23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 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. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,[a] heirs according to the promise. ~Galatians 3:23-29
Remember a couple of months ago, when we talked about that argumentative guy, that fighter, the apostle Paul?
He’s back, and boy is he mad. Oh, you don’t see his anger in today’s passage. But evidence of it is sprinkled all around this little letter to a Gentile church in Galatia, a region of what we now know as Anatolia, in modern day Turkey.
Why is Paul mad?
He’s mad because he sees his hard work coming to what he considers to be ruin.
A little background: The letter to the Galatians is considered to be one of the very first Christian writings—it is probably the second text of the New Testament to be written, and scholars date it to the early 50’s CE. That means, the church is just an infant, probably fewer than 20 years old. And this very young church is growing because of apostles—some, the original followers of Jesus, and some, like Paul, who found Jesus (or were found by him) later. All these people are traveling messengers, evangelists for the Way of Jesus, which is what the church was still called at this point: the Way.
This is what Paul did in Galatia: He went there, he preached, he taught, he gathered people, people who were Gentiles, into a community of faithful, and then he went on his way, to do it somewhere else.
As you might imagine, Paul was convinced he was bringing the real gospel, the true gospel to the Galatians. And it turns out, Paul learned, that there were others bringing a different gospel—and even if they were angels, Paul says—well, if they’re preaching this wrong gospel, then let them be cursed. (Gal. 1:8)
Paul feels pretty strongly about this. He’s mad.
And what is this false gospel? It is this: If you want to follow Jesus, first you have to become a Jew.
We can see why some might have thought that. Jesus was a Jew. All his original followers were Jews, and, for quite a while, they still worshiped and received religious instruction in the synagogues.
But when Paul had preached to the Galatians, he had made no such demands on them. To say to Gentiles, “To follow Jesus, your men and boys will have to physically alter their bodies through circumcision,” or, “To follow Jesus, you have to keep a kosher home and change the way you eat,” to place these kinds of requirements upon the Galatians—Paul simply did not believe that was what Jesus meant or wanted, at all.
Jesus’ good news, Jesus’ message, Jesus’ life, was all about grace. It was all about love.
It was all about the message that “God loves us. God loves us so much, that God chose to live among us in Jesus, and to experience human life and death, and to then rise again, victorious over death and sin alike. God created you, and so, God loves you, just as you are. And God does not require you to become someone you are not, in order for God to continue to love you.”
Does Jesus say there are absolutely no requirements on us?
Of course not. Jesus requires that we love one another, as God loved us. When Jesus is asked to summarize the law, he affirms that it is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Do this, Jesus says, and you shall live.
Nothing about circumcision. Nothing about dietary restrictions, or the laws of ritual cleanness or even temple sacrifice.
This is the Way of Jesus that Paul brought to the Galatians. And he is hopping mad that other apostles… whoever they may be, even if they are angels from heaven (and I’m going to read Paul’s mind here, and say, what he really meant was, “even if they are Jesus’ original followers”)… Paul is simply furious that they would dare to bring any gospel other than the message of God’s complete and unfettered love.
And by the time he reaches our passage, Paul feels the need to make it even more explicit: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith… 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” (Gal. 3:26, 28).
I’m not sure we really get what a radical statement this was. Life in the Roman Empire in the first century was a strictly hierarchical arrangement. Gentiles were in power, of course, and they tended to think of Jews as superstitious and troublesome. Jews thought Gentiles’ elevation of their emperors to divine status was sheer blasphemy, and believed Gentiles to be perpetually unclean. Slaves had no legal personhood; their owners had absolute rights over them, including the right to kill them. Similarly, men had the valued role of paterfamilias, father and protector of the family, whereas the value of women was determined entirely by their relation to a man—father, husband, sometimes brother or son. There was no room for equality within any of these arrangements—someone was always in charge, and someone else always had to obey.
To say that there was no such thing as Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but that all were “one”—this idea radically repudiated and forever undermined the hierarchy. Moreover, it made clear: that those who had been considered inferior, or unacceptable, were now considered equals to their superiors—at least, as seen through the eyes of Christ.
It has taken time. Centuries. Millennia, in fact. But this statement of Paul to the church at Galatia has set the stage for a revolution in the way we see one another. It has set the stage for the full equality, under God, of all people, regardless of their condition.
Some of you are aware by now that I was invited to say some words this week at Binghamton’s candlelight vigil in remembrance of the 49 people who were murdered early last Sunday morning, at Pulse, a gay bar and dance club in Orlando, FL. I stood before those folks, and said, “My name is Patricia Raube, and I am the pastor of Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott, a congregation that loved me right out of the closet in 2009.” As I looked out at that group of more than 500 people, all there to show love and support, I was struck by the sheer diversity of it. There were people of very age, there were people of every race, there were people across the LGBTQ spectrum, and there were people of many faith traditions, including more than thirty from the Islamic Organization of the Southern Tier, who came to say, unambiguously, that they deplored what they considered this evil act of targeting people on the basis of their sexuality and/ or their ethnic background.
My message to every person there was simply this: God, created each of us, and God made us mysterious, and beautiful and perfect, just as we are. God loves us. God loves you.
And God does not require you to become someone you are not, in order for God to continue to love you.
I know that there are verses in scripture that seem to challenge this notion—seven, to be exact, out of the Bible’s 31,102 verses. Not one of those seven verses addresses the issue of people who are in committed, monogamous relationships. Several of those verses are regularly translated incorrectly. And all of those verses fall apart when held to the standard Jesus sets for us: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. And speaking of Jesus, he is absolutely and completely silent on this topic. He never spoke one word. Between Jesus’ silence on this matter, and his very loud and insistent proclamation of the law of love elsewhere, I believe scripture leads us to believe that, as Lin-Manuel Miranda put it last Sunday night at the Tony Awards, “Love is love is love is love is love.
I have spend the past several weeks listening to a book by Rachel Held Evans, in which she describes a project she calls “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.” Evans was raised in a in Tennessee, where she attended churches in which women were quoted scripture passages such as “Women should be silent in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34), and “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man…” (1 Timothy 2:12), and “Wives should submit to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:24). Evans no longer believes that those instructions hold true for the church, but as part of her investigation into what might actually constitute Biblical womanhood, she thought she would try to adhere to them for a year. The book is thoughtful, at times hilarious, at other times heartbreaking.
In the end, as Evans contemplates how her year of searching the scriptures has changed her, she comes to this conclusion:
“If you are looking for verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to liberate or honor women, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to wage war, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to promote peace, you will find them. If you are looking for an outdated, irrelevant ancient text, you will find it. If you are looking for truth, believe me, you will find it. This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not ‘What does it say?’ but ‘What am I looking for?’ I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, ‘Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.’ If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm.”
In this moment when many of us are still reeling from the terrible carnage of last Sunday, we may want to turn to scripture for comfort and guidance. And much depends on what Christians are searching for when we search the scriptures. If we are searching for ways to place blame or to divide or to name our enemies, well, we will undoubtedly find those things. But if we are searching for the miracle that is the love of God, and for ways to come together as one—well, today, we find them.
There is no longer Jew or Gentile. There is no longer Latino or African American or Caucasian. There is no longer slave or free. There is no longer gay or straight. There is no longer male or female. There is no longer justification for anything that divides us, for all of us are one, in the love of God. And Love is love is love is love is love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Photograph by Bret Jaspers, at WSKG News.