A sermon on Galatians 2:15-21 & Luke 7:36 – 8:3 by Nathan Nettleton
Tonight, being our church anniversary and therefore already having extra bits coming up in the service, is an occasion for a shorter sermon (this written version is a little longer than what was preached), which after last week’s extra long one is probably welcome news to you all. A church anniversary is a good time to reflect on our identity as a community of followers of Jesus, and our Bible readings tonight raised some important questions about Christian identity that I want us to briefly reflect on and see what they might be telling us about our identity here.
Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and indeed most of that letter, had a lot to do with identity. The apostle is locked in a dispute with some hard-line Christians who were questioning the Christian identity of the Galatian church and indeed of the other churches that Paul had planted outside of the Jewish territories. These people were arguing that Christian identity was fundamentally Jewish, and that therefore being a follower of Jesus meant becoming identifiably Jewish. Obviously you can’t become ethnically Jewish, but you can become culturally and religiously Jewish, and this kind of Jewishness is primarily identifiable by conformity to some key Jewish distinctives; most notably, circumcision, sabbath-keeping, and eating only kosher foods. These distinctives are are not necessarily the heart of the Jewish law, but they are the bits of it that make Jewish people most obviously different from non-Jewish people, so they tended to be the focus of debates over what the law would require of a convert. So these hardline Jewish Christians are saying that Christian identity is grounded in compliance with the whole of the Jewish law, including these identity marker issues that Paul was not requiring of his non-Jewish congregations.
Now, in the first century church, that debate was the big hot potato. It was probably even bigger than our generation’s debate over the acceptance of homosexuals and same-sex marriage in the churches. But hardly anyone in the church still argues that we need to comply with the Jewish identity marker laws. There are a few small groups like the Seventh Day Adventists and the even smaller Seventh Day Baptists who still insist that worship should be on the Jewish Sabbath day, but for most that debate was done and dusted in the first century. However, these kind of debates are not really about the specifics, but about some other needs that underlie them, and so they have a way of keeping on coming back in new forms. You see, the real issue is a fundamental issue of identity. Who are we? And how do we identify who is us and who is not us? The periodic eruption of debate in this country over what things can be defined as “un-Australian” is a classic example of this. Who is us, and who is them? And religions are almost universally vulnerable to becoming fixated on defining and nailing down the necessary beliefs and behaviours that act as the boundary markers to clearly show who is us and who is not us.
Now you can see how this focus on boundary markers and identity is playing itself out in our gospel reading. Jesus is attending a dinner party in the home of a member of the devoutly religious Pharisee party. The Pharisees were a lay religious movement with a strong emphasis on personal purity and holiness, and their understanding of holiness had a lot to do with keeping themselves well and truly separate from those who fell short of their standards of purity and holiness. Just as the Jews maintained their distinct identity by keeping themselves noticeably apart from non-Jews, so the Pharisees believed that God’s people needed to maintain their distinct identity by keeping themselves apart from those who were not holy and carefully complying with God’s laws. So you can imagine the horror of Simon the Pharisee when a notorious local prostitute walks in on his dinner party, weeping, and starts giving the guest a foot massage. You can see the emphasis on holiness as keeping separate, because Simon doesn’t just judge the woman for this behaviour. He judges Jesus. “If this man were really a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner”— and he wouldn’t have let her anywhere near him.
Now, while the debate about whether Christians need to be Jewish may be long over, what’s going on in this story is just as prevalent today than it was then. It is still very common for Christians to define and protect their identity by shunning those whose beliefs, behaviours and lifestyles we regard as un-Christian. So whether it is Muslims or Hindus or atheists or gamblers or marijuana users or homosexuals or sex-workers or asylum seekers or fundamentalists or liberals or whatever, it is extremely common for Christians to have categories of people that they think they should avoid having anything to do with lest they somehow become less Christian themselves by their exposure to these ‘others’. And yet I would defy you to find even a single example of Jesus treating anyone as an untouchable. Certainly in this particular story, not only does Jesus accept the tearful foot massage, seemingly without any embarrassment, but he declares her to be one who has been forgiven, and then holds her up as a shining example of gracious hospitality from whom oh-so-religious Simon would do well to learn. So if we can’t find any examples of Jesus trying to keep himself pure by keeping certain sorts of people at arm’s length, then how can we possibly imagine that such holy separatism would be part of our identity as his followers? Surely our identity must be found in following his example, in treating other people the way he treated them.
It seems to me that we tend to fall into these holes whenever we begin to define our own behaviour in terms of what we are to avoid. It is only a short step from putting a whole list of thou-shalt-nots on ourselves to drawing back in horror and outrage from those who both shall and do. I’m realising this even with thou-shalt-nots that I totally agree with. They may still be an unhelpful and un-Jesus-like way of thinking about things. At home group last week we were doing a study on the New Testament teachings on non-violence, and I realised that one of the reasons that some Christians can still argue in support of Christian involvement in war is that Jesus doesn’t actually make much in the way of thou-shalt-not-use-violence type statements, and so for those who read the Bible in a way that seeks to identify all its thou-shalt-nots so they can be perfect in their compliance, fighting in a war doesn’t seem to be ruled out. But if instead of asking “what does Jesus say we cannot do to our enemies?”, you ask “what does Jesus say we should do to our enemies?”, you will get a very different answer. What would Jesus say if you were to say to him, “Well, in all your teaching you never said thou shalt not go to war, so it must be okay for us to fight if our enemies attack our country, right?”? I think Jesus would probably look a little perplexed and reply, “What part of ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you’ didn’t you understand?” Do you see what I’m saying? There is quite a difference between defining yourself as anti-violence and defining yourself as committed to loving both neighbour and enemy, no matter how they treat you. And Jesus’s way of defining himself seems clear. We don’t see him going to the cross with gritted teeth saying “I must not use violence. I must not use violence.” We see him going to the cross saying “Father, forgive these people who I love, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Whether you take to Jesus’s feet with massage oil or with hammer and nails, he loves you just the same and reaches out to you with gracious welcome and hospitality and forgiveness and healing. What on earth makes us think he’d respond any differently if you were gay or Hindu or even a soldier?
So as we seek to define ourselves as a community of people who are following Jesus in this place as we enter our 160th year, let’s seek to follow his example and define ourselves by how widely and buoyantly we can love, rather than how narrowly we can behave; by how graciously we can forgive and accept, rather than how scrupulously we can judge and control; by how recklessly hospitable we can be, rather than how carefully we choose our company; by how gratefully and generously we can celebrate and receive the gifts and growth of others, rather than how defensive we can be of our own. In short, let us be defined not by what or who we avoid, but what we do: following Jesus and thus being known for loving friend, neighbour and enemy alike, warmly, extravagantly, tangibly, and resiliently, throughout our 160th year, and forever and to the ages of ages.