June 19, 2016 …. Galatians 3:23-29, Pastor Phil Fenton
You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26-28
Several days ago, before the mass killings in Orlando, it was the death of Muhammed Ali, professional boxer and social activist, that the world was talking about. In his rise to celebrity status he was a huge, brash and unavoidable presence, in a way this country had never seen a black man be huge and brash and unavoidable. From my earliest years I abhorred racism in any form or degree, but even I was often taken aback by Ali’s in-your-face cockiness. His intense light let me see clearly that even I am quick to see differences in people and as quick to perceive their difference as a threat.
This epiphany came during a speech he made. I can’t remember where or exactly when. But it was that speech that both exposed an ugly truth and galvanized my resolve to spend my life building bridges between people, not walls.
“I am America.” he said. “I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals. Get used to me.”
What I became aware of that day was something someone has called “an opposite impulse.” Let me set it up for you like this: I think that people want to connect with others. They want to be heard and seen, and are curious to hear and see others who populate their existence. But that impulse is constantly at odds with an opposite impulse, which is to reduce our exposure to a world that has grown way too big to comprehend. Our brains were designed to handle a fairly small social network of maybe a few dozen other people – a tribe. Beyond that size, we start to get overwhelmed.
And yet here we are in a world of over 6 billion people, all of whom are now inextricably linked together. You don’t need to travel to influence lives on the other side of the globe. All you have to do is buy a cup of coffee or a tank of gas. Your tribe has grown into an impossibly vast social network, whether you like it or not. The problem, I believe, isn’t that the world has changed, it’s that your primitive caveman brain hasn’t. We are good at seeing differences. You can quickly pick out those who look or behave differently, and unless you actively override the tendency, you will perceive them as a threat.
One of the ways I have used to combat that opposite impulse is to travel, to thrust myself into other cultures, languages and customs – and not just superficially as a tourist, but to immerse myself as much as I can in the experience of those most different from me, to learn what they might have to teach me. When I travel with that agenda, differences seem smaller. The world seems simpler, and my brain finds that comforting.
As I watched our VBS children interact this past week, as I observe young people in general today, I am encouraged that they seem to be doing a better job with holding in check this opposite impulse. I think they are developing brains ever so slightly better suited to the vast complexity that surrounds them. They are more curious, more eager to absorb and to connect. And I believe when they look into eyes of strangers, what they see before the differences are the things that are the same.
That opposite impulse, which perceives the difference in others as a threat, is what Paul was confronting as he wrote to the Galatians. If you were Jewish and male and self-supporting in the mid-first century, you began your every day with this prayer:
Thank you, Lord, for not making me a Gentile, a slave or a woman.
Let’s confess: in our subconscious minds, at least, you and I pray a similar prayer nearly every day of our lives. Who are you glad you are not like? How much comfort do you gain from surrounding yourself with sameness, separating yourself from those who are different, avoiding with disdain those you don’t understand?
Thank you, Lord, for not making me like___________. You fill in the blank.
What you have just confessed is the sin of solipsism– the belief that the whole world isme and my experience – or should be. A solipsist carefully constructs a world with ever shrinking circles of diversity – a congenial little world populated exclusively by his own likeness. In the process of living he shrinks the limits of the world to the dimensions of his own horizons. What he sees is all that exists. His own present understanding is the measure of all things.
And maybe that works fine for you. But then you go to church – and things get
messy and uncomfortable, because, unless you are totally insular, there you
confronted with different ideologies, different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different lifestyles. You have to sit in a pew next to someone you would have only gossiped about outside of Sunday morning.
Thank you, Lord, for not making me a foreigner, a slave or a woman.
The biggest problem of the early church was not belief in the Virgin Birth or the doctrine of the Trinity or the proper understanding of Scriptural inspiration. It was people problems. It wasn’t big, deep-water theological issues that Paul constantly had to write to his fledgling churches about. It was the small irritants – the people stuff, the prideful narrow-mindedness of people. The unity of the church was the most pressing pastoral problem of the New Testament congregation. In particular, it is the Gentile problem that Paul addresses. If it were up to the congregation’s leadership, non-Jews were not going to be part of Christ’s church. You can’t have purity of faith and protection from outside influences if you let anyone and everyone in. Paul followed Jesus’ lead and confronted solipsism in the Galatian church. The gentile Greeks belong in the church as much as anyone belongs, he said. And he offended some folks.
“In Christ’s church there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” This actually became the creedal statement used at Christian baptism in the early church. What the church wanted to say in baptism was that there is a reality larger than the one you would create for yourself. There is a kingdom that is out to overthrow the Kingdom of Me and Those Just Like Me. It’s called the Kingdom of God.
Baptism is such a destabilizing force in our lives – if we understand it correctly. I don’t know how many of you realized it, but when you brought your children to baptism, you were giving them away, surrendering them to a way of life that would often be in conflict with the way of life you envision for them. You will teach them that their security in life is through a good education and perhaps being good at a sport and in the accumulation of wealth. And the Lord of their baptismal kingdom will come along and say, “You can gain all that and still lose your soul”. You might teach them that what matters most in this life is family or patriotism, and their Lord will say, “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself,” and “Love your enemies.”
We way over-sentimentalize baptism: “All Johnson babies are baptized in the same gown that Grandma Sarah was baptized in.” “All Smith babies are baptized in St. Paul’s church.” But have you ever noticed that we don’t use last names in baptism? That’s on purpose. Baptism is not a Johnson thing or a Smith thing. It’s a God-thing. It’s an uprising, a rebellion against all other kingdoms. The kingdom of your baptism will be at constant war with the kingdom of kin and country and race and economics – all those other kingdoms seeking your ultimate loyalty that belongs to God alone.
The congregation I previously served once had a friendly debate over “Should a county’s flag be on display in a Christian sanctuary?” I was familiar with the “yes” side of the debate. As I listened, I found the “no” side compelling. Those on that side insisted that in your baptism your citizenship in a single country was revoked and you were given an international passport. Your baptism made you a citizen of the world, they said. It gave you a mandate to develop a heart for all people, including your country’s enemies. When you walk into a Christian sanctuary, what your eyes see needs to send the message that God is bigger than country, bigger than national pride – that there is neither Jew nor Palestinian, American nor Saudi. Our commitment as baptized people is to all the children of God.
I have heard that human beings cannot comprehend a quantity larger than seven without counting or grouping. So to deal with large quantities, we group them. We talk about men and women and thus reduce the 6 billion individuals on this planet to two handy groups. We divide the human race into groups and categories we can handle, and it becomes people like me and people like them. And the trouble begins.
We no longer see the individual. We no longer understand that each person we meet, however different from ourselves, is a holy encounter. Years ago my home congregation debated “Should women be ordained?” It was easy to stay superficial and theoretical and safe – engage no one in an authentic encounter. Then it got personal. A girl named Karen in the congregation announced that she felt called to ministry. Now the question was, “Should Karen be ordained?” That compelled us to get to know Karen, to listen to her reason for wanting to serve God as a pastor, know her as a person who loves God and is loved by God, to hear her struggles to have her call validated. After doing that, there was no doubt in my mind that Karen would be a wonderful pastor.
You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Two millennia ago, Paul proclaimed a social revolution with these words. In a world characterized by ethnic and religious hatreds, slavery, strict patriarchy and male dominance, Paul taught the radical equality of all baptized believers in Christ. This is still the truth proclaimed in churches where God’s Spirit is present. Amen.