Sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost
“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.” This has got to be Paul’s clearest, bluntest statement as to just how different things are to be once you “belong to Christ”, as he puts it. This is a whole new reality—a new world, in fact—“for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” If you’ve been here on one of the past two Sundays, you’ll know that the lectionary has had us chipping our way through Paul’s letter to the Galatians; a letter in which the driving question is that of the full inclusion and equality of Gentiles in the Jesus movement. Against those who have insisted that the Christian movement is also, by definition, a Jewish movement, Paul wields that little word “all.” “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith;” “All of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
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In a very real sense that same little word is wielded against the Roman Empire, for to be a member of this movement is to declare that Jesus is Lord; Jesus, not Caesar. It is God’s Kingdom that is to shape your lives, not the Roman Empire with its rigid dividing lines, power structures and hierarchies of privilege. “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.”
Notice, though, that this is not some early version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or the American Declaration of Independence. Paul’s starting point is decidedly different from those documents, his proclamation born of a very different starting point. In their book In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed imagine having a conversation with Paul regarding the famous assertions of the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
“Do you think, Paul,” they ask, “that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights?” “I am not speaking about all men,” Paul might reply, “but about all Christians.” You see, here Crossan and Reed are flagging the fact that Paul is writing explicitly to—and about—those who have been “baptized into Christ and [so] have clothed [them]selves with Christ.” And then they continue their imagined conversation: “But do you think, Paul, that all people should be Christians?” to which Paul replies, “Yes, of course. Then do you think, Paul, that it is God’s will for all people to be equal with one another? Well, let me think about that one for a while,” they imagine Paul replying. “ Let me think about that one for a while and, in the meantime, you think about equality in Christ.”
“In the meantime, you think about equality in Christ,” by which Crossan and Reed are suggesting that Paul might well have some critical words to speak to the church across the ages regarding how we have—or have not—embraced the radical claim he believes that Christ has placed on his church. Set aside all of those modern documents dealing with human rights, and think instead in terms of Paul’s proclamation that we are “one in Christ Jesus.” My New Testament professor at Trinity College, Toronto once suggested to us that while the church wrestled with the Jew/Gentile issue in the 1st century, it wasn’t until the 19th century that it really dealt with the matter of slave and free. What’s more, he claimed, it took until the latter half of the 20th century to really address the issue of male and female. This was, after all, the 1980s, less than a decade from when the Anglican Church of Canada had begun to ordain women. There is some truth in what my professor said, though I’ve come to see it as being too neat; a kind of straight-line progressivism in which we had ever so slowly come to our enlightened senses. In reality, it has been anything but a straight-line.
Take that 1st century challenge of Jew and Gentile. Paul is writing this letter precisely because it had not been resolved, in spite of what the Council of Jerusalem had discerned some ten years before he’s writing to those Galatian churches. And yet some of these young communities continued to “other” the Gentiles, and then as the centuries rolled forward and the Christian movement became less and less a Jewish movement, Jews themselves began to be “othered” in a horrific way. Anti-Semitism cuts very deep in the history of the church; something that would have left Paul shaking his head in sorrow.
And then there is the matter of slave and free, ostensibly resolved in the 18th and 19th centuries by acts of the English Parliament abolishing the slave trade, by the American Civil War and the passing of Thirteenth Amendment to the American Constitution. In the decade following the American Civil War, even in the Southern states freed African-American slaves could vote, and some were actually elected to office. But much of the freedoms won were clawed back in what was called “The Reconstruction,” and the vast majority of those freed slaves found themselves labouring as share-croppers in a system that was in so many ways just not all that different from slavery. It took another hundred years and countless sacrifices on the part of Christians—both white and black—to put a legal end to that legacy. A legal end, mind you, because as Jim Wallis, Cornel West, and others have so persuasively argued, America has yet to come to terms with its “original sin” of racism. Tragically, the “othering” continues.
Lest we think that as Canadians we are somehow superior when it comes to slavery, there were slaves in what is now Canada, and my sister’s church in Halifax which was built in the early 1800s included a slave gallery high up above the balcony, with restricted sightlines through which the black slaves could observe the services without themselves being seen by the congregation. The original church was severely damaged by a fire some twenty years ago, and when it was rebuilt the slave gallery was also restored, standing as a very visible memory of that part of the church’s legacy.
Male and female… we must have resolved that one, right? We have women priests and bishops in the Anglican Church of Canada, and women in prominent positions in our various levels of government. Yet Canadian statistics suggest that one in four Canadian women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. One in four. That’s an appalling statistic, and one that clearly indicates that in our own country women are being objectified and violently “othered” in ways that would make the Apostle Paul weep.
And last Sunday morning’s events in Orlando, the horrific cost of “othering” again reared its violent head. Over the week stories have surfaced regarding Omar Mateen: that he had a violent past, and had been abusive to his former wife; that he identified with Hezbollah, and was acting in the name of ISIS; that he had been a regular patron of that nightclub and was perhaps unable to deal with his own self-loathing over same-sex attraction. Mateen’s actions were evil, no question. Yet he has actually been lauded by many, and not just by ISIS. “The shooter is my hero,” someone who identified as “a Christian, not a Muslim” posted on Facebook. “[T]he cops should be sued for killing a hero, who was doing social justice… may the soul of the shooter rest in perfect peace.” “The shooter is my hero;” that’s from someone who at least in principle understands himself to be with us “one in Christ Jesus.”
It is our wake-up call, people. In their imagined conversation with Paul, Crossan and Reed had asked him, “Do you think that it is God’s will for all people to be equal with one another?” to which they’d imagined him replying, “Well, let me think about that one for a while and, in the meantime, you think about equality in Christ.” We’re in the meantime—very much in the meantime—and in this space I believe that we need to proclaim to ourselves that for members of the Body of Christ “othering” is a non-starter. The invitation I speak when I invite you to come to Christ’s table doesn’t have any sub-clauses that say “if you’ve got all of your theology lined up; if you’re straight; if you buy into a hetero-normative version of relationship, marriage, and gender identity; if you’ve behaved properly this week, if you’ve dealt with your compulsive consumption of pornography, if you’ve confronted your addictions.” No, it says that in this zone called worship, if you feel the call to meet Jesus and to learn to love Jesus—if you want to “taste and see that the Lord is good”—then come. Because as Paul proclaimed with such radical clarity, in the Body of Christ there is no “other.” There is only us, and because “us”—we—are human and as liable as anyone else to judge, exclude, and “other,” we have to keep pressing on to a deeper identity as the “us” of Jesus Christ. In the Body of Christ, there can be no other.