June 17, 2019
The Proper 7C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 8:26-39 from the Lectionary Gospel; I Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 22:19-28 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Galatians 3:23-29 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 67 & 68 (Lord’s Day 25)
Author: Scott Hoezee
What do you suppose they were all so afraid of? After all, that is the bottom line of this dramatic and startling story in Luke 8: all the witnesses and all the townsfolk were afraid.
What was it that did them in, fear-wise? Was it the sight of all those dead pigs floating in the water and even now starting to wash up on shore? Was it the sight of this nut job of a human being now clothed and in his right mind? Was it the idea that despite the other explanations people had bandied about over the years (he’s quirky, he’s angry, he’s just not well adjusted) that it turned out there really had been a legion of demons in this man after all? Did the demons frighten them all? Did this reveal to them that the world is a more spiritually fraught place than they had previously guessed? The transfer from the man to the pigs had shown the truth of the situation and maybe retrospectively that shook them up, given what had been really lurking in their midst all along.
So is that what they were afraid of?
Whatever it was it was so overwhelming a fearful feeling—Luke tells us they were flat out “overcome” with fright—that they asked Jesus to leave. And maybe just there is as good an answer to this question as any. The spectacle had been shocking and shocking things have a way of producing unsettled feelings, even fear sometimes. The loss of the pigs had been a blow to the local economy perhaps but in the end the pigs could be replaced. The man himself was a sight to see now that the wildness and untamed nature of him had been put aside but whatever and happened and however it had happened, he was not a very scary spectacle just sitting there. In any event no one from the town suggested that he hit the road. They’d put up with his rabid nature for years without banishing him (and without, apparently, being too terribly afraid of him) so he was surely no source of fear now.
But they asked Jesus to leave and there’s really only one explanation for this: they collectively decided that he was the source of their overwhelming fear. Maybe if he left, their fright would depart with him. If your child is afraid of the stuffed bear in the corner of her room because she thinks it is looking at her when she sleeps and might come alive during the night, you take the bear out of the room. If a community is afraid of some peeping Tom who keeps peering through window panes at young girls as they get undressed, the police seek to find and remove this person from the streets (and no one sleeps well or feels settled until this source of fear and intrusion is properly locked up).
These people were afraid of Jesus. That’s why he had to go. The one the demons properly pegged as “the Son of the Most High God” just couldn’t stay there because his presence was unmaking people, terrifying them. The man who had been delivered? He could stay. The demons—wherever they had scooted off to once they lost their temporary home inside the pigs—could apparently stick around, too. But not Jesus. He had to go so people could breathe easy again.
Can it be that the presence and power of God are a source of fright? Apparently. And I wonder if even us religious types wouldn’t find this to be true in case the palpable, physical presence of God showed up even some Sunday morning while we are in the act of worshiping God. We are surely fooling ourselves—but we surely do this all the time, too!!—if we assume that were Jesus to show up at one of our worship services, he would ever and only smile upon and bless everything we are doing and saying. Maybe we do have everything absolutely correct in terms of who God is and how he likes to be worshiped and spoken of. Maybe every socio-political stance a given church advocates and every program it carries out and every decision it makes on how to spend money in the church budget—maybe ALL of it just fits God to a T.
Maybe. But I have this sneaking suspicion that if Jesus really did show up, he’d prove to be plenty unsettling to even us buttoned-down religious types even as he might just surprise and shock us. We might come to see just where and how we are significantly out of alignment with Jesus after all and as it is at the office when the boss shows up and starts very carefully going over all your work and all your files and all your emails . . . well, sooner or later the knot in the pit of your stomach signals to your heart one undeniable fact: you are afraid! What might the boss uncover if he looks that closely at our work?!
But if that could be true of us even within Christ’s Church today, how much more true for hapless and clueless folks such as the people of the Gerasenes in Luke 8? The thing about having the one true God in your midst is you have this feeling that the incident with the pigs could be just the tip of this divine iceberg. Who knows what would be next but it’s surely not beyond the realm of possibility that this Jesus person, the Son of the Most High God, could end up shaking up everything and that is, well, a frightening thought for most people.
