Sunday, July 08, 2007

Many Parents, One Father

Galatians 6: 1-10

Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC’s

I have been a member of only two United Methodist Churches.

When Donna and I moved to Dallas (TX!), we found what to me is still a model United Methodist Church. Its name is Northaven. While we were there, the church made some significant decisions regarding its witness to the wider world and to the rest of the denomination, and, as a congregation, they came to these decisions while keeping many of the people who disagreed with the decision. It was a great example of how a congregation lives with each other in the midst of differences—significant differences.

They acted as a family in Christ should act. Deliberate attention was paid to all voices, Time was taken for discernment, no one made any hasty moves, and there was plenty of opportunity for open conversation, but not so much that the plan was stymied. Sure, there were passionate opinions, sure there were difficult moments of anger, misrepresentation and fear, but as each incident happened, all involved found ways to forgive each other and not to break relationship.

It’s this idea of relationship that Paul is encouraging the church in Galatia to learn. It seems that there is a group of teachers who have come to Galatia and taught that the truest way to follow Christ is to adopt some of the practices of the Jewish faith. They specifically refer to circumcision. Paul’s’ argument is that one need no longer follow the law, that this person named Jesus has released everyone from such observances.

These Galatians, these descendants of Celtic mercenaries now living in Central Turkey, are not of Jewish descent. Yet they have come to believe in Christ crucified and risen, and are naturally asking questions about how to practice their faith. Paul’s point to them is this: it isn’t in the outside appearances, in the ritual or in the membership of the institution. It is in our adoption as a child of God, and as a brother to Christ.

So it doesn’t matter what their parents believed, or who they were, or what they looked like. What matters is that they have accepted our adoption by God, and are now brothers and sisters to each other, and to Jesus. Though they have many parents, they now have just one Father in God.

Paul gives guidelines for the Galatians, ones to live by, all based in not the law, but on love. Richard Hays, who teaches Bible at Duke and wrote a commentary on Galatians, has extracted seven “broad strokes” from Galatians, seven ways in which Paul is trying to help the Galatians to apply the Love of God to life in their congregation.

1. The Church is a family of extended responsibility; this means that we bear one another’s burdens, care for one another, and count ourselves responsible for the common identity we all share. When I read this, I have a question—which identity do I share with you here? Yes, we are Christian. Yes, we are United Methodist. We speak of John Wesley, sing from a hymnal that is special to our tradition, and use the cross and flame symbol. But what is the identity of the particular church we share, in either Center Moreland or Dymond Hollow? What makes us unique? What makes us different from other churches in our area? This is what I am excited to learn!

2. Following in Christ’s’ footsteps, or “The Imitation of Christ; Hays has a great line in his commentary, here. “Only when the Law is read through the lens provided by the cross does it become the law of Christ.” A strong church has members that choose one another before themselves. Jesus was at his most Christlike on the cross, choosing us over life. It is when we do that for each other in all the ways, small and large, we can, that we put on the image of Christ.

3. Renouncing rivalry and conflict; Paul sees that when we base our identity and measure of success on “fleshly” practices, conflict results. If our success is instead based in our approaching the image of Christ, conflict disappears. What does he mean by fleshly practices? For the Galatians, it was the argument over circumcision. For us it could be a thousand things, anything from the color of the church carpet to excessive pride in your Bible cover! In all things, we are to choose self-sacrifice over self-inflation, and that refuses conflict.

4. Personal accountability; With what I have just said above, it then stands to reason that examining ourselves and opening ourselves to others’ observations is valuable. As much as Paul is aware of how people might want to control how they appear, Hays thinks (and I agree) that it is probably worse now. Ask some folks, both outside of the church and inside, and you’ll probably find that for some, it is all about the image. We make judgments based on first impressions, and they are never completely accurate, and they are often way off base.

5. The church is under the judgment of God; All of this talk of self image leads to one realization—ultimately, we do not judge each other. God judges us. I don’t say this to put a spooky, scary feeling about “God watching you” into your hearts to make you behave. It isn’t our job to judge someone by their actions or their appearance. It is our job to show God’s love to everyone we meet. Yes some people may make us uncomfortable. Yes, some people’s choices are self destructive. But people at base are still Children of god, and carry a spark of God within them. Our response is to love, not to judge. Judging is God’s job.

6. The importance of teaching; All that we have said is not automatically installed into us when we accept Jesus into our hearts, like software into a computer. It takes growth, maturity, and the leadership of other Christians who are wiser than we are. It takes teachers. From Nursery Church to Confirmation to Sunday School to Bible study, teaching is an important part of a church’s life.

7. Trusting in the Spirit; As Christians, we make choices about our community. Sometimes we have to make choices that we know are right in God’s eyes, but aren’t safe according to “responsible thinking” in the world. Christians sometimes make crazy decisions when measured by the world’s standards. Granted, sometimes they are crazy, but there are also times when we must “step out in faith”. We must cast the seeds of trust in the spirit, so that that we may reap the benefits of trusting in God. (Hays’s imagery, not mine, unfortunately!)

Now I am not yet aware of much regarding the lives of these two new churches in my life. I haven’t even talked with many of you yet, anything more than “Good morning”, “peace be with you”, “glad to be here”. I don’t know the recent or personal histories. But I will. And I expect that I will find a combination of seeds sown in the spirit, and seeds sown in our own self interest. As you get to know me, you won’t find anything different about me. It is true for all of us. But Paul has given us some broad strokes to work with, and we must keep ourselves reminded of this one true thing—we are family, we have one father, God, and one brother, Jesus, in common. We may have different parents, but we have one Father, and we were adopted in love.

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