This understanding of liberty is not the same as other conceptions of freedom. Paul provides some qualifications of what Christian freedom is and is not.
Christian freedom is not freedom, he says, for self-indulgence (v. 13), and he goes on to provide a litany of things that we are not free to do as Christians.
A pastor I had as a youth once told me that we could “love God and do as we please.” That seemed like freedom as license to the thirteen-year-old me, until I realized that if I truly loved God there are things that I should not do.
Christian freedom is not freedom to take advantage of my neighbor (v. 15). In fact, Paul tells us that the whole of the Law is wrapped up in the command that we must love God, and that we show our love for God by loving our neighbor. No, the freedom Paul talks about is the freedom to live our life in the Holy Spirit so that the Spirit works within us, leading us to a life of grace that bears fruit.
And he talks about three ways that happens:
First, he encourages us to live in the freedom the Spirit gives us, speaking to the tension between living in the Spirit versus living in the Law. Living in the spirit, we realize that we are all created in the image of God as children of God, and that God so loved us that God became one with us by becoming one of us in Jesus Christ. And because God is in all things and all things are in God, in whom we live, and breathe, and have our being, we are no longer held captive to the Law, but have freedom in Christ Jesus.
Writing the statement, “For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (vs. 5) Paul tells us that freedom in the Spirit doesn’t mean a libertine freedom to satisfy our every desire, but rather the freedom to be what and who God created us to be. Freedom in Christ, therefore, is not for our self-indulgence but for the Christ-like self-giving love for others.
Second, he talks about following the path of the Spirit. If we live by the Spirit, in the freedom of the Spirit, then the positive following of the Spirit guides us to refuse those desires foisted upon us by the world. Following the leadings of the Spirit guides us away from the desires for self-indulgence we talked about earlier. Being led by the Spirit and guided by the Spirit as Paul phrases it, seems to speak of specific choices we face, and taking deliberate steps to keep in step with the Spirit. Our transformation, then, come through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives - the sanctifying grace we talked about last week. In last week’s message about how Grace forms us, I shared with you Rev. Dr. Lawrence E. Carter’s calling the transforming work of the Holy Spirit an “inside job.” In the same vein, Mahatma Gandhi said this regarding how transformation takes place:
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”
This IS Carter’s “inside job” becoming reality - we become what we believe, what we think. The only way to have peace in the world is if we each choose to become more peaceful ourselves. The only way to have more love in our lives and in the world is to become more loving ourselves.
And all of this points to the third thing Paul talks about as a result of and cause for our freedom, and that is to bear the fruits of the Spirit. Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This, he says, is what Christian love looks like; this is the way it behaves. But note that love is listed first. Love is the fruit that gives expression to the other fruits listed. That is, the other fruits flow from the presence of the first fruit, which is love. Many interpreters and commentators on this passage suggest that in fact, there is only one fruit of the Spirit and that is love, and that all the others listed here are not intended to be understood as different fruits, but as the various expressions of the one fruit.
And I can see that. I can see the reasoning behind the idea that love is at the core, the heart of all of those other expressions and that if you do not have love, then you do not truly have joy, or peace, or patience, or kindness, and so forth. One commentator, painting an image from nature or creation to help us think about this idea, suggested that these expressions are like the beautiful petals that surround a flower’s center, thus showing the full-flowering of Christian love.
Paul’s message in this chapter, argued more forcefully here than anywhere else in this letter, is that there is freedom in Christ, given through the Spirit, that is lived out in biblical love for others. Or there is slavery to the flesh that leads to self-indulgent acts or attitudes, and that judges or condemns others. In Christ, there is freedom from condemnation, from slavery to the law, and from slavery to the flesh and the world and its distorted desires; and there is freedom to trust in Christ, live in the Spirit, and love generously.
The Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council, in their “Declaration on Religious Freedom” (No. 11) states, Christ “bore witness to the truth, but he refused to impose the truth by force on those who spoke against it.” Christ offers us freedom through his example, which draws us to fulfill the Law not out of obligation but out of love of neighbor and God. Paul says that the whole of the Law is fulfilled in love, and loving is a choice we are given through the freedom we have in Christ. Our freedom through Christ is an opportunity to go beyond the demands of the Law in order to love others in the same way Christ loves us.
The contrast, therefore, is not only or simply between freedom and Law, but between the world and the Spirit. It is the license of the “flesh” or the world that Paul warns against, which can only be combated by the Spirit.