In the tradition of the church the sin of sloth, of acedia, is regarded as one of the Seven Deadly Sins and although in the popular imagination sloth is reduced to mere laziness or being sluggardly, the actual essence of sloth is spiritual boredom. It’s an inability to get excited about things that are truly good and wonderful. Sometimes the spiritually slothful are anything but slothful in other areas of their lives it’s just that what most energizes them are sporting events or NASCAR races or finding out there’s a new microbrewery opening up in their neighborhood. They get excited all right, but just not about the right things. A hockey game is something to look forward to all week but the things of God . . . not so much.
A desire to NOT change, to not do what needs doing in order to make one’s life better, often underlies sloth. It’s easier to stay the same—even if “the same” is not all that great—than let someone put you through the wringer or confront you with this or that truth about your life or this culture or this world that you’d just as soon not know. For the people of the Gerasenes life with a demon-possessed crazy man in their midst was no picnic. He terrified neighborhoods, was a cause of fear for parents of young children, was a public nuisance and embarrassment when friends from out of town would come by for a visit. But as they say, better the devil you know . . . better the devil you know than the God you don’t know but who looks to promise a whole lot of change that just maybe it’s easier not to do.
Of course, when God shows up to shake things up it’s finally a grace that he brings to us. It goes without saying that his deliverance of this hapless man was an act of grace and mercy but so are the other things Jesus can do for us in our lives, painful though some of those things may be for us as we find the need to change course or give up certain things.
As Luke 8 concludes, Jesus sails away even as the folks of the Gerasenes go back home, unchanged. Just the one man is left on the shore waving furiously in gratitude to the man who saved him. He’s got a job to do in telling people the great things God had done for him.
I wonder if anyone in the Gerasenes listened . . .
In his perennially best-selling book years ago, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck opened by saying that across his many years of practice as a psychologist, the number one obstacle he encountered in helping people get better had nothing to do with stubborn chemical imbalances in the brain that were resistant to medication but rather the #1 obstacle was people’s unwillingness to do the hard things that needed doing to make the necessary changes in their behavior. It’s not that Dr. Peck could not come up with good programs of activities people could engage in that would make a difference. But getting people to act on those programs . . . well, as Johnny Carson used to like to say, you can lead a horse to water but to get him to swim the backstroke is tough!
1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
Author: Stan Mast
This is one of the great short stories in the Bible, indeed, in all of literature. It has all the elements of a riveting story—a twisting plot, clever symbolism, stylistic devices, unexpected irony, deep pathos, raw humanity, stunning theophanies, and an ending that we don’t see coming. But best of all, it speaks a message of mercy to those who have worked hard for the cause of God’s kingdom and are now completely discouraged at the results of their work.
The story has a peculiar beginning. In the previous chapter, Elijah has challenged the priests of Baal to a winner-take-all contest. Let’s prove which God is real once and for all by calling on our respective Gods to ignite these sacrifices. Of course, Baal does nothing, because Baal is nothing. And Yahweh sends fire from heaven that not only devours the meat and the wood, but also the stones and the water that Elijah has poured on the sacrifice to up the ante. It was a complete rout of Baal and all the people shout, “Yahweh, he is God. Yahweh, he is God.” Elijah finishes the celebration by having all the priests of Baal slaughtered.
Our story opens with King Ahab reporting the fiasco to his wife, Queen Jezebel, a fanatic follower of Baal. When she hears about the slaughter of the priests, she goes ballistic and puts out a death warrant on Elijah, swearing that he will be dead in a day or the gods will kill her. Here’s where the story gets peculiar. When Elijah receives the message of her threat, he became terrified and ran for his life all the way to Beersheba, the farthest southern town in Israel, some 70 miles away from the scene of Yahweh’s victory on Mt. Carmel.
That is a shocking development. I mean, Yahweh has just won. Elijah and everyone else (except Jezebel) knows that Yahweh and Yahweh alone is God. Yahweh has shown that he has power to do the impossible. In the power of Yahweh, Elijah has just run 17 miles ahead of Ahab’s chariot, demonstrating once again that nothing is too hard for Yahweh. But Jezebel snarls her threat and Elijah runs like a scared cat.
What’s up with that? Well, what’s up is that Elijah is down, way down, completely depressed. Yes, he has seen God win, but then this devotee of Baal, this she devil comes roaring back with this death threat. It was as though God hadn’t won at all, as though all Elijah’s efforts had been for naught. When it was all said and done, this symbol of evil could still pursue him like some early version of The Terminator.
