This sermon was delivered on December 29, 2013, at Lufkin First UMC.
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There 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. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,* heirs according to the promise.
4My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; 2but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. 3So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits* of the world. 4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our* hearts, crying, ‘Abba!* Father!’ 7So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.*
My brother and I were often competitive with one another when we were kids. Who could come up with a better imaginary friend? Who could build a Lego toy faster than the other? Who could play Mario better? Who could run faster? Who could get better grades? Though me and my brother Charles never came to blows, and never fought each other out right or with violence, competition was often there in the background, as younger and older siblings tend to do. Even today, that competitive spark remains, thought dulled by time and lack of contact. I love my brother a lot. He’s my best friend in many ways. When we moved around a lot growing up, he was always there for me, and I was always there for him. But there are few things more satisfying than destroying him in a game of Mario Kart. Despite the fiercest competition, we never let it get out of hand—we were brothers after all.
Children are fascinating creatures, aren’t they? All of us were children at some point, yet children still fascinate us. The older we get, the more children never cease to amaze us. These little humans are in many ways so fragile and so innocent, and at other moments, so incredibly destructive and chaotic. I think this goes especially for young boys—not that girls are less chaotic or destructive, but rather boys seem to be more overt in their destructive tendencies and since I am a male, I tend to have more experience and perspective on the matter than on how little girls act. A great deal of this is related to social factor, how boys act in groups with one another. On their own, results may vary, but in groups, boys tend to get incredibly competitive with one another.
It’s fascinating what happens when a group of young boys get together and start discussing a topic. Sooner or later, the conversation they have tends to become what I like to call the “1-up” contest. For instance, one kid begins to talk about this cool thing their dad did. Then, another kid chimes in and says “My dad could beat up your dad!” The first child comes back and says, “Nuh uh! My dad could knock out your dad all the way to China!” Another claims “Well mine could knock your Dad to the Moon!” Soon, the contest escalates further; from the moon to Mars, from Mars to Pluto, from Pluto the edge of the galaxy, then to the universe, then to the universe plus infinity plus forever, and so on and so forth. It’s not necessarily about realism or whether these things could actually happen—it’s about competition. It’s about proving that because of this one thing, I’m better than you. On the surface, it’s harmless, just boys being boys. Competition is a natural occurrence in humans, and it is the driving force of our world in many ways. However, it does beg the question, how far is too far? When does it stop being about innocent competition, and start becoming hatred? When does the dividing line appear? And what do we do after that? When does innocent competition become harmful division, and then prejudice and discrimination? When do we forget that our perceived opponents are our brother or sister?
We humans have a strange and dangerous habit of dividing ourselves along arbitrary and somewhat meaningless lines, to the point that we forget that we are brothers and sisters. We divide ourselves based on geography—African, European, North and South American, Asian, Australian, Pacific Islands, etc. These are the first that come to mind, simply because continents are the easiest to delineate, but often that’s not the divisions we do on a day-to-day basis. This is how we usually do it: Oh, I’m from the South. Oh, I’m from Texas. Oh, I’m from this side of the river, or the mountain, or from the coast, or the plains. Such little things can easily cause division among an otherwise indistinguishable group. Or how about this one—Are you a Longhorn or an Aggie? Horned Frog or Mustang? Raider or Bear? You see, these are tribes that we also identify ourselves with, based on nothing more than which school we went to, or our cousin went to, or some such reason. These are relatively innocuous differences, but even those can get out of hand. Even those can manifest in prejudice.
In our society, we like to pretend that prejudice is over, done with, kaput. We imagine that the civil rights battles are over, and prejudice is long gone. That is just plain false. Yes, we have come a long way. We have progressed more in the past 50 or so years than in much of human history combined. It is illegal to discriminate today based on reasons like race, gender and gender, disability, age, socioeconomic class or status, among many other categories—at least it is on paper, and in many ways, we reflect this ethic of equality. As I was writing this sermon, I was on a domestic flight from San Francisco to Dallas. It occurred to me that if I was on that same flight 40 years ago, the people I would be sitting with on the flight would look a lot different, and a lot more monochrome. I wouldn’t be sharing a cabin with people of African, Hispanic, or Asian descent. We’ve come a long way, that’s for sure. I don’t want to down play the tremendous advances we have made. But I’m not going to pretend that everything is hunky dory either. I’m not going to pretend that the problem of discrimination and inequality is completely fixed.
I’m not here to argue policy or party here; I’ll leave that to people more experienced in the so-called political arena. I’m simply talking about morality, personal and social. The hard truth is, we are not where we ought to be. Women on average get paid 25% less than men when doing the same job. There are serious discrepancies between the hiring policies in many businesses that affect people of different ethnicities, gender and societal background. You may have the same amount of skill, intelligence, and capability as someone else, but unless you know the right people, or are the right age, gender, background or ethnicity, many businesses won’t hire you, and if we are to be a nation that prides itself on its equality, that we believe that if you work hard enough you can achieve anything, we need to take a long, hard look at the way we carry out our day-to-day business. This is a moral imperative, my friends, and if you think I’m getting this out of nowhere, I have news for you. It’s from our faith that we learn this.
