Like many who were preaching from the lectionary over the weekend, I had the opportunity to use Galatians 2.15-21 as my sermon text on Sunday. This is the text which stirred up the pistis christou debate. This Sunday was also graduate recognition Sunday which is why you will see so many graduation references in the sermon. I hope you’ll listen along or just read the text. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what it means to be justified by faith (faith in Christ or the faithfulness of Christ?)
Many of us who are graduating this year have had the opportunity (or misfortune depending on how you look at it) to debate topics within our fields of study. Whether is was debating the merits of Paul’s idea that we are saved by faith alone versus James’ statement that faith without works is dead, debating the merits of an estate tax during an economics class, or even challenging one another on the merits of common core curriculums, debating is something we all have done during our time in school. Those who are graduating from high school have probably had the opportunity to debate a wider array of topics that in some cases they were passionate about and in others maybe could have cared less.
Debating is not something that is new to the church. During my time at Wesley Theological Seminary I experienced more than my fair share of classroom debates. During some of those debates I was engaged, dropping theological bombs on my opponents to the point that they were unable to recover, and in others I was completely disengaged, like a high school senior during the last few weeks of their high school career.
In our scripture reading this morning Paul is responding to a debate. There was a lot of confusion in the early church about who was in and who wasn’t. It was obvious to Jewish Christians that they were in. They would simply acknowledge Christ’s messiahship, then follow his teachings, all the while continuing to follow Jewish law. The problem then lies with those pesky Gentile Christians.
Gentiles were those who did not identify as Jews, and as the first disciples began to gather the question of “how do those who are not Jews follow Christ?” became an issue. Earlier in Paul’s letter, chapter two verse 3, we see Titus, a Gentile, not feeling compelled to be circumcised. Circumcision was literally an identifying mark of being a Jewish male. The issue at hand was not a moral issue. Circumcision was not a way of earning salvation by good deeds. Instead it was an identification issue.
Paul had gone over this topic before (Romans 3.1-8). As we read this chapter, and even parts of the entire letter, we can sense Paul’s level of frustration is rising. Paul was trying to articulate that the barriers between Jews and Gentiles, because of Christ’s life, should be broken down. As we read these letters we notice that as quickly as the Paul was tearing down the barriers, the church of the first century was building them back up.
What divided Jews and Gentiles of the first century? Works of the law, specifically living a life organized by the religious laws of handed down by God. The law was something handed down from God to Israel as a way to not only separate Israel from the nations surrounding her but also to order the religious lives of the Jewish people. The law was not so much about “getting in” but rather was about knowing who was in. The law is something we see extensively throughout the book of Leviticus, over 70 times actually.
Here’s a few semi-obvious ones:
- Failing to include salt in offerings to God (Leviticus 2:13)
- Failing to testify against any wrongdoing you’ve witnessed (Leviticus 5:1)
- Touching an unclean animal (Leviticus 5:2)
- Carelessly making an oath (Leviticus 5:4)
Here are a few that you might not of thought of:
- Letting your hair become unkempt (Leviticus 10:6)
- Tearing your clothes (Leviticus 10:6)
- Eating – or touching the carcass of – any seafood without fins or scales (Leviticus 11:10-12),
- Eating any animal which walks on all four and has paws (good news for cats) (Leviticus 11:27)
- Going to the temple (church) within 33 days after giving birth to a boy (Leviticus 12:4)
- Going to the temple (church) within 66 days after giving birth to a girl (Leviticus 12:5)
- Spreading slander (Leviticus 19:16)
- Trimming your beard or cutting your hair at the sides (Leviticus 19:27)
This was Jewish law. So the debate remained, should Gentile Christians be forced to follow the same laws prescribed for Jews, or the same laws Jewish Christians were observing.
We are almost fully into what is my favorite time of the quadrennial presidential election cycle. Debate season is almost here! As someone who studied politics in college, worked on a Senate campaign, and even organized a Senate debate, this time in the political cycle is my favorite.