So Elijah ran, and walked, and pouted, and prayed. When he got the edge of the Promised Land, the Land where Yahweh ruled, Elijah left his servant and walked for a day into the desert. Exhausted, he flopped under the only available shade, a scrawny broom tree. There he prayed that he might die. It is the classic prayer of a burned out minister. “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life. I am no better than my ancestors.” All of them failed in the struggle with sin and evil, and so have I. It’s all futile. I’m done. Take my life.
But God isn’t done with Elijah yet, not by a long shot. Instead of dying, Elijah falls asleep under the broom tree. He was awakened by the touch of an angel who said, “Get up and eat.” Looking around, he spots a loaf of bread and a jar of water, God’s provisions in the wilderness, invoking memories of Israel’s manna and water from the rock. God has something in mind for his discouraged prophet. We know soon enough, as Elijah falls asleep again, is prodded by the angel again, and is urged to eat again. (This is the first of several doublets in the story: Elijah running ahead of Ahab and from Jezebel, Mount Carmel and Mount Horeb, God’s question before and after the theophany.) In this repetition of the command to get up and eat, the angel adds the reason; “for the journey is too much for you.”
What journey? Well, it seems that God has his own reasons for Elijah’s flight. Elijah is running from the queen of evil who hasn’t given up on the defeated Baal. In God’s plan, Elijah is running to the God on whom he has given up even though Yahweh has defeated evil. God wants Elijah to see something, hear something, experience something that will keep him going in his ministry.
The story changes scenes again; we’ve moved from Mount Carmel to Jezreel to Beersheba to the wilderness and, now, to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God where Moses met with Yahweh to receive the Ten Commandments. Elijah has come back to the place where it all began, the place where God made covenant with the nation of Israel. It took Elijah 40 days and 40 nights to get there, mirroring Moses’ 40 days on the mountain, alerting us to the fact that Elijah is going to meet God here.
And he does. After entering a cave to spend the night (think of Moses hiding in a “cleft in the rock” when Yahweh passed by in Exodus 33), the word of the Lord came to Elijah. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The key word in that question is “here.” You should be somewhere else, Elijah, doing something else, the thing I gave you to do. So, why are you here, on this mountain far away from the Promised Land and your prophetic ministry?
Elijah’s answers drips with self-defense and self-pity and manifests a skewed view of reality. “I have been very zealous for Yahweh God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left and now they are trying to kill me too.” Many scholars point out that although Israel had, indeed, broken covenant, that altar breaking accusation wasn’t true and few if any prophets had been killed. And, as God will tell Elijah in a few moments, he wasn’t the only one left; there were at least 7000 just like him. But then depression does tend to make things look worse than they really are, even when they are really bad. Elijah feels defeated, alone, and beleaguered.
How does God respond? With a “slap upside the head?” With a stiff rebuke to his self-pity? With a stern command to get back to work? No, God responds as he did with Job—with a theophany, a surprising theophany. “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (Note the reversal of the command to Moses as the Lord was about to pass by.) God wants Elijah to have a direct, full frontal encounter with himself.
Which is exactly what happened, but not in the way Elijah wanted. Elijah was used to spectacular revelations of God, as he had received on Mount Carmel. That’s what Israel needed in this moment, another overwhelming display of Yahweh as God, or so Elijah may have thought. But that’s not what Elijah needed. So a powerful wind tore the mountain apart, but Yahweh wasn’t in the wind. And a mighty earthquake shook the mountain, but Yahweh wasn’t in the earthquake. Finally a fire blazed on the mountain, but Yahweh wasn’t in the fire.
Elijah thought that Israel needed to be blown around, shook up, and burned by the fire of God. But what Israel needed was a prophet who would speak the word of the Lord into deaf ears. So, God spoke to Elijah in a gentle whisper, “a still small voice,” or as one scholar puts it, “the sound of fine silence.” When Elijah heard that tiny sound, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Terrified at the prospect of meeting God face to face, he covered his face. Now that he knew God would speak softly to him, he dares to obey God and emerge from the cave.
