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Being One With Christ - Rev. Dr. Max Champion

maxsermoncccLesson – Galatians 3:26-4:7

Rev. Dr Max Champion at Emmanuel Church, Cairns, on 25 March 2007

‘In Christ Jesus you are all sons and daughters of God through faith. For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:26-28)

Galatians 3:28 is one of the best known and most powerful texts in the New Testament. No matter what ‘natural’ differences exist among human beings, they have been ‘overcome’ ‘in Christ’. It is used by the Churches to support multi-cultural, non-racist, non-sexist, anti-discriminatory, egalitarian social policies. It has helped shape the principles of the UN, with Christians being prominent in framing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

It has been a catalyst for controversial social change – today being the bi-centenary of the Abolition of Slavery in Britain (1807) when some evangelical Christians (and others) insisted that, no matter what their colour, economic circumstances or social status, each and every person must be treated with God-given dignity. Similar arguments were made to support the vote for women (UK) and indigenous people (Australia) and to claim civil rights for Afro-Americans (USA).

The text challenges the way things are. It not only refuses to let us determine the worth of people by their culture, ethnicity, status or gender but calls us to be reconciled to those whose culture, ethnicity, status and gender are different. We/church must never lose sight of the iconoclastic and transformative character of these verses for our ‘life together’. For the reality of what it means to be ‘in Christ Jesus’ (six times in eight verses) has a way of destroying-and-reshaping ideals, beliefs and practices which have wrongly come to be thought of as normal or ‘Christian’. Today criticisms of Western culture by Christians in non-Western societies and by minority groups within Western cultures show how powerful our text is in unsettling the way things are – even in so-called ‘Christian nations’.  

We should foster relationships in Church and community which break down barriers between people with a different culture, ethnicity, class or gender.

But, in doing so, we need to be aware of a common way of thinking about the text which actually alters the meaning of the text. In the popular mind it has come to mean that the ‘unity’ of our humanity (our community) is to be found in respecting all forms of ‘diversity’, including all manner of ‘life-style preferences’.  It is simply assumed by many in the church that this general tolerance is what it means to be ‘in Christ’. This has led some people to give our text a special twist by adding ‘neither good nor bad’ or, more recently, ‘neither heterosexual nor homosexual’. 

This (largely) well intentioned addition is rightly aimed at overcoming the alienation of many folk who experience confused sexual identity. But it is misguided and a serious misreading of the text. Indeed, by going down this path, we can miss and misrepresent Paul’s true radicalism on gender. Paul often speaks of the ‘unity’ which has overcome divisions ‘in Christ’ (Colossians  3:11; Romans  10:12) but only here does he include ‘neither male nor female’. In view of the shellacking that Paul often gets for his ‘sexist views’ this is noteworthy. Ancient civilisations, including Jews and Gentiles, didn’t have a high view of women, often treating them as ‘incomplete men’. So Paul’s inclusion of ‘neither male nor female’ must be regarded as a radical step – for his day at least –  in the true liberation of women. The churches and the community must never forget this! When it comes to being one in Christ by faith, women too share fully in the freedom (v28) to utter ‘Abba Father’ (4:6) by the power of the Spirit of Christ –  words of incomparable freedom and love in addressing Almighty God.

This doesn’t mean that for Paul the difference between men and women as such is overcome. There are those into spirituality (then and now) who think that our essential humanity is to be found in what has nothing to do with the shape and meaning of the body but in mind or desire. Unlike them, Paul insists that the unity and complementarity of the male and female body is the form in which our co-humanity exists. It is also the relation which mirrors God’s relationship to the world and Christ’s to the Church.  The fact that there is no distinction between men and women in relation to our redemption in Christ doesn’t mean that sex is interchangeable! Our freedom in Christ isn’t to be confused with the (now popular) freedom to express oneself in diverse ways. Being in Christ does not mean that Christ gives women (and men) the right to choose their own life-style, no matter how powerful their desires may be. Both have been redeemed by Christ to live a new life of righteousness – one that in Paul and all of Scripture unambiguously precludes same-sex and other destructive sexual preferences.