Paul says, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the Law.” But if you succumb to part of the Law, rejecting the grace offered in Christ, then you are accountable to all of the Law. If you seek to others accountable to the Law, rather than love them in grace, then you, too, will be held accountable to the Law. How you judge other is how you will be judged. In other words, in for a penny, in for a pound. Yet when we are led by the Spirit—and this is the conundrum here of true freedom—we do not pursue self-indulgence or self-interest, we don’t attempt to skirt the limits of the Law or hold others to a Law that we don’t observe, and we don’t even seek the carefree life of a child, free of responsibility. Instead we attempt to be guided by the Spirit. For when we live in the Spirit, we find freedom in pursuing the good of the neighbor and the truth of God. And it is when we strive for these things, that we bear the fruits of the Spirit found in the Grace of God. Amen.
Sunday, May 19, 2019
5-19-19 “Grace That Forms Us”
I’ve had what I can only call some “DUH” moments in the last couple of weeks. Or, as I suggested to Lynn, they could be “mini-strokes.” I’ve found myself forgetting how to do some very basic things around the house in recent days, or going to do something only to remember that I had already done it. I told Val the other day that I had the thought that I need to remember to invite the new pastor to come to Dinner With Friends in June so he/she can experience it, only to then remember that I will be at Lakeside that week, and only then to realize, duh, that I had led my last Dinner With Friends earlier this month and had not realized it. So, on second thought, I’m not sure if what I’m experiencing are mini-strokes, or many strokes.
In another “duh” moment, I also realized after leaving worship last Sunday on Mother’s Day, that I won’t be here on Father’s Day, a thought that was reaffirmed as I began studying Galatians 4 for this week’s sermon. One thing that I began doing earnestly during my renewal time is spending time nearly every day reading and studying scripture. Knowing that I would be doing this series on Galatians, I began reading and studying the book well in advance and have spent time in it nearly every day since the series began. Galatians 4, our chapter for today, invites us into a relationship with God like the one Jesus had, where we feel compelled to think of God as a parent, as a Father, Paul puts it.
And that made me think of Father’s Day and then of my father. And apparently, it did the same for our District Superintendent, Rev. Tim Bias, as well.
Tim shared in the District Newsletter this week that, growing up, his father was his hero and that he wanted to be like him and wanted his father to be proud of him. And even though his father put no pressure on him to perform, he wanted to please his dad. His father was an athlete in high school, playing basketball and football, so Tim played basketball and football. His dad was a contractor who built houses, churches, hotels, and libraries, and as a teenager, Tim used to take his friends around town and show off the building his father had built. He was proud of his father and wanted his father to be proud of him.
When he was 24 years old, Tim’s mother asked him to come to her home - there was something she wanted to talk with him about. When he arrived, his mother shared with him that the man Tim had called Dad, the man he had grown up idolizing and striving to be like, the man who Tim so wanted to be proud of him, had adopted Tim when he was 9 months old. As Tim put it,
“The reality of God’s grace came rushing into my life. He had chosen me to be his son and had given me his name. Dad loved me from the beginning. He didn’t care whether I played football, basketball, or became a contractor. He had already loved me and accepted me. All I could do was accept his love for me.”
Reading Tim’s story brought tears to my eyes as I thought about how my father had died when I was six years old and wondered how different life might have been had he lived. I thought about all of the men in my life at that time, fathers of my friends, men from church, pastors, who stepped into my life to try to fill some of that void for me, not out of obligation but out of love for my parents, my family, and for me. And that made me think about the man my mom would eventually marry when I was 19 years old and in my sophomore year of college. George Owens was kind and gentle, a Christian man who, like Mom enjoyed painting, and who had raised kids of his own already and now, in marrying my mom, was taking on a new family by choice. And out of love for both Mom and me, and out of respect for my father, prior to marrying Mom, he have me a gift which I still have. It’s a plaque with the name Anderson on it, and these words,
“You got it from your father, it was all he had to give.
So it’s yours to use and cherish, for as long as you may live.
If you lose the watch he gave you, it can always be replaced.
But a black mark on your name, son, can never be erased.
It was clean the day you took it, and a worthy name to bear.
When he got it from his father, there was no dishonor there.
So make sure you guard it wisely, after all is said and done.
You’ll be glad the name is spotless, when you give it to your son.”
George, while technically and legally my step-father, was more father to me than Dad ever had the chance to be. I had Dad in my life for 6 years, of which I have few memories. George was in my life for about twenty years, dying six months after my mom. And while he was George to me, because I met him as an adult, our relationship was Father-Son. And he was Grandpa to my girls and my siblings kids.
