Monday, 17 June 2013

Unity based on what? Gal 2


We are continuing to look at Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The major question seems to be how do you become a Christian? This question is especially important for the Galatians who don’t seem to be Jewish. They are coming from a variety of different backgrounds, but have become attracted to Jesus. Jesus was Jewish. The God the Galatian church was worshiping was the God the Jewish people worshipped. So it makes sense that there should be a certain Jewishness about following Jesus. People had come into town from Jerusalem who were Jewish followers of Jesus. Paul taught the Galatians that they didn’t need any of the Jewish symbols to follow Christ, but these visitors claimed that it was important to take on certain Jewish symbols and ways of life. They said the Galatians should take on the symbol of circumcision, they should observe certain special days (like the Sabbath), they should perhaps eat a more Kosher diet. It isn’t an illogical demand that there should be a certain Jewishness about following the Jewish Messiah.  Paul, however, sees that this is a question at the very heart of the Gospel. He has a huge issue with making these kinds of demands of the Galatians. Paul had told them that these signs of Jewishness weren’t part of following Jesus.
What is at stake is this. Will Non-Jewish (Gentile) followers of Jesus be second class Christians? Because if they aren’t eating Kosher then they will be sitting at separate tables when they eat. What is at stake is the unity of the Church. Where does their unity come from? Does that unity come from observing certain parts of the Jewish Torah (Law)? So they have unity because they are circumcised and eat Kosher and observe certain Jewish holy days? Where does their identity come from?
  Earlier in the letter Paul tells his own story and how he heard the Gospel from Jesus himself. Then he tells the story of going to Jerusalem where he tells the Apostles about the Gospel he was given, and they confirmed it. He understood it completely. They didn’t add anything to what he already knew to be the Gospel. Earlier in chapter 2 Paul recalls returning to Jerusalem 14 years after his initial visit. He brought along some friends with him on that journey and one of those friends was a gentile Christian- Titus. In Jerusalem surrounded by the original disciples and many Jewish Christians, Titus was not compelled to become circumcised. Peter, himself, ate with Gentile Christians and baptized them without requiring them to take on any of these Jewish signs. We can read about Peter’s experience with Gentiles in Acts 10 when Peter has a vision and he is presented with non-Kosher animals on a white sheet. Shortly after this vision he is presented with Gentile believers in Jesus at a Gentile’s house. Gentiles were considered unclean. It was against the rules for Jewish people to eat at the same table with Gentiles. And he remembers the voice from his vision, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). Peter accepts these Gentiles and even witnesses the Holy Spirit working in them, so he does not hesitate to baptize them.  However, at some point Peter began to withdraw from the Gentiles under the influence of some of those who believed it was important to take on these signs of Torah. We’re not sure exactly why Peter flip-flopped, but Paul called him on it.
Peter wasn’t making a big deal out of observance of Torah when he was with the Gentiles, but then he started to make a bigger deal out of it. Paul presents him with a problem. Did Peter break Torah before when he wasn’t making a big deal out of it? When he was eating at the same table as Gentiles and not requiring Gentile to be circumcised before being baptized, was he sinning?  If he did break Torah then who was responsible?  It was Jesus that made Peter feel free to embrace the Gentiles. So if this Torah observance really matters, then it is Jesus who caused Peter to break the law of Torah and sin. That is too offensive to accept.  If what really matters is Torah observance then they had that before Jesus came, and Jesus came and died for nothing.
The thing that matters is faith in Jesus. Trust Jesus and what he has done. That is what matters, not whether you are circumcised, or eat kosher, or observe Sabbath. Those things aren’t bad. If you are a Jewish Christian you can follow all of them, but don’t make them a big deal. Don’t make them matter. It’s faith in Jesus that matters. And that means that for Gentiles and for Jews it is faith in Jesus that ultimately matters. Their identity is primarily grounded in Jesus, not anything else. If their identity is primarily grounded in Jesus, then everything else is secondary and should never be a cause for division in the community.
Christ broke down the walls between human beings. By making Torah observance matter the visitors that have come to Galatia are rebuilding a wall that Jesus dismantled. In Jesus, there is no longer anything separating human beings. There is a new unity between human beings that overcomes all divisions.
 When I drive through Edmonton I see all kinds of churches. There are churches for people who speak Spanish, churches founded by German Immigrants, churches founded by English immigrants, churches founded by Scottish immigrants, churches for African immigrants, churches for families, churches for people who like classical music, churches for people who like rock music, churches for people who like quiet services, churches for people who like traditional liturgies, churches for people who like T.V. screens in worship, Churches for people who like traditional looking gothic buildings, the list goes on and on. If the Galatians acted like us there would be a church for Gentiles and a separate Jewish church. … And I think that would horrify Paul. The reason this would horrify Paul is that it seems like something else about our identity takes priority over our faith in Christ.  It matters more what our ethnicity is, or how much money we make, or what kind of music we like, or whatever. Paul would remind us that our primary identity is in Christ, not in any of these other things. It’s fine to be aware of your ethnicity, even to celebrate it, but Paul would say that it is not okay to make your ethnicity primary in terms of your identity. It’s okay to like a certain kind of music, but don’t let that be a primary identity marker for you. It’s okay to have tastes, but when we let our tastes divide our communities then that is where Paul would become very disturbed- and we should be disturbed too. 
          When we speak about something taking over the central part of our identity we are really starting to talk about Idolatry. Idolatry is when something sneaks into God’s rightful place in our lives. It is placing something that is not God into the God spot in our hearts. It can be lots of things- sex, money, power, job, a house, a sense of security. Subtly, what idolatry usually amounts to is a kind of self-worship. We place our desires on an altar and make offerings to these forces hoping they will ultimately make us happy. The forces of Consumerism feed into this self-worship. Consumerism convinces us that what really matters is that we have all our individual desires met. The life Jesus calls us into is actually quite anti-consumerist.
          Jesus calls us to pick up our cross and follow him. We are called to give up our selfishness. To give up our obsession with ourselves. Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ”. Our false selves are called to die, so that a new self can come into being. The self that was important to Paul before his encounter with Christ was the self that was determined to follow the Torah perfectly. Paul died to that false self. Part of following Christ is that certain visions of ourselves have to die. The self that seeks worth based on wealth, or beauty, is crucified. The self that makes ethnicity, or musical taste displace our worship of God, is crucified. Our false self dies to give rise to Christ living in us. Our true selves that are alive to Christ’s reality are what arise when our false selves die. His life arises in us and works in the world through us.  This new community is based on the freely given love of Christ rather than on any human social arrangement.
          It is this love of Christ and our trust in him that transforms the world and realigns our souls. That is what matters. So when we are at the altar rail and we put out our hands to receive what God has offered us, there is no separating young and old, or rich and poor, or European from African- at Christ’s table there is no division. What he sees is extended hands of people in need. And that is why Christ came. And that is why Christ died and rose again. To offer his transforming love and forgiveness to those with extended hands who want to grab hold of it- whoever they are and wherever they came from- to create a unified people.

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