Thursday, July 01, 2010

All Children of God

All Children of God
Gal 3:26-29[1]
Growing up in small-town Texas means being a football fan. I’m not talking about the small cities that we’re familiar with—I’m talking small town Texas, where they still only have a four-way stop at the main crossroad. In those towns, your whole life is punctuated by Friday night football games. And there really is no question whether or not you’re going to cheer for the home team. Everybody cheers for the home team. There’s no possibility that someone might like the line-up or the coaching staff of a rival team and cheers for them instead. Everybody cheers for the home team.
Unfortunately, there are football fans and there are football fans. Most people in a small town are loyal supporters—they show up at every home game, and even go to some of the away games. But occasionally, you ran into the people who took it too far. You know, the ones who thought cheering for the home team means that you hate the other team—all the other teams, and their fans as well. They were the ones who would start fights and throw rocks at the other team’s bus and slash the fans’ tires.
Of course, that kind of “us against them” thinking has pervaded human culture. It would seem that regardless of time or place, regardless of status or faith, the human family has a deeply ingrained need to differentiate themselves from others they can look down on.[2] Whether it surfaces in wars between nations, ethnic and racial hatred, or social discrimination, it seems we are obsessed with defining our own worth in competition with others.
I’ve never really understood the blatant, mean-spirited racism that infects some people on this planet. I don’t understand how anyone can look at another person and think of them as some kind of sub-human animal. And yet I have to admit that I share the human tendency to think that I am superior to others who are different. I’m not particularly proud of that fact, I just acknowledge it. And strive to overcome it. But what disturbs me deeply is when people take those notions and turn them into a badge of loyalty or a mark of patriotism —or even into a medal of faith! For many people, it seems that Christian faith just becomes another way of justifying our cherished prejudices.[3]
But once again I must insist that is not the way in which the Bible presents the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or the God and father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. The God of the Scriptures is the God who is concerned about “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3).[4] With that in mind, and given Jesus’ acceptance of all people, we might want to believe that the church would be a “hate-free” or “discrimination-free” zone. Unfortunately it is not. Apparently, it wasn’t even in the days of St. Paul.
Part of the situation Paul was addressing was a church in which Jewish Christians joined together with gentile converts. In order to understand the problems that caused, we have to understand that one of the fundamental aspects of Jewish identity was the belief that they were chosen by God. It would seem that many of the Jewish people in that day and time thought that their election meant privilege rather than call. So they believed that God’s special relationship with them meant that they must be special, and therefore better than the “gentile dogs” (that is, all non-Jewish people). Of course, if the gentile “sinners” wanted to, they could convert and become Jewish, and they would be part of the privileged people. Otherwise they remained outsiders and should stay outside.
Well, when the Christian gospel started bearing fruit among all the people groups outside Judaism in the First-Century world, the Jewish Christians had some challenges with it. In fact, some of them insisted that people must first convert to Judaism before they became Christians! But Paul saw that for what it was—not only an affront to the Gospel but also an affront to the God of Abraham, who called Abraham and Sarah and all their descendants for the benefit of “all the families of the earth.”
Following that logic, Paul extended the language of election to include gentiles who converted to Christian faith. This was a major leap for any Jewish person in that day. It reversed the whole language of election. It meant that those who were privileged were now just like everybody else. It meant that those who had been outsiders were now insiders, and in some cases that those who had been insiders were now outsiders. It turned the world upside down![5]
I think in our day and time, we should follow Paul’s lead and extend his thinking to include the whole human race as God’s chosen people. If we’re honest with ourselves and each other, we would have to admit that we have taken Paul’s scandalous overturning of the system of privilege and discrimination and turned it into a whole new means of looking down on others. We have turned our Christian faith into an exclusive mark of superiority over all “non-believers.” But it would seem to me that the God who created all things and all people, the God who called Abraham and Sarah and their descendants for the benefit of all people, and the God who in Jesus Christ came into this world to redeem all people, is the God who has chosen to love the whole human family. Truly, in and because of Christ Jesus, we are all beloved “children of God”; we are all chosen to be “one in Christ Jesus.”[6]
When it comes to this enterprise called faith, just as much as in life and work and all other areas of human endeavor, we are all in this together—and that includes Muslim imams and Catholic nuns and Jewish rabbis and Buddhist priests and Hindu monks—along with people of every other stripe and variety. We can no longer look at others as “other;” we can no longer look down on “outsiders.” Rather when we look at another human being—any and every human being, we must see that person as one whom God has chosen to love every bit as much as you or me.[7] The Good news of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is that God has chosen us all without exception!

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/20/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 188-89, where he talks about the principle of “like cleaves to like” as an expression of the need for self-justification and self-corroboration.
[3] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 182-83, where he talks about this facet of racism in human society.
[4] See especially Romans 3:29-30; 10:12; cf. Charles B. Cousar, Galatians, 84 and Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible XI:278. See further Elsie McKee, “Calvin and Praying for ‘All People Who Dwell on Earth’,” Interpretation (Apr 2009): 130-140, referring to a reference in Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.20.38.
[5] Cf. Cousar, Galatians, 81: “The new unity discovered in fellowship with [Christ] replaces the old lines of demarcation which included some and excluded others.” Cf. also Hays, “Galatians,” 278-79. See further Moltmann, Church in the Power, 106: “In the church of Christ the religious, economic and sexual privileges that obtain in the world around lose their force.” Cf. ibid., 292-93, where he speaks of the Christian community as “the sign, the instrument, and the breaking-in of the new order of all things” and therefore not as “the exclusive community of the saved,” but “the initial and inclusive” expression of “the world freed by the risen Christ.” Cf. Similarly, Hays, “Galatians,” 272: Paul sees the church as “an alternative community that prefigures the new creation in the midst of a world that continues to resist God’s justice.”
[6] Cf. Cousar, Galatians, 85: Christ’s coming as an “eschatological event” was “world-changing; it inaugurated the last times. Though not every individual has been aware of that event and its implications, the event is nevertheless true and impinges on the lives of all.” Cf. especially Karl Barth, in Church Dogmatics, 2.2, 115-17. See also ibid., 59-60, 101, 103-105.
[7] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 188: “The Christian fellowship in which the one accepts the other, just as he is himself accepted by Christ for the praise of God (Rom. 15.7), is the social form of justification by faith.” Cf. further ibid., 189: “For Christianity the basic principle of liberated humanity can only be the principle of the recognition of the other in his otherness, the recognition of the person who is different as a person.” See further Samuel K. Roberts, “Becoming the Neighbor: Virtue Theory and the Problem of Neighbor Identity,” Interpretation 62(2008):146. eLibrary. Web, 17 June 2010; E. Louise Williams, “The Broken Walls of Galatians 3:28,” in Word & World 20 (Summer 2000):227-31.

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