That’s when God actually speaks to Elijah. What does Yahweh say? He simply repeats the question with which he began. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Same question. Same implication. And same response from Elijah. He repeats verbatim his reply to God’s question. Apparently, the wind and earthquake and fire and silence haven’t changed Elijah one bit. He is still wallowing in self-pity, gazing at the world through the dark distortion of depression, and looking for God to blast his wicked people.
We might expect God to say, “You have got to be kidding me! Have you learned nothing from your encounter with me? When are you going to snap out of it?” But instead of rebuke and harshness, God quietly tells Elijah to “Go back the way you came and go to the desert of Damascus….” “What are you are doing here” when I want you over there? Instead of stern correction, God simply sends Elijah back to work, now that he has met with God, again.
Elijah and other discouraged prophets might want God to do something miraculous, something spectacular that will interrupt the flow of history and individual lives. That’s what it will take to change the world. But that is not how the kingdom comes into this world. It comes by means of Incarnation, in human actions and words within history. As the old hymn puts it, “By deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”
In our story, it wasn’t so much love and mercy; it was anointing. The Lectionary ends our reading before we get to that anointing, but we need to point that out to people. God’s work continues when Elijah anoints a foreign king to discipline Israel, a new Israelite king to finish the foreigner’s work, and a prophet named Elisha to carry on Elijah’s ministry. God’s work will continue in spite of the continued power of evil. Evil is not in control. Elijah does not, in fact, die at Jezebel’s hand. Indeed, he doesn’t die at all, but is instead taken up into heaven by a fiery chariot. Talk about your miraculous ending!
This is a great story for Christians who have just celebrated the mighty acts of God by observing the major feasts of the church year—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. But now as we enter Ordinary Time, we are faced once again with the continued existence and power of sin and evil. As we begin the long journey of discipleship, living out the victory of God in Christ, we may feel discouraged and depressed.
God comes to us today with this simple question. “What are you doing here?” God’s work isn’t done, so go back to it. God is real. We’ve seen that in Christ. We felt the earthquake at Christ’s crucifixion. We heard the wind at Pentecost. And we will see the fire at Christ’s return. But Christ’s work is done by ordinary people who are anointed to be prophets, priests, and kings.
As I read the story, the opening lines of a beloved old hymn came floating into my mind.
“Why should I feel discouraged? Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my Savior? My constant friend is he:
His Eye is on the Sparrow, and I know he watches me.” **
If that’s a bit too blithe for you, here’s a version of Psalm 130 more in keeping with Elijah’s mood under the broom tree.
Out of the depths I cry to you on high; Lord, hear my call.
Bend down your ear and listen to my sigh, forgiving all.
If you should mark our sins, who then could stand?
But grace and mercy dwell at your right hand.
I wait for God, I trust his holy word; he hears my sighs.
My soul still waits and looks unto the Lord; my prayers arise.
I look for him to drive away my night—
Yes, more than those who watch for morning light.
Hope in the Lord; unfailing is his love; in him confide.
Mercy and full redemption from above he does provide.
From sin and evil, mighty though they seem,
His arm almighty will his saints redeem.”
**These lyrics are from the Public Domain.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Ordinary Time is just beginning in the early summertime of 2019 yet the Lectionary directs us to a sometimes difficult psalm. Yes, we are being asked to consider only the hope-filled, praise-filled conclusion to this poem but it’s not as though we can forget its terrible opening set of verses. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” brings us right back to Christ’s cross and the Lenten Season now well behind us. The subsequent verses describing the horrid agony of the poet sear our imaginations with the rawness of their imagery.
Yet, like most Psalms of Lament, even Psalm 22 turns a corner at some point. Verse 19 still sounds the alarm of the need for deliverance from grave dangers. But then suddenly all is well again. God came through. He did not look away from the terrible specter of the suffering one whose ribs could be counted, whose bones were melting like wax, whose mouth was drier than dust. God turned his face toward this very one and somehow brought about a rescue. If it is true that the precise nature of the agony described in the first half of Psalm 22 is rather vague, so is the precise nature of the delivery. Like many Hebrew poems, so Psalm 22 remains just general enough that it can be adapted as a prayer to fit a wide range of possible scenarios and circumstances.
