The Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7C)
June 23, 2019
Zechariah 12.8-10; 13.1
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The New Testament lesson read earlier contains what has come to be a rather famous non sequitur. Galatians 3.28 reads: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” At least it seems to be a non sequitur: it lacks a grammatical connection to what precedes it; and the statement seems to be about unity, but unity has not been an obvious concern of Paul’s so far in the letter. His concern has been that these good Gentile Christians seem to be bent on becoming Jewish, on handcuffing themselves to what Paul regards as outmoded requirements of Jewish piety: strict adherence to the laws of ritual purity, pure and impure foods, and, for the men, circumcision. But unity as such has not really come up.
Of course, this statement, which neatly divides culture into three opposing pairs (Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female), referring more or less to racial, economic, and gender distinctions, is not a non sequitur. It was by then a well-known Pauline statement about some important implications of the gospel of Christ, and it occurs in several different forms in his letters. The fact was (and it remains so today) that polarities of this sort were the basis for determining one’s place in, and one’s value to, society; and, therefore, these differences were used by those in power (Jews, the free, men) to enforce the value system that kept them in power. I should add that in this ancient church context, “Jews” has in mind Jewish Christians who felt their claim to the Messianic faith was greater than any Gentile claim; and how better, then, to make this point and assert their superiority than by forcing Gentile believers essentially to become Jews so as to become Christians. Nowadays, at least since the feminist movement has impacted the church and theology (or shall we say some churches and some theologies), Galatians 3.28 has come to be heralded as “the Magna Carta of Christian liberty.” And while it is ridiculous to think that Paul was a civil rights activist, an abolishionist, trade-unionist, Marxist, feminist, womanist, or what have you, it is, in Paul’s mind, a firm theological conclusion, with clearly social and ethical implications, required by the logic of the Gospel of Christ. And whatever those implications were, he imagined (demanded) that they be realized in the space he defined with the term “in Christ Jesus,” which is his shorthand for “the community of faith,” the Church. But he did not imagine the disappearance of differences, the construction of some androgynous Christian. Not at all. Nor did he mean to say that these differences do not matter. What he proclaimed, as an outcome of the death and resurrection of the Messiah, was a new definition of human identity: “you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
And now he truly comes to unity. But what kind of unity; not a unity of sameness; but a unity which is really a coherence; which begins with difference, whose dynamic comes from the embracing of difference, a celebration of difference. (This is Paul’s argument when he discusses Spirit-gifting in terms of the diversity-in-unity that is the “body of Christ.”) But let’s be honest. To judge from Paul’s letters to churches, he was not very successful with this part of his apostolic agenda. What he had perhaps experienced in Antioch, his sending church, where he lived and taught among Jewish and Gentile believers who got on well together, he was unable to replicate in the churches he established. His letter to the Galatians is a case in point. Nevertheless, his insistence on this Gospel principle—of a unity formed by the embrace of difference—did not diminish. Some Christian realities are in the form of potentialities, and realizing potential can take a long time to happen. But crossing the chasm that separates potentiality from reality, and promise from fulfillment, is not simply a matter of time; it is a matter of intention. This is wrapped up for us in a Messianic secret, unfolded for the first followers of Christ in a most dramatic and dangerous moment.
As we take up the story in Luke, Jesus puts two questions to his closest disciples. The miraculous feeding of the five thousand is the background to his questions. As the disciples distributed food to the crowd, clustered in groups of fifty, they would have seen the amazement in their eyes, heard their excited talk, wondering, “Who is this Jesus?” Such questions might have been put to the disciples directly. And now Jesus is interested in the scuttlebutt. “Who do the crowds say that I am.” And the crowd’s speculation moves uniformly in one direction—backwards in time. John the Baptist; Elijah; one of the prophets of old. Now, an interesting feature of evolution is the fact that human beings (and all vertebrates) are anterior in their spatial and (eventually) temporal orientation. That is, they have eyes in the front of their heads—and while memory is a part of the process of human consciousness and the ongoing generation of identity, anticipation and concern for what is coming, for the future, for what’s around the corner, and indeed for what’s sneaking up from behind, determine the time-bound direction of life. The people who were miraculously fed, and Judaism in general, seem rather to have had eyes in the back of their heads. But the very Jewish concept of Messiah is about something that is “to come,” that is “not yet,” that is up ahead. Messianic movement is forward; the movement of promises is forward; and while the past grants us access to the story of God and paradigms which are figures of what is to come, the hope of faith (that God will keep his promises, that God will intervene, that God will raise us from the dead) moves forward. And so when the question of Jesus’ identity is now put to the disciples themselves, Peter shifts to the present tense, “You are the Christ.” And Jesus immediately opens up that present into an impending future: and it is what is coming that is to shape discipleship.
And in a most drastic scenario of suffering and death (and resurrection), Jesus spells out for the disciples the single, most important component of authentic Christian faith in the most graphic terms of crucifixion. This is not symbolism or metaphor. The challenge of sacrificial death. And the very core of the challenge is a decision that only the disciple can make: denial of self. The implications of self-denial are far-reaching, but in principle it means putting others ahead of ourselves, enabling sacrifice for others, service to others. And the decision is to become a mindset—this is the meaning of the small word “daily” that Luke alone has added to Jesus’ teaching.Paul, in Galatians, has gathered up this bit of Messianic theology into his demand for Christian unity; only, from his side of the cross, baptism into Christ (which for Paul is baptism into the death of Jesus, renunciation of self, and the gift of the Holy Spirit) sums up Jesus’ stern call to crucifixion. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Potential to put others first. But how to realize this potential? At each point, authentic Christian unity (that unity which embraces difference) depends upon our daily decision to put others ahead of ourselves. It is our decision to make; both Jesus and Paul seem to think we are able to make it, and the indwelling Holy Spirit enables it. I’ll leave us with Paul’s view on this matter: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” May God’s Spirit enable us to experience such a life of faith. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
© 2019 Philip H. Towner