This sermon was given on 13 November 2012 in the convocation hour at Samford University. Alas, it was not recorded as convocations usually are, but I thought I would post the manuscript as I used it. Unlike usual, there were a few points in which I deviated from the manuscript a bit. Those points are marked with brief explanations of what I said/did. Explanatory remarks are also present for allusions that might not make sense for non-Samfordians.
The Scripture was Galatians 3:26-29, NRSV:
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. 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.
It was read prior to the sermon by multiple members of the present congregation.
All right, it’s early, so let’s stand up again and stretch for a second. Now that you are all so very uncomfortable standing next to each other without any song to sing, look at the person on your left. Now look to the person on your right. Now what did we learn from this little exercise?
Not much? You’re not very observant then.
No, that’s what I thought. We’ll come back to that later. You can sit down again.
How many of you have heard this passage before? I would wager that a great deal of you should be raising your hands with me right now. I think this is a part of Paul that we like to throw around with reckless abandon. It sounds nice, doesn’t it? But what does it mean?
The New Testament tells us that Paul himself founded the Church in Galatia and taught them much of the theology that you and I have grown up hearing in churches around the country. They were taught all of this, yes, but after a while, other people showed up in Galatia teaching some things that Paul did not care for. Many scholars believe that these were Jewish Christians who still adhered to the Torah and thought others ought to do so as well. Now, since his meeting with Peter and others in Jerusalem, Paul had been very adamant (even more than a little angry) about this not being the case. But what happened was not that Paul simply won the argument over the Torah but the two sides of the theological debate began to think that the other was dead wrong, that their Christianity was bankrupt.
Undoubtedly, there were questions of who was following Jesus and who was not, who was listening to the right authority and who was listening to a fool, and Paul steps in to settle the issue.
I think that’s the moment when we truly had a church, don’t you think? It was that moment when we had a church with one kind of Christian who thought one way and another kind who thought another way. We have a Church where Christians call each other anything but Christians. We have a Church where circumcision trumps discipleship, Sabbath observation overrules devotion — we have a Church where piety usurps love.
Funny how the first-century church looks nothing like ours.
No, no, no. Surely we aren’t like this, are we? Do we draw lines over foolish things? Does it matter more than it should who is a Calvinist and who is an Arminian? Does it matter too much who can have a special kind of beverage every once in a while and who cannot? Does it matter more than it should who went on a mission trip last summer and who stayed home? Does it matter more what we think about communion, what we think about evangelism, what we think about tongues, translations, and tribulations more than probably should?
Can I make it a bit more personal?
Does it matter more than it should if someone is Greek or Independent? Does it matter too much if someone goes to RUF, UM, CO, UCF, ABCDEFG? Does it matter if she’s a Democrat or that he’s a Republic more than it should? Does it matter more than it should what she wrote in the newspaper or what he thought of it?
[[RUF: Reformed University Fellowship, UM: University Ministries (where I work!), CO: Campus Outreach, and UCF: University Christian Fellowship are all prominent ministry/church groups on Samford’s campus.]]
Can I take it a step further?
Does it matter that someone is white? that someone is black? Hispanic? Chinese? Does it matter more than it should that he is rich and she is poor? Does it matter more than it should that he is a he and she is a she? Does it matter more than it should if he’s gay and she’s straight?
These are uncomfortable questions. They should be. There are probably more than a few of you angry or frustrated that I ask them. How dare he suggest that I’m racist? Who does he think he is that he would call me sexist? How dare he talk about my money? How dare he talk about sexuality? Where does he get off?
I find it unfortunate that the two forbidden dinner table topics are religion and politics. Too often, I think, the questions most worth asking are the ones we would not dare discuss.
But it is exactly these kinds of issues that Paul would be asking us about today, I think. Why? Because there is an essence to Paul’s proclamation here, that there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. There is some underlying truth that he is pulling out and applying to his context. It is that truth behind the text that I want to try to bring to light today.
How many of you have ever watched a TED video? Ideas worth spreading, that kind of thing. Yes. Well, a few years ago a novelist named Chimamanda Adichie gave one of these TED talks at Oxford. The topic she had identified was the danger of a single story. To explain her point rather briefly without having you watch the whole video (though you should), she tells a story about when she came to the United States to study. Chimamanda is from Nigeria, and she was paired with an American roommate. She describes her experience as follows,
I was 19. My American room mate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well and was confused when I said Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my tribal music and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.
What struck me was this: she felt sorry for me even before she saw me, had a default position toward me as an African, was a kind of patronizing well-meaning pity. My room mate had a single story of Africa — a single story of catastrophe.
In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of anything more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.
[[I wrote about Chimamanda Adichie before here, where you can also find the full TED talk.]]
There was no possibility of a connection as human equals. Chimamanda’s roommate had only one understanding of what it meant to be African. Do you think the people in Paul’s Church had one understanding of what it meant to be a Jew? What it meant to be a Greek? What it meant to be a slave, free? What it meant to be male, female? Do we do that?
