All Children of God

Robert S. Turner
5th Sunday after Pentecost
June 19, 2016
Galatians 3:23–29


The passage we read earlier from Paul's letter to the Galatians is without doubt one of
the high-water marks of Scripture. Contrary to what some Christians would have you
believe, not everything in the Bible is equal in profundity, artistry, or importance. Even
people who are dedicated to the principle of biblical inerrancy would, I believe, put the
twenty-third Psalm on a higher level than the book of Nahum, or would consider the
Sermon on the Mount more significant for holy living than, say, the book of Jude or a
genealogy from Numbers.
For those of us who do not hold to the misguided doctrine of inerrancy, it's easier to
acknowledge that some parts of the Bible are ... how shall I say this ... better than
others. More edifying for one seeking to live as a disciple of Jesus. More reflective of
the character of God as disclosed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. More
worthy of our attention and consideration. Better.
Today's reading from Galatians is one of the better ones—truly a high-water mark. One
gets the sense in reading it that Paul has touched on something that is beyond him. In
the midst of a rancorous dispute with the Judaizers, a group of Jewish Christians who
seek to undermine his teachings, he makes a sweeping proclamation by which he may
have shocked even himself. But that sentence of a couple dozen words gets at the
heart of the radical gospel of God better than a thousand more measured arguments
could have. Following the example of Jesus, Paul sets the bar so high that not only
could the Galatian churches not meet its demands, but we, twenty centuries down the
line, still have not managed to live out all of its ramifications. It's a lot like the command
to love our enemies: it sets an aspiration that we find next to impossible to realize but
that draws us ever on up the path of discipleship, because we know in our bones that
the light we see in those words is the light of the glory—and challenge—of God.
Our passage comes in the middle of an argument Paul is making to counter the claims
of his opponents who say that Gentiles must observe the entire law of Moses, including
circumcision for male converts, in order to be part of the church. Paul vehemently
opposes this view, claiming that God's grace as revealed in Jesus supersedes all other
requirements, and he goes so far as to say that if the Galatians submit to circumcision
they will forfeit their justified status before God.
He makes his point by referring in a kind of convoluted way to the story of Abraham,
saying that God accepted that patriarch long before the law had come into effect, and in
fact before Abraham had done anything to merit God's favor. He quotes a line from
Genesis: "Abraham believed God, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Gen
15:6). As a result, Paul says, those who come to God apart from the law actually have a
stronger claim than do the Jews.
I will not comment on the merits of this argument; I only mention it because it lays the
groundwork for what Paul has to say in the passage we are considering today. He likens
the law to what he calls a "disciplinarian," the slave in a Roman household who had
charge of the heirs while they were minors. The disciplinarian was responsible for the
children's education, training, and safety, and the children undoubtedly felt constricted,
imprisoned even, by this close supervision. Paul writes, "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" (vv.
23–24).
Now, however, Paul tells the Galatians, they are no longer subject to a disciplinarian,
"for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith" (v. 26). We should not
disregard the novelty and importance of this claim. For faithful Jews, Gentiles were not
children of God, by birth, through faith, or in any other way. They were outsiders,
considered impure, called dogs. Some claimed, perhaps only half-jokingly, that God
only created the Gentiles to serve as fuel for the furnaces of hell. To suggest that they
are children of God is for some of Paul's Jewish contemporaries utterly unthinkable, a
supreme insult. It strikes at the very foundations of their understanding of the world.
But Paul isn't finished yet. He continues, "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" (vv. 27–29). He is saying that one's baptism changes one's identity in a
fundamental way. Over the many different identities we clothe ourselves with, at our
baptism we "put on" Christ, sort of like an overcoat. We don't cease to carry the
distinctive traits that identify us; but the meaning of those distinctions ceases to matter.
For Paul and his readers, it was the Jew/Gentile distinction that carried the most weight;
for us other differences are more important. Male and female is still a primary identifier,
and women continue to get the short end of the stick in a lot of different areas of life.
Our racial heritage, whether European, African, Asian, or what have you has become an
important distinction. So have these dichotomies: gay or strait; cisgender or
transgender; rich or poor; Republican or Democrat; liberal or conservative; Christian or
non-Christian; hawk or dove. These attributes are not inconsequential; that's not what
Paul is saying. My racial and religious identity, my sexuality, and my economic
background all go to define who I am, and my baptism does not change that. But when I
was baptized, I clothed myself with Christ, and in Christ these attributes and distinctions
should neither privilege me nor hinder me from full participation in the life of the church
and full identity as a child of God.
What sometimes gets missed in discussions about Paul's conflict with the Judaizers is
that it was an intrafaith rather than an interfaith controversy. These were not mainstream
Jews who objected to Paul's work with Gentiles; these were Jewish Christians. Their
prejudice and the conviction that their way of doing the faith was the only appropriate
way led them to launch their attacks on Paul and his crew as Christians against
Christians.
Those of us who marched in the Pride parade yesterday got a taste of this from some of
the protestors on the sidelines seeking to preserve the "purity" of the faith. To them, we
(and the large contingent of people from the United Church of Christ that we walked
with) were as much or more of a threat than the drag queens and the guys in thongs
and rainbow-colored wings. That's because we represented a different way of practicing
the Christian faith, and to someone whose religious identity is based in fear and
