One by faith in Christ

Knowing our expectations of others, especially outsiders, is more important than we realize.  Good boundaries may keep things in good order, but may also keep us from seeing God and following the Spirit.

Full Text: 

One by faith in Christ

May 12, 2013 – Galatians 3:23-29

 

            Sylvia and I have two sons – Peter and Michael.  Peter is 32 and lives in Seattle. Michael is 29 and lives in Baltimore.  They are both healthy and happy, so far as we know.  And this is all a parent – any mother or any father – really can hope for.

            But I find that I have other expectations of them.  You see, when I was 32, I had gotten married.  I had received a Master’s degree.  I had been ordained.  I had two sons.  And I had nearly five years of pastoral experience under my belt.

            One of our sons has a girlfriend, but neither is married and neither has fathered any children.  They both have jobs (with health insurance!), but at this point it doesn’t exactly look like they have started on careers. 

            They are working out their lives in their own way.  Compared with me, they are definitely behind schedule.  I could maintain my expectations for them.  But that would mean I would live further from them than I already do, not only physically, but emotionally.  And they would distance themselves from me.

So, I have had to do some letting go of my expectations for them.   I have had to change in the way I think they are living out their lives.  But it helps me to remain connected to them.

 

            When other people take a place in our lives, they don’t always fit our expectations.  If they are to continue in our lives, then either they need to change or we need to change.  It happens in personal relationships.  It happens in families.  And it happens in churches.  In fact, it’s been part of the story of the church from the very beginning.

            As you remember, Stephen was a Hellenist – a Greek-speaking Christian in Jerusalem – who was one of seven set apart for ministry to the Hellenist widows.  Because of his outspoken witness to the gospel, Stephen was stoned to death – the first Christian martyr.  As tragic as it was, it forced the church out of its shell.  The church began to reach out to Judea and Samaria, just as Jesus had told them.

            So it was that Philip, another one of those seven, was led by the Holy Spirit into Samaria and then down the wilderness road south from Jerusalem.  There he met an Ethiopian eunuch, who was returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  He is a Jew, but a marginal one at best.  He has two strikes against him – he is a foreigner and he is a eunuch. 

Since the man was reading the prophet Isaiah, Philip told him about Jesus.  In this Jesus, Philip told him, all the promises of God have been fulfilled – including to foreigners and eunuchs, people who had been marginalized by the law of Moses.  And so the man was baptized.

            Then there was the conversion of Saul – the persecutor of Christians, who became Paul.  There was the conversion of the Roman soldier, Cornelius, and the vision of Peter.  The Holy Spirit continued to push the church out of its comfort zone – to new places and to new people.  But this also raised a question – what do we do about outsiders?  Do we expect them to become like us?  Primarily, do we expect them (the men, at least) to become circumcised?  For circumcision had been the foundational mark of belonging to the people of God.  It was the visible sign of identity for the people of Israel.

            So, a council was convened at Jerusalem.  (Read the whole story in Acts 15.)  There was debate.  There was discernment.  It was decided that circumcision was not longer the defining mark, but rather the defining mark would be faith.  In the words of Peter:

And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. (Acts 15:8-9)

            This is the issue that comes up in Galatia, as you heard last Sunday, although Pastor Eyster did not preach on this topic.  From what we know, this issue arose in Galatia before the Council at Jerusalem.  But in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we have what a historian would call, “primary source material.”  Here we have Paul’s own account of his conversion and of the issue of circumcision.   

            Paul was an expert in keeping the old ways.  Nobody did the old ways better than Paul.  The question was: Do new people have to keep the old ways?

            Paul answers with a resounding, “No!”  It is faith alone that straightens things out between us and God.  And it is faith alone that creates new life within us.

For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,* who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20)

 

            What becomes of the law?  What was its purpose? (Now at last we come to today’s reading!)  The law was a “disciplinarian,” Paul says.  The Greek word refers to a servant who would accompany a child to school.  They would make sure that the child would be safe – not play in the street and not get beat up by the school bully – and that they child would be well-behaved – not steal an apple as they walked through the market.

            The law as a kind of babysitter that protected us and restrained us until faith in Jesus should come.  This faith is now the mark which crosses all barriers – social, economic, gender. 

            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.

 

            This makes a great sermon.  It sounds wonderful in theory, but it is far more difficult to live in real life.  You mean, I actually have to eat lunch with those people?  I don’t know where they’ve been.  If they were more like me, it’d be fine.  But I don’t even like to be around them.  How can I be one with them?

            Our keynote speaker at synod assembly was Sara Miles.  Sara did not go to church as a child.  She was, in fact, raised as an atheist.  She lived her life as a restaurant cook and writer, until one day, at the age of 46, she was drawn to St. Gregory’s of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.  Even though she was just visiting and had never been baptized, she took communion.  It took a while, but she fell in love with Jesus.  She got baptized.  And she began a food pantry at St. Gregory’s.

            You can read more about her in her book, Take this bread.  It is an inspiring story, but it is not all sweetness and light and feel-Good Samaritan stories.  While she had to overcome a good deal of resistance at St. Gregory’s in order to start and maintain this community feeding program, she had her own resistance.  She recounted one such instance in her address last Sunday morning:

When I complained about a filthy, argumentative visitor to the food pantry at my church, a guy I kept wanting to bounce, one friend said, ruefully: “Sara, if you want to see God, sometimes you have to sit in the smoking section.” 

 

Sara spoke not of “welcoming the stranger,” but of “glorifying the stranger.”  Welcoming the stranger means doing good for someone else, but without having to change ourselves.  Glorifying the stranger means that we become vulnerable, that we stand open to change for the sake of the stranger – and even for our sake.  This does not mean that we have no boundaries or allow people to walk all over us. It does mean that we do not expect other people to become like us – or even pretend to be like us while we are around.  It means that if we hide behind our boundaries and our expectations, then we may miss out on the chance to see God and to be changed in the seeing.

For this God is the one who unites us all – Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female – smart and slow, sweet and smelly, soft and sassy – liberal and conservative, gay and straight, fundamentalist Christian and ardent atheist.  God crosses all barriers, not so that we might know who we are apart from everyone else, but so that we might know who God is and who we are in everyone else.