June 27, 2010

… for all of you are one in Christ Jesus

Passage: Psalm 16, Galatians 3:15-4:7, Luke 9:51-62, Galatians 3:28

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.

From a list of truths about life that little children have learned comes this one: “if your sister hits you, don’t hit her back.  They always catch the second person.”  (Should one also conclude, be first to hit?)
1. It is interesting how we humans are wont to try to explain why doing the right thing is good for us; we aren’t satisfied that it is simply right to do the right thing; we expect our goodness to be beneficial.   We ever want to calculate what is right; to have it figured out so we are in control.
In some measure, the man who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” was calculating.  He had agreed with Jesus that next to the greatest command to love God was a second one, to love the neighbour as yourself; who you identified as “neighbour” was important to the man so that he could manage the parameters of obedience.  In point of fact, as Jesus noted in his sermon from the mount, some said the obligation to love the neighbour implied that no love was to be shown the enemy; that the law of God in fact commanded hated of the enemy. (That is that the law to love the neighbour limited who you could show love towards.)
Lest you think that we have advanced beyond such convoluted reasoning you need look no further than our Canadian Human Rights Commissions and the application of hate speech law; it is apparently appropriate to say hateful things about those who, in our commission’s view, utter what is deemed by them to be hate speech.  Under the rubric of alleged “harm” done by ‘”promoting societal intolerance” by certain publications (Maclean’s magazine, to be specific) we can in turn be intolerant of these people who publish such things and restrict their publishing activities.  The question of “whose speech should we tolerate” is of similar calculation to “who is my neighbour”.
When the Apostle Paul insisted that justification was by faith in Jesus Christ not by works of the law the come back to this was: are you saying the law is inferior or flawed?  Nothing of the sort, Paul replied, the law is simply limited in what it can do.  First, the law cannot give life; Paul means spiritual life in that we are dead in our trespasses and sins and the law is not something that can rectify that situation—it cannot give life.  Let me ask—does the posting of a law make you obey it?
A second limitation is that the law of God only shows us that we are sinners; Paul said it this way: the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin.  The law show us that the elephant in the room has to be dealt with ... the very thing that faith in Jesus Christ addresses.  Jesus gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age.
In a recent article in The Boston Globe Kathryn Schulz wrote.  “As ashamed as we may feel of our mistakes, they are not a by-product of all that’s worst about being human,” “On the contrary. They’re a by-product of all that’s best about us. We don’t get things wrong because we are uninformed and lazy and stupid and evil. We get things wrong because we get things right. The more scientists understand about cognitive functioning, the more it becomes clear that our capacity to err is utterly inextricable from what makes the human brain so swift, adaptable and intelligent.”
I wonder how these scientists of cognitive functioning would account for humans choosing to do wrong when they knew it to be wrong before they did it.  When Jesus extended the application of the law of God to the inner life of thought and imagination he illustrated what Paul meant by “the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin”.  “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” declared our Lord.  He also said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
One of the things that makes us one in Jesus Christ is that we all show up with the same need—dead in trespasses and sins—Jew or Greek (no nationality is exempt), slave nor free (social status gives no advantage), male nor female.  Only God can make us alive.
2. In Jewish households a child became an adult at about 12 years of age; in Greek households a similar marking occurred at about 18 years of age.  Paul uses the analogy of wealthy households where a guardian was appointed to watch over the child until that time to keep them safe and out of trouble; he likens the law of God to just such a guardian until when “the fullness of time had come God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law.”
In many churches this passage of scripture in Galatians has been understood as setting aside the law of the Older Testament as unimportant, including its moral obligations.  In the Anglican Church the Ten Commandments are read as part of worship; we have no such obligation in the United Church.  Further, some have understood Paul to imply that the law was God’s plan A for rescuing humanity and since that was a colossal failure he went to plan B which was Jesus—Paul says no such thing.
Paul says that justification was always by faith based on the promise of God.  He had been talking about Abraham who, 430 years before the law was given through Moses, “believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (justification)”.  Paul is referring to the event of Genesis 15; an event that is strange sounding to our ears. Today we ratify agreements/covenants by singing documents under oath; in Abraham’s day one custom was to cut an animal in two along its backbone laying the two pieces opposite each other on the ground; the two parties making the agreement would pass between them and speak the promises of their agreement to each other; the sacrifice of the animal’s life reminded them of the sacredness of their covenant.  In the case of God and Abraham only God passed between the animals; this is God’s singular promise to keep the covenant; Abraham’s only response was to believe.
The point Paul makes is that the giving of the law “did not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.  Jews always knew that justification was by faith; they were chosen by God not because there was anything special about them but because of God’s own choice; the law was given to show them how to walk in company with the God who had chosen them.
The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls of Qumran has shed some light for us. The question that Jews sought to answer, in Paul’s day, by keeping the law was not “what must I do in order to get to heaven, as if to earn it; their question was, how can you tell in the present who will be vindicated in the future (heaven)?  It was by keeping the law; Paul says, no, it is by faith in Jesus Christ.
