We have departed from the narrative lectionary for the past four Sundays due to special things going on – youth Sunday, children’s service, mother’s day, and baccalaureate service. Most of what we have missed were passages from the book of Acts about important happenings in the formation of the early Christian church. The story is of a radical altering of principles of society and religion that occur within fifty years of the death of Jesus as a result of his great commission to the disciples to take the Gospel into all the world and the work of the Holy Spirit in breaking down barriers. It is difficult for us to imagine the extent of change these folks were asked to embrace.
The first followers of Christ were Jews, including Saul who became Paul after his conversion from fire breathing Pharisee to fire breathing apostle to the Gentiles. Jews believed that anyone who was not a Jew was subhuman, a Gentile, not to be associated with in any way. Jews believed that slaves and women were both property and had no rights. Well, as these early Christians witnessed the pouring out of the Spirit on Gentiles and the leadership roles many of them took on in the church, and remembered the dedication of the women who followed Jesus and saw the courage and leadership of women in their own day, these assumptions began to crumble. And when Paul took these changes to their logical conclusion, he was forced to exclaim in wonder, “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.” While I am tempted to use this as an argument that we should treat everyone equally, Paul is specifically talking about people within the household of faith, those who are “in Christ,” so I will stick with that today. I’m sure you will agree that it is difficult enough to do that.
Paul’s argument through the whole of chapter 3 is very interesting. He is arguing with the Galatians that obedience to the law is no longer required, but only faith is needed for salvation. Other missionaries have come along behind him who have taught that it is necessary for Christians to continue obeying all the Jewish laws, and Paul vehemently disagrees.
He tells them to think back to Abraham, the father of their faith. Genesis says that Abraham simply “believed God,” and was regarded by God as righteous as a result. He was the recipient of God’s promises. The law didn’t even come along until 430 years later at the time of Moses, and the law did not change the promises which Abraham had received. And of course Abraham is regarded as the father of three of the world’s great religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, so it all began with Abraham and his faithful response to God.
What, then, did Paul see as the role of the law? He says it was a gift from God to try to keep us out of trouble until Jesus came. He wrote, “The law was our custodian 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.” He is emphasizing how much more important Jesus is than the law for Christians.
In his letter to the Philippians Paul outlines the exemplary life he had led as a Jewish Pharisee, then makes the surprising assessment that he counts all of those achievements as nothing more than garbage piled on the dung heap when compared with the value of knowing Jesus Christ as his Lord. John Calvin applied that to all of us when he wrote in the Institutes, “The whole righteousness of the human race, gathered together in one heap, could not make compensation for a single sin.” (p. 780) He also wrote, “If we are judged by our own worth, whatever we plan or undertake, with all our efforts and labors we still deserve death and destruction.” (p. 777)
Being obedient to the law and earning our salvation that way, then, is not an option for any of us. But Paul assures us, “now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a guardian, 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.”
That’s another fascinating image for me, that all who are baptized into Christ have clothed themselves with Christ. Ambrose, one of the early church fathers, compared that to the story of Jacob and Isaac. You remember that when Isaac was old and blind and dying, he called for his oldest son Esau to go hunting and fix his favorite meal and he would give him his blessing. Isaac’s wife Rebekkah conspired with her other son Jacob to trick Isaac into giving him the blessing instead. She cooked Isaac’s favorite foods for him while Esau was out hunting. Jacob dressed in Esau’s clothes and put animal skins on his arms and neck so he would feel hairy like his brother. Jacob went in to his father, who was doubtful. He said, “Come near, that I may feel you, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” He did and Isaac felt him and smelled his garments. He said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau,” and he blessed him.
