What kind of Christian are you?

Galatians 3:23-29

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 lived in our current home since we moved to Staunton in 2008. That’s eight years in one location, which is one year short of three times as long as we have lived in one location in all of our married life. In those eight years, we have seen the house across the road change hands twice; three different families have lived in that home. Our neighbors to the south moved about 18 months ago, and just a few weeks ago our neighbors to the north packed up their belongings and moved out of the state. About the same time the house to the north was sold, the house to our immediate south went back on the market after the current owners had lived there for just over one year. So for a period of time, the neighboring houses on both sides of our home were for sale. Over the last eight years, those three houses have been lived in by eight different families, and fifteen different individuals.

When I was in high school I would ask a nice young woman out on a date, and often they would turn me down gently, saying things like, “It’s not you, it’s me.” After all of these housing changes, I’m beginning to think that it really was me all along.

Last Saturday, the new neighbor to the south began to move some items into his home, and he came to my front door to introduce himself. I appreciated the gesture, and as you can imagine, we have been wondering who we will be living next to… for the next year-and-a-half, you know, until we scare the next family away. Our conversation progressed quickly, including questions about the upcoming presidential election and other political concerns. After we had determined our social compatibility, Tim asked me the question that is always strange to answer for someone who does what I do for a living. He asked, “So what line of work are you in, anyway?”

“I’m a pastor,” I replied to my new neighbor. To which he responded with the most obvious response, asking What kind of pastor?

I told him, “The best kind.”

No, I told him that I am a pastor in a modern Mennonite church, differentiating between the conservative Mennonites, the Old Order, and horse-and-buggy Mennonites that one might see south of Harrisonburg. However, his reason for asking me what kind of pastor I am was not to receive a lesson on Mennonite history and distinctives (though, he did get that). Just as we had been wondering about our social compatibility with our new neighbors ever since the “for sale” sign when in the front yard, they too had wondered what kind of folks they would be living next to. He was asking, “Are you a snake-handling, holy rollin’ Pentecostal; a totally-depraved, predestined Calvinist; an ultra-conservative, turn-or-burn Evangelical; or a peace-and-justice hippy liberal?”

Perhaps I am reading too much into his question. Surely I am expounding upon it a bit too much. I don’t mean to be critical, because to be honest, I the reason I don’t like to tell people that I’m a pastor is in part because of the exact same concern. I’m afraid that if you find out that I’m a pastor, you are immediately going to assume that I am “that” kind of pastor, whatever that kind might be. I don’t mind having people know that I’m a pastor. I just don’t want them to assume I am like that pastor.

This is a problem, my friends. Why is it that when I first meet someone and they find out what I do for a living or even that I’m a Christian, their inquiry and my initial response is always intended to differentiate between myself and other Christians?

Unfortunately, there is good reason for me to want to differentiate. Just one week ago, in the early hours of Sunday morning, an American-born, fundamentalist Muslim opened fire at a night club in Orlando, killing 49 people. This was the largest mass-murder ever on US soil. As more details came out about this event, it was discovered that this night club was targeted because it catered especially to the gay community and the gunman had publically stated his disapproval for the LGBTQ community.

This was an act of terror. This was a hate crime.

Many faith communities around the world shared their sorrow in a public way of some sort. You don’t have to support gay marriage to know that this…was…wrong. But what I feared would happen, no, what history has told me would happen happened. Within 24 hours of the largest mass murder on US soil there were Christians, pastors, talk-show hosts saying that this was a good thing. If we could just let the Muslims and the gays kill each other off, the world would be a better place.

I have reasons for wanting to differentiate from other Christians. But that doesn’t make me any less in need of God’s grace, and it doesn’t mean that I’m better than they are.

Our text for this morning is from the book of Galatians. We really don’t have much historical information on the church in Galatia, but based on what we can glean from this book, the Galatian Christians started out like a lot of other 1st century Christians: as Jews. As we read through the New Testament (especially in Acts), we find that Jews were generally the first ones to receive the message of Jesus the Messiah. But this message was intended for all of the world, or as the Great Commission says, for “all nations.” The people of other nations were not Jews, but Gentiles.

So there came to be a division between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. Even after the Council of Jerusalem rules that a person does not have to become a Jew to be a Christian, there is still a divide.

I imagine a conversation among the Jewish Christians in the early church: Yeah, those Gentiles think that they are really followers of Jesus the Messiah, but we really know who are his real followers. Those of us who are descendants of Abraham, we are the true children of God. God made his promise to Abraham and all his descendants, not to some Gentiles. So sure, they can join us for worship, they can even do that thing with the bread and the wine, but really, we know who God really favors, right?

One of the things we find Paul doing time and time again throughout his letters to the churches is calling out the people who are dividing the church along several boundaries. These include the Jewish/Gentile divide, the rich/poor divide, the male/female divide, and the slave/free divide. These are divisions based on economic differences, ethnic differences, gender differences, and social differences. And Paul simply isn’t having it. Don’t think that you are better than someone else just because you can trace your ancestry back to Abraham. The only thing that matters now is that you have been baptized in Christ, clothed in Christ.