But let’s face it: if it was true in Part A of this psalm that the descriptions of torture and mockery and agony were searing, once in Part B the psalmist flips the praise switch, the torrent of happy imagery is equally astounding for both its vividness and its broad reach. This psalmist is not just a LITTLE happy about his deliverance, he’s ecstatic! He pivots from being as wretched as humanly possible to being about as optimistic as possible. His own joy leads him to some pretty wild predictions: ALL the poor will be taken care of, ALL the families of ALL the nations will join in the choir to sing praises to Israel’s God, Yahweh.
For some reason it reminds me of a little scene from the Indiana Jones movie “The Last Crusade” when a German is trying to secure some military help from an Arab sultan. The sultan is totally uninterested in the treasures they bring him but then he spies the Rolls Royce in which the Germans had arrived and claims it as his own. Once they agree, he goes over the top in lavishing on them every possible piece of assistance and provisions imaginable. “You’re welcome” the German tells him. It is a nice understatement for a gratitude that had gone a little over the top.
So in Psalm 22: once the psalmist gets his deliverance, his gratitude goes over the top. The cork flies off the shook-up champagne bottle of joy and the poet foresees an entire planet of people bowing down to serve and praise Yahweh alone. “You’re welcome” God might say in return for such effusive praise and enthusiasm.
For us preachers, this sunny conclusion to Psalm 22 presents some interesting homiletical challenges. Of course, it is good to preach on such passages of deliverance, of promises kept, of people whose fortunes were wonderfully reversed. At any given moment in most every congregation, there are people ready to sing along, ready to hop onto and ride this wave of enthusiasm with gusto and joy because, indeed, God came through for them. Prayers were answered. The sick child got well again! The cancer has not returned! That hoped-for big promotion at work came through. For people such as this in our churches, we need to preach the joy of Psalm 22 and also help people connect their own personal joy with the wider picture the psalmist paints. That is, we should use the occasion of our own happiness to be a public witness that will invite others to join us in the song. God’s project of salvation is always bigger than my your or my personal needs. My rescue from suffering is a great thing but we want also to point others to the God who is always doing this kind of thing and at the end of the cosmic day has plans to do this for the entire universe.
But, naturally, we have to point out that at any given time in most every congregation, there are going to be people who feel quite solidly stuck in Part A of Psalm 22. Their deliverance has not come. Maybe it can never come: the sick child died. The cancer is back. The promotion was given to someone else and your own position in the company was eliminated. Or maybe there is still the prospect for prayers to be answered in the future after all but . . . well, it is still the future and only the past is inevitable.
We preachers are forever seeking that homiletical and pastoral sweet spot where in our sermons we can properly celebrate those who have a right to the joyful enthusiasm of praise in Psalm 22 Part B while not leaving to the side of the road those still in the doleful sorrows and agony of Psalm 22 Part A. Maybe it is enough to take a time out in a sermon on an upbeat passage like this one to acknowledge that we are all aware that not all of us are in that good place yet (and that some of us have found that good place to have eluded us perhaps for good). We don’t understand the whys and wherefores of all that. Maybe that is why there is also a Psalm 88 in the Bible where the return to goodness and joy and light never happens after that relentless poem of lament. God can still be with us not only when the bottom drops out but when it appears the bottom cannot ever be replaced either.
However we do it, it is important to remember that we are always preaching to a mixed congregation and while it is important to laugh with those who laugh, we have to at the same time be ready to weep with those who weep. And if it’s true that those still suffering can take away some hope and solace from those who have been delivered of this or that affliction (“Maybe this will yet come for me too!”), it is also true that those who are celebrating can temper themselves just enough to not make the still-suffering folks feel put upon, left out, or even made to feel that maybe the reason they are still hurting is because their faith is not strong enough, their prayers not as ardent as those who got what they were seeking.
Chalk it up to yet one more of the preaching life’s little challenges.
In her recent book Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved), Kate Bowler talks a lot about her research into the prosperity gospel and its incessantly sunny promises that God will shower rich blessings on all true believers if only they are faithful and devout enough. She wrote a whole book on the subject and was pretty jaded on this school of theological thought. But that was before she was diagnosed with a possibly fatal Stage 4 cancer at the age of 35 and not long after she had at long last become a mother after a long struggle with infertility.
