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.
Jerry and I recently returned from a week in New England. It was a nearly perfect vacation. The trees were just reaching their peak: the bright red of the maples, the golden yellow of the birches, the deep green of the firs. Every bend in the road revealed some new breathtaking beauty.
Our host told us about a book she had read called The Hidden Life of Trees. A career forester began to explore the way forests grow as a community and when he did, he discovered some amazing things.
For example, each individual tree interacts with every other tree so that a unified community lives together with an impressive interdependence. Trees need each other, they nurture and protect each other; they even communicate with each other, feel pain and carry memories, the author tells us.
I couldn’t help but remember this life of trees when I was reading again Paul’s description of the church here in his letter to the Galatians.
Baptized into Christ.
Clothed with Christ.
One in Christ.
- There is no more Jew or Gentile, Paul insisted to a congregation that had been immersed in this deeply held ethnic division for their entire lives.
- There is no more slave or free, Paul reminded this church made up of people who owned other people and those who were the property of other people.
- There is no more male and female, Paul countered the pervasive conventional wisdom of this impervious patriarchal society.
We are one, Paul insists.
One fabric of a new humanity.
One forest of interdependent, intersecting beings with our life-sustaining roots grounded all together in the Ground of all Being.
One family of God.
We are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.
But unfortunately this was not entirely good news to some of the Christians at Galatia.
Jerry and I have been teaching a Bible study at Holy Cross Episcopal Church and we’re unpacking the dynamics of the church at Galatia and Paul’s message to them. It’s a powerful, passionate letter.
Here was a congregation founded on the gospel that Paul had proclaimed from the first that – in the Christ – God had accomplished reconciliation, unity, wholeness, oneness for all creation.
God did this.
Without our help.
Without our advice.
Without our permission.
Oneness is a done deal, Paul proclaims.
That is the unadulterated gospel.
But some Jewish teachers, some faithful passionate Christians from Jerusalem interpreted the gospel differently than Paul.
Now you have to remember that at this stage of church history, most all the Christians were Jews who had claimed Jesus as the Christ; Jews who named Jesus as their promised Messiah. At this stage, Christianity was still a sect of Judaism.
And so the “oneness” these teachers described, the gospel these evangelists proclaimed relied upon non-Jews coming to identify themselves as Jews in order to be properly Christian. For them, it was the bloodline of Abraham that made up the children of God.
But Paul had a different vision. Paul was given a vision by the Risen Lord himself that this new people of God had been radically expanded.
Paul believed that – in the Christ – the community of God’s people now included not just the orthodox Jews but also the pagan Gentiles – any and all who had been baptized into Christ were made equal partners in the community of Christ.
And so Paul’s missionary work incorporated non-Jews into the church of Jesus Christ without any prerequisites of circumcision or Sabbath keeping or kosher eating. Paul believed that faith – like the faith of Abraham – was the only prerequisite to inclusion in the family of God.
We are brothers and sisters.
We are each and every one of us part of the fabric, part of the forest, part of the family of God.
Now this whole discussion in Galatians may sound strange to us because since Paul’s time, the church has become thoroughly Gentile. As a matter of fact, you and I as Gentiles can now be Christians because Paul won this argument. As 21st century Christians so far removed from the life and times of 1st century Christians, we don’t always remember how radical it was for Paul to preach a fundamental unity and equality between Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female.
But then, on the other hand, the discussion is not at all strange to our ears, is it?.
Because this same argument continues in the church,
in ever new manifestations,
in our own day.
Listen again to the words of Paul updated for the American church in 2016.
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Black or White or Brown or Liberal or Conservative or Republican or Democrat or rich or poor or gay or straight or old or young or citizen or alien; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Does that make any of us uncomfortable?
If so, now you know how the first century Galatians felt.
Besides my Living in The Story blog, I also blog into a fairly wide secular cyberspace audience as I ponder some of the intersections of faith and culture in our current society. And what I continue to discover in these interactions with people of no faith or people of damaged faith is that the church as a whole has a very poor reputation out there.
Jesus Christ is still honored across a wide spectrum of religious and non-religious people, but the church of Jesus Christ is generally seen as a group that doesn’t live up to the life and teachings of Jesus.
I confess I have lived most of my life in a church bubble and I had no idea how people “out there” picture those of us “in here.” Now I know. And it breaks my heart.
In all my years as a church pastor, I have thought deeply about what it means to BE church.
Is it what we do? Our good deeds?
Is it what we believe? Our creeds?
Or is it who we are?
Number 3 is where I have landed.
I stand with Paul on this. In the church of Jesus Christ, it is who-we-are that defines us, that is core and unique about us. Our identity as the church of Jesus Christ IS that we are one in Christ.
In the Christ – God has accomplished reconciliation, unity, wholeness, oneness for all creation.
Oneness is a done deal.
That is the unadulterated gospel.
But of course – one of the problems we humans have is that we all too often do not live up to who we are. Too often, in the church, we are willing to live with divisions instead of living into the unity God has created among us in the death and resurrected life of Jesus Christ.
Our vision becomes blurred to the radical gospel of equality.
Our ears become deaf to the call of true community.
Our hearts become hardened to our Christian brothers and sisters who think differently or vote differently or look different than we do.
And the world keeps watching us.
And keeps waiting for us to practice what we preach.
To become who we are.
To finally figure out how to clothe ourselves with Christ and to truly be one in Christ.
The trees in the forests of New England are both brilliantly and beautifully individual and at the same time they are one, rooted and grounded in the Ground of all Being. As Jerry and I drove from one gorgeous vista to another, we kept repeating this word over and over again: Glorious.
God created our diversity and God created our unity.
And this Unity in Diversity IS glorious.
It is this gracious, grateful, grace-filled unity that brings glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.
This is my dream, my hope, my challenge for the church: May we become who God has created us to be – One in Christ.
Preached October 16, 2016 at Central Presbyterian Church in Paris TX.
“Ground of Being” is a famous phrase of Paul Tillich as he sought to describe God.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World
By: Peter Wohlleben, Tim Flannery
Photos by Charlotte