Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bigger than Fear (Galatians 3:23-29)

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian 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. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Many of you may know that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and his brother, Charles, were both ordained as priests in the Church of England. In fact, they never left the Church of England and both died as priests in good standing. You may also know that they both served for a brief time as missionaries to the prison colony of Georgia. Today, you can go to Savannah and St. Simon’s Island and see all sorts of statues and plaques at sites of Wesleyan importance, and most of these are really quite impressive.

You’d never realize that the Wesleys missionary activities were actually a complete failure.

John arrived in Georgia in February, 1736, and Charles arrived in March. By August, Charles was on a ship headed back to England and would never return to this continent. He was largely rejected by the settlers in Georgia. John, a bit more stubborn than his younger brother, managed to stay in the colony almost two years, but was also a failure. He left the colony under threat from the father of a young woman who was less interested in him than he was in her.

But make no mistake about it – the Wesleys were failures as missionaries to America. Do you want to know why? It wasn’t their message that was so offensive. They proclaimed the Gospel of God’s free and radical grace available to all, much as you or I would preach it today. But in addition, it was packaged in highly-structured, civilized, blue-blood, propriety that was more suited to the sophisticated halls of the Wesleys beloved Oxford University than it was to the colonial frontier populated by debtors and prisoners. As they tried to impose a sophisticated, liturgical, high-ecclesial version of Christianity on the rugged frontier colonists, they were met with apathy. It’s not that people were against their message of the Gospel, they just had no interest in adopting all the packaging that went with it.

Sometimes, our attempts to share the Gospel are so cluttered with pieces of our particular culture that it becomes nearly impossible to discover the good news of Jesus Christ – the gift – amidst the wrapping. The Gospel often gets lost in the way we present it, and the situation wasn’t much different in today’s Scripture reading. May we pray.

Paul writes to the church in Galatia, comprised largely of Gentiles, and is distressed to learn that many there have been persuaded to adopt circumcision and adherence to Jewish law in order to be counted among God’s covenant people. Not so, said Paul, and that’s where we pick up his discussion.

Paul said the law was a guardian until faith in Christ came. In the Greek, he describes the Law as παιδαγωγός (paidagogos), which we translate as “disciplinarian.” However, this “paidogogos” was not a teacher, but a slave who was entrusted to guard and supervise the children. Therefore, the law served a purpose and was subservient to its master. Who was the law’s master? God, of course. And God gave the law to the people to supervise them and to protect them and to guard them until such time as faith in Christ would be made available. We say that the law was disciplinarian because it taught discipline – discipline that is not punishment, but the guidelines for instruction in living in the ways of God.

Think of this figure sort of like a babysitter. My friend Marianne Romanat, who is the pastor of FaithBridge United Methodist Church in Blowing Rock, tells this story: When my brother and I had a new babysitter one time, the next day my parents asked us if we liked our new babysitter and we said yes, except she wouldn't get us our ice cream (which we had every night). Mom asked why she wouldn't get us our ice cream, and I said, "Well, when her boyfriend came over and we wanted ice cream, she said, Get it yourself!" Needless to say she was never invited back.

A babysitter agrees to watch, care for, and nurture children under a parent’s authority and on their behalf. Growing up, I had some good babysitters, and I have some that weren’t so good. They ranged from some that were like Mrs. Doubtfire (soft yet firm, nurturing, kind) to Mrs. Sturak, the babysitter from the 1991 cult classic movie of my generation – Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, whose true colors showed a mean, angry, whistle-blowing warden. Yet, to the people of Israel, for generations they had experienced the Law as a kind yet firm disciplinarian. Learning requires discipline. We learn because disciplined people teach us how to be disciplined.

The process of developing Christian virtues, Christian character, a Christian life, takes a life of discipline.

We will baptize you, but you need counsel with the pastor first. We will officiate your wedding, but you need to attend pre-marital counseling. We will teach you how to pray, but you're going to have to come to church. We will teach you about the love of Jesus Christ, but you're going to have to come to Sunday School or Bible study and be open to Christ’s love. We will teach you how to give as Christ gave, but you're going to have to learn how to tithe. We will teach you how to love others, but you're going to have to love and support the poor.

At every such suggestion, we meet opposition. Folks always want the church's services without the church's discipline. That's fine. It's part of our discipline to serve, and to serve generously. It’s this tension in which we live between holding the door wide open for anyone and everyone – loving and serving all with the abundant and non-discriminatory grace of God – but lifting up a high standard for those who would be disciples, because spiritually-stunted disciples will produce a spiritually-stunted church. If we want genuinely to live Christian lives of joy and generosity, then we will at some point take on discipline.

At its best, this is what the Law was to the Hebrews of old. It was a way of learning God, not punishment. It was instruction toward a greater good. The Law cared for the Hebrews, and the Hebrews loved the Law.

Yet, for all of this, for all the deep joy of the disciplined life, Paul knew the potential dark side of the Law. The dark side of any law which we use as a standard for our lives is that it can lapse into legalism in place of a living relationship with God.

This is why Paul says that the Law was our disciplinarian until Christ came. Paul in no way disparages the Law, or discipline. But Paul is saying that the Law leads to the living Christ. The law leads to something greater. When Christ comes, when we discover living relationship with Jesus Christ, we are in touch with what discipline was designed to teach us in the first place, and this is why Paul implores believers not to be sucked into the lie of thinking they are subject to the statutes and restrictions of the law.

