A sermon for June 12, 2016, Proper 6, Year C.

 

 

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is 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.  -Galatians 2:20 (NRSV)

 

I have this verse from the letter to the Galatians in calligraphy framed on my wall in my study at home.  It’s a profound affirmation of the deepest mystery of Christian faith, which is that God in Christ seeks to live in and through us.

 

The backdrop to the letter to the Galatians is a conflict between Paul the Apostle and Peter the Apostle, both Jewish believers in Christ.  They have earlier agreed that the movement that follows Jesus is big enough to embrace both Jews and Gentiles, and that the Gentiles do not need to adopt distinct Jewish practices such as circumcision to be part of the movement.   They have agreed that what God is doing in Jesus is a move to gather all peoples into one.

 

But now Paul is in conflict with Peter.  He has become aware that Peter, influenced by some Jewish believers from Jerusalem, has taken a step back from this earlier position, refraining even from eating with Gentiles.  Paul, writing to Gentile followers in Galatia, argues and pleads with them not to be misled by Peter and others who might influence them to think that they must be circumcised in order to receive the benefits of a relationship with God through Christ.

 

What Paul is arguing in this letter is that a single, apocalyptic, frame-shattering, world-changing thing has happened.  The crucifixion of the Son of God has happened, and through this event the whole picture is changed forever.

 

In the cross, God has overcome all hostility.  In the cross, God breaks down barriers that divide us from one another; whether those barriers are religious, or political, or cultural, or historical.  In the cross, God in Christ reaches into a world of divisions to prove God’s love for all across all divisions.  We acknowledge these divisions in the Eucharistic Prayer we pray today:

 

From the primal elements you brought forth the human race,

and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us

the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed

your trust; and we turned against one another.

 

Paul was once someone whose identity was wrapped up in being against those who followed Jesus.  He was once so misguided in his religious zeal that he actively persecuted others whose different religious orientation – an orientation toward Jesus of Nazareth – threatened him.  He hurt people.

 

But for Paul things are different now.  Having had an encounter with the Christ whose followers he was persecuting, he now knows personally and deeply that he hurt not only people, but God’s own heart.  And now he knows the reconciling love of Christ.  Everything has changed.  Old rules that kept Jews and Gentiles separate no longer apply after the cross.  He now knows very personally the truth we affirm in our Eucharistic Prayer:

 

By his blood, he reconciled us.

By his wounds, we are healed.

 

Because of the cross, we know for sure that God is a reconciler and healer, because God in Jesus Christ was willing to be wounded by our violence and yet to forgive us.  And do we ever need reconciliation and healing!

 

The conflict between Peter and Paul was a division in the Church, and divisions continue still.  Religion is powerful in terms of identity formation, and within those identities we can become a force for division rather than a force for uniting.  It’s very easy to develop within religious identity an “us” versus “them” attitude.  Jesus knew this.  Paul knew it.  They both addressed it.

 

This is true as well in a pluralistic world in which those who identify with Judaism and Christianity and Islam and the religions of the East meet and mingle in complex circumstances where religion is a factor in human relations along with economic and social and military and political circumstances.  When this happens, there is always the possibility that religion can unite, but sadly, there is the possibility that religion becomes a source of division.

 

Since 9/11/2001 in particular our nation – in which so many identify with Christianity - has had a troubled relationship with the followers of Islam worldwide.  I don’t need to remind you of the suspicion and mistrust that has been sown after that date, and how easily the battle lines are drawn in this environment, and how we are in a moment of national crisis in our relationship to the segment of our population who are of the Islamic faith.

 

Last year in Southeast Turkey I met Syriac Orthodox Christians who have been and are being persecuted as a Christian minority within a Muslim majority.  This has been going on for a long time, and now it is going on with the Turkish government turning a blind eye.

 

And yet, as you heard from Fr. Dale Johnson, when the bishop at the Mor Gabriel Monastery heard back in 1991 of refugees fleeing over the border from Iraq in the first Gulf War, he ordered that hospitality be shown to all refugees, regardless of religion, regardless of whether they be Muslim, or Yazidi, or Christian.  And even now, “Seeds of Hope” and the “Seeds of Justice” project reach out to all refugees, regardless of religion.

 

I remember last September meeting the Christian mayor of the Christian town of Deir Aboun in Northern Iraq, a town who after his leadership has opened the doors to Muslims and Christians and Yazidis for refuge in a world in which these groups are normally segregated into separate towns.  This mayor and his town, to my way of thinking, represent a reconciling work consistent with the cross of Jesus.

 

St. Paul lived long before the rise of Islam.  The frontier between Jew and Gentile was the frontier he crossed as he realized his identity in Jesus Christ.  I wonder what he would be telling us about the frontier between Christian and Muslim?  What do you think?

 

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is 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.  -Galatians 2:20 (NRSV)

 

What would it mean for us to accept that our baptism means we have died with Christ?  What would it mean to accept that our baptism means our only life is the one Christ wants to live through us?  What would it mean for us to acknowledge that any other life really is no life at all?  What would this mean for relationships with Muslims?  With all those we sometimes perceive as “other”, not like us?

 

Could we live as Jesus did, bridging divides?  Could we be reconcilers in the midst of a culture of so much divisiveness and hostility?  Could we live the life of Jesus, who loved God with heart, soul, strength and mind, and his neighbor as himself?

 

One of our great preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, lets us know what this entails:

 

The hardest work in the world

is to love the neighbor as the self -

to encounter another human being

not as someone you can use, change,

fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control,

but simply as someone who can spring you

from the prison of your self, if you allow it.   -Barbara Brown Taylor

 

Let us pray:

 

3.  For the Human Family    from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 815.

 

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us

through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole

human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which

infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;

unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and

confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in

your good time, all nations and races may serve you in

harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ

our Lord.  Amen.