Saturday, June 23, 2007

Before Faith Came

Galatians 3:23-29
On Friday a dear friend of mine graduated from college. As we celebrated at a party Friday evening I looked around at all the people – babies, children, and adults of all ages – I looked at all the stages of life present – and I considered the differences between childhood and adulthood.

When we are young, we are surrounded by rules! Don’t leave the yard without telling someone. Never swim alone. Don’t cross the street by yourself. Clean your room. Don’t eat candles. Put away your toys. Don’t take toys away from others. Don’t hit people.

And we’re surrounded by people who check up on us to make sure we follow the rules – parents, older siblings, babysitters, teachers . . . Who discipline us when misbehave, or don’t follow instructions.

As we get older we have more freedom to make our own decisions. The new college graduate had no one standing over her to make sure her papers and other assignments were completed. She disciplined herself, knowing what had to be done and doing it, taking responsibility for her successes and failures. She didn’t have many failures, mind – she graduated Magna cum laude! – while working full time.

It was much the same way in Paul’s time. Among the Greeks and Romans of Paul’s time, children were put in the care of a tutor, a disciplinarian, who was often brutal in his treatment of the children in his care to ensure that they would learn and obey. In this passage, the law is being likened to this kind of disciplinarian.

"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. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith."

When Paul wrote this letter to the Galatian Christians, one of the major issues in the church was the conflict between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. Many of the Jewish Christians in Galatia were insistent that Gentiles must be obedient to the laws of Moses in order to be accepted as Christians – in order to justify that they were worthy of God’s love and forgiveness. This was, after all, the understanding that Jews had held for over 1,000 years, since Moses brought the tablets of the law down from Mt. Sinai. These Jewish Christians saw themselves as superior to the Gentile Christians because of their obedience to the law. Here Paul speaks to the Gentiles, encouraging them, and assuring them that they were equally worthy, equally justified, continuing his argument that Christians are justified by faith, not by obedience to the laws of Moses.

Paul was not saying the laws were no longer of any worth, but that obedience to the law was not the primary focus for Christians. Christians – whether Jewish or Gentile - showed their worthiness of God’s forgiveness through faith – not so much faith in Christ, as faithfulness to Christ. The disciplinarian is no longer needed, for faith has given the Gentiles the freedom of adulthood.

"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 and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise."

Today, anyone can wear anything they like. Rich people shop on Rodeo Drive in raggedy clothes, and poor people buy designer knockoffs at Ross. When I look at you, I can’t tell just from your clothing whether you are poor or wealthy, well educated or illiterate, or even where in the world you might come from. In Paul's time, clothes really did make the man. The clothes a person wore were determined by class and social status, and governed by laws. Just because you could afford a toga didn’t mean you could wear one – you had to be a member of the nobility. The color purple was worn only by royalty, although members of the Roman Senate could wear a tiny stripe of purple on their togas. Anyone could tell with just a glance where you stood in society based on what you had on.

For the early Christians, the image of clothing themselves in Christ had a very specific meaning. At their baptism, every new Christian received a new robe as they emerged from the water, identical to every other baptismal robe, a very tangible symbol of the new life they were entering. For those early Christians, the image evoked with the mention of their baptismal clothing was the image of equality. Just as they were all clothed the same in baptism, so as Christians they are equal – Jews and Greeks, equally Christian. Men and women – one in Christ. Slave and free – equal in status, equally loved by God, equally forgiven. As Christians, as members of the body of Christ, they are now to relate to one another in perfect equality. They were to relate to one another in perfect equality in the community that is the Christian ideal – in the way that God intends for all people to live in the world to come.

Now when the individual members of this community of Christians left the place of worship to go back to their places in the world, they were, of course, still Jewish and Greek and male and female and slave and free. They did the same work they always done, they still held whatever status or lack of it in the world that they held before. What changed, what was expected to change, was how they treated each other – as equals in every way. What changed (and what attracted others to this new religion) was how they treated their neighbors – these new Christians reached out to help the sick, the poor, the oppressed – not just other Christians, but anyone in need.

While they continued to wear the clothing required by the laws of the world on the outside, on the inside they were clothed in Christ. They were dedicated to one purpose – to carry the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness to all the world. To spread the teachings of Jesus, and to do that by embodying the commandments to love God and all of God’s children. To share everything they had with each other for the survival of the community.

We are called to that same purpose, that same equality, that same commandment to love, that same community. Consider the church to be like the network on those Verizon wireless commercials on TV. As a member of the body of Christ, you have all that huge crowd of people standing behind you, giving you support, each contributing his or her own special skills. And you are likewise one of those people, freed by Christ to recognize the gifts and graces of all the others. Held up and nurtured by that body of saints who have come before, and who walk along with you.

The path on which our faith takes us, each of us individually, will be different. We are each called to a different ministry, a different path through life, a different way of serving the children of God. Whatever path we follow, whatever decisions we make, let it be the one that Jesus sets before us.

Hymn: I have decided to follow Jesus


cpclergymama said...

I love your sermon! It is great. I think I've finally got mine in working order, but would love to add the clothing part from your if that is okay.
I pray your services were blessed this morning by the presence of the Almighty as you delivered the Word!

rev maria said...

Oh, yes. Feel free to borrow as needed.

Morning service went well. Next one in a few hours so I get to eat and rest in between.

Singing Owl said...

Just read this. Great sermon!