Since Lynn and I married in June of 2004, blending our two families, I’ve come to realize that I don’t like the term “step” when it comes to our family relationships. I know it’s a necessary legal term in order to define what are and are not biological relationships, but I try never to refer to Lynn’s daughters, Leah and Jill, as my step-daughters, preferring to think of them as “our” daughters. I love them like my own, and consider the three grandchildren that Leah and Jill have given us to be our grandchildren, to be my grandchildren, not Lynn’s grandkids by Lynn’s daughters and certainly not “step” grandchildren. I love each of our six grandkids and have unique relationships with each of them, based on who and how they are, not on who their parents are, and I would be mortified - it would break my heart - to think they loved me less as a grandfather because there wasn’t a biological connection. Likewise, I would feel like a fraud, a failure, or an imposter if I somehow looked on those beautiful boys as “second tier” or “less worthy” of my full love simply because they don’t carry my genes.
In our passage from Galatians today, Paul continues to address the issue he’s tackled from the beginning of this letter, the idea that “false teachers” have come along behind him, trying to convince the people of Galatia that God’s grace is not sufficient, that they must adhere to the Law, or at least the part of the Law they think important, in order to be children of God. And Paul is mortified that the people of Galatia whom he has come to love, who cared for him during an illness, might be turning away from that love, the grace poured out on them through God in order to adhere to a Law that, as we shared last week, he said no longer applies in the light of Christ.
And in his desire to correct the false teaching they have been given, he lifts up three ways that the grace of God is working to be formational for them, and for us. First, Paul says, God is forming the world. In Galatians 4:4 Paul states, “But when the fulfillment of time came, God sent God’s Son, born through a woman, and born under the Law” (CEB). In God’s time, God chose to act in Jesus, breaking into the world as a new creation in order to form the world. And this, he says, impacts all people, Jews and Gentiles - EVERYONE - freeing them from all that holds them back, all that keeps them from living as the children of God that they are created to be. As children of God, we are formed into the image of God by our relationship with God the Creator, the God of grace, and not by legalities or rules of Law, or by the powers of the world.
Second, God is forming us as children and heirs of the promise that, as we talked about last week, was given directly by God to Abraham and that supersedes the Law given to Moses third-hand. The Holy Spirit affirms our status as children of God and we are invited into the same close, loving relationship with God that led Jesus to call God “Abba,” or Father.
God’s grace in our lives means that as children of God we don’t earn our relationship with God by following rules. God’s love for us is given to us freely.
And even more, there is nothing we can do that will ever separate us from God’s love, as Paul writes in his letter to the church in Rome. So, we are totally, completely and eternally loved by God - we can’t earn it and we can’t lose it. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and we respond to this gift by being formed in the image and likeness of Jesus.
This “forming” of ourselves is what we call “Sanctifying” grace, and it continues throughout our lives. The word sanctify simply means “to make holy,” but not in a holier-than-thou sort of way. Instead, God’s sanctifying grace shapes us more and more into the likeness of Christ. As the Holy Spirit fills our lives with love for God and our neighbor, we begin to live differently. The seed or presence of God which is planted within us seeks to move us toward the presence of God in others and in creation. This desire, this seeking, is what we call “Prevenient” grace, or the grace that goes before us, the grace of God planted in us before we even know of God and that seeks to reunite with God throughout our life. When we recognize that seed in our life, when we acknowledge that seed’s presence within ourselves, that is God’s “Justifying” grace at work. It starts from within us before we are ever conceived. And when we acknowledge it in others, we know we’ve begun the process of sanctification, of growing in Christ.
Rev. Dr. Lawrence Edward Carter Sr., Dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, refers to this whole process “an inside job.” Raised right here on the Hilltop, Carter lived at 26 S. Oakley, and graduated from West High in 1958. In his book, A Baptist Preacher’s Buddhist Teacher, he talks about how he came to adopt a Christian attitude of peace and pacifism through the teachings of Jesus, as modeled by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and later by the Buddhist teacher Daisaku Ikeda. And one of the things he talks about in his book is that our striving to be more Christlike begins as an “inside job.” It begins within us, by our doing the work to change ourselves, our thinking, our speaking, our actions, before it ever translates into how we live in the world. And he suggests that the only way to have peace in the world is first to have peace within ourselves. We can never hope for peace in others if we cannot become peaceful ourselves. That peace-making that occurs within us is God’s sanctifying grace at work, changing and forming us into the image of Christ.