In Christ, we have a new identity. Sure, you are still ethnically a Jew or Gentile. Sure, you are still male or female. And in some cases, slaves still remained slaves after becoming Christians. But that wasn’t to be their primary identity, and it was not in any way to establish a hierarchy among the people.

Today’s passage could benefit from a bit of a Greek lesson. The way the NIV translates these verses makes it sound like the Law, the Torah, was some sort of a jail or jailor. Paul writes that the Jews were “under the custody” of the Law, “locked up” by the Law, and that the Law was the “guardian” of the Jewish people. I think that the phrase “locked up” pushes us to understand the Law as a prison.

But the word the NIV translates as guardian is παιδαγωγός (paidagogos), from which our educators get the word pedagogy. Paidagogos does mean guardian, but not like a prison guard. It means a guardian as in a person who keeps a watchful eye over a child. In the 1st century Greco-Roman culture, an affluent family would often have a paidagogos who would be the tutor for the children, as well as their primary care giver. A paidagogos would be like an au pair, like Maria in “The Sound of Music.”

Paul writes that the Law was the paidagogos of the Jewish people. They were in the custody of the Law, like a child is in the custody of a parent or au pair. They were “locked up” like a child who is limited in where he or she can go, kept from entering into harmful situations. Paul isn’t calling the Jewish Chirsitans prisoners of the Law, but he is calling them children. When God gave them the Law, they needed it like a child needs a paidagogos, an au pair, or a babysitter.

Now Paul writes in verses 24-25, “So the law was our guardian (paidagogos) until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian (paidagogos).” Or as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

I think this helps us understand verse 26 as well, to which I also think the NIV does a disservice. “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”

If you read an older translation, the phrase “children of God” may be translated as “sons of God.” Even the King James Version, now over 400 years old, translates this as children of God. Most of the time, this is a good way to translate the word huios. Huios literally means a son, but when the text is referring to both men and women, it is common to translate it in a gender-neutral fashion. But Paul is trying to say something specific here that we may not catch if we translate huios as children rather than sons.

As I understand things, today, if a person passes away after their spouse, all of their belongings are divided up equally among their children, assuming that a will is not in place that designates otherwise. It doesn’t matter if you live close or far away, have children or not, or if you are male or female. But in the 1st century, this wouldn’t have been the case.

When Paul was writing, women were seen as property. And sometimes, for a family to allow their son to marry a woman, the woman’s family would have to give something to the family of the man as a gift. This was called a dowry. It was like saying, “Our son will marry your daughter and take her off your hands, but it will cost you a couple of goats and a cow.”

Women did not receive a portion of the inheritance of their father when he passed away. If the story of the Prodigal Son had been written about a prodigal daughter, it wouldn’t have made any sense because the daughter wouldn’t have received anything. She was property, so her brothers would, in a sense, inherit her and have to offer a dowry for someone else to marry her.

Guess who else would not have received inheritance in Israel? Gentiles. If you were a Gentile and you were living in Israel, you could never really own land. The land was God’s and it had been permanently assigned to a particular tribe of Israel. If you were a Gentile and your family had paid for a piece of land, and worked it for 49 years, it wouldn’t be passed on to you, but back to one of the Tribes of Israel.

Likewise, slaves were not able to pass on inheritance, because they didn’t have any inheritance.

Now look at what Paul writes in verse 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.”

So when our modern translations tell us that we are all children of God, I think that they miss something important, even though the translators are trying to be gender inclusive. In the 1st century, only the male offspring of free Jews could receive an inheritance from their fathers. And now Paul is saying that all people, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, all people are sons of God. All people are inheritors of the promise that God made Abraham.

In Exodus 4:22, we read, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son.” Now in Galatians 3, Paul says that male and female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, all who are in Christ are sons of God.

So what kind of Christian am I? I don’t think that it is wrong to differentiate between one kind of Christian and another. I don’t believe the same thing as the Westboro Baptist Church, who picket outside the funerals, and I don’t believe the same thing as the Christians who preach that a fundamentalist Muslim killing a number of gay men is a good thing. Just as most Muslims don’t want to be associated with ISIS, I don’t want to be associated with those Christians that seem bent on spreading hatred throughout this world.

But that doesn’t make me better than them. That doesn’t mean that I look down on them and demean them. The Westboro Baptist Church deserves to be loved and needs to be loved, too. And if they are clothed in Christ—yes, they need a lot of grace, as do I!—then we are co-heirs to God’s kingdom.

Rather than trying to set ourselves off as different in a better way from Pentecostals, Calvinists, or more conservative or liberal Christians, perhaps we would do better to simply recognize that we are all children at different places of understanding. When Paul writes this letter to the Galatians, he is encouraging the Jewish Christians to hold all Christians at the same level of love and acceptance. Of course, as he does this, he is criticizing the current practices of the Jewish Christians. To recognize our equality with will Christians isn’t to say that our differences don’t matter. Surely they do! But rather, Paul is encouraging his readers and us today to treat each other as equals. Or, as Jesus said, to treat others as you would want to be treated yourself.

What kind of pastor am I? What kind of Christian are you? I’ve found myself thinking for a while about how I would answer that question, and I think that sometimes the simplest answers are the best. I am the kind of Christian who loves Jesus and loves people.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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