No Longer I

NO LONGER I –  Galatians 2:15-21        

The Rev. Dr. Richard W. Reifsnyder
               1st Presbyterian Church
Winchester, VA 22601
June 16, 2013


I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives within me.
                                                                                                                                                                         Galatians 2:19-20


One of the reasons the Bible seems so authentic to me is that it doesn’t cover up the messiness of the Christian life as it is actually experienced.  Today’s texts follows a lengthy biographical excursus in which Paul not only admits his checkered past as a persecutor of Christians, but gives us the details of an embarrassing clash he has with Peter, the nominal head of the church.  Of course, Paul portrays himself as in the right, but still there was no whitewashing of conflict which occurred when Peter stopped eating with the Gentile Christians when a group of strict Jewish Christians appeared in Antioch.  It was just a church supper, no big deal, Peter was saying, I was just trying to be sensitive to their feelings.  But what was at stake for Paul was nothing less than the essence of the gospel.  Is following Jesus really about grace, or did a Gentile Christian have to become a Jew first, and keep all those ceremonial practices.    Either Jew and Gentile were equal in the church—either the law was gone as a basis for getting to God—either they could sit together without distinction at the table—or there was no good news.

Out of his own experience, Paul proclaims the essence of the Christian life in one of the most eloquent passages of Scripture, Galatians 2:20:

“I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ
who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the
Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Those of you who remember Stewart Bell, who was so pivotal in the life of this church and community, may remember that this was his favorite verse of Scripture.   He left explicit instructions that this was the verse I was to preach on at his funeral service, using the KJV, of course:

“I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me”

In the margin of his Bible Stewart wrote this annotation “a whole value system is changed.”  That was exactly right.  Christianity is fundamentally not a set of beliefs or laws or even practices, but is a world view, an approach to all of life.  To understand the operation of grace in one’s life, to invite Christ to live in and through you, means to enter life more fully, to engage the world in all its grandeur and complexity. 

There is a rhythm to the Christian life implied in this text, an ongoing rhythm of dying and rising, of death and resurrection.  Dying to ego, to pride, to self centeredness and self importance, so that Christ’s life, Christ’s spirit, Christ’s attitude can be resurrected within us.

One of the critiques of Christianity, perhaps more prominent in recent years, is that this language of dying to self, and the emphasis on sin, and the importance of learning to follow Christ, and not just our own whims and wishes, is somehow life squelching, identity repressing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ninian Smart, Professor of Religious Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, in the introduction to a book called World Scriptures. A comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, points out that all religions promote the necessity of “self denial, sacrifice, submitting oneself, even suffering for righteousness sake—Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Ba’hai, Sikhism.  He says it is superficial to suggest all religions teach the same thing, but he points out in our shrinking world that there is often complimentarity of ideas, convergence which can facilitate understanding and dialogue and mutual cooperation.   We look for ways to work together for human betterment, while trying to prevent the difference from leading to conflict.

In none of the classic religions is unleashing human ego viewed as the goal; All suggest the need for some restraint, or at least transformation through some divine power.  Christianity in some ways is the most explicit about this.  The language is strong; suggesting that faith connects us so intimately with Christ that we become as it were one person, entering into his very life, and indeed his very crucifixion.   But this movement, while it may involve self denial, is not life denying.  “Nevertheless, I live.” The promise is that in this movement of dying and rising, it is not that we lose the “I” that make me me, that our personality is somehow obliterated and lost in divine consciousness,   but rather that we become more fully and completely the “I” we are intended to be.   We lose what is not of the essence of “me,” but the accretions and facades which serve to distort and repress who I really am.

We saw “Les Miserables” at Shenandoah this week—the 4th time we’ve seen it on stage, plus the concert version on TV and the recent movie. (Josh gave the DVD of the movie to Lynn for her birthday)  It is my favorite musical, “the preacher’s delight,” so full of themes of law and grace, lostness and salvation.  It is the story, Pauline in majesty and scope, of the conversion and redemption of Jean Valjean.  Imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child, reduced to a number 24601 by his captors, Valjean, once freed, is set on the road to a new life by an act of totally unmerited grace by a priest (always nice to see the clergy portrayed positively!—sometimes I fear we are branded with the moniker of innocuous buffoons—or worse). But others Valjean encounters, in particular Inspector Javert, who speaks in the name of a harsh God of judgment and justice, simply are unwilling to entertain the possibility of a new life in Christ.  In one notable exchange, Javert says to Valjean:   “people like you can never change.”  Remember, by this time Valjean has not only become a successful factory owner and the mayor of the town, but has become guardian of Cosette, the daughter of Fantine, tragically descended into prostitution:   “People like you can never change,” Javert says.  That is precisely the opposite of what Christianity proclaims of course.  Transformation is the essence of the new life in Christ. No longer I—the old I, the distorted I, the confused I,– but Christ within me.

I know a number of you are still planning to see Les Mis.  Try to look at it through a biblical lens, and see if you don’t see it as a beautiful artistic expression of Galatians 2:20. Baptism, begins that new identity in Christ, the starting of that lifelong process of “living in the flesh by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Affirming not I, but Christ who lives within me, not only provides a rich identity, it also marks Christians as those with  humility and authentic gentleness.  Paul’s words about dying to self, being crucified with Christ, meant that it wasn’t about ego, it wasn’t about himself.  It was about letting Christ work through him. Not I, but Christ within me.  This is not false humility, the old Uriah Heep syndrome, after that Dickens character in David Copperfield always wringing his hands and saying how humble he is.  This text points to a healthy ego, but one which recognizes the ultimate credit goes not to us, but to God.  I love C.S. Lewis’s suggestion that a Christian, if he or she were an architect, say, should strive to cultivate an ego such that they could build the grandest building the world has ever seen, and rejoice that God had given them the gifts to do that, but also to rejoice if someone else has been gifted to build the same magnificent structure.  No easy task to get that right—a healthy “I” with a conviction that “God gets the praise,” for what God has been able to do through us, without jealousy toward others with great gifts.   Les Mis concludes with the powerful words that “to love another person is to see the face of God.” (a paraphrase of Matthew 25 isn’t it?)  It’s not about me…to allow Christ to live within us, is to be able to see the face of God in others and to discover, miracle of miracles, that they can see the face of God in us.

You’ll remember at the outset of the letter, Paul is quite worked up because he fears the Galatians are going after “another gospel,”  which is built on following the old laws, and being stuck in the old ways.  The gospel Paul proclaims is forward looking, built on grace, ready to move to the future with Christ, because it is not a matter of us striving to be worthy of his love, but of his assurance to live with us and work with us, to enable us to keep developing into the persons we are to be, and grow the kingdom which we pray is coming.   Lively Christian life has it grounding in this basic conviction “I am crucified with Christ.  Nevertheless. I live; yet not I but Christ lives in me, and the live I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”