We participate in that forming, that change, that “inside” work, through what we call the “means of grace.” It is here, by putting ourselves in spaces —physically, mentally, and spiritually—through participation in the sacraments, in the community, in prayer and scripture study, that we are opened up to allow God to fill us and form us. We make room for the Holy Spirit to work on our hearts and lives. We do not do these things to earn something from God. Our spiritual growth is a gift, given to us through the sanctifying grace of God.
As we seek to grow in love for God and neighbor, God works in us to eliminate sin from our lives, because God’s grace is greater than our sin.
And third, while God is forming us in creation and as children of God, God is also forming us in community. Our faith calls us into relationship with one another as the body of Christ. The same grace that has been given to us as gift of God is given to all people everywhere - there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female - and this grace freely given compels us to share grace freely with one another. We have an identity together as God’s children that unites us across our differences in practice and experience. As we come to faith through grace, we are formed individually in the image and likeness of Jesus, but we are also formed in his image together as community. Therefore, we both rejoice together and weep together. We are called to help bring to formation the image and likeness of Christ in others as we seek to help each other live in the freedom of grace rather than the bondage of the law and the world. Paul’s concern for the church in Galatia is that of a parent who grieves over a child who turns from the way they have been taught. As a community formed in the image of Christ, we work with God to reveal the in-breaking of God’s new creation in our church and world today.
Paul’s deepest desire is for the people of Galatia to be formed into the image of Christ, not by adherence to a custodial law whose time has passed, but by the freely given grace of God whose time is eternal. In Jesus, God showed us what it looks like to be fully formed in God, and through Christ we are invited to recognize the Holy planted within us and to grow more Christlike in our formation. Through the love of Christ given for us all we are beloved children of God - not step-children - born of water and the Spirit, and formed in the image of the God of Grace who is love. There is no rule or law or Book of Discipline that can change that. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sunday, May 12, 2019
5-12- 19 “Grace That Clothes Us”
I hate shopping for clothes. Or, I should clarify, I hate trying on clothes. I shop for new clothes only as I need to - when I wear something out, when I out grow something, or when I need something new for an event or activity - but I hate the process of going into a dressing room, undressing, trying something on, taking it off, putting my clothes back on, finding something else if I didn’t have the right size first time, and then starting the entire process all over again. I deplore the entire experience.
And in part it’s because it’s not easy. I’m not a straightforward size in anything I wear. Shirts are not consistently sized that a size 17 1/2” neck is the same across shirts, it’s the same with sleeve length, all of which becomes a bigger problem when a shirt is sized by M, L, XL, etc rather than by numbers. I don’t wear all my pants the same way, some I wear more on my waist and others more towards my hips, and some, start at one place and end up at the other - so it’s like I need a self-retracting inseam that will adjust the length of the pants as they slide up or down my frame.
And shoes? Don’t get me started. Suffice it to say, when I am in need of new clothes, and my mood isn’t TOO hostile to the idea of trying things on, then I buy a lot of things at once so I don’t have to repeat the process again. There are some brands that I trust to fit without having to try them on every time I make a purchase, but for most, I’ll take a leap of faith and buy it without trying on and then return it later if it doesn’t fit. I know it’s not logical, but that’s how I roll.
On the other hand, there are some clothing purchases that are easy for me. I only wear black or white socks. I don’t buy socks of different colors because when I get dressed I can’t usually tell the difference between black and blue, or green and gray, so I have black socks that I wear for dress and casual, and white socks that I wear with sneakers, when golfing or doing yard work, or just wearing socks around the house. It’s just easier that way. I rarely wear neckties so the ones I own I’ve had for years. As the amount of ground a tie has to cover (motion over stomach) has increased over the years, the amount of leftover tie that gets tucked in behind has progressively shrunk. I hate wearing ties and only wear them when I absolutely have to.
So I have a love/hate relationship with clothes, clothes shopping, and fashion. I keep it simple - khaki pants or Dockers with some coordinated button down shirt or mock neck - as often as I can so that I don’t have to think too much about it. And I also prefer to be as casual as I can get away with, so I only own one suit, but have about 6 sport coats that I can mix and match with Dockers or dress slacks, button down or polo shirts, and loafers or tie shoes. And lastly, nearly all of my dress shirts have button down collars, or least the shirts I wear. I have others with spread collars of various types, but I rarely wear them. The consistent look of a button down collar is one I adopted in college and have preferred ever since.
The clothes we wear can say a lot about who we are. We see a uniformed Police Officer, Fire Fighter, or Military person and know immediately what they do for a living. We see a person in scrubs or a lab coat and know immediately that they likely work in the medical field. You see a clerical collar on a person and know at a glance that they are a pastor or priest - or that it’s Halloween! What we wear, whether a uniform or not, can say a good deal about who we are, what we do, or more.
