Friday, July 06, 2007

Sowing the Seeds of Gentleness

“If anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore them in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted…” - Gal. 6

A spirit of gentleness...

This week the lectionary text presents us with a call to gentleness from Paul. Simple it may seem, but it comes in the midst of a bitter battle between two separate factions within the churches in Galatia. Paul advises this spirit of gentleness precisely because things in Galatia were not so gentle at all.

Recently new Jewish Christian missionaries had arrived in Galatia preaching a different gospel. These rival missionaries were not trying to lure the Galatian Christians from their belief in Christ, but rather were trying to persuade them that circumcision was required for full entrance into the community of faith. This new gospel was a gospel based on a strict, literalist reading of the Mosaic law. The problem was that this law created two classes of church members, dividing the community into separate factions, the circumcised and the uncircumcised, the practicing and the non-practicing, so to speak. At its root, this was a conflict about identity, a struggle to define who was in and who was out…an identity that focused on ethnicity, gender and genitalia.

Sound familiar?

For Paul these missionaries “perverted the Gospel” by creating barriers to full participation in the life of the Church. The Gospel message of Jesus had obliterated boundaries and distinctions between classes of people. How dare these new missionaries try to erect false boundaries to Christ's table? Just a few chapters back Paul reminds the Galatians of their own baptismal formula which declared that in Christ there was no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male and female. In Christ all had been made one. This new message of the missionaries that made grace dependent on law was antithetical to the gospel itself. Dividing Christians into separate classes based on human law divided the community and tore asunder the very Body of Christ itself!

Paul recognized that the fundamentalism of the missionaries arose not just from their reading of Scripture, but from the conditioned social norms they sought to preserve and protect. Isn’t that true about most fundamentalisms? Laws are used as rigid barriers to protect the status quo, no matter how damaging or oppressive they may have grown to be.

While for the missionaries, Jewish Christian identity was dependent on this social custom of circumcision, Paul was convinced that no law or doctrine could ever define our identity. Rather Paul understood that our identity as Christians is ultimately rooted in Christ and Christ’s promise of the kin-dom of peace and justice. “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation is everything!” A new creation…that is everything!

For Paul Christian identity is not to be found in ecclesiastical laws of who is in or who is out. Rather, our identity is rooted in our common mission to bring forth God’s kin-dom.

It seems 2000 years has not changed much in the communities of Christ. Still we find ourselves bitterly battling with one another over issues of identity, wrangling to decide who is in and who is out. The debate in our church over sexuality is not really about scripture or sin, or in the end even homosexuality. Rather, it is a debate about the very nature of the Body of Christ and our common mission to bring forth the kin-dom of God. When we exclude persons from the Church based on a gospel of law, we abandon the gospel of grace and wound Christ’s body.

Our identity as the Church, specifically as the United Methodist Church, is bound up with how closely we follow or stray from the Gospel message. Can we be the Body of Christ when we cut off members solely on the basis of socially conditioned norms based on gender and genitalia? Paul certainly didn’t think so. In fact, he called that type of two tiered membership a perversion of the Gospel.

Dividing Christians into separate classes based on human law continues to divide the community and tear asunder the very Body of Christ itself!

The good news is that we are called to a life of gentleness, in which our identity in Christ supersedes any and all human barriers to fellowship. We are one in the Body of Christ, equal in God's sight regardless of ecclesial laws or social norms. When we let go of outdated social norms as definitions of who we are, we find that our community of faith is set free to be in ministry in new and exciting ways. Set free from the bonds of a gospel of law, we find ourselves able to embody the kin-dom of God in new, radical ways that further the cause of love and justice, not just in our own communities but in the world in which we live.


Larry B said...

It is interesting to me how we can read the same text and come away with such different understandings.

You see this text as a description of "At its root, this was a conflict about identity, a struggle to define who was in and who was out…an identity that focused on ethnicity, gender and genitalia."

I see something quite different. First off, you seem to me to be overcontextualizing the focus on genitalia. My own understanding is that the argument hearkened back to the original argument Paul had dealt with in Acts which was that someone had to become a Jew before one could become fully christian. The most outward sign that separated a jewish person from a gentile was circumcision so it became a symbol of the struggle between whether someone had to be Jewish to be Christian. It wasn't really an excessive focus on genitals was it?

At it's heart it was an argument about whether the Law was an instrument by which someone could receive God's grace. The "fundamentalists" were making the error in asserting that the Law was the instrument through which we were saved. Paul wasn't advocating obliterating the Law or it's observance. In fact if you recall he instructed Timothy to be circumcised because he was born to a Jewish mother and by definition Jewish. Clearly that supports the idea that Paul still had reverence for the Law. He simply objected to any teaching that identified the Law as an instrument for salvation.

He repeatedly emphasizes in these passages and numerous others that the Law serves the function to bring about the recognition of sin in our lives and cause us to seek grace. Without the Law there wouldn't be any recognition of sin and thus no impetus to drive us to seek the atonement and grace offered through Christ.

The trouble I have with your analysis is you seem to ignore that part of Pauls teaching, contextualize his teaching as some form of "rebuttal of socially conditioned norms" and then infer from there that good christians resist "social norms".

I would also disagree with your statement that "The debate in our church over sexuality is not really about scripture or sin, or in the end even homosexuality. ".

For me, on the contrary if the Law brings about recognition of sin, then I cannot abide by anyone that would seek to eliminate from that Law something clearly described as
sinful. Without it there is a lack of recognition for the need of grace in this area of life. One is cutting oneself off from the full blessing of God if one isn't willing to bring all of one's sinfulness before God.

I think our disagreement lies in our understanding of the freedom from bondage preached by Paul. You see it as a realeas from obeying the law, I see it as a release from the bondage caused by trying to sanctify oneself by obeying the law and a new understanding of the law bringing recognition of sin with the subsequent offer of Grace through Jesus.

Thanks for the thought provoking post.

Jules said...

Excellent and thoughtful, Tiffany.