May 16, 2021,
Galatians 3: 23-29
We’ve spent the past few weeks hearing how Paul and other apostles dealt with the call to have Gentiles circumcised and to follow dietary restrictions in order to be considered full members of the faith community.
Pharisees and those who were strict adherents to the law believed this would identify the men within the community and link them to the covenant struck between God and Abraham.
Pro-circumcision teachers have been travelling through Galatia causing rifts among the congregations. Peter even stepped away from sharing meals with Gentile members of the congregations over concerns raised by these teachers.
Paul’s letter is his response to these teachers’ actions … and his response to what he takes as exclusionary perceptions and actions by these teachers.
“Belonging” has been the focus of our readings during the Easter season.
What does it take to be a member of the community … what are the expectations … the guidelines? And … what marks a member of the faith community? These are all questions Paul tackles in one way or another in his letter to the Galatians.
Through the past couple of weeks, we’ve heard how Paul tells the Galatians … that they are called to be welcoming … inclusive … and how … as a community of faith … they are unified through the Spirit and not by following traditions or expectations.
Paul reminds the Galatians that the Spirit … through the risen Christ … is at work among them not because they stuck to the law, but rather through their faith … through the trust they place in the message of the crucified and risen Christ.
Paul is focused on creating communities that were … as scholar Jane Lancaster Patterson says … outposts of “life in Christ” … assemblies of people relating to one another in a way that was in accord with Christ’s anticipated return to the world.
Patterson once wrote: Paul’s mission was to prepare the people in his assemblies to relate to one another as “though they were in the very presence of God, as he understood them to be when they gathered in Christ’s name.”
And the letter to the Galatians outlines what is … and what isn’t … necessary to identify life in the faith community and that community’s work in the world. It also underscores what brought people into community in the first place.
Through baptism, the people are clothed in a new garment … a new life … that identifies them more effectively than circumcision. “You are all one in Christ Jesus,” Paul tells the Galatian congregations … and by extension … tells us.
This garment … Paul says … means we are all clothed in the same, permanent, eternal identity as an heir of the promise … a child of God.
Paul sums up the effects on this new cloth in three verses.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or 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”
Paul reminds us that Abraham’s trust in God was rewarded. God welcomed Abraham solely on the basis of his faith … circumcision as a sign of the covenant didn’t come until later …and Paul notes … God continues to welcome people and offers them righteousness on the same basis of trust.
None of the identities that Paul names is the most important part of whom we are … being a child of God … an heir to Abraham … is the peoples’ most important identity.
What if we exchanged the groups named by Paul to groups present in our respective contexts? What if our context led us to incorporate the words “gay” and “straight” or “old” and “young” or “rich” and “poor” instead?
Would that change our view of the inclusiveness that Paul reminds us the marks a life in Christ?
Paul calls on the Galatians to eliminate the barriers that they had erected between the peoples … to eliminate the structures that elevate or benefit one group over another. To do so, requires them … and us … to be open to God’s “relentless effort to supply us with the Spirit and to work miracles among us.”
Today’s passage from Galatians represents Paul’s vision for the church, as well as his frustration at the actions and attitudes of some who have come to Christ.
Paul recognized the stubborn self-centredness that was present among the elements making their presence known in the congregations in Galatia … the inclination to set communities or even groups within those communities apart from others … to place some above others. Paul … as expressed in the letter to the Galatians … reminds the people that such barriers keep them from the full expression of God’s love.
John Frederick is a theologian and lecturer in Australia.
In a commentary on today’s passage, Frederick wrote:
“What God began by his Spirit in Genesis, God completes by his Spirit in Christ. What Israel was in part, Jesus is in full, and it’s through this completion brought by Christ that our identities are completely reconfigured around participation in his life and his Body, the Church.”
Embracing Paul’s statement to the Galatians means we have to look beyond the walls of our congregational settings.
It means we need to look beyond ourselves in order to fully experience and express the gift of grace and love we have received.
Paul’s statement doesn’t mean that differences do not exist … what it means is that these differences do not matter before God and shouldn’t serve to divide or isolate members of the community.
It means that the bond forged between us by God’s love and through the work of the Spirit transcends these differences and calls us to actively … some would say, radically … bring and welcome the oppressed and marginalized into community.
It means that through faith in God’s love … in the grace we have received through Christ … we are a community … that we should be a unified community where all are welcomed and all are embraced.
God’s grace comes to everyone … includes everyone … and meets everyone where they are. Grace is about belonging to the family of God as a child of God. We learn that God is love, so grace is the foundation of God’s relationship with us. It is expansive. Our job as communities of God is to ask ourselves the question: Is our congregation an embodiment of the expansive grace of God?