Jesus talked about how some of the priests and Pharisees liked to be seen in public in their long flowing robes because it made them seem important.
Part of the Mosaic Law, the law of Moses, even dictated how Jewish men and women were to dress, the tassels that were to be on their shawls, how they were to wear their hair, and so on. That was, in part, to define who they were in comparison to those of the other nations who lived around them. It wasn’t to set them above others, but to set them apart.
In chapter 3 of Galatians, Paul talks about the role of the Law in the life of the Jewish people and in Christian converts. And he does this by also giving his readers a history lesson about how the Law is to be understood on this side of the Christ event. In fact, he makes a very detailed argument about how God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis takes priority over the Law, and how that promise is finally fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Our reading from verses 23-28 brings his argument to a close, so it’s helpful to us to understand the context of the point he makes in the early parts of the chapter.
As you hopefully remember, Paul is upset about, and writes a letter to the Galatian church because, people whom he calls “false teachers” have come into the city after he established a church there and moved on. And those false teachers are saying that the men there must be circumcised as the Law dictates that Jewish must be in order to be considered Children of God. And Paul uses the same word in Greek, nomos, to mean both Mosaic Law and the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. He is speaking of the whole of the Law. And we see from his argument here that Paul reads the whole of the Law as a narrative, leading up to its fulfillment, its culmination in Jesus Christ.
And in doing so, he turns to the Torah to make his case.
In Genesis 12:3 and again in 22:18, God promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and that “all of the Gentiles” would be blessed through Abraham. And because Abraham trusted God’s promise, he was considered to be righteous, or in right relationship with God. Now remember, the term “Gentile” is an expansive and inclusive term that means everyone who is not Jewish. So all people, from all nations, pagan or not, middle-eastern or not, all people who are not Jewish, are Gentile. So when God’s promise in the opening book of the Law says that “all of the Gentiles would be blessed through Abraham,” well, all means all. And Paul takes this to mean that it was God’s intent, God’s plan, from the very beginning to bless all people, to justify all people, by the faith of Abraham, and as he says in other places, through the faith of Jesus Christ. And he goes on in Galatians chapter 3 to make several points to show that the Law is only provisional and temporary in its nature and function:
First, he says, the Law itself cannot justify us or bring blessing to us, because it declares as cursed everyone who does not observe all that is written in it, which we know that we cannot do. As we’ve share before, being in compliance with some parts of the law puts us out of compliance with others. So, Paul says, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by taking its curse upon himself, by bearing the burden of the Law, in his death on the cross because of the Law.
Second, he says, the promise to Abraham has chronological priority, having been given 430 years before the giving of the Law to Moses. Simply said, the Promise came first. The Law cannot and does not alter or annul the original promise, received in faith in Genesis 3.
And third, the Law was given through angels by a mediator (Moses), making it a third-hand revelation from God, while the original promise was first-hand, spoken directly by God to Abraham (3:19-20).
So the Law, Paul says, was provisional and temporary. The Law served only as a custodian or disciplinarian for us, as a restraint because of our sins and transgressions, until the descendant of God came - and Paul uses the singular descendant to indicate Jesus - and liberated us from sin. The Law attempted to define sin for us, but it is by the faith of Jesus Christ that we are freed from sin.
The word translated “custodian” or “disciplinarian" is paidagōgos. In wealthy Greek and Roman families, a paidagōgos was a slave entrusted with the care and discipline of a child when the child was not in school, until the child reached the age of adulthood. The metaphor suggests that the authority of the law is temporary, lasting only until the fruition of the promise -- "until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” But now that faith as trust has come in Jesus Christ, we are no longer subject to the disciplinary or custodial role of the Law. In the promise as fulfilled in Christ Jesus we are all Children of God.
And Paul continues this line of argument saying that now that Christ has come, the symbolic rite of entry as a Christ follower is no longer circumcision (available only to males) but baptism, which is available to all.
"As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (3:27).
Here Paul uses language from early baptismal liturgy, in which the newly baptized were clothed in a white garment, symbolic of the righteousness of Christ.
All who have been baptized into Christ are clothed with him, wrapped up in him, and incorporated into him so that Christ becomes the primary identity marker of who we are. All other identifiers fall away, for "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" (3:28). Like a uniform we put on that identifies what we do, putting on Christ, being clothed in Christ, identifies who, and whose, we are.
