June 16, 2013
“No Longer I”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.
And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
17 But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!
18 But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor.
19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is 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.
21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
In 1994 in Rwanda violence broke out between two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsis – nearly twenty percent of the population was killed in 100 days – by some estimates close to 1 million people. It was the culmination of long standing ethnic competition between the two tribes with the Hutu seeking to wipe out the Tutsi tribe. During the genocide, a group of 13,500 Christians had gathered for refuge in the town of Ruhanga, and they were from a variety of denominations – Anglican, Roman Catholic, Pentecostals, Baptists, and others.
And according to a witness to the scene when the Hutu militia arrived they ordered the Hutus and Tutsis to separate themselves by tribe. The people refused and declared that they were all one in Christ, and for that they were all killed.
Laying aside the great tragedy of this story, this is the profound power of the gospel that Paul was preaching. Paul was preaching a gospel that could break down any walls, that could unite people, that could create a people of God, a church, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for all are one in Jesus Christ.
A gospel that could overcome divisions that go back further than anyone can remember.
I’ve shared this story before but I traveled to Egypt with fellow seminary students and we spent time with seminary students in Cairo one of whom was serving a church in rural southern Egypt. His church had a wall running down the middle of the sanctuary, separating the men from the women during worship. The body of Christ, the church, was divided and divided by more than a wall, by the deeply held cultural belief that women were second class citizens.
And what Paul was facing throughout his ministry, but especially with the church in Galatia, was a church that was trying to build up walls again, and he was angry. And Paul was angry because that was not how he understood the good news of faith in Jesus Christ – the gospel was not about who was in or who was out – the gospel knit people together overcoming hatred and prejudice and ethnic divisions – and the gospel has the power to do this because in Christ we become new creations, understanding the world in a whole new way. We no longer look at another human being and see Jew or non-Jew, or male or female – we see God’s beloved child.
We have jumped ahead in the letter this week, skipping some really important information, so I am going to bring you all up to speed – and this may not feel like the most relevant information to your life at the moment – but we need to cover this stuff so that we see why Paul wrote what he wrote – and what he wrote is passionate and brilliant and essential to us.
Paul is writing this letter to a congregation he formed and nurtured and taught a gospel of grace and freedom – freedom from having to follow the law found in the Hebrew scriptures, free from Jewish cultural practices.
And just to be clear, the Jewish faith has been unfairly characterized in some ways. God’s people were loved by God before they ever did anything. He established his covenant with them – to be their God and he would be their people before there were any rules.
The laws that we find in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures are not to earn God’s love, but they do establish what is required to remain a part of the community, what must be done to care for neighbors, what must be done to rectify sins committed, what must be done to be a holy people.
After Paul has left his fledgling church, visitors come to Galatia from the church in Jerusalem, where there were leaders who had known Jesus.
Jerusalem was where the church was born on Pentecost and it was there that the movement began. But the movement began among the Jews and where it got complicated was when non-Jews began to join the movement.
These visitors came from Jerusalem and convinced the new believers, who were outsiders, non-Jews, that they needed to be circumcised and follow the law of Moses.
So the Galatians were hearing two different gospels.
So Paul writes to them, saying “here is why you should believe me – because I received this gospel from God and my life is the proof of its truth.”
And he says he went up to Jerusalem fourteen years after his first visit and laid before the leaders in Jerusalem what he was preaching, exactly what he was saying to the Gentiles. And all the leaders there agreed that Paul would preach to the gentiles and Peter would preach to the Jews. Paul was given the right hand of fellowship – he was accepted, his ministry was validated.
But then there was this incident in Antioch. Preaching to the Jews and gentiles separately was all well and good, but what happens when both are mixed in together in one place?
When Peter arrived in Antioch he joined in table fellowship with everyone, Jews and non-Jews. But when emissaries came from James in Jerusalem, Peter began to withdraw from the Gentiles because he was afraid of what these visitors would think. Maybe they would think that because he was affiliating with outsiders, sinful people, that he too was sinful. We’ve heard that argument before when people were offended that Jesus ate with outsiders, and tax collectors and sinners. And others joined Peter, including Barnabas, Paul’s friend.
So Paul stands alone to confront Peter and he says to him, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” He calls him a hypocrite.
Paul is irate. Such action threatens to undo everything he believes the gospel is about – freedom, grace, unity.
Here is how Paul sees it: if we use the law as our faith measuring stick, none of us measure up – we will never be good enough – and he really sees the law as enslavement – like chains that bind us to a set of rules.
And Christ set us free – we have grace through faith in Christ. And the way Paul sees it – this makes a whole new world – a world where the divisions no longer matter – we are all welcomed into the family – no one is better because of who they are or what they do – and for Paul, coming from a faith constantly trying to separate itself from the world, distinguish itself from everyone else – this was a revolution. To his surprise he was out loving people he had previously considered unclean dogs.
He writes later in Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Because we are all one in Christ Jesus, we can finally come together at one big table, which was beginning to happen in Antioch.
Paul writes in Ephesians: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”
And here is where we pick up the text for today. Paul feels like everything he was worked for is being challenged – he being asked to rebuild walls he has worked so hard to break down.
And he explains how this whole new world works. He writes, “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.”
That idea that we are crucified with Christ – what do we make of that?
Here is how Martin Luther puts it: “Paul does not here speak of crucifying the flesh, but he speaks of that higher crucifying wherein sin, devil, and death are crucified in Christ and in me. By my faith in Christ I am crucified with Christ. Hence these evils are crucified and dead unto me.”
That phrase that follows, “no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me” – I have struggled with that idea since I was a teenager.
What does that mean? Does that mean that I have lost myself, lost who I am (that’s a scary thought for a teenager for whom identity is still kind of a tenuous thing)?
Does it mean that I have no free will, no freedom in my choices anymore? Do I want to sign on for that?
And here is where I have landed – and here is what I think Paul means, and it is the same idea to when we were talking about the trinity.
One of the ancient approaches to understanding the trinity is perichoresis in which each person of the trinity constantly envelopes the others – it is a dance where you cannot tell where one person ends and the next begins – all you experience, all you see, is the dance.
Similar idea here: Christ becomes so apart of us that we ourselves have difficulty knowing where we end and Jesus begins. What a crazy idea, but that is exactly what Paul was experiencing and when you walk through life that way you see the world differently. You don’t see the world, you see creation and re-creation; you don’t see people you see God’s beloved child who is a sinner just like you; you don’t see good works as something required of you for salvation, you live life like a servant because you just can’t help yourself.
That’s the end game of this whole discipleship business – that’s the prize: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is 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.”