The Law served a purpose – providing discipline until faith in Christ had come. But it was always a means to an end, not an end in itself. People got in trouble when they did one of two things. First, they got in trouble when they worshipped the Law itself instead of God who gave the law. Second, they got in trouble when they acted as if the law belonged to them, when in fact, it belonged to God.

The same caution is true for Christians today. We can get in trouble when our particular brand and flavor of Christianity is more important to us than a living relationship with Jesus – when our traditions, our particularities, our certain time and place in history, our styles of worship, and a whole host of other things – are allowed to creep in and sheer us away from experiencing true, authentic, unvarnished living faith in a loving, timeless, and transcendent God. Likewise, we can get in trouble when we treat the church as if it’s our property and not God’s – when we use and abuse the church to accomplish our earthly purposes, instead of allowing ourselves to be used through the church to accomplish God’s purposes – announcing and establishing the kingdom of God – in our time and place.

Paul goes on to say that all of those temporary, provincial, earthly categories of distinction, difference, and division go out the window when we are baptized into Christ. In baptism, we are all clothed with Christ, and that becomes the only thing God sees, and it is imperative upon us to come to see the world in just the same way. We come to Christ with lots of labels – labels of race, status, class, education, nationality, gender. But the labels really had less to do with defining class or status then they did with defining ingroups and outgroups, who is one of “us” and who is one of “them” – building walls of exclusion that are designed to keep us in and others out.

On the afternoon of April 16, 2007, just hours after 33 people lay slain on the campus of Virginia Tech, I was charged with organizing a community prayer service for later in the week. I called leaders of religious communities all over Boone and throughout Watauga County to invite them to be present and participate. When I called the leader of Boone’s Jewish community, he broke down in tears over the phone. He regained his composure and told me that in 12 years in Boone, no pastor had ever called him to invite him to anything. When I made the same phone call to the pastor of the local congregation of the United Church of Christ, her reaction was similar. Apparently, their congregation had long ago been singled out as too “liberal” to be invited to participate in any ecumenical activities. I invited them anyway, because we all needed a chance to gather, to remember, to grieve, and to embrace one another. It hardly seemed the time to get hung up on our labels of difference and divide.

Religion has too often been used as a dividing force rather than a uniting force in society. Violence has been used to advance agendas in the name of Jesus. More often, however, the attacks are verbal rather than physical. In 1980, when the leader of this country’s largest Protestant body announced “God does not hear the prayer of a Jew,” I think our Lord Jesus, a Jew, must have cried. When a famous fundamentalist TV preacher wished we’d go back to the “good old days” and start stoning religious minorities and was greeted by a thunderous standing ovation from his congregation, Jesus must have cried. Anytime we advance violence, hate, fear, or exclusion in the name of Jesus, I am sure Jesus cries.

Yet, in today’s Scripture reading, Paul clearly takes up the case for those who are marginalized, oppressed, and disenfranchised. While religious groups have felt justified in keeping some people out, the Gospel invites them to a place at the table. When women have been treated like property, the Gospel makes them worthy of a place in God’s story. When slaves have been treated as less than human, the Gospel invites them to be children of God. When people were excluded based on their national origin, the Gospel declares that we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom, and whatever country we may reside in now is only a temporary home; we are strangers, sojourners, and resident aliens in a foreign land.

Baptism makes us one and gives us the potential of seeing each other, regardless of differences, as brothers and sisters, all baptized into Christ. We all live in Christ, and Christ lives in us all. “The Christ in thee meets the Christ in me,” the Quakers say.

Christ will not be divided, and as we draw closer to the heart of Christ, we begin to feel Christ’s own longing for unity. We who live in Christ learn that we belong together, and there is an ache in our hearts whenever we are separated from one another. The separations are there because there are always some among us who would drag some of the rubble from the walls into the church, and differences become barriers again. Bits of the rubble become weapons of words and actions and attitudes with which we wound each other and the Christ who seeks to holds us together. Perhaps the worst wound of all is the one caused by our not even caring that we are divided.

Paul reminds us that whatever human categories may describe us, they do not define us, "for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." All human categories are subordinate and ultimately irrelevant to our primary identity as members of the body of Christ.

Continued attempts to categorize and label one another in the church, and to diminish one another on the basis of those categories and labels, are signs of spiritual immaturity. Since Christ has come, we are no longer enslaved to those old divisions. All are justified solely by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Through baptism into Christ, we belong to him and to one another. All share fully and equally in the inheritance of God's promises and in the mission to which God has called us (Elisabeth Johnson).

There are a lot of things in which we can place our identity, but if we place it in anything or anyone other than Christ, we’ll be sorely disappointed every time. When we encounter difference and diversity within the body of Christ, I invite you to marvel at God’s creativity rather than fear what is different. As we encounter differences among those who follow the Christ, I invite us to practice John Wesley’s approach: “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

In her book, The Strength of the Weak, Dorothee Sölle recounts the story of a rabbi who asked his students how one could recognize the time when night ends and day begins.

“Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a dog from a sheep?” one student asked.

“No,” said the rabbi.

“Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a date palm from a fig tree?” an-other student asked.

“No,” said the rabbi.

“Then when is it?” the students asked.

“It is when you look into the face of any human creature and see your brother or your sister there. Until then, night is still with us.”

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