Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren
Galatians 3: 23-29
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 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. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
“The life of the Christian community has as its rationale – if not invariably its practical reality – the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.” – Rowan Williams, The Body’s Grace
For most of this spring, our Sunday school class studied the book of Nehemiah. When I say “for most of this spring,” I mean that for thirteen weeks – more, really, because we postponed one or two of those due to absence or scheduling – we read, studied, contemplated and wondered about this biblical book that is very rarely referenced in casual conversation. Matthew, who led our class, has a deep love of the book, and if you get the chance sometime, you should really ask him about how Nehemiah makes sense for him, in his own life and in his work with veterans who have survived great grief, trauma, and loss, who are working to rebuild their inner lives after experiencing such great destruction.
The story, if you didn’t happen to be in that 13 week study, is that the people of Israel have been sent away from their homeplace, dispersed throughout other lands. Nehemiah, who found himself in a position of great authority – cupbearer to the King – managed to finagle permission to gather up his people, return to their homeland, and rebuild the temple – the center of all the Israelite’s life together, the center of their identity as Jews, the place and the thing that made it clear that they were who they said they were – that they were, in fact, God’s chosen people.
Nehemiah is quite the character. He has both the position and the gumption to attempt this crazy thing. He’s got the ear of the king, and he has the inner compulsion to attempt a very large undertaking. He’s quite the charismatic leader, all through the story. Nehemiah – at least in this particular version of his life – never does anything wrong. He knows exactly how to maneuver, exactly how to rebuild, exactly how to defeat enemies, exactly how to create community and group unity. Nehemiah is totally a superhero.
And still, at the end of our long study, I am still deeply ambivalent about the character of Nehemiah. I respect him. I aspire to some of his political savvy. I like that he casts all that he did as response to God’s call on his life. I’m on board with what he actually accomplished: rebuilding the walls of the city, restoring the temple and gathering all his people together again, keeping their identity as children of God alive and well, ensuring a future for the Israelites and, eventually, for us as inheritors of that promise to live as God’s children.
The ways that Nehemiah and all the Israelites he gathered to help him went about rebuilding, restoring, reviving and ensuring their identity required a BOATLOAD of practices that I am so very not in favor of. In order to maintain their sense of identity as God’s children, Nehemiah and the Israelites went to battle against enemies and killed them, prohibited intermarriage, and cast out those among them who didn’t meet their qualifications for purity.
I am so deeply not on board with any of that as a way to preserve, rebuild, restore, revive or ensure identity.
But I – and all of us – are products of our time, a time when our very identity is not threatened, a time when we do not know the pain of being forced into exile, a time when “inclusion” is a buzzword and “diversity” a calling card. The way of Nehemiah sounds offensive to us in part because of the day in which we live. I can extend a sense of graciousness and generosity when I take into account who and where he was, how threatened and desperate he must have been. The benefit of time, distance and a completely different cultural milieu makes it possible for me to appreciate Nehemiah even while reserving deep distrust in his tactics.
The first hearers of our text today – Paul was writing to the people in the church in Galatia – would have also known the story of Nehemiah. They knew, probably by heart, the story of how their identity had been gifted to them through a long, ancient series of events just like that one – heroes of the faith standing up to defend and restore the possibility of this group of people claiming the right to live as God’s children. They knew the story of Moses, who led all the Israelites out of slavery and into the promised land, perpetrating some pretty serious crimes and murders along the way. They knew the story of Abraham, who was ready to sacrifice his own son in order to preserve his identity. They knew the stories of multiple exiles, of the ways their ancestors would be brought to the very brink of being wiped from the face of the planet only to be pulled back just at the last minute by some hero of the faith willing to do something very drastic and, maybe, even a bit objectionable.
The first people to hear this sermon were people formed deeply by the sense that their identity as Jewish people, as a chosen people of God, as a people meant to walk through the world as God’s own beloved – this identity, understood especially through the Law, was the Most Important Thing in the world. We belong to God, they knew, deep, deep in their ancestral bones, because we uphold God’s laws.
This was not just the cultural context. This was not just the prevailing conversational custom in Galatia. This was not just what these early Christians were hearing on talk radio or facebook newsfeeds, not just the topic of chatter around the first century water coolers. This idea – that we belong to God because we uphold God’s divinely imparted law – was bestowed upon this people through a long, long, long history of genetic, traditional, formative, ancestral, spiritual, religious and cultural heritage. This was The Way The World Worked.
So, imagine, then, that you are one of these Galatian Christians. Imagine that you are a part of this community struggling to integrate something so entirely new and transformative – the resurrection of Jesus Christ – into your experience of being a person of faith, a child of God. Imagine that you are a Galatian Christian, steeped in this knowledge of belonging to God as a fastidious and faithful adherence to the code of law, recipient of a certain tonnage of lore about the heroes – Moses, Abraham, Nehemiah – who have laid down their lives to preserve this identity by following the law at all costs. Imagine that you are here, in Galatia, a member of this burgeoning community of Jesus-following Jews and their friends, and here comes…Paul.