Theologian Elisabeth Johnson points out that in
“The Babylonian Talmud [the Tradition of the Jewish people as practiced while in Exile] includes a morning blessing to be recited by every Jewish man, thanking God for not creating him a gentile, a slave, or a woman (Menahoth 43b)…This prayer…demonstrates the power these three categories held in the ancient world. Paul's declaration that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, is a radical dismantling of these primary identity and boundary markers. Differences in ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status do not magically disappear, of course, but Paul declares them to be irrelevant…”
The categories that divide us today may be different than those three that Paul describes, but divisions persist in congregations, in the church at large, and in the world -- divisions that run along lines of race and ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, ideology, political affiliation, and any number of other factors.
Paul reminds us that whatever human categories may describe us, they do not define us, "for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." All human categories are subordinate and ultimately irrelevant to our primary identity as Beloved Children of God. Our attempts to categorize and label one another in the church and in the world and to diminish one another on the basis of those labels are signs of our spiritual immaturity. Paul reminds us that since Christ has come, we are no longer enslaved to those old divisions, we are no longer accountable to the discipline of the Law. All are justified solely by the Grace of God we see in the Promise given to Abraham and modeled for us in Jesus Christ.
Paul instructs us that the law is only provisional and temporary and can never justify or save us. In fact, it can only imprison us. It is Christ who frees us from the curse of the law and sin. Now, this doesn’t mean that "anything goes" in terms of how we live. Paul has plenty to say about how we are to live out our freedom in Christ, as we will see in Galatians 5 and 6. And it doesn’t mean that the Ten Commandments no longer apply. It means that we understand them properly as Jesus taught us. All of the Law, he said, comes down to this: Love God and love your neighbor. The first four of the Ten Commandments are about how we love God, the final six are about how we love our neighbor.
Paul's message to the Galatians cautions us against allowing or using the law to annul the Promise and destroy the freedom, unity, and mission to which God has called us in Christ. God's mission to bless "all the families of the earth," begun with the promise to Abraham and bequeathed to us as children and heirs, takes priority over all human agendas. When we as individuals, or when factions within Christ’s body the church - the United Methodist Church or any church - try to reimpose aspects of the Law that no longer apply on those whom they have labeled as sinners, or as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” then they have, in fact, rejected the Grace of God given to us in the opening book of Scripture and in the promise given to us in Jesus Christ. Rather than being clothed in Christ, these “false teachers” are clothed in the ill-fitting clothes of judgement. And that, I would offer, is what is truly incompatible with Christian teaching, and with the gift of grace which we have been given. Amen.
Sunday, May 5, 2019
5-5-19 “Grace That Embraces”
Bob Goff, a best-selling author, diplomat, and philanthropist, is quoted as saying that “Grace seems unfair, until you need some.” Grace, the unearned, unmerited, undeserved love of God is one of those strange gifts that we are given in the moments when we least expect it, in the places where would least expect to see it, and often from the people from whom we would least expect to receive it. Grace comes like the unexpected hug from a stranger.
Some do liken grace to an embrace. Our passage today can be seen somewhat in that way. The issue at hand in the larger passage is that Paul is calling out Peter for being a hypocrite. The word translated as hypocrite, in Paul’s time, meant actor or one who wears a mask. It didn’t have the same negative connotation that we give to hypocrite today, but the idea was the same - saying one thing and doing another, or presenting a false front. In the Book of Acts, Peter famously has a vision of various animals that were considered by the Law to be unclean being lowered on something akin to a sheet for Peter to eat, Peter declaring that he had never and would never eat that which is unclean, only to have God call him out for calling unclean what God had said was clean. This event then led to Peter’s entering the home of a Gentile God-follower - another violation of the Law - and declaring to all present that God does not play favorites, that the grace of God and the Spirit of God fall on both Jew and Gentile alike.
By the time Paul’s letter to the Galatians is written, though, Peter has equivocated on that statement, he is back-sliding under pressure from what Paul calls “false teachers” from outside the group of Jewish leaders and original Apostles, “imposters” Paul labels them - who insist that Gentile converts must first be circumcised, that is - put into compliance with Jewish Law - before the grace of God extends to them. Under this pressure, Peter is folding like a cheap umbrella, and Paul is giving him what for. They had agreed, he said, had shaken hands, had embraced the belief that grace extended to all and that Paul would share this message with Gentiles while Peter, James, and John, would focus on sharing this with the circumcised, the Jews.
This all comes down to the age old debate about whether we’re saved by faith or trust in the grace of God or by our own works. Is grace a free gift given by God, or is it something we earn by the things we do or don’t do, say or don’t say, believe or don’t believe? Does following the Law save us, in this particular case agreeing to be circumcised, or are we saved by faith, by trusting in Jesus Christ?