The apostle Paul, when he wrote to the Galatians, was trying to address a community that, to put it mildly, he was not pleased with. He was downright angry with the Galatians, in fact. You see, the Galatians had a problem, a big one. Around the time that Paul was doing his many travels, there were people going around, preachers and self-professed evangelists that were preaching a version of the Way of Jesus that was inherently divisive. That message was that unless you adhere to all of the laws of Judaism, meaning the holiness code of staying kosher, being circumcised, and observing Jewish social code, you could not follow Jesus. Judaism, for these people was a prerequisite. Paul heard that the Galatians believed in this divisive gospel, and for Paul, who founded the Galatian community, this was a direct slap in the face. Paul was, after all, the Apostle to the Gentiles! His entire ministry was based on giving the good news to people who were not of Jewish descent, of the Jewish ethnic culture, and so to say and believe that unless you wre Jewish you could not follow Christ, it was like going against the entire message of radical equality and inclusiveness of salvation that comes through Jesus Christ. To make these harmful, prejudiced, discriminatory divisions was to abandon the good news.
So Paul was righteously ticked off, and practically said as much in his letter, but how do you get this across to people? Paul was nothing if not a brilliant teacher, and though often I have problems with his language and with his methods of teaching, there’s no question that his message was not inspired by the wisdom and saving Spirit of God. Since they were acting like petulant children, why not compare them to children to drive the point home as to how to act? And so he did.
The problem appeared to be a question of law—which laws are necessary to obey, and which ones aren’t? Except that wasn’t the problem at all. The problem was a question of who’s in, and who’s out. Who’s saved, and who’s not. But because they were thinking of it as a question of law, Paul put it in those terms, just not in the way that they were using it. For Paul, though the law is good, the law is not what saves—the law is confining. The law is our captor, our jailer, our stern disciplinarian, keeping us under lock and key. We, however, are but children, and when young, a child is no more free than a slave might be until they reach a certain age. So Paul’s point then, is that if you are a strict follower of the law to the point that you divide yourself based on how law following you are, you are no better off than a prisoner who brags about how many chains they have to use to keep him or herself restrained! That of course is ludicrous, which is precisely Paul’s point. To brag and divide based on the law is to further confine yourself.
However, Paul is quick to add the good news, and so am I. Because Christ came, because faith is the new reality, we are no longer slaves, but heirs. We are not further from God, but closer. It wasn’t until Christ came that we were able to say that we are inheritors of the kingdom of God. We are the children of od—all of us. ALL of us. No exceptions. That is why the core of this passage is verse 27: 28There 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. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,* heirs according to the promise.
As children of the promise, we have no reason to divide ourselves from one another based on any criteria. To do so would be to deny the good news, and to be chained to a law that no longer confines us thanks to the coming of Christ into the world. We are in the season of Christmas now, the celebration of when Christ came to us full God and fully human, to take on humanity and to bring us salvation from slavery, be it to the law, to each other, or to the arbitrary divisions, prejudices, and discriminations of our world. One of my favorite Christmas carols, “Oh Holy Night” contains in its second verse, “Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother,” and we ought to take that lyric seriously. In the eyes of God, though we are various and diverse, we are all brothers and sisters, children of the promise that we are given salvation through Jesus Christ.
Too often we forget the brotherhood and sisterhood that God designed us to have with one another. Oh, they have different political views than me, we can’t ever get along, they’re idiots, monsters. Oh, they’re from the middle east, they must be a terrorist Muslim extremist. Oh, women can’t do certain things, and they’re crazy anyways, I can’t take them seriously. Oh, he’s not a real man, he can’t even throw a punch right, he doesn’t like sports. Oh, he’s a longhorn, he can’t do anything right. Listen. Up. IN CHRIST, there is no slave or free, Jew or gentile, male or female. In Christ, there is no division. Think twice about how you think about other people. Don’t blindly jump to conclusions about someone, or write someone off, just because they belong to this group or that. That’s not being a brother or a sister.
Instead, try to look at each other through the eyes of Jesus. Jesus didn’t care about where you came from, what gender you are, what ethnicity you belong to, or what your “lifestyle” has been like. He doesn’t care what choices you’ve made, sins you’ve committed, or what you believe. I’ll even go as far as to say that Christ doesn’t care what religion people are, or even if they have religion. What matters to Christ was that you are his sister, his brother. What matters to Christ is that you treat all people like brothers and sisters, as children and heirs to a loving father, and that you love one another, show mercy to each other, be just with one another, and be holy as Christ has made you holy. They may not believe in Christ, but if you do—and if you believe in Christ, treat all people as if they were your brother or sister. We might have competition, but I never forgot that my brother was my brother. I never stopped loving him. We shouldn’t ever stop loving each other. So live up to the promise that are heir to. We are the children of the promise of salvation. Live like it. Amen.