Ambrose said that the same thing Jacob did by deception Jesus does for us when we appear before God. He wrote, “We in like manner hide under the precious purity of our first-born brother, Christ, so that we may be attested in God’s sight… in order that we may appear before God’s face unto salvation we must smell sweetly with Christ’s odor, and our vices must be covered and buried by his perfection.” (Calvin, p. 753)
Calvin said that when God looks at us he does not see us in our sinfulness and rebelliousness, he sees the face of Christ which covers our sins. He wrote, “Our righteousness is not in us but in Christ. We possess it only because we are partakers in Christ; indeed, with him we possess all its riches.” (p. 753)
You know how sometimes ideas are discussed and even implemented about having uniforms for students in schools so that children don’t feel inferior or superior because of the clothing they wear? Paul says that Christians have all “clothed ourselves with Christ” in baptism. We all look the same to God. We are equal.
Unfortunately, people are seldom satisfied with being equal, even as Christians. We want to have an edge. We try to clothe ourselves as Christians in various kinds of ways to show our superiority. Some try to prove they are more involved in caring for the poor and needy; others try to prove they have a deeper spirituality and more disciplined prayer life; others try to prove they are smarter and understand theology better. Some believe they are “better” Christians because they demonstrate against abortion, or for same sex marriage; some because they speak in tongues and clap and shout in worship, others because they are quiet and worship. We feel superior if our church is growing, or we feel superior by looking down on megachurches.
When you have been brought to your knees as Paul was on the road to Damascus and you know you have been saved in spite of yourself, it teaches you humility. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see. So Paul emphasizes that all Christians are clothed with Christ and are equal. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” He takes the most vivid separations possible in his day and time and declares them null and void.
William Barclay writes, “In the Jewish form of morning prayer, which Paul must have used all his pre-Christian life, there is a thanksgiving in which the Jew thanks God that ‘thou hast not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.’ Paul takes that prayer and reverses it. The old distinctions are gone; for the disunity there is unity; for the separation there is communion; all are one in Christ.” (p. 35)
There is no longer Jew or Greek. This was the great societal barrier in those days. Jewish people regarded non-Jews as so unclean that they could not touch them or eat with them. Greeks regarded anyone who was not Greek as a barbarian. For Paul to make the claim that in Christ the distinctions and barriers between these groups are made irrelevant would be astonishing and offensive to both groups.
There is no longer slave or free. For us, with our heritage, those words immediately conjure up a racial difference. That would not have been true in Paul’s day. Anyone could end up a slave for a period of time due to economic situations. But in either context, to say that in Christ distinctions between slave and free person are brought down is astonishing.
There is no longer male or female. Females were regarded as property in those patriarchal times and had few rights. In asserting their equality within Christianity, Paul was way before his time. Unfortunately, the passages from Paul’s letters which are most used on this subject are the ones where he bows to social conventions of his day on the role of women in public settings and in marriage. But in many ways he had an amazingly progressive attitude toward the role of women in his ministry, and women often played a prominent role in it – much more so than you would expect in that day and time.
Paul’s statement is sweeping and radical. Beverly Gaventa writes, “These previous identifications and divisions, the most powerful known in the ancient world (or in the present) have ceased to exist because of the single identity ‘in Christ Jesus’… The only identification that counts is that of baptism in Christ.” (Texts for Preaching, p. 397)
A similar passage is found in Colossians 3:11, which says, “You have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourself with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
Paul placed his contemporaries in a really uncomfortable spot asking them to accept all of this. He puts us there also. Our family includes Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson and everyone in between. It includes Christian women who identify as stay at home Moms and Christian women who lead corporations and governments and churches. It includes whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Arabs, and every other grouping in the world. It includes the Christian soldier we honor this weekend who gave his life in service and it includes the conscientious objector who believed his Christian faith prohibited participation in war.
It is not easy. We are called to love and accept each other even when we don’t love what the other does. Paul reminds us that none of us can or will be saved by how well we have lived out our Christianity. It is through faith that we are clothed with Christ. This message should lead us to great humility in how we view ourselves and others. It should also lead to great thanksgiving as we remember that when God looks at us he does not judge us as we are. We would never make it. He looks at us and sees the face of his beloved Son who loved us and gave himself for us and for our salvation. By grace we are saved through faith alone. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
May 28, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church