Martha M. Shiverick
Sermon: June 23rd, 2013

Scripture: Galatians 3:23-29
Podcast: fpcpodcast20130623.mp3

Every once in a while my small high school class of girls get together for a planned reunion or an impromptu dinner if a classmate comes to town. We have grown to really care for each other in the decades since high school and are proud of each other and the women we have become. I brought my mother to one of these ‘get-togethers’ as my classmates fondly remember her and she remembers most of them as well. My mom said to me after at this last dinner that although she still thought I was by far the prettiest girl in my high school class (I love my mother for her supportive and biased opinion of me) she realized that another classmate, Janet Green, was beautiful as well. She wondered why she had not noticed this before. My answer to her was that perhaps it was that she was not able to see her before. You see, Janet was one of the 4 African-Americans in our class of 45 girls. Perhaps it took her until now to see her as the beautiful woman that she had been all along. I shared my insight with a friend who is close enough to call me on my shortcomings and flaws. She said that it was only my mom who was truthful enough to admit the blindness of each of our own prejudice. After all, who in our class had thought in high school that Janet was the beauty among us? Finally we are all able to see her and can admit the truth to which we had been blind before.

I thought about that as I read this bold scripture passage from Galatian that we know so well. What is it that frees us from stereotypes and things that separate us from what another? What is it that allows us to see all as one? What do we gain when this happens and what does it mean? Listen now for God’s word as it is written in Paul’s letter to the Galatians 3:23-29.

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is his attempt to answer the question of who is the true Israel… Who is God’s chosen… or for the immediate issue facing the people of Galatia… just how Jewish does a Christian have to be. Just as we are faced with moral questions as people of faith which our church debates and our denominations debate other denominations on issues of sex, money, ordination of women and gays and a woman’s right to self-determine a problem pregnancy, the church in the mid first century was in turmoil too. The question for these early Christians was whether gentiles needed to become Jews to be Christian. After all, God made a promise to Abraham and his descendants. They were God’s chosen race. They were to follow God’s law and they would be God’s people. And since the first Christians were Jews, this question was not relevant. But when Paul took Christianity outside of Israel and spread the good news of Christ to the Gentiles, this issue became paramount!

Paul addresses this issue in today’s lectionary reading from Galatians. He said that God gave us the Laws as a sort of custodian until Christ came. There was something very essential and important about following the Jewish laws before Christ, something akin to training us to be God’s people, but it became unimportant after the Jesus event when becoming a Christian, not a Jew became the identifier of being God’s people. The climax of the whole epistle is verses 26-29 where Paul redefines the people of God so as to demonstrate that Jews and gentiles belong together as a community on the basis of God’s faithfulness to God’s people. Becoming a Christian is the true identifier of our relationship with God. You are no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. All group identifiers which might have been divisive before are gone as all are Christian.

What is important to point out here, might be the obvious. Paul was not saying that the distinctions disappeared. The differences still exist. But all may and should participate fully in the community. The distinctions do not mar the relations between fellow followers of Christ or impeded a relation with God. The differences still exist… there is still men and women (although Paul included women in his communities as leaders and communicated with them in a way not previously heard in the Bible. There are still slave and free, although Paul did write on behalf of the slave Onesimus in his letter to Philemon as he saw him as equal to others in his faith in Christ. And there will be Jews and Gentiles. BUT, the differences are unimportant for the faith community. AND, if we are all one in Christ Jesus, we are one people who live with our differences.

I want to take this concept a little further before applying it to us and Christians of our day. The issue Paul was addressing was that the old practice was that everyone had to become the same before they were a child of God. To be God’s chosen, you had to become a Jew. You had to follow Jewish law. You had to be circumcised. You had to follow the Jewish dietary laws. It was hard for the outsider to come in. After Christ, differences were allowed. Not everyone had to be the same but a new unity was established in the following of Jesus Christ. In Christ, there is room for diversity that was not allowed under a faith that is held to the law. The expression that in Christ there is not male or female, free or slave, Jew or gentile is not that we meld into one people as Christians, but that our differences are not important in our fellowship of love and our discipleship as followers of Christ.

We are all aware of the great divisions within our denomination on ordination standards over the full inclusion of GLBTQ individuals into the life of our churches. Presbytery meetings, where these issues are discussed, are polarizing as members of Presbytery sit with like-minded folk and line up to speak their faith passionately in the meetings. In the Presbytery of the Western Reserve, we are known to be a progressive Presbytery and the votes on these manners always fall on the side of inclusion and the vote for changing rules which keep others from feeling a part of our church are slowly being chipped away. This hurts our more conservative Presbyters. But I always feel that the Presbytery ends up being what God intends for it to be after the vote. Time and time again, I have witnessed the embrace of fellow Presbyters who voted opposite in the meeting. Time and time again, I have seen people reach out and share that they knew that the vote was painful to the other. Inclusion in Christ’s church means that all opinions must be respected. We might not end up with a vote that pleases all, but we still are a family in Christ. It is in those moments where we reach out to the other that I feel Christ’s presence at the meetings.

Of course we could be a group that all thinks the same. It would sure be easier if that were the case. But I really think that the message here from Paul is that the rainbow of diversity that God intends for us is that we each keep our color, we each keep what makes us individuals and not melt into one bland, flavorless and colorless group. We are to work to see the beauty in not being all of one mind and work to understand each other as we respect what makes us different. The last line in our Fairmount Diversity Statement is that ‘We celebrate and find strength in our diversity.’ That sounds like a wonderful goal for us to try to achieve. Perhaps we all should be working to see the beauty in the other. Which brings me back to my high school classmate Janet Green…. Just like our realizing that Janet was the beauty of my high school class, we need to work on finding beauty and good in what we have up until this point only been able to see as different.

At today’s congregational meeting we will have the opportunity to work to that goal. I expect that the election of our new officers to take place without a hitch. The Nominating Committee has done a wonderful job and there is a slate of officers that will move this church into the future with your new pastor. It is very exciting. However, based on e-mails I have received this week after the news of the session’s decision on what to do with the building formerly used as the manse, I can tell you that there are multiple opinions and questions that will be addressed. And why would we anticipate that this would not be the case. We are a congregation that is made up of different people from different backgrounds and even come from different faith traditions before joining Fairmount. We differ in our personal faiths as well. While all being baptized in Christ, this can mean different things to different people. Our faith journeys and ministries are all different. To use the analogy of a train, some of us are on this faith train and feel like we are the engineer; we are at the front pushing forward. Others might feel as though they are barely hanging on to the caboose. But, we are all a part of this family we call Fairmount. We are different but we are one. Perhaps the test of whether we are the community that Christ calls us to be is not how we best live with each other when we are all on the same page, but how we live together as a community of Christ’s in our differences.

May the words to our final hymn also be our prayer, “ Join hands, disciples of the faith, What-e’re your race may be. All children of the living God Are surely kin to me. In Christ now meet both east and west, In him meet south and north; All Christly souls are one in Him Through-out the whole wide earth.” Amen!