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Unified in Christ

A sermon by David Hughes, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.

June 23, 2013

Galatians 3:23-29

If you know anything about the adventures of The Lone Ranger, you’ll appreciate the following story. One day the Lone Ranger and his faithful redskin companion, Tonto, were riding through a deep canyon when suddenly they noticed both sides of the canyon were filled with hundreds of Indians on horseback. The Lone Ranger grew fearful as he surveyed the dark silhouettes dressed for battle staring down at him.

He turned to his good friend and cried, “Tonto! What are we going to do?” Tonto looked at him and replied, “What do you mean ‘we,’ paleface?”

It’s always good when we can laugh at our differences. Lord knows that throughout history humanity has witnessed countless situations where differences in color, class, ethnicity, and gender have resulted in tragic pain and suffering.

2000 years ago, the Apostle Paul spoke directly into one of those situations as he addressed new Christians in a region known as Galatia, now modern-day Turkey. These days we are exploring Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This epistle is not known for its polite tone! In fact, Paul verbally body-slams his target audience in Galatia, especially those Jewish Christians who insist that Gentile Christians follow Jewish law and agree to be circumcised to become part of the body of Christ. These Jewish “missionaries” are eager to remind everybody that Jews and only Jews are God’s chosen people. Non-Jews, or Gentiles, never have and frankly never will be as special to God as the children of Abraham. And the only way Gentiles will ever deserve the title,

“Christian” is if they scrupulously follow the Law of Moses.

Paul is put out with these Jewish missionaries, and not just because of their trash

talk about him. Their model of Christianity that fuses belief in Jesus with strict adherence to Jewish law and rituals is fundamentally flawed, and Paul is determined to set the record straight and forever liberate Christ followers from slavery to the law.

In Galatians 1 and 2 Paul argues that our faith is grounded not in obedience to the law but in the grace of Jesus Christ who died for us on the cross. We are justified and sustained not by works of the law, Paul says, but by our faith in Christ and Christ’s

faithfulness toward us.

Paul admits that the 613 laws of the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments, have served a useful purpose. They reveal God’s holiness and our sin. And they guide us in our moral conduct. In today’s scripture from Galatians 3 Paul adds to the list that the law serves as a temporary disciplinarian that guards and occasionally even imprisons us. In the Greek world it was not unusual for children to be accompanied

by a slave who served as a guardian and disciplinarian as they traveled outside their home. When children reached a certain age, of course, such a guardian was no longer needed.

Likewise, says Paul, 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. The law was helpful in its time, says Paul, although it could never give us life, abundant and eternal.

Now that we have Christ who can do what the law never could, why would we ever go back?

Notice that Paul insists nothing, including the Old Testament law, can compare to being “in Christ.” To be “in Christ” is singularly important to Paul, as the phrase appears in his writings some 60 times. Moreover, Paul speaks of being “baptized in Christ,” “clothed with Christ,” “being one in Christ,” and “belonging to Christ”… all variations on the same phrase.

What does it mean to be “in Christ?”

It means to be intimate with Christ in the deepest levels of your being, spending time with him and getting to know him and loving him and being loved by him. It means being defined by Christ, slowly but surely taking on the character and mind of Christ so that you are no longer a slave either to the whims of your own ego or to the letter of the law, but are gladly following the Spirit of the law to please a God who loves you so. To be in Christ is to live out of the steady flow of God’s love and to ride the powerful wave of God’s Spirit, come hell or high water.

To be in Christ is not to be perfect, not to live without questions. Rather, it is to trust in God’s grace to forgive you and his wisdom to guide you. To be in Christ changes absolutely everything about your life—the way you see yourself, your neighbor, and the world around you—forever!

That’s gracious plenty, but that’s not all! To be “in Christ” is also to be in Christ’s body, relating to other believers (and even non-believers) in a revolutionary way that the world knows not of! In other words, it means operating as though the usual identity markers (like “palefaces and redskins”) that normally define us no longer do.

Or to quote Paul: “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Now if you’re wondering if this verse has generated controversy in the Christian church, I can assure you it has…in spades! In fact, few scriptures have muddied the waters of theology, ecclesiology (how we do church), and sociology quite like Galatians 3:28. This verse has been called the “Magna Charta of Humanity”, the most important text that supports biblical equality, and “the most socially explosive statement in the New Testament.”

