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Sermon for Ordinary Time, Galatians 3:23-28
Who you are the child of matters. It probably doesn’t need to be said, really, but who brought us into the world and raised us is significant. If you had a home of healthy love and guidance and support, you likely had a good base to start your own life from; if it was a place of abuse, or neglect, or conflict, it was likely much more difficult for you to navigate some of the challenges of life. I have been listening to a biography of Napoleon, a singularly nerdy thing to do I realize, but his origins are fascinating: from a Corsican family of the minor nobility, struggling financially but proud, a somewhat listless and ineffectual father but a strong mother, whose parentage led Napoleon to say, “the future destiny of the child is always the work of the mother.” He entered the military service in France as a teenager, and before he was 30 was a successful general and at that age became de facto ruler of France and their imperial holdings. His beginnings were the perfect balance of opportunity and hardship, combined with skill and ambition.
Why am I talking about Napoleon and children? Because St. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ is the offspring of Abraham, and that we, united to Christ through faith, are heirs and offspring as well. Our earthly parentage is secondary to the parentage that links us to God. Abraham is our ancestor through Christ, which makes God our Father, and that means our lives are made, conditioned by that parentage. In Christ we find our true source, our true family, for “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”
St. Paul continues here his pointed and aggressive correction to the Galatian churches. He levels here some of the most powerful critiques of the Old Testament law that can be found anywhere in his writings. While never saying it is not ultimately from God, he does say that it is not what his fellow Jews think it is; the Law, he says, is not our way to God, our source of life, our justification or rightness before God, but rather, he says it imprisoned us. But, the promise to Abraham, made without condition, was prior to the giving of the Law, not just chronologically but also logically. It cannot be modified by this later, conditional covenant. And the promise to Abraham, Paul finally understood, was the promised seed of Jesus Christ, who would offer himself for us.
The Law, and following it, cannot give us life, it cannot make us right with God, it cannot do anything but, truly, prove our finitude and insufficiency. And it was never intended to do those things! It was always and ever a prison-guard, keeping the people of Israel in check throughout the ages, a disciplinarian, but never an ultimate end. That is where Christ comes in. Vss. 25-26, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Christ is the great gift of God that is given for all people, received through faith, resulting in a new birth into the New Creation he has begun.
What Christ has done is intrusive and disruptive to the order of the world as it has been, under sin. In vs. 23, it says we were “imprisoned under the law until faith was revealed.” The word translated revealed there is, at root, apocalypto. It can mean reveal, as in a veil being drawn aside, but here it is more pointed than that; it is not a drawing aside of a veil, but an intrusion, an invasion into our world by God in Christ. That invasion is completed when we are baptized into Christ, by the power of the Spirit, who unites us to Christ in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, and the Law played no part in that. Like Napoleon, invading other countries and setting up new governments, changing the social order, establishing new laws, so Christ invades our world and within his disciples, the Church, establishes a new order with new rules and new values. We are born into a new world order, one unlike that of Israel, Rome, or indeed, America. This is the point of the famed verse 28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
In the ancient world, all of these things carried social significance, a kind of value. The world was ordered in every society by clear hierarchies. People of more worth would receive greater gifts, because they were either more deserving, or more able to advantage the person giving the gift. But the gift, the charis of God, which we translate “grace,” is given to all without regard to these social values that we put on people. Kids, the gift of God to us is Jesus Christ, who died so we could be resurrected, saving us from our sins and death. He gives it to all of us, without us having to compete to earn it: we all are able to receive it by accepting it. It is like when you are in a classroom, being taught; the teacher doesn’t give a different lesson to different kids, but you all receive the same lesson, the same information, and none of you are considered better than another, but all receive the same thing.
Neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, man nor woman has any more value in the sight of God, nor are any of those states an obstacle to receiving the gift of God for all people. These states aren’t immediately destroyed, but in the new order, they will be of no significance. That is why, while we do not see explicit condemnations of slavery or the exploitation of women in the New Testament, it provides us with the very foundation to eradicate those things. Paul wasn’t going to be able to stop slavery in the Roman Empire, but a people who believe deep in their bones what he says here will not be able to continue to enslave. The early Church couldn’t stop the exploitation and abuse of women, but it could make such abuse in its own community utterly unwelcome, because it cannot co-exist with this truth: That if we are in Christ, we all receive the gift of God, and are all Abraham’s children and heirs according to promise.
Following the Law undermines the gift of God, the grace given to us in Christ, because the Law was temporary, a guardian while Israel awaited the promise. With the coming of Christ, we see the Law, circumcision, uncircumcision, and everything else that culturally or ritualistically divides people from each other as undermining the Gospel when those things are used to give one group more value than another. And that is the key: We place value on different people as more worthy to receive the gift. But in Christ, that is not so; through faith we all are made new creations, and receive the gift of life that is in Christ Jesus. Like Napoleon, who we are of a child of matters. And we are children of Abraham, children of God through Jesus Christ, which means we are free, from sin, from the Law, and from everything that tells us we are not worthy to receive the gift. It is God’s gift to give, and he gives it to you.
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