Suddenly Bowler understood why the prosperity gospel has such appeal. Because she found herself thinking “I do not deserve this. I am a good person. God owes me better than this.” Deep down we all want this for ourselves, and if those who pedal the prosperity gospel are theologically and biblically wrong to promise such things as a kind of divine blank check, they are not humanly wrong in knowing that this is a deep vein of desire that can easily be tapped in most every person.
We all want the happy ending. And sometimes it comes. But not always and neither did Jesus ever say it would come always and to all who are faithful. When it comes, we celebrate with the joy of the ending of Psalm 22. But when it does not, we ought not feel there is nothing more to say. There is much more to say. God is faithful and even if it cannot come within the span of our lives on this earth, in the end Psalm 22 will be correct: God will rule and he will have dominion and all will be well. Maybe not now. But some day. The Jesus who once himself identified with the dereliction of Psalm 22:1 has taken care of that much.
Author: Doug Bratt
Too many white Americans including Christians have made a mess of race relations by endorsing the horrors of things like Native American displacement, slavery, Japanese-American internment camps and even real estate redlining. In fact, whether it’s in connection with the abomination that is racial profiling or the controversy that surrounds affirmative action, we still manage to smudge race relations.
It makes me think of an unforgettable conversation I once had with a friend who is African-American and was a parent of one of my son’s high school classmates. She told me how she had recently prepared her teenaged son to drive his car to a meeting in a nearby county.
My friend told me she felt she had to tell him how to behave if the police stopped him. She was afraid of what the authorities might do to her son if he somehow, in their view, stepped out of line. That kind of conversation I’d never even contemplated having with my own white sons was a chilling reminder that Americans still have much to do in the area of race relations.
In the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday Paul insists there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. Christians, however, sometimes have a hard time not just practicing but also even seeing that unity. At least some of what we not only witness but also practice, in fact, seems to belie that unity, even, or perhaps especially, in the church.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once called the eleven o’clock hour “the most racially segregated in America.” He seemed to mean that American Christians were seldom more racially segregated than when they were in church on Sunday. A quick glance around even the wonderful church I pastor suggests that we haven’t made much visible progress in that area in our fifty-year history.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. Yet God’s adopted sons and daughters naturally focus more closely on the things that distinguish us than the One who unites us.
Our text’s Paul has been harshly scolding the Galatians for suspecting that they can somehow rescue themselves from God’s punishment that they deserve. He reminds them that God justified, that is accepted, Abraham because of his faith that received God’s grace.
Abraham, however, as Paul goes on to insist, isn’t the only one whom God blesses in this way. In fact, God richly blesses all those with whom God graciously gifts faith. So now both Jews and Gentiles know the marvelous blessing of God’s gift of faith.
That’s why Paul can sing, “There is neither Jew nor Greek … for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” God is not first of all our Judge who has used the law to condemn and imprison prisoners who must dread the punishment we deserve. God is, instead, our Father who, in Christ, has forgiven us. God’s people are God’s grown-up children, enjoying the status of those who are adopted heirs of his glorious kingdom.
How does all of this happen? What turns God’s enemies into God’s children? “Christ,” writes Paul in verse 13, “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” It’s a way of saying that Jesus Christ made us God’s adopted children by accepting the punishment we deserve for our sins.
Yet because of what Christ has done, we don’t just belong to God as God’s adopted children. You and I also belong to each other as Christian brothers and sisters. All Christians are siblings in Jesus Christ. After all, because of what Christ has done, there is “neither Jew nor Greek.”
God called Abraham and his Hebrew descendants in order to reveal himself to them. Yet in Christ that God extends that revelation to all of God’s adopted Jewish and Gentile sons and daughters. So now people of all races aren’t just equal in our inability to earn our salvation. Those whom God chooses are also equal in our salvation that God graciously gives us.
That also means that within God’s family there is neither “slave nor free.” Nearly every society in the history of the world has had system of classifying people by their social status. Things like our backgrounds, wealth, power and education have divided people ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin. In Christ, however, Christians don’t look down on people from whom we differ. We don’t see things like our socio-economic status, job titles or academic accomplishments as any reason to treat each other differently.