And that’s a huge question in this passage. If salvation is only offered to the Jews, then the rest of Creation was doomed. The mark of circumcision was not intended to be a status symbol, it was a sign of being set apart from other nations, not set above them. The Law was given to differentiate the people of Israel from all the other nations that surrounded them, nations that worshiped other and multiple gods. When Jesus came, he said he came not to change the Law, but to bring it to fulfillment, to bring it to completion. And he then told his Jewish followers that the covenant of the new Law was simply this - love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbors as your self. And oh, by the way, our neighbors include those we would consider enemies. The Law was never about excluding people from God’s love or God’s grace, it was about setting apart a people who might grow to be an example to others as to what it looks like to live in and share the grace of God.
And the dichotomy of Law vs. Faith is also a huge question in the church today, because while we claim in our creeds and our disciplines that we are saved by faith, we often act as though it is our works, our merit, our compliance with the Law brings salvation. The debate and conflict in the United Methodist Church today, and in other denominations in previous years, is at its core, a debate about Law and grace, as well as about how we understand the nature of Scripture. Do we believe that the unmerited, unearned, undeserved grace of God extends to all people, or only to those whom a select and self-chosen group of people have deemed deserving because of their compliance with their understanding of Law, both God’s law and church law? And more specifically, do we believe that the God who throughout Scripture called not only poets, prophets, and priests, but also liars, cheats, thieves, murderers, prostitutes, tax-collectors, Gentiles, and other so-called sinners to carry out God’s mission and ministry, might also call LGBTQ people into various forms of ministry, including ordained ministry? Or do we really believe that God only calls those who are Law compliant, as a certain small group of self-appointed people choose to understand it? And we should be careful about how quickly we seek to defend the latter, because as Scripture is chock full of stories of God calling those people I mentioned who were thought unworthy, undeserving, and even unChrist-like, God also called Paul, who worked adamantly against those who sought to follow Jesus most closely. The arms of God’s grace extends wide, and often includes those we might think are beyond God’s reach. And in that sense, Bob Goff’s statement hits home for us - God’s grace does seem unfair to some of us, until, of course, we need some of it.
I’m enamored with the idea of grace as an embrace, though. A church in South Africa, where apartheid separated people along racial lines for so long, erected a cross in front of their building that they say models the embrace of Christ. Calvary Methodist Church, in Midrand, South Africa, sits atop a hill, overlooking two different communities. As you approach the church, you are greeted by a large, stone cross towering over all who pass by. In a land that was defined by exclusion and separation, this Embracing Cross of Christ, as it is called, is a sign of hope and healing.
The cross, designed by Hans Wilreker and Alan Storey, was erected in 1999. Alan Storey writes, “This cross is shaped to ex- press God’s loving embrace of the world in the death of Jesus. The left arm is raised higher and extends further than the right arm because it is the extension of the heart, reminding us that Jesus’ heart was given in obedience to [God] in his work of boundless loving. The left arm is also the arm of the outcast, reminding us that Jesus came to raise the lowly and poor. The shortened right arm symbolizes the powerful who are humbled and brought low, as prophesied by Mary in Luke 1:51-53.”
The ministries of the church reflected this embrace. Their four pillars of mission are spirituality, evangelism and church growth, justice and service, and development and economic empowerment. These four pillars reflected the needs of the community and the grace they experienced in the life transforming work of Jesus.
To breathe life into the ideas represented in the inanimate Embracing Cross of Christ, we can think of God’s grace as an embrace. And rather than the four pillars that guide this particular church, we might think of the four actions that occur in the act of embracing.
First, there is the opening of our arms. There must be a willingness on our parts to be obedient to Christ’s call to open our arms, to make room for those who need to know the love of Christ in their lives. Paul, in debating with Peter, is asking “Is there enough room in God’s love for everyone or not?
Is there enough room in the mission field for both you and I, or not?”
And that question confronts us as well. How open are our arms to the people who need to know the love of Jesus, whether they’re people we like or not, whether we think they ‘re deserving or not? A determination, I might add, that is not ours to make.
And more broadly, what signals to the people in our community that our arms are open to them unconditionally, as Christ’s arms are open to us?
And likewise, how open are our arms to those whom God has called, whom Jesus has empowered, who aren’t in compliance with our limited concept of what it means to be a Christ-follower or a minister? Our denial of the call or worthiness of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers is no different that what the church historically did to people of color and to women, and is no different than Peter’s telling God that what God created is not good, is not clean, is not worthy.