[[At this point, I walked away from the pulpit and spoke about a few of the people in the congregation whom I knew, pointing out their adjectives and asking them if those adjectives (e.g., white, Greek, independent, this or that major, middle class, etc.) described the whole of who they were.
I continued with something to the effect of: “In choosing any one of those words or even a combination of them, I distill someone to a single story. I make them into one kind of person that I understand from a very uncomplicated narrative that I made up on my own. I have fallen into error.]]
I have done what John Claypool, a former Baptist preacher and Episcopal priest in Birmingham, called making someone’s adjectives into their nouns. I have made an adjective about someone — race, gender, class, affiliation, sexuality — into their noun. I have made them into an abstract concept.
And I don’t have to deal with abstract concepts. Not if I don’t want to.
Problem is, “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.” Our basic essence is not male or female, black, white, Latino, Greek, independent, middle class our basic essence is that we are all human beings. And God created us in God’s image, in the image of God God created us. This imago dei, our shared image of God, is our starting point when we see each other. Everything else comes from that, for there is neither male or female, black or white, Greek or independent, rich or poor, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. You, you, you, you, you, and you are heirs to Abraham’s promise. All of you. No exceptions.
Do you think things would be different if we started that way? Would we treat the person who annoys us a little differently if we understood that they are a human being just like we are? Would we make decisions about the promises we make, the oaths we break, if we knew we were dealing with people? Would we build policies, pass legislation, and deal with money a little differently if we knew we were dealing with human beings not just numbers, statistics, and demographics?
Stand up again. Seventh inning stretch. Look to the person on your right. Look to the person on your left. Simon says look back at me. The person on your right, the person on your left, is just as complex, involved, and deep a personality as you. You know how complicated and incomprehensible you are, right? You know how long it takes you to explain your whole self, right? Well that’s true for your brother on your right and your sister on your left, too. But how often do we remember that? Sit back down.
Wouldn’t it be nice if that’s where it ended?
Wouldn’t it be nice if an acknowledgement of our shared humanity was the end of it?
That’s hard enough, right?
Can’t we just stop there?
Problem. I’m still white, independent, middle class Wes. [[I made a reference to my examples from the congregation from earlier.]] Uh oh. Why’d you have to go do that, Wes? You had a nice warm fuzzy message that made me just uncomfortable enough I could feel like I grew a little. I need to get to my eleven o’clock without too much existential angst.
We forget the second part of Paul’s phrase. As we often do with Paul’s theology, we forget what Jesus has to do with it. Paul tells us that we are all “one in Christ Jesus.” To give flesh to that idea, let me give an example from the Gospels that I think tells us how Jesus would confront this situation.
One time a lawyer tested Jesus by asking him what he had to do for eternal life. Jesus asked him what was in the Law and the man responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus told him, “Do this and you will live.” But our lawyer friend was not content and asked, “Who is my neighbor?”
You remember how the story goes. Jesus tells a story of a man going from Jerusalem to Jericho. He got mugged and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest sees him and ignores him. A Levite sees him and ignores him. But a Samaritan — an illegal alien, an other, a minority group, a hated subculture — sees him and stops to help. He puts him on his animal and takes him to an inn. He tells the innkeeper to do all that needs to be done. The Samaritan promised he would come back and pay for it all himself. Which of these, Jesus asked the lawyer, was the man’s neighbor?
What Jesus did there was use prejudice against itself. He took the single story that people had about the Samaritan people and made them good. He did not condemn them for false beliefs, incorrect practice, differing ethnicity, economic level, or anything. Instead, he showed the lawyer how this Samaritan, while still being a Samaritan, was good. There was nothing wrong with him being a Samaritan. In fact, he was perhaps more capable of being a good neighbor than even the most pious.
That is what Paul is asking us to do. We need to see each other as people of value, not as abstract concepts that can be either cherished or ignored, valued or despised. Just like it did not matter that this man was a Samaritan, it does not matter that you are black or white, Greek or independent, rich or poor, male or female — God loves you and I love you. We love you.
BUT — while does it not matter that you are any of these things, we ought to celebrate the fact that you are these things. We ought to celebrate the way that God made you and who you have become, not allow something that might be different about us to divide us. ‘Cause here’s the thing about God that I think we too easily forget.
We remember God as Creator all the time, but we forget that God is also Sustainer. Each and every day, God elects to preserve us, you and me. God chooses to sustain you and love you not just because you are. God does not love you in spite of who you are. God loves you — God loves you because you are who are. Right now. God loves you. God chose to make you and God actively chooses to sustain you. God loves you. Period.
What happens if we realize that about each other? Look to your right and left again. God loves him. God loves her. He or she is more than how you or I want to name them right now. She or he is more than labels. His or her adjectives are not her or his nouns. All of our nouns are best summed up in one:
For, through Jesus Christ, we are all heirs to God’s promise — and God keeps his promises.
May God bless and keep us all, regardless of those things that may divide us. Amen.