Galatians 3:23-29 New International Version (NIV)
23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
We have come to our sixth installment of our seven-part sermon series on Mennonite Church USA’s Purposeful Plan. One more week and we will wrap this up. But before we do, we have two important things to focus on. Today’s priority is on racial reconciliation in the church. From MCUSA’s website we read:
Undoing Racism and Advancing Intercultural Transformation
Racism, antipathy and alienation between different cultural groups stand in the way of Christ’s kingdom of love, justice and peace. As missional communities we will seek to dismantle individual and systemic racism in our church, develop intercultural competence, heal racial divisions, and value all the gifts of God’s diverse people. We envision people of many nations, tribes, people and languages as participants in the kingdom of God.
The other day I had a person come out to give an estimate for new gutters for our home. Our current gutters leak, they are bent, they need to go. So when the estimator came out, I told him that I wanted to price half-round gutters, like we have, and K gutters. He replied, “Well somebody has been doing some research on the internet.”
I was dressed in my church clothes with a button-down shirt on. I live in town. So I assume that this man figured that I grew up in the city and wouldn’t know about rain gutters. But I have done a bit of gutter work in my day. He didn’t know that I grew up in the country, waking up before the sun, milking the cows, feeding the livestock, working in the fields, working on machinery, and building things with my own hands. He didn’t know that and he probably couldn’t have assumed that the suave, sophisticated individual standing in front of him was also the person who was in charge of breeding the cows on the farm because I had the longest arms.
So I was a little offended that this person assumed that because of where I live and how I was dressed I would have no knowledge of his world. I felt like he had judged me on my outward appearance. And I realized that if this is the worst kind of prejudice that I ever experience, then I am truly blessed.
I want to note right up front, before we get into this sermon, that I come from a position of privilege. Actually, I have the trifecta of privilege: I am straight, white, and male. There is nothing wrong with being a straight, white male. But it does mean that I don’t have the same struggles that other people have. So I just want to recognize up front that I really don’t know what it is like to experience prejudice. But one does not have to have experience prejudice first hand to know that prejudice is outside of God’s plan for humanity.
Today’s scripture reference comes from the book of Galatians. There are some people that will argue that this passage should not be used to talk about racial reconciliation because it is about bringing people of other theological backgrounds into the church. Yes, it is that, but it is more. To the 1st century Jew, their race and their religion were one and the same. If you were an Israelite, you worshipped the Israelite God. So yes, this passage is about bringing people of different theological backgrounds to the God of Israel, but it is also about tearing down the barriers of race.
The Galatian church was made up of mostly Gentile people; they were not born Jewish, they were converts. To a Jewish Christian there would have been a racial distinct division between the Jewish Christian and the Gentile Christian. The Jews were not just a religious group, they were a race. Sure, people had the opportunity to become Jewish through conversion, but by far, the majority of Jews were Jewish by birth. To them being Jewish would be like being German, Spanish, or Indian today. It was their nationality and their primary way of self-identifying.
Furthermore, one of the words that we translate as “Gentiles” or as “nations” is the word ethnos. This is the word that we get the word “ethnicity” from. Though here, the word is “Hellenos,” the word we translate as “Greek,” which was clearly a people group.
So when Paul writes in verse 28 that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” is he saying that the religious barrier that kept Gentiles from worshipping the God of Israel is torn down or is he saying that the ethnic/racial barrier that is keeping the people from seeing one another as people created in the image of God is torn down? Yes!
Did you catch that? People of all races are created in God’s image. Not just white people, not just Middle Eastern or Asian people. There is something within each of us that reflects the image of God, regardless of one’s race, gender, or if they are slave or free. In Christ Jesus, all are one, and heirs according to the promise given to Abraham.
Not convinced? Read Acts chapter 10. I considered having this entire chapter read for us this morning. It is the story of Peter, a Jewish leader, and Cornelius, a Gentile, a Roman centurion. Peter has a vision of a cloth being lowered from heaven. And inside the cloth are animals that a Jewish person would not have been permitted to eat because of the cleanliness codes of the Hebrew Bible. And Peter hears a voice calling from heaven instructing him to eat these forbidden animals.
Peter, being the good Jew that he is, says, “Never, Lord! I have never eaten anything unclean or impure.”