The conclusion was that all those restrictions of the law (circumcision, dietary restrictions and the like) that had the effect of separating Jews from gentiles are set aside. The covenant God made to Abraham—that was, in effect, a fulfilment of God’s promise to be God for humanity at creation—his covenant to bless humanity through Abraham’s descendents was fulfilled in a Jew named Jesus.  The moral obligations in the law were not invented by God for Moses; they exist from the creation of the world.  So ethnic advantage is set aside—neither Jew nor Greek—as is social status—slave nor free—and circumcision that was a male thing as well—neither male nor female.
Throughout the history of Christianity there has been a lot of what I call polite anti-Semitism based on this text of scripture (poorly understood in my view).  The limitations of what the law could do Paul speaks about has been equated with limitations of Judaism and Jews in particular; we need reminding that Jesus was a Jew; Paul has been very careful to point out that God’s covenant with Israel is not nullified. In Romans Paul emphatically that God has not rejected his people Israel.
The anti-Semitism that gave rise to the holocaust is well known; in spite of the ‘never again’ reminders anti-Semitism is on the rise.  I marvel that no other country is held to the standard Israel is held to by international press; the coverage of the recent flotilla incident is a case in point.  Israel P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu was correct in his assessment: “I regret to say that for many in the international community no evidence is needed. Israel is guilty until proven guilty.”  This is not to say that everything Israel does is right; it is to say that Hamas should at least be held to the same account.
In Christ there is neither Jew not Greek, this is not the same thing as saying Jews ought to disappear.  Paul seems quite convinced that you could be a Jew and believe in Jesus—he says this of himself.
Ravi Zacharias is a world renowned Christian apologist.  He relates the story of participating in a Middle East peace initiative (in Lebanon) a few years ago when George Carey was the Archbishop of Canterbury who also attended this event.  Sheikh Mohammed Taha, one of the founders of Hamas, was also present; at the time Taha had lost a son in conflict and another son had recently returned from jail; he was a man who had paid a heavy price for his political convictions.
At the end of a long day of conversations Zacharias turned to Sheikh Taha and said to him: “This may be the last time we will meet and I want to tell you that not far from here a man, who was looking for a city whose builder and maker was God, climbed a mountain to sacrifice his son.  That man was Abraham, we won’t argue over which son he took to sacrifice. (Islam says it was Ishmael)  When he got to the mountain God stopped his hand with the knife and said “I will provide the sacrifice”.  2000 years ago on another mount close to that one God provided the sacrifice and this time he did not stop the knife.  Until you and I accept the Son God provided we will continue to offer our own sons and daughters in the battle for power, prestige, and land.”  As they were leaving the Sheik said to Zacharias, “you are a good man, and I hope to see you again.”
... for all of you are one in Christ Jesus; oneness does not occur because by fiat we declare all races equal; the gospel declares it is Christ Jesus who makes us one in Him.
3. Let us turn our attention, for a moment, to the subject of Christian unity; any fair assessment of the church today would give a failing grade to the ideal that the church is one in Christ Jesus.  Some of you may have seen an NFL all-star game; the players of the two conferences wear a jersey representing their conference but they wear the helmet of the team they play for.  Like an all-star hockey game that is essentially a game of shinny, an all-star football game is more like sandlot touch-football; the real game is played when they play for their team.  I wonder if Christians are not somewhat like this; we are much more serious when we play for our own team.
There are signs of hopefulness; I think that among the young today the denominational name means little; in the southern hemisphere and China where the church is exploding the self-understanding does not carry denominational histories.  The use of the ancient creeds is also helpful in uniting us; these were articulated in a time that predates the first divide of eastern and western churches.
I also point out to you that oneness will never be achieved when we champion unity for unity’s sake—as if the goal were simply to be seen to get along.  This generally deteriorates into the tyranny of the “unity makers” over the rest.  Unity occurs when we champion the he who makes us one, our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Canada Day is this week and we celebrate the freedom of our country; freedoms that arise from our Judaic-Christian heritage.  I close with a portion of a speech that the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; it illustrates well the importance of the church for Canada that we continue to live for Jesus Christ who makes us one.
“The truths of the Judaic-Christian tradition are infinitely precious, not only, as I believe, because they are true, but also because they provide the moral impulse which alone can lead to that peace, in the true meaning of the word, for which we all long.
To assert absolute moral values is not to claim perfection for ourselves. No true Christian could do that. What is more, one of the great principles of our Judaic-Christian inheritance is tolerance. People with other faiths and cultures have always been welcomed in our land, assured of equality under the law, of proper respect and of open friendship. There's absolutely nothing incompatible between this and our desire to maintain the essence of our own identity. There is no place for racial or religious intolerance in our creed.
... I am an enthusiast for democracy. And I take that position, not because I believe majority opinion is inevitably right or true—indeed no majority can take away God-given human rights—but because I believe it most effectively safeguards the value of the individual, and, more than any other system, restrains the abuse of power by the few. And that is a Christian concept.
But there is little hope for democracy if the hearts of men and women in democratic societies cannot be touched by a call to something greater than themselves. Political structures, state institutions, collective ideals—these are not enough.
We Parliamentarians can legislate for the rule of law. You, the Church, can teach the life of faith.”
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.