Faith, community and humanity
Sometimes, as a preacher, I look at the lectionary readings and my first thought is err, what have these readings got in common? This happened this week. The reading from the epistle at first glance looks to have little, or nothing, in common with the Gospel.
But, maybe it does.
I also think the epistle and gospel readings also have real significance post the horrific and homophobic murders in Orlando, and the appalling murder of MP Jo Cox. Jo's husband Brendan said on Thursday 'hate doesn't have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.'
The epistle is possibly one of the most quoted, most loved passages from St. Paul. It is Paul at his theologically most radical; it is Paul seeking to make sure that he hammers home the message that 'in Christ' there is no room for hatred based on any aspect of our humanity. It is Paul saying that as long as we are focused on Christ, through faith, there is room for plurality of ideas, so long as they conform to the standards demanded by grace and mercy. It is Paul saying that it is not legitimate to impose our thoughts, sub doctrines, ideology and preferences on others.
It is important to remember that Paul writes as a Jew, but for the Gentiles. Paul inhabited a world where the law, and the micro details wrapped up in the law, counted for everything. In Paul's world there was little room for diversity and inclusivity; hospitality even. Who you were and how you behaved counted for everything and, especially your salvation. If you were deemed through the law to be an outsider in this world your lot would continue into the next.
And yet, Paul stresses that faith and not the law is the universal route to salvation. Paul it should be noted is not suggesting that faith means throwing away the law, and collapsing into the worst excesses of moral relativism, but he is saying that faith and its implications come first. It is our faith that unites us with Christ and allows us, the Body of Christ, to be a blessing in and for humanity; to be a blessing to and for the world is our religious vocation. Yours and mine.
Faith, for Paul, changes everything. Without faith all we are left with is technique, a long and impossible list of does but more importantly don'ts. Without faith we are, like the demonic, trapped. The Demonic, who the religious community deemed to be the ultimate outsider, shows us that no one, no one at all, stands outside of God's radical hospitality and grace.
Faith changes our very conception of God; 'therefore now faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.' Grace and mercy now become the watchwords. Through faith we receive God's grace and His mercy. That is the good news.
It is the good news that set the demonic free, for the demonic, in stark contrast to the religious elite, with their insistence on the law and human rankings, recognised that Jesus is the 'Son of the Most High God.' Belief in Jesus sets us free; all of us, without exception.
But free to what end? Free, again like the formerly demon possessed man, to proclaim the gospel, to 'declare how much God has done,' to be a blessing to all. Free to fulfil our true vocation.
Faith, and faith alone, is our entry ticket into the communion of saints, God's holy family. You, and I, are members of God's family simply because we are believers, because we have faith. Faith it seems goes hand in glove with inclusivity and acceptance. Faith and faith alone bring us back to the hospitality of God. And such radical hospitality is open to all, irrespective of human and temporal identity markers.
'There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And, if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.'
The problem is that so often the world, and the religious world in particular, doesn't want to believe this, preferring tribal identities leading to schisms. We sometimes prefer the minutiae of the law to faith, the consequence of which is mercy, grace, inclusivity and the radical hospitality of God, first made available through us in the here and now. That is our vocation as people of faith.
Legalistic thinking can be far easier to deal with, offering fixed points of artificial certainty whereas the consequences of faith grace, mercy, inclusion, hospitality are ever fluid, ever progressive, ever challenging and, ever disquieting. Faith cannot leave us securely in one place, instead it leads us on eroding all certainties save one.
All faith gives us is the one great certainty; Jesus. And, we know that Jesus disbarred no-one from his love, mercy and grace. The story of the demonic tells us so.
The concept of 'there is no….' is open to misuse. Some suggest that because 'all of you are one in Christ Jesus,' we need no longer own or claim or temporal identity markers. For me this is a cruel and depersonalising theology, one which refuses to accept that all of our differences are held together in one larger family, the family of faith, even the family of humanity. Paul never ceased to own his own Jewish background, neither did Jesus. No one should be forced to disown their basic core identity.
As people of faith we need to ask ourselves what it means to celebrate – not merely accommodate or tolerate - diversity and, to exercise radical hospitality. St. Paul was writing to a highly polarised community in Galatia. He was keen to stress that Jews, Greeks, male, female, slave and free were all to be afforded the hospitality of God. Paul was addressing the big issues of his day, for in his world Gentiles, females and slaves were all regarded as second, even third, class citizens.
Paul's basic point is simply this: before God there is no such thing as a second, or even third, class citizen. Each and every one of us is first class: 'in Christ there is no….'
So our contemporary challenge , and I think it is a global challenge, is to identify those groups who some, mistakenly and catastrophically, deem to be outside the hospitality of God, and then to challenge ourselves: 'are we still acting as disciplinarians, asking people to live under the force of man made and depersonalising laws?'
For our role, calling and vocation, as people of faith is to be agents of grace, mercy and the radical hospitality of God, extending his love and blessing to all, for that is what it means to live as a person of faith. That is what it means to be the Church.