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June 23, 2013
St. James’s Episcopal Church
The Rev. Alex Riffee
Each year as I get older, I notice that I look more like my parents. There are many telling characteristics. Unlike my teenage years or early twenties, I now exhibit the trademark Riffee jawline, the Riffee shoulders, and the Jay receding hairline.
I have officially grown into my adult body. And, as any child wishes to differentiate themselves from their parents, to be truly unique, I found myself staring into the mirror and saying, “What happened?!” The ironic thing is that whenever I go home, my parents always say, “You just keep looking better and better!”
It would be a lie for any of us to say that we didn’t care how other people see us. Sometimes we worry how we look and spend way too much time getting ready for work, a nice dinner out, or even church. Sometimes we join groups to support a point of view or to feel safe. Sometimes we go after prizes and personal praise to differentiate and validate ourselves over another person. None of which is necessarily a bad or negative thing. It is the reality of human nature to act in such ways.
It would be wrong to say that caring for our bodies, joining others with similar interests, or working hard is a bad thing, if done for appropriate reasons and good intentions. Yet, the problem that often occurs for us is that we lose sight of what matters and provides meaning in life.
We have forgotten the words God uttered to us at our creation, that we were created, male and female, in the image of God and, as His creation, we are good. As if God’s validation wasn’t enough, we begin to transpose those activities or groups that distinguish us into the very thing from which we draw meaning. When we reach this juncture, humanity runs the risk of diminishing the search for meaning to things that are superficial, materialistic, and individually relative. These are some of the more prominent things I sometimes witness about my own outlook and our culture as a whole.
When I look back at Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, that is present day Turkey, I find that the issues facing his flock was different but not too dissimilar from the issues of our day. Yet, even though there were tensions present in his community of faith, he offered a vision of hope and a vision of truth, which we all too easily forget. We are all one in Christ Jesus.
When Paul began his ministry to the Gentiles, I believe he really didn’t know what he was getting himself into. He knew that he was called by Jesus to share the gospel. He knew he had to wrestle with this new revelation from God. But where would he go, who would he meet, and what would he say when he got there?
As we see in each of his letters, the answers were quite varied as he met different people with different needs and as he matured in his knowledge and faith in Jesus. The issues surrounding the churches in Galatia were quite distinct. He recently left that community to attend a meeting with the leaders in the Jerusalem Church, namely the apostles like Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. The early Christian movement originally began in the Holy Land and the first followers were Jewish men and women or people seeking to convert to Judaism. Paul encountered other Jews in his Galatian churches, but the majority of them came from outside this family of faith. Many formerly believed in the Roman gods. Others held more animistic beliefs.
Paul believed he was called by God to share Christ with everyone regardless of who they were before receiving this good news. For many in the early church, sharing the news of Jesus Christ was one thing, but how someone was supposed to live and act was another. There were others who came to these churches saying that to be a Christian meant that they had to become Jews first and follow the Laws and customs of Moses. Paul, also a Jew, disagreed with this view and He went to Jerusalem to make his case.
Following this journey, he wrote to the churches in Galatia to encourage unity among the people, which is why we have this letter today to read in our worship. As Paul understood Christ’s message of love, not only could Gentiles become a follower of Christ, but they could do so as Gentiles. They didn’t have to change their everyday customs, follow the law that was given to the Jewish people, or anything else that might seem foreign to their way of life.
Christ asked that they order their life in service to Him and those in need, but not to forget who they were. Because, these things that helped give structure to their worldview and to their way of living was not as important or determinate of the grace they had received through faith in Christ. Nothing could impede their ability to experience and have faith in God.
So we read in today’s lesson, the words Paul gave to bridge unity among his flock. In Galatians 3:28, we read, “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.” For the early church and maybe for us, these sound like revolutionary words.
At first glance, it seems like Paul says God destroys these distinctions. If so, it would have caused a great disturbance in the worldview of the Jewish and Gentile audiences. Yet, if we look around at our own world, we see that distinctions are all about us. The same was the case for Paul and his communities. I would argue that this does not mean that Paul’s words were wrong or that God was not powerful enough to take away the things that divide us. Rather, I believe it is wrong to interpret Paul’s words in this manner.
He does not talk about tearing away the things that make us unique. Paul says that in Christ, the things that make us unique serve little to no purpose in determining how we are special, loved, and good.
Every year in my Sunday School classes, our 6th graders read through the Genesis narrative where God creates life. If you remember, earlier in the sermon, I highlighted one idea that God created us both male and female in the image of God and it was good. The class discussed how their differences, talents, passions, and thoughts made them who they were and how combining our different skills help us all to achieve more as a church family. We also discussed that what made us special were not the sum of things we do, but that God created us in His image.
Being made in His image gives us these abilities and remembering who we are created to be and how everyone else fits together in that narrative is what makes us special. It is what provides us with meaning in our lives. In other words, Paul reminds his congregation that whatever human categories may describe us, they do not define us, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
In our world today, Paul’s words might read, “there is no longer democrat or republican, there is no longer poor or rich, there is no longer male or female.” This would not mean that at St. James’s everyone has suddenly become apolitical, moneyless, and androgynous, because they are Christian. I am looking at you at this moment and seeing that this is not the case.
However, what I do see in this church is that when we come together in faith, whether it is in worship, study, or mission, is that these distinctions seem to matter less than they do when we enter back into the secular world. They matter less not in their importance, but they matter less in calling your attention to each other and the common goals we have to worship God and serve. We are one in Christ and we are defined by this truth.
What Paul hopes for his readers is that they remember this over and above the different categories that draw their attention away from God. He wants these new believers to remember that God is the foundation on which everything else in our bodies reacts. Yet, we tend to see it the other way around. I liken Paul’s advice to a favorite quote of mine from Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”
In other words, if you know in your heart that Christ has changed your life and freed you to do good in his creation, then I call you to use every fiber of your being to reside with Christ in your heart, your home. Do not wander to things that merely divide us or entertain us. It is too easy to claim these places as a resting place. And if we stay too long, as Paul fears, we may lose sight of where we were called to go, home, to be one with Christ. Amen.