One in Christ Jesus

Reading
Galatians 3.23–29

 

For Paul, those who are in Christ Jesus are now seen no longer as sojourners on the journey out of childhood and adolescence but, rather, as adult members of the family of Abraham. Differences of gender, race, ethnicity, and class still exist but are now radically transcended by one’s status as a trustworthy, faithful, reliable grown-up in Christ. Clear parameters of relationship among oneself, God, and others are thus established, and the bondage of childhood—the need for a ‘disciplinarian’ or caretaker in this sense—has ended. — J William Harkins, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3

———————-

So, the Uniting Church has turned 42 years old. We are a multicultural church, and we are the largest non-government provider of community and health care services in Australia. It’s hard to be accurate, but there are probably well over 80000 people worshipping in Uniting Churches today. 

There are rumblings from within though. Less than a month ago, an ABC news report suggested that we were on the verge of a split. There are vocal critics within the church who say that we are ‘apostate’ for adopting the decision to marry same-sex couples on the basis of conscience. An apostate is a willing defector from the Christian faith; this is a very serious accusation indeed. After all, we’re called to be one in Christ. We’re called to love one another. 

Difficulties like this are not unusual in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul faced a lot of opposition too. Paul wrote, 

There is no longer Jew or Greek (or Gentile),
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3.27–28

For us, these are inspirational words. Yet many people opposed Paul for them. They wanted to maintain a difference between groups in the church. In their minds, Jewish believers were the ‘normal’ Christians, not Gentiles; free Christians were superior to Christians who were slaves; and female Christians were inferior to male Christians. 

Maybe these people called Paul ‘apostate’ too! 

Paul endured opposition because for him, we are one in Christ and one in Christ alone. He tells us a fair bit about it in Galatians. 

Firstly, there were those who didn’t believe that he couldn’t possibly be a true apostle. After all, he was a former persecutor of the church and he had never even met Jesus. Paul was an imposter! 

Because of this opposition, Paul started his Galatian letter this way: 

Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the members of God’s family who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia: 

Paul begins by establishing his credentials. He was an apostle ‘through Jesus Christ and God the Father’. He addressed the churches of Galatia by God’s authority; he didn’t need human authority. 

Yet he had spoken to human authorities, as he should. He talked with Peter and James (1.18-19) in Jerusalem soon after his conversion. Fourteen years later, he was still controversial! So it was revealed to him that he should talk to those human authorities another time. He went once more to Jerusalem with Barnabas for a private meeting (chapter 2). A Gentile called Titus was with him; the apostles were ok that Titus was uncircumcised. So Paul and the other apostles were on the same side. 

Others came though, demanding that Titus be circumcised if he were to be part of the Christian family. These others had got to the Galatians too. We’re not sure exactly who the Galatians were, but we do know they weren’t Jews. So these same people had come telling the Galatians that they had to be circumcised. 

But as Paul said, it is faith that makes us part of God’s family. Faith in the God who is faithful. Hope in the God who gives us a sure ground for hope in the coming kingdom. Love for the God who is Love. 

You don’t need to be circumcised, Paul told them. You can even eat prawns, and you don’t have to give up bacon sandwiches. 

Paul says that now we have come to a position of maturity: ‘for freedom Christ has set us free’ (5.10). In fact, in Christ ‘the only thing that counts is faith working through love’ (5.6b). 

People of faith are those who obey what that Law of Moses pointed to—the Law of Love: 

For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. 

This is all background to Paul saying 

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. 

No one has to be circumcised. You can even eat bacon sandwiches on a Sunday. ‘The only thing that counts is faith working through love.’ Anyone can receive this faith-working-through-love. Gentiles can, which is very good news for us. Slaves can. Women can, of course they can. No one is superior, no one is inferior, we are all one in Christ. We are all part of the Body of Christ, we are all welcomed to the Table.

I’ve said this before: if Paul wrote today, he’d include others in this list. He might say

There is neither black nor white, all can receive faith-working-through-love. 

There is neither straight nor queer, all can receive faith-working-through-love. 