There are forms of diversity which mock rather than display our unity in Christ. In Scripture it is not our individual thoughts or desires which define our humanity but our co-humanity as male and female. So it is strange that many people in the UCA (et al) argue that the phrase ‘neither heterosexual nor homosexual’ should be added to the list in 3:28.  Only recently the terms ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ have begun to replace ‘male’ and ‘female’ as descriptors of sexuality. Despite the fact  that a ‘gay gene’ hasn’t been found and that social experience and individual choice play the major role in confused sexual identity or the arrogant refashioning of gender identity, it is now assumed that we’ve moved beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’.  Like new-age spiritualists in the Gospel of Thomas (the so-called fifth gospel beloved of The Jesus Seminar and the Progressive Christian Network), it is now widely believed that we must transcend sexual differences to create a truly egalitarian society.

We think of ourselves as individuals with our own consciousness that frees us to choose ‘different’ (and neutral) sexual preferences. Elsewhere Paul insists that this is not the way of Christian freedom. But neither is mere obedience to the law. As you will see when you come to Galatians 5, Christ-centred freedom-and-responsibility must be lived-out against this ‘libertarian’ view of grace and also against the ‘legalistic’ view of the law.  Where Gentile Christians were prone to think that God’s Spirit (4:6) could be found by obeying ‘the ruling spirits of the universe’ (4:3), Jewish Christians were prone to think that obeying ‘God’s holy law’ (3:23,24; 4:4,5) was sufficient to justify them before God.  Paul reminds them all that being in Christ means that the old ways have been put to death in baptism (v27). In baptism they have in effect ‘put on Christ’s humanity’ to ‘cover’ (that is, to forgive) their own (libertarian and legalistic) inhumanity and set them on the path to life.  All the baptised, regardless of their sex, culture, ethnicity or status, have been reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Christ. It isn’t difference itself that determines Christian unity but Christ who reconciles to God those who are naturally different.

All of us, legalists and libertarians, are sinners who have been redeemed by grace alone. All come together to celebrate our freedom in Christ. Yet being baptised into Christ means much more than simply ‘being accepted’. It involves living a new life of righteousness in conformity to Christ.  And that excludes many things, like self-righteousness and sexual behaviour which is at odds with the splendour of our creation as male and female in the image of God.

baptismBaptism into Christ doesn’t mean that from now on anything is to be tolerated. The faithful are tempted by many things. ‘In baptism the old Adam is indeed drowned; but the scoundrel can still swim’ (Pfitzner). In Galatians (and elsewhere) the baptised must ‘put off’ their old nature and ‘put on’ the new. Attitudes, beliefs and practices (including the sexual and sanctimonious) which are at odds with the freedom of the new life in Christ must continue to be resisted in the power of the Spirit through the pastoral ministry of the Church. Human behaviour is to be redeemed, not merely tolerated. Therefore, lest a congregation (or a reform movement) be tempted to exercise discipline harshly, we are reminded (in Galatians 6:1f and Matthew 18:15f) that the unjust, idolatrous, self-righteous or immoral person must be treated with respect as if the sin were one’s own. That is what it means to ‘bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ’.

However, lest a Church also be tempted to tolerate what is wrong for the sake of false unity, we are reminded that sin causes a rupture ‘in the Body of Christ’ which must be removed. If, after frequent efforts at reconciliation, God’s mercy still is rebuffed, then (and only then) and with sorrow and prayers for reconciliation, a person must be excommunicated or a Church declared apostate. For the sake of Christian freedom and the Gospel of reconciliation in Christ crucified and risen, both libertarians and legalists must be challenged to live by faith in the grace of God embodied in Christ Jesus. When that happens, then this explosive text will be truly understood and obeyed.

Rev. Dr Max Champion is Chairman of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the UCA.  He is the minister of St John's Uniting Church, Mt Waverley, Victoria.