insecurity, such differences cannot be tolerated. The guy with the bullhorn said, "Shame
on you, University Baptist Church!" and shouted a lot of other vile and defamatory things
about us. When he paused for a few seconds, I shouted back, "Thanks for spreading
your message of love! Thanks for bringing the good news!" If he heard me, he didn't
acknowledge it.
The kind of Christianity those protestors represented is the kind that either believes that
every word of the Bible carries equal weight, or that some parts are more important than
others, but they have chosen the most narrow and unchristlike ones to champion. They
cannot accept that Paul's words here in Galatians are more important and should be
honored more than an ancient law code that calls for capital punishment for men who
have sexual relations with one another. There are others who cannot accept that Paul's
words here are more important and should be honored more than rules demanding the
submission of women to their husbands. A couple of centuries ago there were those
who could not accept that Paul's words here are more important and should be honored
more than other parts of the Bible that condone slaveholding.
What Paul is doing is striking at the very foundations of the world. The Jew/Gentile
distinction brought religious clarity. Slavery was a vital component of the economy in the
Roman world. Women's subordination to men provided social stability—for the men,
anyway. If we extrapolate, adding the distinctions that are more significant for us in
2016, we can see that the undermining of white racial superiority and the right of gay
and lesbian couples to marry and adopt children is terribly frightening to those who need
to maintain so-called traditional values to make sense of the world. We have seen over
the past few months the paranoia that results in some quarters over the possibility that a
transgender person might pee in the "wrong" room. Many of those who experience and
spread this paranoia, lying to do it if they have to, say they do it because they are
Christians.
Maybe so, but then maybe there is a difference between being a Christian and being "in
Christ." Paul says that for those who are in Christ these distinctions no longer hold any
weight. His implication, which becomes clear when you read the entire letter, is that to
give weight to these distinctions is a sin for those who are in Christ. So maybe being in
Christ is not something that all Christians have in common. And maybe there are people
out there who would laugh in your face if you called them Christians, but who exhibit
more evidence of an "in Christ" status than a thousand haters with bullhorns.
Notice something else about this passage. In the first three verses, Paul uses the
pronoun "we." In the last four verses, he switches to "you." This is not the fault of a poor
copyeditor, either. He does it on purpose. In the first half he's talking to those Galatian
Christians who share his Jewish heritage. In the second half he addresses the Gentile
Christians. Quite emphatically, in fact. In Greek, as in Latin or Spanish or French, the
verb carries the gender, so a separate pronoun is unnecessary, even superfluous. But
Paul wants to make his point as forcefully as he can, so he uses both the gendered verb
and the personal pronoun: "YOU are all children of God through faith;" "YOU ... have
clothed yourselves with Christ;" "all of YOU are one in Christ Jesus."
The point he wants to make is this: God has no stepchildren.
This congregation has chosen to be welcoming and affirming because to be only
welcoming would seem to indicate that we straight people are the real children of God
and therefore get to set the rules. We cannot do that because God has no stepchildren.
Nearly a half century ago this congregation defied Baptist convention by ordaining
women to the gospel ministry, acknowledging that men do not have more of a
relationship with God that would allow us to set the rules. We decided we could not do
that because God has no stepchildren.
At a time when many other churches were reinforcing their entrenched segregation, this
congregation became the first racially integrated Baptist church in central Ohio,
acknowledging that God is not white and therefore white people do not have the right to
set the rules. We came to this conclusion because God has no stepchildren.
The testimony that we tried to bring this weekend at the Pride Festival, and that I
sincerely hope the people heard, was, "You are all children of God." You in the wig and
spangled dress and seven-inch heels: you are a child of God. You who saw our banner
and exclaimed, "You mean there's a church where I could go?"—you are a child of God.
You who eyed us with suspicion because all of your experiences with church people
have brought pain, not grace: you are a child of God. You women who love women,
men who love men, women who once were men, you for whom the umbrella term
"queer" is the only legitimate descriptor: you are all children of God. You for whom fear
has gone from a fairly constant low-frequency buzz in the background to a blaring siren
that cannot be ignored this week because a man with untreated mental illness, anger
management problems, and a history of violence was able to buy an AR-15 and take
the lives of 49 people and shatter the lives of so many more—you are all children of
God. You who have have been convinced by the guys with the bullhorns that God
despises you for who you are in the depths of your being, you are all children of God.
You with the bullhorn, you are a child of God, too. Start acting like it.
We live in a culture that thrives on divisions and every day becomes more polarized.
Just look at the current presidential campaign if you have doubts. We live under an
economic system that has competition as its basic, driving force. We live in a city where
many people can't even bring themselves to pronounce the words "University of
Michigan," settling instead for "that school up north." We define ourselves in so many
areas of our lives by how we are different from other people, and we go to great lengths
to distinguish ourselves—and distance ourselves—from those on the other side.
But for those of us who are in Christ, it is not the distinctions that define us; it is our
shared status as children of God. It is our having been clothed with Christ at our
baptism. It is the unity we can find, not despite our diversity but in the midst of it, even
because of it. What defines us is that none of us are stepchildren; we are all—every last
blessed one of us, in all our quirks and foibles, hopes and fears, victories and failures—
we are all children of God.

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