Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 23, 2019
Galatians 3:23-29 Commentary
Too many white Americans including Christians have made a mess of race relations by endorsing the horrors of things like Native American displacement, slavery, Japanese-American internment camps and even real estate redlining. In fact, whether it’s in connection with the abomination that is racial profiling or the controversy that surrounds affirmative action, we still manage to smudge race relations.
It makes me think of an unforgettable conversation I once had with a friend who is African-American and was a parent of one of my son’s high school classmates. She told me how she had recently prepared her teenaged son to drive his car to a meeting in a nearby county.
My friend told me she felt she had to tell him how to behave if the police stopped him. She was afraid of what the authorities might do to her son if he somehow, in their view, stepped out of line. That kind of conversation I’d never even contemplated having with my own white sons was a chilling reminder that Americans still have much to do in the area of race relations.
In the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday Paul insists there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. Christians, however, sometimes have a hard time not just practicing but also even seeing that unity. At least some of what we not only witness but also practice, in fact, seems to belie that unity, even, or perhaps especially, in the church.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once called the eleven o’clock hour “the most racially segregated in America.” He seemed to mean that American Christians were seldom more racially segregated than when they were in church on Sunday. A quick glance around even the wonderful church I pastor suggests that we haven’t made much visible progress in that area in our fifty-year history.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. Yet God’s adopted sons and daughters naturally focus more closely on the things that distinguish us than the One who unites us.
Our text’s Paul has been harshly scolding the Galatians for suspecting that they can somehow rescue themselves from God’s punishment that they deserve. He reminds them that God justified, that is accepted, Abraham because of his faith that received God’s grace.
Abraham, however, as Paul goes on to insist, isn’t the only one whom God blesses in this way. In fact, God richly blesses all those with whom God graciously gifts faith. So now both Jews and Gentiles know the marvelous blessing of God’s gift of faith.
That’s why Paul can sing, “There is neither Jew nor Greek … for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” God is not first of all our Judge who has used the law to condemn and imprison prisoners who must dread the punishment we deserve. God is, instead, our Father who, in Christ, has forgiven us. God’s people are God’s grown-up children, enjoying the status of those who are adopted heirs of his glorious kingdom.
How does all of this happen? What turns God’s enemies into God’s children? “Christ,” writes Paul in verse 13, “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” It’s a way of saying that Jesus Christ made us God’s adopted children by accepting the punishment we deserve for our sins.
Yet because of what Christ has done, we don’t just belong to God as God’s adopted children. You and I also belong to each other as Christian brothers and sisters. All Christians are siblings in Jesus Christ. After all, because of what Christ has done, there is “neither Jew nor Greek.”
God called Abraham and his Hebrew descendants in order to reveal himself to them. Yet in Christ that God extends that revelation to all of God’s adopted Jewish and Gentile sons and daughters. So now people of all races aren’t just equal in our inability to earn our salvation. Those whom God chooses are also equal in our salvation that God graciously gives us.
That also means that within God’s family there is neither “slave nor free.” Nearly every society in the history of the world has had system of classifying people by their social status. Things like our backgrounds, wealth, power and education have divided people ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin. In Christ, however, Christians don’t look down on people from whom we differ. We don’t see things like our socio-economic status, job titles or academic accomplishments as any reason to treat each other differently.
God’s saving work in Jesus Christ also means, however, that there is neither “male nor female.” This assertion, with which even many people who are currently outside of God’s family, would agree, was far ahead of its time. After all, men almost universally despised and often mistreated women in Paul’s day. Here, however, the apostle, whom some claim, mistakenly, I think, was sexist, insists that men and women are on and equal in God’s eyes.
So in one sense God is color- and gender-blind. God sees each one of us, black and white, male and female, powerful and powerless, rich and poor, as naturally sinful. God sees every person, regardless of race, gender or social status, as in desperate need of God’s grace.
Yet as one of my colleagues notes, in another sense, when God looks at people, God sees two colors. But they’re not the colors we so often see. They’re, instead, the colors of deep darkness and bright red. When God looks at people, God sees the colors of the spiritual darkness in which some choose to stubbornly live and the red that is Christ’s blood. God sees people who have either rejected God’s grace or have let Christ’s blood wash away our sins.
Christ’s work doesn’t obliterate racial, social and sexual distinctions. God’s adopted sons and daughters aren’t color- and gender-blind in that sense that we ignore the color of a person’s skin or someone’s gender. Christians don’t overlook the real pain that society has historically attached to skin color, gender and social status. Nor do we ignore the cultural backgrounds from which other Christians come. Instead we treasure those differences, cherishing the way our diversity enriches and enlivens the body of Jesus Christ. In fact,
The distinctions on which we so often focus no longer erect barriers to Christian fellowship.
By God’s grace God people resist the temptation to despise or look down on each other. After all, Christians recognize that those who have faithfully received God’s grace are all “one.” Because of what Christ has done, we recognize each other as equals, brothers and sisters, by God’s grace, in Christ.
That at least implies that Christians no longer find our primary identity in our race, social status, gender, background or any other divisive construct. No, God’s adopted sons and daughters find our chief identity in God’s redeeming work for us in Jesus Christ.
How, then, shall we live? We perhaps begin by confessing to God and each other that we’ve not always lived up to this creed. Perhaps especially white folks like me, who have grasped and held so much power in America and its church, must confess our mistreatment of people of all sorts of colors.
We confess that we’ve turned a blind eye to things like slavery, segregation and, even now, racial profiling. God’s people confess that we’ve largely ignored the systematic abuse and exploitation of Latino, Asian, Arab and other immigrants. While there may be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, we admit that we haven’t always lived in ways that reflect that unity.
However, we also seek to be churches that are hospitable to people of all types. Perhaps especially when people who are different from us walk in our doors, we go out of our way to make sure they feel welcome and included. You and I do everything we can to ensure that our fellowships are ones where race, gender and social status make no difference.
What’s more, our unity in Christ Jesus means that even when theological differences divide us, we find ways to celebrate our unity. God’s beloved adopted children look for opportunities to worship, work and minister with people with whom virtually the only thing we may have in common is God’s grace at work in our lives.
After all, while God has not yet obliterated our differences, God has graciously minimized their importance by uniting God’s adopted sons and daughters. God has already done all the “heavy lifting.” God’s beloved people simply need to find ways to live out that precious unity.
Imagine for a moment that you’re walking with someone out to the parking lot after a worship service. As you walk and talk, you notice a couple of people standing and talking together out in the lot.
One of those people is a man, the other a woman. One is quite tall, the other relatively short. One is fairly heavy, the other fairly trim. One has brown hair, the other black. One’s hair is graying a bit, the other’s is not. One is wearing a stylish brown coat, the other a ragged green one. One is smiling, the other is not. And, oh yes, by the way, one’s skin color is darker than the other’s.
Now imagine saying something like, “I think I know that person.” And your companion answers, “Which one?” How might you answer? How might any of us answer a similar question in a comparable setting?
Of course, you might refer to the person’s comparative height or weight. You could point to the color of the person’s hair or coat. It’s possible you’d refer to the gender or relative age of the person I think I know. However, if you’re anything like me, you’re naturally most likely to identify the person by the color of his or her skin. By nature I would answer, “The black guy,” or “The white woman.”
You probably wouldn’t be, however, alone in that. After all, while North America has made some progress in the area of racial reconciliation, we still have a hard time seeing beyond the color of a person’s skin. Even those who proclaim Galatians 3’s lovely truths may have much left to fully live out Paul’s bold claim that we are all “one in Christ Jesus.”
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