Debates are an opportunity to lay out exactly what we believe about a particular subject and then outline in a polite manner why our position is the strongest. While debates on the national stages of FoxNews, CNN, and NBC do not always appear to have candidates who are interested in actually engaging in a polite debate, they are more like a real life version of the 140 character Tweets candidates send out, debating is a great way for us to determine which beliefs, ideologies, and other strongly held opinions are the strongest.
We live in a world today where debates have the ability to go from fun, light-hearted engagements to cage-match like fights where the only way to claim victory is to beat your opponent into oblivion. Debates are where we once listened to one another, hoping to frame responses around our opponents words and not 140 character social media blasts.
If the early church was a place where leaders were not sure who was “in” or who had to change certain aspects of their life before being recognized by God, is it any surprise then that the church has been debating doctrinal statements for centuries? Is it any surprise then that the church is still debating today?
One of the Church’s first apologists debated the destiny of those who had yet to be evangelized. Justin Martyr argued that God is drawing people into the Divine’s presence even if they had yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. That same debate has recently re-sparked as celebrity pastors try to articulate to the church today who’s in and who’s out?
Equal standing within the church between men and women is something that our denomination did not address until just 60 years ago, and some would say we still have work to do. This debate was going strong in the 16 and 1700s as Margaret Fell Fox was bankrolling the Quaker movement all the while not having full standing in the community.
The balance between poverty and consumerism is something that the Orthodox church wrestled with in 398 AD as John Chrysostom became the Bishop of Constantinople. He said, “So many poor stand around the Church; and though the Church has so many children, and so wealthy, she is unable to give relief to even one poor person…one voids his excrement even into silver, another has not so much as bread! What madness!” Even today, determining how to balance our own comfort with the needs of the most vulnerable people in our community is a topic the church is wrestles with daily. Who to help? How much help is “enough”? Those questions fall onto of our own desire to purchase new cars, homes, and spend more at Starbucks in one week than many in the world make in one month.
Finding balance in the midst of debate is something the church has been wrestling with for millenniums.
I do not think we have adequate time this morning to address the debates I just outline but Paul does address the issue of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Paul lays out what has happened and then what that meant for the Jewish Christians and Gentiles, along with us.
Verses 19 and 20: “ I have been crucified with Christ. 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.” In other words, it is Christ’s faithfulness that redefined what it meant to be the people of God. It is not our faithfulness to God but instead God’s own faithfulness to us that rewrote the book, literally, and figuratively.
No longer are we bound to works of the law to be justified or made right before God.
No longer is there a checklist of things we need to do to earn the favor and love of our Creator.
Through Christ’s own faithfulness we can experience the grace and love of God, even in those moments when we are not necessarily living up to the example laid before us by Christ.
Works of the law cannot justify us any longer because God has chosen to redefine what it means to be a people of God through the faithfulness of the Messiah, Christ Jesus.
In any good debate questions of “why?” are addressed and Paul does so here.
First, because Christ came for all people, his faithfulness as the Messiah is not limited to Israel. Christ’s faithfulness extended beyond the Temple. It is now irrelevant if you are Jewish or Gentile, Christ came for all and his faithfulness redefined what it means to be God’s children.
Second, the purpose of the law was to reveal sin, both to the individual committing the act as well as the community around them. Because Christ dealt with our sin upon the cross, works of the law will never be able to justify us before God.
Through our baptism, we die to our own selves and are reborn into a new identity defined by Christ Jesus himself. His faithfulness to the point of the cross has ended the division between Jews and Gentiles. His faithfulness ended the division between “us” and “ them”. Christ’s act of self-giving love has changed everything. Through all of this, our status as members of God’s family is defined by someone who love faithfully even in the midst of our sin.
Christ calls us to understand doctrine and law through the lens of love and grace. Whenever we begin to debate in our local church or in the larger arena of national and international denominations, at the forefront of our conversations and disagreements must be the love and grace God offered to all us through Christ Jesus. In Abraham God established a family and what mattered was who belongs to it. Christ’s faithfulness even to death ensured that all would be included in this family, eliminating the debate of in and out , and replacing it was a statement of love and grace.