Unity of Christ’s Church

“Unity of Christ’s Church”

Gal 3-28 all one in Christ

Galatians 3:26-29 – August 28, 2016

One of my sisters lives in the New York City area, on Long Island. She has lived there for more than twenty-five years. She is a wonderful, generous hostess, and often takes her family and friends to various places around New York, site-seeing. We love to visit my sister. When my children were younger, we went with my sister to the top of the Statue of Liberty—on two different occasions!

The Statue of Liberty. A beacon of light for generations. When my grandfather was a boy in the early 1900’s, he and his family emigrated to the United States from a shtetl in western Ukraine. He remembered standing on the deck of a steam ship from Europe, coming into New York harbor.  He gazed over the rail at the welcoming sight, along with everyone else on that ship. The Statue of Liberty was etched vividly into his memory. I know, because he told me so.

This country has been called a melting pot, containing different nationalities, cultures, and ethnicities. Some call this country a mosaic or a kaleidoscope of people. Whatever you call it, the United States is truly an amazing nation made up of a multitude of individuals (or, their ancestors) who came from all over the world.

Unity. Unity amidst diversity. That is what this country is all about.

Let’s take a second look at our Scripture passage for today from Galatians 3. The Apostle Paul writes to the believers in the region (or area) called Galatia in Asia Minor. He makes an all-important point at the end of chapter 3: our text for today. “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.”

I think you all might suspect what the theme for today’s service is. Unity!

Just as our nation incorporates strong unity amidst wonderful diversity, so does the Church. Not only this congregation, this fellowship of believers, but I am talking about the Church Universal. The Church around the world.

Taking a closer look at verse 3:28, at first glance, we might focus on the differences. Wow! There are some pretty big differences here. Paul mentions some significant separations and divisions. Different categories. What does this diversity look like?

First, “there is no longer Jew nor Gentile.” That is a serious thing for the Apostle Paul to say. Before his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul was a Hebrew of the Hebrews; a member of the Sanhedrin (that is, the ruling religious council of Jerusalem). A top-notch Pharisee who probably prided himself on his meticulous keeping of the Mosaic Law code, down to the smallest detail. Good, law-keeping, observant Jews of that time would not allow themselves to associate with, or even talk to a Gentile. So—after he became a Christian, we can see how serious Paul was about this unity of everyone, in Christ Jesus.

The second difference? “There is neither slave nor free.” Jesus Christ takes away all distinctions of social class and standing!

Wait a minute! That is not strictly true. In this troubled world, there are lots of differences, lots of separations in social hierarchy. In Morton Grove, we see many people who are solidly middle class. Different from wealthy people living on the Gold Coast, just off Michigan Avenue near the Water Tower. Go just a few miles further south, to the Englewood area of Chicago. I saw some of areas of extreme poverty when I visited there, earlier this month.

However, when people come to believe in Jesus Christ, social class and power can be dissolved, and go away. The unity of all believers is emphasized in this verse, again.

The third difference we notice? Paul mentions “nor is there male and female.”

Subtle difference! Yes, God created people male and female. Yet, when people come to faith in Christ Jesus, there is a new creation. All things are become new, as Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5. Even gender is given a back seat. Each person’s belief in Christ is emphasized in this new creation, differences are dissolved, and the unity of all believers is lifted up. We are all one big family.

Earlier in this letter, Paul mentions circumcision. That’s something that is very Jewish. And, very male. In the time before the common era, women and girls could not be considered full children of Abraham because they could not be circumcised. (For obvious reasons.) That was fully half of all religious people who could not fully participate in religious functions. Yet now, in this new creation in Christ Jesus, the old differences and distinctions no longer separate male and female. All things have become new.

Let me remind everyone of how earthshaking this all must have been for the Apostle Paul. Talk about having his entire worldview and frame of reference turned upside down! A good, observant Jew who studied with one of the leading rabbis of that day, now associating and eating with Gentiles. Staying in their homes. What a huge change of Paul’s way of thinking.

