13th July 2016
Sermon by Rev Dr Max Champion, Pentecost 5, 19th June 2016
Lesson: Psalm 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Matthew 28:16-20
'As many of you as were baptised 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 or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.' Galatians 3:27-28
This is one of the best known and most powerful texts in the New Testament. It has been a catalyst for controversial social change, including the Abolition of Slavery in Britain (1807); the vote for women (UK) and indigenous people (Aus); civil rights for Afro-Americans (USA) and black and coloured people in South Africa; and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Christians have insisted that, no matter what their colour, economic circumstances, social status or sex, each person must be treated with God-given dignity.
The text challenges the way things are. To be ‘in Christ Jesus,’ which is mentioned six times in eight verses, has a way of destroying ideals, beliefs and practices which have wrongly come to be thought of as normal. Being ‘in Christ’ means breaking-down barriers commonly thought to be 'natural.'
This doesn't mean that the ‘unity’ of the human family is to be found simply by respecting all forms of 'diversity.' It is often wrongly assumed that tolerance and niceness is what Paul means by being ‘in Christ.’ When we think like that, the text is twisted to say something very different. It becomes general advice on how to accept everybody's beliefs, customs and practices in an egalitarian society which is multicultural, multi-faith and multi-sexual!
Consider what happens when other pairs are added to this list, as are by those who think that 'being Christian' is no different from affirming our common humanity. When other differences are inserted into the text to give it a modern 'inclusive' twist, then Paul, and Scripture as a whole, is seriously distorted.
Since the 1980s in the church some have argued that other contrasts be added to the list to show that all differences are united in God. These include: neither promiscuous nor faithful, neither Muslim nor Buddhist, neither theist nor atheist, neither heterosexual nor homosexual, neither Christian nor Pagan, neither Communist nor Fascist, and, incredibly, neither good nor evil!
The desire to include everybody under the umbrella of God’s grace is often well-intentioned. But it misses the point. Paul is not saying that social distinctions or distinct cultures or sexual distinctions have now been superseded by a bland conformity that treats everybody the same. Distinctions remain but their importance is 'relativised' in relation to Christ.
When, for example, he says that 'there is neither male nor female,' he doesn't mean that our sexual differences as men and women have been overcome by a sexless form of individuality which rejects our complementary God-given biology. Instead, he is challenging a widespread view in the ancient world, including among Christians, that treated women as ‘incomplete men' - as inferior to men. Contrary to a popular but skewed view of Paul, what he says here is a radical step in women's liberation!
The fact that there is no distinction between men and women who are reconciled 'in Christ' doesn’t mean that Christ gives us permission to follow our own gender-identity beyond what is often scornfully described as the binary restriction of 'male' and 'female.' Being created in the image of God, says Paul, we have been redeemed to live-out our new life 'in Christ' by being reconciled to one another as men and women.
Remember! What Paul says about divisions being overcome 'in Christ' is said in the context of baptism. Luther, knowing that Christians are tempted by idolatry, immorality and arrogance of all kinds, began each day by reminding himself that he had been baptised. ‘ This is necessary because, as Pfitzner says, 'in baptism the old Adam is indeed drowned; but the scoundrel can still swim.' That is why it is important to see that 'being ‘baptised in Christ’ doesn’t mean that all forms of 'diversity' are to be accepted in our multicultural, multi-faith, multi-sexual society. In distinguishing between different kinds of diversity we are called to ‘put off’ the old nature and ‘put on’ the new. ...
This magnificent passage should embolden us, like our brave forbears of old, to speak-out against powerful beliefs and practices that demean the image of God. It should embolden us to voice opposition to the trafficking of women and girls for prostitution or forced marriage, to support programs like White Ribbon to combat domestic violence against women, to reject hatred and vilification of others on the basis of racial, religious, sexual, cultural or other 'identity,' and to pray for those who are determined to silence the Christian voice in public life.
Rev Dr Max Champion chairs the ACC Theology and Ecumenical Relationships Commission