There is neither educated nor uneducated, all can receive faith-working-through-love. 

There is neither people who live here in West End nor those who drive here from other places, all can receive faith-working-through-love. 

At West End Uniting Church, we are committed to this ancient yet ever-new vision. 

There’s an ordinary, everyday, spiritual practice that we may practise so we may keep this commitment real. Something anyone can do, given the will to do it. We can do it to purify our own hearts, and give care to others. 

That spiritual practice is empathy. We need empathy to relate to people who are different from us. Empathy involves trying to share what someone else feels by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation. That’s all. 

Showing empathy allows us to connect with another person, if they will allow us to connect. If they won’t let us connect, we can at least imagine what it’s like to be them. Then perhaps we can better pray for them. 

It is very helpful to have empathy in a church community. Do you ever try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a while? Imagine what it’s like to walk their path? This use of imagination is truly a form of prayer, because it can lead us to love one another.

Back in the fourth century, Pelagius was a Christian who got a bad rap about some things he said. Here’s one thing he said very rightly, I believe: 

A Christian is one ‘who shows compassion to all,…who feels another’s pain as if it were his own, and who is moved to tears by the tears of others’. (Pelagius, On the Christian Life)

‘A Christian is one who shows compassion to all…’ Compassion is empathy in action. Practising empathy leads us to act with compassion. 

‘A Christian is one who shows compassion to all…’ Let’s go back to Paul’s words:

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. 

These social differences and distinctions should mean nothing in the Christian community. After all, we ‘are one in Christ Jesus’. But so often our differences divide us. Men feel the need to mansplain stuff to women; the educated don’t listen to those they consider uneducated. Sadly, we all know that historically white people have not listened to black people; and even now, straight people are only just learning to hear what LGBTIQ people are saying. 

To treat one another as brothers and sisters means to breathe in the spiritual air of empathy. To treat one another as ‘one in Christ Jesus’ means to put ourselves in one another’s shoes for a while. Particularly if it’s someone you don’t understand. Especially if it’s someone you don’t like. 

All this is an essential spiritual practice. Otherwise, we shall find ourselves in a divided state, whether that division is about gender, sexuality, race, class, or where we live. 

There have been divisions, a lack of empathy, all through the history of the Christian Church. I quoted Pelagius before; some of you will know that Augustine was Bishop of the delightfully-named city of Hippo in North Africa; he was opposed to Pelagius. They just didn’t get each other. Augustine was a theologian, Pelagius was a moralist. It’s like they spoke different languages. But we can learn from both.

In one of his sermons (#272), Augustine was talking about the Sacrament of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. He said this about how we receive the bread and wine:

Let us receive what we are.
Let us become what we receive.

What are we? The Body of Christ. What do we receive in Holy Communion? The Body of Christ. We, the Body of Christ, are bonded by the Spirit of Jesus rather than by the other labels we wear like ‘male’, ‘straight’, ‘white’. Augustine says become that Body that you already are. Grow into it. Recognise that you are indeed ‘one in Christ Jesus’. 

This is part of the ethical side of Communion. We receive of the same bread, we share the same cup, as one in Christ Jesus. 

That requires us to have empathy for people who wear different labels, empathy that overflows in compassion action for one another.

Look around at the people here today. Friends, it’s a scandal for us to receive this Sacrament without asking the Spirit for the empathy we need to live in this church as male, female, black, white, straight, queer, local, coming from across town, who nevertheless are one in Christ Jesus. 

It’s a scandal to mouth words of peace without seeking to live in peace. So when we pass The Peace today, offer a silent prayer of thanks for the person you are passing The Peace to. 

Today, let us examine our hearts. Let us each ask ourselves: What might I be doing that is stopping us being one in Christ Jesus? What should I do differently? Who should I speak to with empathy, trying to put myself in their shoes?

Keep these questions in mind as we draw near to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper this morning.

Let us receive what we are.
Let us become what we receive.
The Body of Christ.

 

West End Uniting Church, 23 June 2019

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Filed under Church & world, Eucharist, RCL, sermon

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