The response from heaven comes, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (v.15).
Is this a reference to the food or to the Gentile, Cornelius? Yes! At least Peter interprets it as such because Peter goes to Cornelius’ house and stayed with him for a few days. Again, it would have been against the Jewish Law to enter the home of a Gentile and eat with him. But the beautiful thing that I think that we often miss in this story is that not only did Peter spend time with this rich, powerful leader in the Gentile, Roman army. Before he ever met Cornelius, Peter invited three people, who Cornelius had sent to find Peter, into the place where he was staying as his guests. Two of these men were called Cornelius’ “servants,” which might mean his slaves.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
So when Peter gets to Cornelius’ home, he is met by a large group of Gentiles. And after exchanging some pleasantries, he says “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean… I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (From verses 30, 34, 35). Again, the word translated there as “nation” is ethnos. Ev-er-y nation; ev-er-y ethnicity.
I wish I could say that racism was no longer a problem in our world, but I can’t even say that it isn’t a problem in our churches. Perhaps you have heard about the African American couple that was not permitted to get married in their own church, the church where they were active participants, in Mississippi. The pastor of this predominantly white church received threats that if he married this couple in the church building that he would be removed from his pastorate. They had to switch to a different location the day before the wedding.
Perhaps you have heard of a situation closer to home in Centreville, Virginia where a man recently hung three empty chairs in trees on his property, which bordered a public park. Affixed to the chairs were “Nobama” signs. This chair lynching was a picking up on the empty chair interview of President Obama that recently took place. I don’t care who you vote for or if you even like President Obama or Mitt Romney. But when you symbolically lynch a chair, you are not simply stating your disapproval of someone’s politics. You are participating in a deeply racist demonstration and identifying with various hate groups from the checkered history of the United States.
But racism does not have the final word. No, I believe that Jesus Christ is working through us, seeking to put an end to racism. As Paul writes in Colossians 1 and 2 Corinthians 5, God is seeking to reconcile “all things.” The Greek there literally means “all things.” There is hope for humanity, and we are to be the messengers of that hope.
I recently re-read an essay by Mark Thiessen Nation called “Washing Feet: Preparation for Service.” In this essay Mark recalls life growing up in rural Illinois in the 1960’s. He shares about a time when he and some friends were going to the town’s annual Fall Festival, a much-anticipated event every year. However, as they walked downtown, their excitement turned into something else. All eyes of the group of boys fell upon a group of African Americans, a demographic rarely if ever seen in this town.
Mark writes that the collective voice of this group of young friends spoke the derogatory name that you will never even hear me quote and that if they “aren’t out of this town by sundown, they will be strung up.”
Mark says that he does not remember being taught these things explicitly, but it was a part of the ethos of the “proudly all-white community in southern Illinois.”
Years later, in a small Baptist Church revival, Mark made a commitment to be a follower of Jesus. He would spend the following years learning from prominent African American theologians like Martin Luther King, Jr., and less prominent ones, like his roommate and people with whom he attended church. Slowly, God opened Mark’s eyes to the ugliness of racism and the beauty of all people.
This story hits its apex as Mark shares from his time as a pastor in Los Angeles at a Maundy Thursday communion and footwashing service. Mark writes that there were several African Americans in this congregation, including a man named Ralph. Mark writes of Ralph:
He would not have been surprised to learn that my childhood included stereotyping and ugly epithets intended to demean people of his color. And yet it never occurred to him—a profoundly Christian man—not to pick up a towel, place my feet, the feet of a white man, in the basin and wash my feet and allow me to wash his. Moreover, it was our practice to embrace after the footwashing. The footwashing and the embrace reminded me that there is cleansing, there is redemption for those of us who have drunk the sin of racism with our mother’s milk. Ralph taught me both physically and symbolically that reconciliation is possible, even in our painfully sinful world.
I heard Mark say, as he recounted this story in person, that as he embraced Ralph after the footwashing service, tears went streaming down his face. Reconciliation is powerful. Reconciliation is possible.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. When you look at someone, do you see color? Do you see gender? Do you see social status? Because Jesus took all of those things away when he died on the cross. No, when we look at someone, we must see someone created in the image of God, someone that Jesus said was worth dying for.