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Clothed With Christ

Sermon - 6/20/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Galatians 3:23-29

If you've been following along in our study on Paul's letter to the Galatians the last few weeks, by now the situation should be very clear -- that the gospel message as proclaimed by Paul is under attack by a certain group. That attack is coming not from Jews opposed to this new Christian teaching (like the former Saul, before he became Paul, seeking to purify the synagogue) -- rather it is Christian missionaries who come from a Jewish background who believe that these new Gentile converts of Paul's mission should also become Jewish converts, thereby severely altering and curtailing Paul's message of freedom in Christ.

And so in response, Paul defends his message, first of all by defending his authority as an apostle who has received of the gospel message directly from Christ in that vision, and secondly by developing the concept of justification by faith -- the idea that faith in Christ, or as we saw last week in that footnote that I highlighted, the faith of Christ, that faith alone is sufficient to make us 'right' with God.

And so now we come to the climax of Paul's letter, and what I think is one of the most radical statements in all of Scripture. Earlier in Chapter 3 of this letter, Paul refers to the promise of God to Abraham as the father of a new nation, a new people. It comes some 430 years before the law is given to Moses. And so Paul, in effect, is saying that if God's people can live that long without the law, can we not as a people of faith today do the same? Nevertheless, the law does serve a purpose, and he describes that purpose briefly then in this text, reading from versus 23 through 29 of Chapter 3:

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There 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. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abrahamís offspring, heirs according to the promise.


So I invite you to think deeply with me about these three pairs of opposites that Paul uses to make his argument of the unity in Christ, and what that says to us about the faith in, or the faith of, Jesus.

First, there is no longer Jew or Greek. Ethnic divisions in the ancient world were probably stronger than they are today, if we can imagine such. But, the Jews weren't only ones who thought the of the world in that way. There's us, and then there is everybody else. I love the addition to the verse in 'Down by the Riverside', that we're going to 'lay down our us and them' down by the riverside. That was very old thinking, of course. Greeks and Romans referred to other people as "barbarians". There's us, and then there's the barbarians.

For those of us who may be going on the pilgrimage of the first century that we hope to take next year (that will take us to Turkey and Greece and Italy and the like), one of the things that we will see is the way in which those barbarians are consistently portrayed in Roman and Greek art as a subject of defeated, and therefore inferior, people.

Secondly, there is no longer slave or free. Now, slavery, of course, was an integral part of ancient economies. But it did not have the same racial character that it took on in this country. While Romans could not typically be slaves in the Roman empire, just about anyone else could. One of the highly sought-out slaves in every Roman household was a Greek who could teach the classics of literature. So think about that -- a slave who is highly educated in Greek literature and could pass on that knowledge, especially to the children of that household.

So that slave typically held a pretty high standing, not just within that family, but within society. The primary source of slaves in that world came as spoils of war. And hence, slavery could be very brutal as well. Especially for young boys, who were prized by the Roman elite males for their sexual favors. But slaves also could, and often did, purchase or earn their freedom. And thus slavery was not necessarily a lifetime sentence. Those who've been to Ephesus, or those who may be going to Ephesus next year as part of that pilgrimage, we will see one of the prominent features of that ancient city -- the arch that symbolizes Ephesus that was built by a freed slave as his tribute of thanks to the Emperor.  So slavery was a mixed bag.

There is no longer male and female. Now, set aside for a moment the peculiar change of the conjunction here. Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. I'll get back to that in just a moment.

The division of gender is probably the greatest change we see from the ancient society to our own. Women typically were not citizens of those societies. They had no legal status. They were rarely educated, they typically had no choice in whom to marry, almost always dependent on men (either fathers or husbands, or whoever the patriarch of the family was). One of the exceptions in the New Testament that is so prominent in the story of Acts is Lydia, the seller of purple goods. So there were those exceptions.