God’s saving work in Jesus Christ also means, however, that there is neither “male nor female.” This assertion, with which even many people who are currently outside of God’s family, would agree, was far ahead of its time. After all, men almost universally despised and often mistreated women in Paul’s day. Here, however, the apostle, whom some claim, mistakenly, I think, was sexist, insists that men and women are on and equal in God’s eyes.
So in one sense God is color- and gender-blind. God sees each one of us, black and white, male and female, powerful and powerless, rich and poor, as naturally sinful. God sees every person, regardless of race, gender or social status, as in desperate need of God’s grace.
Yet as one of my colleagues notes, in another sense, when God looks at people, God sees two colors. But they’re not the colors we so often see. They’re, instead, the colors of deep darkness and bright red. When God looks at people, God sees the colors of the spiritual darkness in which some choose to stubbornly live and the red that is Christ’s blood. God sees people who have either rejected God’s grace or have let Christ’s blood wash away our sins.
Christ’s work doesn’t obliterate racial, social and sexual distinctions. God’s adopted sons and daughters aren’t color- and gender-blind in that sense that we ignore the color of a person’s skin or someone’s gender. Christians don’t overlook the real pain that society has historically attached to skin color, gender and social status. Nor do we ignore the cultural backgrounds from which other Christians come. Instead we treasure those differences, cherishing the way our diversity enriches and enlivens the body of Jesus Christ. In fact,
The distinctions on which we so often focus no longer erect barriers to Christian fellowship.
By God’s grace God people resist the temptation to despise or look down on each other. After all, Christians recognize that those who have faithfully received God’s grace are all “one.” Because of what Christ has done, we recognize each other as equals, brothers and sisters, by God’s grace, in Christ.
That at least implies that Christians no longer find our primary identity in our race, social status, gender, background or any other divisive construct. No, God’s adopted sons and daughters find our chief identity in God’s redeeming work for us in Jesus Christ.
How, then, shall we live? We perhaps begin by confessing to God and each other that we’ve not always lived up to this creed. Perhaps especially white folks like me, who have grasped and held so much power in America and its church, must confess our mistreatment of people of all sorts of colors.
We confess that we’ve turned a blind eye to things like slavery, segregation and, even now, racial profiling. God’s people confess that we’ve largely ignored the systematic abuse and exploitation of Latino, Asian, Arab and other immigrants. While there may be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, we admit that we haven’t always lived in ways that reflect that unity.
However, we also seek to be churches that are hospitable to people of all types. Perhaps especially when people who are different from us walk in our doors, we go out of our way to make sure they feel welcome and included. You and I do everything we can to ensure that our fellowships are ones where race, gender and social status make no difference.
What’s more, our unity in Christ Jesus means that even when theological differences divide us, we find ways to celebrate our unity. God’s beloved adopted children look for opportunities to worship, work and minister with people with whom virtually the only thing we may have in common is God’s grace at work in our lives.
After all, while God has not yet obliterated our differences, God has graciously minimized their importance by uniting God’s adopted sons and daughters. God has already done all the “heavy lifting.” God’s beloved people simply need to find ways to live out that precious unity.
Imagine for a moment that you’re walking with someone out to the parking lot after a worship service. As you walk and talk, you notice a couple of people standing and talking together out in the lot.
One of those people is a man, the other a woman. One is quite tall, the other relatively short. One is fairly heavy, the other fairly trim. One has brown hair, the other black. One’s hair is graying a bit, the other’s is not. One is wearing a stylish brown coat, the other a ragged green one. One is smiling, the other is not. And, oh yes, by the way, one’s skin color is darker than the other’s.
Now imagine saying something like, “I think I know that person.” And your companion answers, “Which one?” How might you answer? How might any of us answer a similar question in a comparable setting?
Of course, you might refer to the person’s comparative height or weight. You could point to the color of the person’s hair or coat. It’s possible you’d refer to the gender or relative age of the person I think I know. However, if you’re anything like me, you’re naturally most likely to identify the person by the color of his or her skin. By nature I would answer, “The black guy,” or “The white woman.”
You probably wouldn’t be, however, alone in that. After all, while North America has made some progress in the area of racial reconciliation, we still have a hard time seeing beyond the color of a person’s skin. Even those who proclaim Galatians 3’s lovely truths may have much left to fully live out Paul’s bold claim that we are all “one in Christ Jesus.”