Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Birth of the Church: Building God's Beloved Community

We began this preaching series at the end - following the crucifixion, we have walked through the days of the early church, from Jesus’ appearances to his disciples to early days of conflict. Today, we remember that all are welcome in this place, and we are all part of the big picture - God’s picture of gathering all people into beloved community. We read today from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. 

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?

Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.

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. --Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29 (NRSV)

When I first moved to southern California in 1978, I was a redneck. And I say that in the most honest and true ways. I’d grown up on a ranch. And, although I went to a boarding school for high school, I’d never really experienced life outside that context: northern European, white, rural. 

You can imagine what a culture shock Los Angeles was for me. This sense of cultural difference continued through most of the time I lived there. Even after 20 years, my life was still one of growth and transformation, set in the context of a huge, continuously changing, diverse community.

It was then that I began working at the regional body of a public sector labor union. Say or think what you may about a labor union, our primary goal was to help people understand and build power for themselves. We sometimes think that power, and amassing power, is a bad thing. But power can be used constructively. To drive social change, to improve lives, to bring about greater equity and fairness. 

The people I worked with were so diverse. In fact, I, as a white person, was in the minority. I’d never worked in a place quite like this. I’d never been in such close contact on a daily basis with people of color. African-American, Latinx, Asian, Jewish. We were a diverse group. It was here that I first tasted soul food. Or bagels with lox. Or pancit. It was an amazing multi-cultural experience. 

And, yet, there were times when it wasn’t amazing. When we clashed over cultural differences. Or over the ways in which we understood or had experienced life and the work we were doing. Sometimes this led to deep disagreement.

It’s this - this disagreement that can come from our differences - that Paul is talking about in our text today. Last week, we heard the underlying reasons for the conflict between the Jewish and Gentile believers in the churches in Galatia - what we know as present day Turkey. Paul understands that the Galatians churches have become so focused on the argument around practices of the Torah and, particularly, the practice of circumcision. He understands that the churches have become so focused on this argument that they’ve become completely distracted in their faith. That they’ve become so focused on the circumcision agenda, that they’ve forgotten what had been happening in their midst - the amazing transformation work of the Spirit. 

Paul isn’t throwing out the law. His letter is a reaction to those who are saying that the law is paramount. It’s an argument that just the law, for the sake of the law, is not faithful to God. So, Paul reaches back to Abraham and makes the point that God counted Abraham righteous, not because of the law, but because of his faith. Faith came first for Abraham, then the law. And the purpose of the law was not to bind them, but to transform them as a people, to set them apart. So that, from Abraham and his descendants - this people set apart - would come One who would fulfill the law in its entirety. And, in the process, blow the doors of God’s beloved community wide open. 

Or as one theologian puts it: The redefinition of the people of God is now complete. Before the coming of Christ that people’s pride was the law; it was the gift of God which set her apart as a special people, unlike other nations and religions. By attention to the law she sought to maintain her privileged position as the chosen of God. Then the Messiah came, and the question of who really belongs to God’s people was transformed. Christ fulfilled a promise to Abraham which had to do with the expansion of his family as a component in their heritage. The people of God no longer are determined by the law but by Christ, belonging to him, being joined to him in baptism. But to redefine God’s people in this way is to imply revolutionary consequences for the nature of the new fellowship. (Charles Cousar)

So, when Paul gets to that infamous passage - there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, Paul isn’t advocating for some massive social revolution. Instead, he is calling for the Galatian churches, separated by their differences, to remember what connects them. What unites them. And what transforms them into beloved community. It is their unity made possible only through Christ.

The distinctions don’t evaporate. They are simply left powerless. Because the distinctions are cultural constructions, not the will of God. In God through Christ, there is only oneness. And, as the people - the body - of Christ, the Galatians, and we, are called to continue this trajectory. Not of “saving souls,” but of building and expanding beloved community here. And out there.
It was unity of purpose that eventually led my co-workers and I to work through our differences. Not in a way that insisted we all be the same or do the work in the same way. But, in a unified way, even in the midst of our diversity of backgrounds, experience, ethnicity or even food.

May this be our desire for the church, which is God’s desire for the church. That, regardless of our differences, our bond to one another is in Christ. And may the Spirit continue to transform us, so that we might continue the work of expanding God’s beloved community in our time and place. Amen.

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