Paul knows how hard it has been for you and your community to integrate this new thing into the tried and true old patterns of life together. Paul knows, because he himself has been doing the same sort of negotiation, both in his own soul and with so many other growing communities like yours. You trust him, because you know he’s been out and about, preaching and teaching and proclaiming the gospel all over the known world. You trust him, but he has come here and is preaching some really hard truths.
What Paul is preaching is that the law is no longer the only surefire way to belong to God. The law, he says, served a hugely important function. It was the best and most proper way to belong to God. It was exactly what everyone used to need. It functioned as a guardian, a keepsafe, a “disciplinarian.” That word, in the Greek, translates roughly to something like a nanny or a nurse: a caregiver for children who might not know, yet, how to navigate complicated human situations. Paul, who we know to be rather fiery and not exactly tactful, is being incredibly offensive, here. He’s saying that the law was what God gave us in order to grow us up. But, Paul says, the law is no longer the safe place that it once was.
Can you imagine how TERRIFYING this would be to you, were you a member of the church at Galatia? The backbone of your people’s worldview for thousands of years has just been kicked right out from under you. The entire world has been summarily upended.
But if we keep listening to Paul – if we’re able to hear this terrifying thing and keep our ears and our hearts open to what else he has to say to us – we find out that there is a really, deeply, intensely good reason for the upending.
The law, says Paul, functioned well. It preserved us for such a long time. It kept us together and in existence. But the law also had some awful consequences. Maybe as an unavoidable side effect, maybe as a part of the plan, but the law kept us together and in existence by KEEPING OTHERS OUT.
And this, according to Paul, is no longer necessary.
25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 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. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Those categories – Jew/Greek; slave/free; male/female – are the categories of the law. They are not random examples from off the top of Paul’s head. They were the governing categories for all of life. Depending on which category you fell into, you’d be subject to different parts of the intricate system of law. Depending on who you were, you would belong to a lesser or a greater degree.
Paul says that the reality of baptism into Jesus Christ blows each one of those dichotomies to bits. Every one of those distinctions that order the world into more or less worthy, more or less included, more or less a member of this community, more or less belonging to God IS NO LONGER.
All of you – ALL OF YOU – all of you are one in Christ Jesus, he says. No more law, only the infinite grace of baptism into life with Christ.
Can you see how this might feel so utterly terrifying to that church in Galatia, schooled and soaked in the idea of law as way toward belonging? Can you see how it might throw every thing they’ve ever known into a complete tailspin? Can you see why they’d be so resistant to the very idea?
And: can you see how incredibly beautiful, world-shaking, universe-transforming and full of grace, grace, grace it is?
Were you born Jewish? You belong. Were you born a gentile? You belong. Were you born a rich slave owner? You belong. Were you born a poor enslaved person? You belong. Were you born a man with privileges and excuses and power? You belong. Were you born a woman intended only as property and childbearer? You belong.
I don’t think there’s a very long jump to make from the Galatians struggling with Paul’s interpretation of ancient law to the conversations we are having right here and now: in North Carolina, we’re arguing about who belongs in which bathroom. Next week in Greensboro, our church will talk about who belongs in our fellowship, who belongs in lasting covenanted relationships, who belongs in leadership, who belongs to God. Last week in Orlando, a very angry young man killed 49 people because he clearly believed that not only did they not belong in his community; they did not belong upon this earth.
This word from Paul is a word of grace for each and every one of us. I’m convinced that if we can open ourselves up enough to the truth of it; if we can open ourselves up enough to let go of the law that we are holding so tightly to; if we can open ourselves up enough to relinquish the deep fear we feel about death and destruction and change…if we can open ourselves up to the scary truth of the gospel that Paul preaches so fervently, then I think we will find ourselves on the other side of this painful, narrow moment that we’ve forced ourselves into. Because the truth of the gospel is this:
Were you born Brethren? You belong.
Were you born Mennonite or Methodist or Catholic or Buddhist or Muslim or into no faith tradition at all? Through the grace of baptism into Christ, you belong.
Were you born rich, privileged, middle class, American? You belong.
Were you born poor, marginalized, oppressed, neglected? You belong.
Were you born a man with privileges and excuses and power (notice this category still exists in our own modern-day versions of that ancient law!)? You belong.
Were you born a woman, told constantly that you were not fit or able to do or be any of those things? You belong.
Were you born straight? You belong.
Were you born lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, none of the above? You belong.
Are you, right this moment, nodding your head fiercely in agreement with Paul and with me? You belong.
Are you, right this moment, disagreeing vehemently, your stomach lurching into your throat in resistance? You belong.
All of you – ALL OF YOU – all of you. All of us – ALL OF US – all of us are beloved children of God. We all belong – to God and to one another. May it be so. Amen.