But the cultural dominance of patriarchal tradition is evident in the New Testament itself, by the virtue that the equality that was practiced by Paul (of men and women) was reversed by the time the letters of Timothy were written, to close the New Testament period some 70 to 80 years later. And hence we have those statements attributed to Paul (that were most certainly not from Paul) telling women to be silent in the church and the like.

Now, Paul spent most of his energy on the first of these opposites -- Jews or Greek. Not because the other two were not important, but because the focus of his mission was on the Gentiles. Or, as Paul calls them, the Greeks. And breaking that division, or barrier, was a necessary prerequisite of his mission, if his mission was to succeed. And given that emphasis, and that the primary theme of this letter is freedom from the law (namely, from living as a Jew in this Christian faith), why does Paul even bring up these other two issues?

I mean, doesn't he have enough to worry about with just that without taking on slavery and women's equality? Why even go there?

In 1967, when Martin Luther King started to speak out against the war in Vietnam, remember what happened? His advisers tried to stop him. Said, you know, what does civil rights have to do with foreign policy? It might confuse the issue. It's hard enough as it is, let's not complicate things.

If Paul had advisers like that, I would imagine they would have said the same thing. 'Listen, Paul, we can't afford to alienate slave owners, they are our wealthiest supporters'. Don't forget, Jesus said if you want to be a first of all you must be a slave to all. And as to this male and female thing, look at what we've done for women already -- I mean, isn't it enough that women are worshipping with us, and eating with us? We've gone further than anyone else has before. I mean, if you keep talking like this, the next thing you know, women are going to want to be preachers. God forbid :).

So, why not keep our focus on Jews and Gentile, and not worry about the rest? Now, who knows, maybe Paul had such advisers. Probably Paul received that kind of criticism, and maybe that's the reason why he does not make a big issue of the other two issues. And even if Paul never used these three pairs again (he does use two of them, by the way, in 1 Corinthians 12 -- slave or Greek, Jew or Gentile, doesn't mention male and female in that situation). But even if he didn't emphasize those other two as much as he does the division between Jews and Gentiles, he does use all three here not because they were the only three divisions which would challenge the church over the centuries, the only three divisions that concerned Paul, but because they are precisely the three that most clearly illustrate the same point: that we are one in Christ regardless of any such division within the rest of the world that is around us.

And this is the idea, I think, is more radical than most anything else in Scripture. Even loving our enemies. I mean, think for a moment how deeply racial divisions remain within our country 150 years after the Civil War, even after the election of an African-American President, and compare that to how we viewed Germans and Japanese during World War II, and even in the decade or two thereafter. As compared to today, where they are viewed as among our closest allies.

So my point is that it's often easier to love enemies than it is to break down barriers of race and language and religion and gender and sexual orientation and class and any other division within society. Witness now the strife in Kurdistan that we see, and how often we see that in so many other places.

We have some librarians working in our library to modernize in. Kyoko is one of those helping out, with Jane and Sue Ree. They've been weeding out old books, and so there's some boxes of books there that we'll be including in our book sale, and if you're interested you can go take a look. So they asked me to take a look to make sure there weren't any gems in there, and I found a couple. One that caught my attention was "This I Believe" by Edward R. Murrow, the great journalist from 40-50 years ago. Many will remember that radio series (NPR has been bringing it back occasionally), where leading citizens of the world talk about their fundamental beliefs. And I was struck in particular by one here from Dag Hammarskjold, who was the second General Secretary of the United Nations. He was killed on a peacekeeping mission in a plane crash, and in his briefcase they found a copy of the charter of the United Nations (you'd expect that from the General Secretary) a copy of the New Testament, and a copy of the Psalms. That's all he carried with him. And he writes of his fundamental beliefs, and he talks about his parents, very appropriate for this Father's Day:

"From generations of soldiers and government officials on my father's side (his father was the Prime Minister of Sweden during World War I), I inherited a belief that no life was more satisfactory than one of selfless service to your country or humanity. This service requires sacrifice of all personal interests, but likewise the courage to stand up unflinchingly for your convictions. From scholars and clergymen on my mother's side, I inherited a belief that in the very radical sense of the Gospels, all men were equals as children of God and should be met and treated by us as our masters in God".

