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.
There Is No Longer... Galatians 3:23-29
For the next couple weeks, we are going to spend some time with Paul's letter to the churches in the southern Galatia. Paul was one of the most influential missionaries who helped spread the early Jesus movement beyond the bounds of ancient Palestine. His legacy was so important that not only did people preserve his letters to local churches and disseminate them beyond their original audience, but his later followers even wrote under his name, calling upon his authority to give weight to their own teachings about how to follow Jesus. If a writing was associated with the Apostle Paul, it was thought to be directly, divinely inspired. Paul himself even stated that his teaching and understanding of mission came directly from God, through his vision of Jesus Christ. We would do well to remember that Paul is not just any missionary. He spoke with authority. In Galatians, he was going to use that authority to offer a strong critique of some faith practices these churches had developed after he moved away.
Galatians is a little different from the other the seven books of the Bible that scholars are pretty sure that Paul wrote. You might remember, most of Paul's letters were written to a specific religious community to address some specific issues that had developed. Galatians was written to be passed around to several churches. What issue would have been so important to Paul that he would have written a letter to be shared with several churches? It turns out that Paul had heard that new missionaries had begun to teach in this area. They taught that these predominantly Gentile churches needed to begin adopting some Jewish practices. In asking the Gentile Christians to adopt these practices, it was almost like they were asking the new Christians to become Jewish in order to then become Christian.
You might remember hearing about this tension between the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus and the newer Gentile believers in the book of Acts. As Jesus' followers began to preach to more and more Gentiles, the early Christian movement, which, at that point, was just a subset of Judaism, was really struggling to understand what it meant to demonstrate one's faith and join this burgeoning religious community. For the Jews who had been taught that cultural isolation was a way to remain pure for God and also a way to protect their small, threatened ethnic group, learning how to engage with Gentiles who professed faith in Christ was no easy thing. It appears that some of them were working with the old "hey, new people, join our group and then immediately change to be just like us" model. That wasn't the model that Paul thought was ideal. Paul wrote this letter to explain, quite heatedly, why.
To better understand what is a very precise and dense theological argument in Galatians, we should remember a few things about Paul. First, he was a devout Jew, and had even been a Pharisee. Second, since he was a Pharisee, we can be pretty sure that he believed that God would one day intervene on behalf of God's people during what came to be known as an Apocalypse. This Apocalypse would be a radical disruption of the sin and oppression that had developed in creation. It would be redemption. Paul did not stop thinking that God would disrupt the world's oppressive order when he began to follow Jesus. Instead, he would come to understand his vision of Christ as a sign that he was witnessing the first part of God's radical disruption and redemption of creation. All the rest of his ministry would be shaped by his certainty that Jesus would be returning very soon and would finish the redemptive, re-creative work of the Apocalypse.
Paul thought that Jesus was coming back soon and wanted to offer redemption and liberation to as many people as possible. That's why this argument over how one becomes part of the Christian community was so important to him. He didn't think God wanted to create more barriers for people to take part in God's liberation. Asking people to become Jewish in order to follow Jesus seemed like an extra barrier to him. It's not that he wanted to completely disavow the law. It's just that he didn't think it was necessary for the Gentiles to follow it. He argued that the law was actually given to the Jewish people by God through Moses. He also argued that it necessary for the people to follow at one point in history. He said that the law had served as a disciplinarian. Disciplinarian was the title given to a slave to was put in charge of keeping boys out of trouble at school. The law presumed that people would get in trouble and was there to offer correction. It is important to note that Paul didn't think this work of correction was God's final word to humanity. Jesus, the Word made flesh, would be God's final word, and Jesus did something the law could not. Jesus offered liberation.
Since the law was simply a stopgap measure to help Jews survive while they waited for the Messiah, Paul thought it was foolish to ask Gentiles to follow the law now that Jesus had come to them as the Messiah. In some of his most passionate writing, Paul would even go so far as to insist that asking Gentile Christians follow the rule of the Law was to insist that they remain in a life that was akin to slavery. In order to avoid this kind of "slavery," Paul wanted the Gentile Christians to look not to Moses' covenant with God, but to an older covenant, the promise God made to Abraham. God promised that all people would be blessed through Abraham, not just certain people who followed certain religious rules. Just as Abraham was first blessed because he had faith in God, Jesus' newest, Gentile followers would be blessed primarily through their faith, not through their ability to learn and follow all of the minute details of the law. For Paul, while Jews may still follow the law, as it was given to them by God, there was no need to ask the same of the Gentiles. They would be blessed through faith in Christ by way of Abraham's covenant. Jesus offered them a kind of adoption into Abraham's family, an adoption where everyone with faith gets the status of the most favored son. Jesus made it so everyone could be Abraham's heir and inherit God's blessing, no circumcision required.
Because all people could become heirs to Abraham's blessing, Paul understood that the social distinctions that would have once prevented people from interacting as family would no longer prevent people from being part of Christian community. In the community where Paul was raised, there was a privileged social ideal: the free, Jewish man. The closer you were to this ideal, the better your life was. You might even be understood as more readily able to develop a relationship with God. According to Paul, in Christ, and in Christian community, variation from that singular social ideal would no longer keep you from being blessed by God. According to Paul, even the most powerful and rigorously protected social hierarchies could no longer be used to prevent you from being a heir to grace. Your faith allowed you to be part of the family. Your faith allowed you to belong to Christ.
It strikes me that it wasn't only the earliest followers of Jesus who struggled to figure out how to welcome people who were not like themselves into the body of Christ. While our social ideal may be different, being a part of certain social groups still gives you unearned privilege, even in church's that say they follow Christ. From the most basic questions of what happens when someone who is dressed is dirty, torn clothes walks into a church full of finely dressed people to the most egregious examples of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia that have been wrapped up in the guise of Christianity, we still struggle with how to, or even whether to, allow "them," whomever "they" are, to be a part of Christian community. Sometimes even good-hearted attempts to live a communal religious life, where all people have access to the blessing of faith, can still be marred by unacknowledged, unconscious bias towards people who have the least amount of privilege in a society. It can be especially hard if a religious community understands itself to be struggling, and is worried that the introduction of "new" kinds of people will change the character of their faith. Paul's inclusion of the Gentiles definitely changed the face of Christianity. I bet this is why those ancient Christians hung on to this letter from Paul and passed it on well beyond those few churches in Galatia. They knew Christians would struggle to include new people into the community of Christ. They knew that the words of the most authoritative missionary would have the power to challenge those exclusionary practices.
These words of Paul still carry great wisdom and great challenge. "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". We would do well to regularly ask ourselves if we are being like our ancient siblings in Christ and demanding unnecessary action from those who would join us in following Christ. How can we more readily live into the generous vision of the big adopted family of God, where everyone is an equal heir to grace and difference in ethnicity, sexuality, religious background, and gender are no longer barriers to accessing God? This is a question that is a the very heart of our faith. If we answer it well, our whole world could change.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources when writing this sermon:
Alicia Vargas: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2873
Sarah Henrich: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1683
Elisabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=610
Bart. D. Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Carolyn Osiek, "Galatians," The Women's Bible Commentary, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.