Gen. 12:1-3; 17:1-7
The “No” in Christ that means “Yes”
We are going to focus today on this amazing text from Galatians, but I want to start by thinking about our personal stories.
Everybody has a story to tell – his/her own story. We tell our stories to try to understand the meaning of our lives; why are we here? Is our life trivial or is there some deep significance we are part of?
It may be hard to know how to begin your story. Do you start with your birth? Maybe it would be better to set your story in a wider context – your families – your parents, where they came from, their origins. On this Father’s Day we think about the role our own fathers played in our lives, and how their fathers formed them a generation earlier.
Our stories make sense when we see them in the light of a bigger story. We can talk about our families as immigrants to the New World, because we are all the descendants of immigrants to America. When we first got here, our people stayed with their own kind, tried to keep their Old World traditions alive – the cooking, the language, the way holidays are celebrated, and of course religious traditions.
But their children and their children eventually abandoned German or Swedish or French or Italian or Polish or whatever and now speak English. They gave up Viner schnitzel for hamburgers, and transformed pizza into something new (and better!). They dressed differently too. This has happened with each successive wave of immigration – from Northern and Western Europeans then Southern Europeans, then Eastern Europeans, then Asians, it’s always the same pattern.
I just heard an interview on the radio of a Louisiana fisherman whose family’s business was threatened by the oil in the Gulf. This disaster may end a three-generation family business tradition. They were originally immigrants from Croatia, which got my attention. Of course, when he spoke, his thick accent was 100% Louisiana Cajun.
Identities in conflict?
When America joined the Second World War, it meant that people from German and Italian roots were going to be asked to fight against Germans and Italians. Perhaps it happened, but I never heard of problems that came from identity issues. By the time of that war, the descendants of those Europeans had not only put on the uniform of the US military, they had also put on the whole identity of being Americans. Having put on an American identity gave us an American perspective on everything. We are democratic to the core: we cannot tolerate fascism nor totalitarianism. That’s who we are now, no matter where we came from. This is now a core part of our story.
What does this have to do the Galatians text? First, it’s all about knowing how to tell our story, the story of who we are. For Paul, putting our story in a wider context of where we came from is the only way to make sense of it.
To know who we are and where we fit into this world and what our lives mean, we simply have to review the story of the family we are in – and go back to see where we came from and how we got here.
New baptismal clothing
Of course the church in the Roman province of Galatia was not a predominantly Jewish congregation, it was Gentile, like us. But they had been baptized as Christians – believers in Jesus, Christ, or better, Jesus-Messiah. Now their uniforms have been changed. Now they are not first Galatian-Romans; that was the “old world” from which they had immigrated. Now they are in a new world and the baptismal clothing they wear displays another identity. Listen:
27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
Today, we think of “Christ” as Jesus’ surname, but of course it means messiah, so let us hear that same verse again with that in mind:
27 As many of you as were baptized into messiah have clothed yourselves with messiah.
And of course, “messiah” means God’s anointed one; the new king, so let’s put all those pieces together and hear it again:
27 As many of you as were baptized into divinely anointed King-Jesus have clothed yourselves with the identity of divinely anointed King-Jesus.
We have been clothed with a new identity. Just like German and Italian Americans in theSecond World War clothed themselves with the American identity and uniform, so we who have been baptized are also wearing a new clothing, a new uniform, a new identity. It is the identity of belonging to Jesus, God’s anointed King. There is no confusion of loyalties.
This means all kinds of fantastic things. All of us immigrants to America, whether we are from Northern Europe or Asia, have inherited the wonderful, rich traditions of Jefferson and Adams. We inherited their founding vision of being a free, democratic, independent people. So we Gentile Christians have inherited the wonderful, rich traditions of Israel.
Question: who gets to inherit things? Not friends and neighbors; normally, only family members inherit. We have become kin to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Leah and Rachel. We are family, kin to Israel.