Hammarskjold refers to the Gospels rather than to Paul, but the point is the same. And I think it is worthy for us to note that this great world statesman, who gave his life in the quest for peace, saw equality of humanity as a radical notion, 'very radical', he says, based in the tenants of Christian faith.

Paul here refers not to equality but to unity, which I think is even a higher standard to achieve. Look at our political parties today in this country, more or less equal Republican and Democrat, but they can't find unity within themselves, let alone unity between them in some of the toughest issues that face our nation.

The symbol that Paul uses for our unity in Christ is baptism. Which in ancient times was done and the nude. The practice was that you would disrobe, lose all of your old clothing, be baptized, and you would be given a new robe. Symbolic of that new life in Christ.

And so Paul speaks here of being 'clothed' in Christ in that kind of sense. For Paul, this is much more than a metaphor for a new spiritual reality. It represented a significant change, not only in the life of the individual, but also in the life of the community.

So, last week I made this big deal out of the footnote, in which the Greek preposition for 'in' can also be translated 'of'. And by the way, you'll see the same footnote in verse 22 just prior to our text for this morning, where faith "in" Jesus Christ can equally be translated as faith "of" Jesus Christ. Equally valid translations with significant different meanings.

This morning I want to make a similar point, not with a preposition but with a conjunction, as I promised.

Jew or Greek, slave or free, male AND female.

Now, here it's not because of the ambiguity of the translation, the Greek is very clear -- one word for "or", a different word for "and". So it's kind of peculiar -- why does Paul break the pattern and switch to and?

It calls to mind Genesis 1:27: God created humankind, male and female. God created them in his image. So how important is this 2,000 year-old ritual that we do, baptizing new disciples in the name of of the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit? Alluding to Genesis 1 is Paul's way of saying becoming one in Christ, taking on this identity, is a whole new creation. It is a whole new reality. It is as big and significant as creation itself. That is how important it is.

Thus, through faith in, or through the faith of Jesus, you have been made into a new being.

There's not much debate currently about a whole "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military. And people sometimes ask, what's the church policy in these things? And I'll tell you: we don't ask if you're a Republican or Democrat. We don't ask if you're rich or poor. We don't ask if your blue-collar or white collar. We don't ask if you're a citizen or an immigrant, legal or not. We certainly don't ask if you're gay or straight.

You can tell all you want, but to be a member of this community, of God's people, the only requirement, the only thing we ask is have you been clothed in Christ? Have you taken on the faith of Jesus as your own? That is all that matters when counting who belongs to the body of Christ.

And so that what it means to be an open and affirming congregation. It goes much further than simply not discriminating. It is to embrace and welcome every person as God made us, as a child of God, regardless for God made us. We are a new creation.

Now, I don't know how far Paul thought through what he was doing. Sometimes I think 'Paul, you didn't think that through all the way'. But doing away with centuries-old norms of social convention? I do know this, he didn't say, for the sake of unity, what we often say: "Let's agree to disagree", and then we can get along. No, there's none of that wishy-washy 'pseudo-unity'. Instead, Paul makes his most forceful, strongest argument based on our identity as Christian people to say "Let's all agree, that when you go through that baptism, no other division matters". Because you have taken on the clothing of Christ. You have taken on the faith of Jesus.

Now, it seems just as crazy today as then. But I think that Paul's vision for the church, where there are no divisions, no hierarchies, no distinctions that separate us one from another, I think he takes that from Jesus' vision for all humanity for which the church is simply a model of what the world is to be. What Jesus calls the kingdom of God. That is, how the world would be if heaven came down to earth.

And Paul says, this is how such a world will look, right here. With all kinds of people. All sizes and shapes and colors and abilities and lifestyles, all working and sharing together, along side of each other. Equal. United in Christ.

That is what we are called to do, and to be.

May it be.


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