Monday, 17 June 2013

The Galatian challenge: a sermon (Galatians 3: 23 - 29)

In one of today’s lessons, we are presented with one of the great statements of the Christian faith.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote:  “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 words in the Letter to the Galatians have always been a challenge to the Christian Church.  In each of the past two centuries, the Christian Church has discovered one of the phrases from Paul’s great affirmation of the oneness of God’s people, and found the phrase to be a call to action.  I hope that, in this century, the Christian Church may do the same with a still third phrase.

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1.         “... there is no longer slave or free ...”

In the late eighteenth century and though much of the nineteenth century, many Christians discovered this phrase and found it to be a call to action:  “...there is no longer slave or free...”.   But slavery was still a problem.  Slavery was still practised, even in colonies of nations professing the Christian faith, in some cases even in the nations themselves. 
There were even some examples of Christians arguing in favour of retaining slavery, and trying to use the Bible to justify slavery.  (However, the vast majority of those who supported the continuation of slavery did so on purely secular, economic reasons.)

But, while there were a few who sought to use the scriptures in a corrupted way to justify slavery, the intelligent, informed leaders of the Christian churches were in the forefront of support for abolishing slavery.  For example, those who saw the film “Amazing Grace” a few years ago are aware of the work of William Wilberforce in abolishing the slave trade within the British Empire, and of the role played by his Christian faith in motivating him to oppose slavery.

Eventually, slavery was abolished in 1833 within the British Empire, and in 1865 in the United States.  And in the years since then, Christians of many church traditions have continued to be inspired by Paul’s words “no longer slave or free” to promote the fellowship of people of all races, and to oppose discrimination against anyone on the basis of their race. 

 “... there is no longer slave or free ...”
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2.         “... there is no longer male and female ...”
In the twentieth century, many Christians discovered this phrase and found it to be a call to action:  “... there is no longer male and female...”.

In the first few decades of the last century, women’s right to vote was affirmed in most countries.
The second half of the century was a time in Western countries when the broader society was learning to affirm the dignity of women as active, contributing members of society.  Barriers and attitudes that kept women from realising their full potential in society were being challenged and often eliminated.  (Of course, this is still not yet fully realised, as we see in recent political events.)

And so it was also in the churches.  In many churches, significant changes occurred in the latter part of the twentieth century so that women, as well as men, were able to respond to God’s call to ministry in all forms, ordained as well as lay.  In those churches that do not yet ordain women, enough people – of both genders – have been inspired by Paul’s words “no longer male or female” to ensure that the issue is firmly on the agenda ... and that the issue is there to stay. 

“... there is no longer male and female ...”
***

3.         “... There is no longer Jew or Greek ...”
And now, in this twenty-first century, many Christians are discovering this phrase and finding it to be a fresh call to action:  “...There is no longer Jew or Greek ...”.

Slowly, Christians are coming to realise the great treasure of shared values enjoyed by Christians and Jews together.
Slowly, Christians are coming to realise the pain that Jews have experienced - a pain usually inflicted in the name of Christianity - over the past two thousand years.

Slowly, Christians are coming to realise that Christianity and Judaism are two faiths, each with its own distinct integrity and each with its own distinct mission to the world, but with a great pool of shared history.
Slowly, Christians are coming to realise that it is possible - and indeed necessary - to relate to Jews -
  • not as potential Christians,
  • not as an historical footnote to Christianity,
but as members of a vital faith in its own right - a vital faith that is intimately related to Christianity - a faith that Christians discount at great peril to the integrity of our own faith. 

Moving from Christian-Jewish relations in particular to other aspects of interfaith relations, many Christians today are being inspired by Paul’s words “no longer Jew or Greek” to ask the question of what it means to be a Christian in a world of many faiths, in a world in which all the many faiths are increasingly challenged to respect and to affirm each other’s integrity.
Of course, in all this, we need to separate our attitudes toward other faiths and the people who practice other faiths from our reactions to international political events. 
  • For example, we should not allow our reactions to the excesses of the present Israeli government to adversely affect our attitudes toward Judaism as a faith or toward the Jewish individuals who are our fellow-members of the Australian community.
  • Similarly, we should not allow our reactions to the excesses of some governments and movements within the Muslim world to adversely affect our attitudes toward Islam as a faith or toward the Muslim individuals who are our fellow-members of the Australian community.
If the nineteenth century saw the Church begin to come to terms with
            “... there is no longer slave or free ...”;
and if the twentieth century saw the Church begin to come to terms with
            “... there is no longer male and female ...”;
I believe this twenty-first century will see the Church begin to come to terms with
            “... there is no longer Jew or Greek ...”.

***

Throughout the years, our faith continues to challenge us.  God never leaves us alone.  God offers us changing challenges in different times.  God always calls his people to a broader, wider, fuller vision of the scope and the extent of his concern. 

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