One big theme of the letter to the Galatians is that of identity. Who are we? What are our identity markers? How do we tell who others are, in our group? Paul says so, right here. Those who are baptized in Christ are children of God. Everyone who is baptized is our brother, our sister. That’s a whole lot of people, when we consider all the people who are believers, not only in the United States, but in the whole world!

I don’t know how many of you remember your own baptism, as infants and children. However, Paul is talking to people who were baptized as adults. The weeks beforehand must have been significant, too, in which these new believers were fully instructed and immersed in the understanding of Christ as their Messiah, their Lord and Savior. Then, often on Easter Sunday, the new believers were baptized. When possible, they were fully immersed, or at least had water poured over them in a large tub. Sometimes, naked, because they often would remove their clothing before the ceremony. After the baptism, they put on a new, white garment, signifying their new life in Christ. They were truly “clothed in Christ,” just as Paul says here.

As diverse and different as we are, considering world-wide Christianity, we all have become one humongous family of God. We are all God’s children.

How many of us, today, can say that? Yes, when babies and children are baptized today, we make a big fuss. We buy them special outfits for the occasion. But, do we truly take the new reality—this new identity—to heart? We have all been transformed, through Christ.

What a transformation! What an identity shift. We here at St. Luke’s Church are just as much God’s children as the Catholics worshipping at St. Martha’s Catholic Church south of Dempster. And, both groups of believers are just as much God’s children as those baptized at St. Haralambos Greek Orthodox Church on Caldwell. And, what about our friends at Love Sharing Disciple Church here, who will be worshipping in this sanctuary later today? This is duplicated at churches and auditoriums all over the Chicago area, with diverse ethnic and cultural groups of believers. We can enlarge that to a wide variation of church practices, all over the world. Wow! Double wow!

What a mosaic of identity in Christ. What a kaleidoscope of difference, made one huge family of God. Remember our sentence for the week, from the United Church of Christ Statement of Mission? Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to embrace the unity of Christ’s church.”

The unity of Christ’s church, in such beautiful, rich, worldwide diversity. This is truly something to celebrate! Alleluia, amen.

[Thanks to Dr. Richard B. Hays for concepts and ideas from his commentary on Galatians 3, from The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996).]

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

One Family of God

“One Family of God”

unity how good it is

1 Corinthians 12:12-14 – January 24, 2016

At this time of the year, many people get all excited about sports. Hockey, basketball, and especially football. The end of the football season is upon us! There are many different types of positions on a football team. I was wondering: how good would a team be if all of the players were big and bulky, like offensive linemen? Or, how about if all the players wiry and nimble, like wide receivers? How successful would a team like that be?

The Apostle Paul told the church in Corinth about another group, or team. Except, he called it a body—God’s body. God put together all the different believers into a team, or body called the church. God’s team. When we consider our passage for today, we can also see that God made different kinds of gifts, as well. God’s plan is for human beings to live together in one body. That is, with one another, in a great big community.

What on earth is Paul talking about? A body? Why is he mentioning a metaphor like that? Well, he was responding to a letter from the church in the city of Corinth. He had spent a number of months in the city, teaching and preaching. Then, he went on his way to other towns, to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. He was an itinerant preacher and missionary, after all.

I suspect Paul had a great number of people sending him letters, asking him questions, wanting his advice about continuing problems in the various churches he had founded. A number of things were the matter with the church in Corinth. In his letter, Paul tried to correct several issues, including this important issue about spiritual gifts, and unity in the church.

Reading from chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians again: “12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.” That’s Paul’s main point! Yes, we in the church are one body! Yes, we in the church have different strengths, and roles, and gifts! Just like a body has many, many different parts. Those different parts do countless tasks. Certain parts of the body are versatile! And, other parts of the body do just one thing. But, that doesn’t make any smaller part any less a part of the body. Big parts, important parts, little parts, behind-the-scenes parts. All different kinds of parts of the body.

One of my favorite commentators had a radio program for years. J. Vernon McGee broadcast a show called “Thru the Bible,” in which he would do just that; methodically go through the Bible in five years, teaching and giving comments in his homespun, aw shucks kind of way. This Presbyterian pastor Dr. McGee had incredible insights!