We are now in the present generation of a family that has a story which has become our story. It is a powerful story. It is the story of people who understood that there is only One God who is morally good, who created a good physical world. He created humans, male and female in his image, and he blessed them with everything they needed.
But of course, he made them free to do good or evil and they chose wrongly, as we all have been doing ever since. That is the story we now inherit. But we also inherit the story that God did not just abandon them to their evil ways. He chose one family to be the solution. He called Abram out of his pagan world of Mesopotamia, and gave him a promise that he said would last forever. He said that he would bless his family, and that through that family he would eventually bless the whole world again – just like he had originally blessed it at creation.
Abraham’s family made a lot of wrong choices too. Nevertheless, God did not abandon us. He has repeatedly intervened, like when he sent Moses to guide the people by torah. But now the climax of the story has come. God’s plan for us was that at the right time, God would send his anointed Messiah King and establish his Kingdom, his reign on earth.
The last chapter of the story
This is what Jesus is all about: the coming of God’s anointed King, or Messiah, or Christ, to start the last chapter in the family story. To make a long story short, Jesus’ death would end the curse we had gotten ourselves into, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead would show that this new, final chapter was real. God’s Spirit came upon us to empower us to live as blessed members of his family, his kingdom, his new world order.
Now we can see why it’s so important to understand that we are like immigrants who are wearing the clothing of a new land; like soldiers in uniform. Standing next to us, left and right in this army are other immigrants from other places, but now, like us they are wearing the new uniform, the baptismal King Jesus-clothes.
27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
We are all heirs now; heirs of the original promise to Abraham; heirs of the blessing of belonging to the people of God, the family that is now blessed to know God through the lens of his anointed King, Jesus, and know ourselves as one people.
Notice, we do not invite God to become part our our story, we come to understand that we are being invited to enter God’s story. It is a redemption story with vast implications.
Just like American soldiers fighting in Europe, we look at those wearing the same uniform as we are and realize that the things that used to divide us, no longer matter. Were you from German or Italian roots? Now you are wearing the American uniform, and so we are one. Were you Jew or Greek? Now it doesn’t separate us; we are one in our new baptismal clothing. Were you slave or free? Now it cannot separate us. Were you male and female and divided on that basis? Now male and female both know each other as equally part of the family, wearing the same Christ-clothes appropriate to their gender.
Knowing our family story and our identity makes a huge difference; now we know who we are related to; to whom we are kin. This is serious business.
We are kin to the Brazilians who worship in our building on Sunday nights. We are kin to the Hispanics who worship at First Foley. We are kin to Palestinian Christians, like the Palestinian Lutherans I worshiped with in Bethlehem. We are kin to Pastor Benny Richardson and his African-American congregation that came here last year. We are all clothed in Christ by baptism and heirs to the promise to Abraham.
Does this challenge our personal relationships? Of course it does. Does this challenge our view of the world? Certainly. Does this challenge our politics? How could it not? Does this change our self-identity? Yes, in all kinds of ways.
We can rejoice today that we, gentiles, who were formerly not part of the family of God are now in the family! We can rejoice that we have experienced the power of the Spirit and we know that God is working out his plan. We are part of God’s story, we are in the Kingdom of Jesus-Messiah. God has not abandoned us, in spite of our record of evil, of exclusivism, of bigotry, and of discrimination.
This means that our stories are not just about us, ourselves; we are part of the wider story of the Kingdom of God. Now everything we do individually has much wider significance. When we men respect the dignity of women as equals, we are not just being nobel, we are living out the values of the Kingdom. When we recycle, we are affirming the kingdom values of the goodness of this planet as God’s creation.
When we work for justice and fairness in homeowners insurance rates we are bringing Kingdom ethical standards to bear on the powers of this world. When we affirm the rights of minorities and work to make sure the hungry are fed, that there is adequate clothing and shelter for everyone, we are doing God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.” Nothing is trivial or merely individual. We are part of God’s purpose to redeem Creation. This is the story we are in, the family we have inherited; we have been baptized into Christ; we are clothed with Christ; we are One in Christ! Thanks be to God!