The second action of grace as an embrace, after opening our arms, is waiting - active and prayerful waiting. In opening our arms an invitation is extended, now we wait in anticipation of the acceptance of that invitation. Nobody likes waiting. We get tired of waiting. We get bored with waiting. We grow impatient. Nevertheless, Jesus waits for us every day. Jesus waits for us to remember that his love is for everyone, not just for those who think, believe, or worship like us. Jesus waits for us every day to remember that we are no more or no less deserving of God’s grace than anyone else, that we have our warts and our flaws. Jesus waits for us every day to remember that he came to serve, not to be served, and that he came to the least, the last, and the lost, not just those who could be found in Temple or synagogue each week. Waiting is hard, but God’s grace is worth the wait.
The third action, then, is closing our arms in the actual embrace. It’s in the embrace that grace transforms both parties. Standing apart from Christ there is no change, there is no growth. It’s in the embrace of Christ, both given and received, that we become more Christ-like, that we, as John Wesley put it, move towards perfection. We don’t lose our identity in the embrace, but we do begin to experience the embrace of God’s grace as transformation.
It’s in the embrace of Christ that, in Galatians 2, Paul calls out Peter for his backsliding, for going back on his word, on their agreement. It’s not done in anger, but as a sign of their mutual love and respect for one another. If we really love someone, we can’t let them do something harmful without at least saying something to them. In Christian love we hold one another accountable - accountable to live and love as Jesus taught.
As Jesus closes his arms around us, inviting us to encounter him, we join at his table, in table fellowship together because, if we embrace him, he changes us. Title or position doesn’t matter, saint or sinner doesn’t matter, because transformation doesn’t take place in the invitation, it comes in the embrace.
God has a place for you, for each of us, at Christ’s table.
And as it is Christ’s table, who he invites is not up to us.
The word translated as grace in Greek is the same word translated as gift. Sometimes, in grace though, we don’t know whether we’re giving or receiving, because as you extend grace, you also receive grace. So, as we think about grace, and who we do or don’t extend grace to, consider who do you have a hard time sharing space with at the table, and why is that? Or conversely, are there certain people that you ALWAYS share space at the table with to the exclusion of others? Sometimes, when we extend grace to another, hoping God will somehow change them, it is actually changing us that God has in mind. We know we’ve created God in our own image if our God only loves the people we love, and hates the people we hate. But that’s not God - that’s us playing God. So as you consider grace God’s grace extended to you, think about what would keep people from being part of your embrace.
The fourth and final movement of embrace then, is opening our arms again. It is in re-opening our arms that we leave traces of grace upon one another.
This is grace received in grace extended. And the arms reopened are now arms ready to embrace again, to share the grace in the embrace, to leave a trace of grace on yet another - whether with those we encounter in the mission field, around the table, or with those who, for whatever reason, we have avoided embracing.
God’s grace encounters us where we are, as we are, and encourages us to become more like Jesus. God’s grace is given freely to those like us and those unlike us, to those we invite to the table and to those we exclude. God’s grace is overflowing and all-enveloping. It knows no beginning and no end.
Grace springs from the love of the God who loved so much that God gave. We, on the other hand, when we say we truly love someone or something, tend to cling, to grasp, to hold on to it for all we’re worth. God’s love, though, is intended to be given away. It’s not ours to dole out as we see fit to those we deem worthy. We’re invited by God to be a sent people, a people given to others. So how we do transform in God’s love to the point of being able to let go of our biases, judgement, our hatred, and our anger; to let go of our self-centeredness in order to focus on embracing those whom God embraces?
What do you need in order to open your arms as an act of Christ-like grace?
Is there a risk in embrace? Sure there is. But the greater risk is in not embracing. Paul tells us in another letter that God, in Christ, is reconciling the world to God’s self. Reconciling is embracing. And God gives us the example in Jesus Christ and the strength in the Holy Spirit to go forth in God’s grace and embrace God’s children, all of God’s children, as God has created them and called them, in such a way that we might become a people transformed by God in order to make a difference for God in the world.
The young Christian writer, blogger, and speaker Rachel Held Evans, whose words I have quoted many times over the year, died yesterday at age 37 after a short illness. And she often wrote about and talked about grace, and today I want to give her the last word.
“Perhaps we are afraid that if we get out of the way, this grace thing might get out of hand. Well, guess what? It already has. Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, ‘Father, forgive them, for know not what they do.’ Grace has been out of hand for more than two thousand years now. We best get used to it.”
May it be so. Amen.