Dr. McGee told several stories about this particular chapter from 1 Corinthians. On one occasion, Dr. McGee went to a school in Georgia to deliver a commencement address. Afterwards, he went to a doctor’s home for dinner. Quoting from his commentary, “[The doctor] asked me whether I knew which was the most important part of my body while I had been speaking. I guessed it was my tongue. ‘No,’ he said, ‘the most important part of your body today was a member that no one was conscious of. It was your big toe. If you didn’t have a couple of big toes, you wouldn’t have been able to stand up there at all.’” [1]

We all are probably familiar with a popular children’s toy. Put out by Hasbro, small children have played with it for decades. Made even more famous by an appearance in all three Toy Story movies from Pixar. Mr. Potato Head, accompanied by his partner, Mrs. Potato Head, of course. You remember how Mr. Potato Head works. A large potato. And, the separate parts of the body: eyes, ears, nose, mouth. Hands, feet. Reminds me quite a bit of the Apostle Paul’s metaphor of the Church, the body of Christ, doesn’t it? But what if our Potato Head had all eyes, and no hands? Or, all ears and no feet? What then? Would it be all lopsided? Wouldn’t work properly?

Just imagine if our local church, St. Luke’s Church, was all lopsided like this? Wouldn’t work properly? Not only is the Church meant to have unity, or work well together, it is also made up of diverse or different parts, on purpose!

Looking back at Genesis, we can see that diversity is definitely in God’s plan for humanity from the very beginning. The sheer creativity of God in creation is so big and so varied. A countless variety of individuals made in every size, shape, color, ethnicity. Having endless variations of gifts that God gave to each of us.

The only way I can figure this, is God is pleased when we use our God-given creativity in any one of a myriad of ways—inventing, designing, doing, helping, making, thinking, crafting, composing, giving. And when we use our God-given gifts, it plain feels good inside.

When we look at this chapter in 1 Corinthians, Paul stresses that the church—the group of believers in Christ he was writing to—in all of its diversity, is a community. A great, big extended family, if that helps you think about it in that way. I know that can remind us of the whole topic of the families each of us were born into–and some people don’t want to go there—with in-laws, out-laws, black sheep, and all the rest. But biblically speaking, this is God’s family. Unity? Yes! Diversity? Again, yes!

There is a wrinkle in this happy, unified picture the Apostle Paul paints for us. I suspect you are already thinking about it.

The missiologist, Donald McGavran of Fuller Seminary, talks about it. “If you expect people to convert and churches to grow, said McGavran, you must appeal to a common denominator around which they can gather — ethnicity, language, level of education, and so on. And homogeneity is what we mainly see when we look at churches — black Pentecostals enjoy their lively worship, Episcopalians prefer their quiet formality, some people like the organ, others like praise bands, and never the twain shall meet.” [2]

I know the Apostle Paul didn’t study different approaches to mission or worship, like people in seminary do today. He was more immediate, and I suspect more of a nuts and bolts kind of guy, for all his education and fancy titles. He talked in our passage today about the unity of the Body of Christ. He knew about diversity, since many of the groups of believers he preached to were just that—diverse, with people from all different strata, coming to faith in Jesus Christ.

It doesn’t matter whether we have obvious differences, or an infinite number of variations. God calls us to unity; the unity of Jesus Christ, and to a diversity without division. To the church in Colossae Paul writes, “There is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, Scythian, slave or free, male or female, but Christ is all, and is in all.”

Yes, there is diversity! Yes, we are all different from each other. And, yes, we are all one in Christ Jesus. We can celebrate that blessed reality today!

Just imagine. Just imagine what a marvelous job each Church could do, if each member used what God had given to each one, to the best of their ability! What an opportunity for ministry! What an opportunity for outreach!

What possibilities lie before us as a church, as the Body of Christ in this place? May each of us prayerfully ask what God would have us to do with the gifts God has given each of us, today. Amen, alleluia!

 

[1] McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. V, 1 Corinthians—Revelation (Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers: 1983), 60.

[2] Epiphany 3C, The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself, Daniel B. Clendenin, Journey with Jesus Foundation, 2013. http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20130121JJ.shtml

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my sometimes-blog: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!