And not just recently. In 1859, Salvation Army co-founder Catherine Booth wrote the following: “If (Galatians 3:28) does not teach that in the privileges, duties, and responsibilities of Christ’s Kingdom, all differences of nation, caste, and sex are abolished, we should like to know what it does teach, and wherefore it is written.”

As a matter of fact, there are those Christians who challenge Catherine Booth or  anybody else who sees Galatians 3:28 as the foundation for equality in church or society. These folks, often labeled “complementarians”, understand Galatians 3:28 to be speaking only in spiritual terms, with no social implications. In other words, what Paul is saying is that anybody, regardless of nationality or status or gender, can be saved through Jesus Christ. But to be “one in Christ” is not the same as being equal in Christ in church and society.

Far from it! We may be equal before God and unified in Christ. But that does not mean our respective roles and responsibilities change. I’m still a paleface, you’re still a redskin, I’m male and you’re female. And that implies ongoing differences in roles and responsibilities in church and society.

If you don’t believe it, say the complementarians, please notice that the same Paul who wrote Galatians 3:28 also wrote 1 Timothy 2:11-12—Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. Or 1 Timothy 6:1-2—Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved.

In his commentary on Galatians 3:28, reformer John Calvin shows his complementarian colors when he writes, “Paul does not mean here that there are no differences of status with regard to the society of this world. For as we know, there are servants and masters, rulers and subjects; in the home, the husband is the head, and the wife must be in subjection. We know this economy to be inviolable, and that our Lord Jesus Christ did not come into this world to confuse everything by overturning what God the Father had established.”

Are we unified in and around Christ? Absolutely! Are we equal in Christ? Absolutely not! And to this day many Christ-followers, including most Southern Baptists, subscribe to this complementarian theology. People are fond of saying, “Elections have consequences.” So, my friends, does theology, as women who are forbidden to lead in ministry can readily attest.

There is another side to this argument, known as the egalitarian school of thought, which says that with all due respect to John Calvin, Paul is indeed upsetting the social applecart in the name of the Christ who upset the social apple cart, big time! No, Paul did not call for women and slaves to rebel against their husbands and masters. Yes, Paul did come down hard on women in places where their impulsive actions were disrupting and destabilizing the churches they served. But you cannot deny, the egalitarians say, that in Galatians 3:28 Paul laid the foundation for a social revolution that continues to this day.

In so doing, Paul was following the example of Jesus who viewed people not according to the usual identity markers and social distinctions, but as children of God for whom he will die on a cross. Jesus did not see a tax collector; he sawMatthew. Jesus did not see a prostitute; he saw a woman so devoted to him that she bathed his feet with expensive ointment. Jesus didn’t see a promiscuous Samaritan woman at the well; he saw a precious daughter of God thirsty for the living water only he could provide.

Women were the last to leave Jesus at the cross, the first to greet him at the empty tomb, and the first to bear witness to his resurrection. Jesus not only broke the Sabbath law; he broke all the long-standing rules and mores about men and women, Jews and Gentiles. And when Paul affirms in Romans 16 the ministry of women like Phoebe who served as a deacon of the church, he is doing the same.

And besides, how can you say Galatians 3:28 is spiritually but not socially true? As one egalitarian theologian points out, “There is nothing merely before God (and not people). All of our faith engages all of our lives.”

Let me repeat that—all of our faith engages all of our lives. Which means this—you cannot compartmentalize the Christian faith. You cannot say we are unified in Christ but not in church or this world. You cannot say we are equal before God but unequal everywhere else. All of our faith engages all of our lives.

Otherwise, those who are Jewish could still insist that we Gentiles are clearly inferior. Those of us who are white could insist that we are still entitled to own black slaves. And those of us who are men could still claim that women are to be seen and not heard in church, or anywhere else for that matter, and they should leave the leading to us.

Friends, I believe with all my heart that in Christ we, who are incredibly diverse and different, are one! Not the same, but equal! Thanks be to God that in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male and female, no Israeli nor Palestinian, no Protestant nor Catholic, no rich nor poor, no single nor married nor divorced, no gay nor straight, no red, yellow, black, or even paleface white. For like the old song says, “they are precious in his sight.”

Yes, “Jesus loves all the little children of the world!” And miracle of miracles, in him we are one!