A sermon on Galatians 6:12-15 by Nathan Nettleton, 4 July 2004
One of the allegations made by the Southern Baptist Convention in justifying their tragic split from the Baptist World Alliance was that the Alliance was anti-American. Today is the fourth of July, the day on which Americans most celebrate being American, and you can be sure that in many of those churches across America, there will be endless rhetoric about how America is a Christian nation and how traditional American values are Christian values. And as is always the case when loyalty to a nation and loyalty to a faith begin to be seen as one and the same thing, the truth will be more that the churches have been Americanised than that America has been Christianised. Some of the language, rhetoric and symbolism of the gospel is adopted and pressed into the service of reinforcing and upholding the values and aspirations of the nation.
Neither nationalism or religion are as entrenched in the Australian psyche as they are in America, so the attempts to coopt and domesticate the gospel don’t tend to look the same. On the whole, Australia prides itself on its secularism rather than on being Christian, and there are very few votes to be gained, and probably a considerable number to be lost, in trumpeting an agenda to legislate a Christian value system for society as a whole. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that that means that we Australian Christians are any less susceptible to the pressure and the temptation to domesticate the gospel and press it into the service of the values and aspirations of the society around us. The fact that it is more subtle than the American version may just make it all the more insidious.
In his letter to the Galatian church, the Apostle Paul launches and angry and scathing attack on the version of this faced by the Christians of his day. The passage we heard read tonight is the final section of the letter, and mid way through we hear him take the pen from his secretary and, in his own hand and in big bold letters, write this concluding summary of all he has been on about through the letter:
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised —only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!
Now the real issue here is not about the current fashion in cosmetic penis surgery! It is about whether the gospel of Jesus Christ sets the agenda for our lives, or whether it becomes a virtuous little addition to what the world around us regards as successful living and solid citizenship.
It would appear that the social scenario behind Paul’s argument was something like this. We are still in the first generation of Christians, and while Paul is spreading the faith in non-Jewish cities, back in Jerusalem, Christianity is still regarded as a variant form of Judaism. Relations between the Jews and the Romans are becoming more and more strained, and as a result Jewish nationalist sentiment is being stirred up, especially by the group known as the zealots. Their nationalist agenda later prompted a revolution which resulted in massive reprisals from the Romans, including the destruction of the Temple. As is always the case when nationalist fervour is being whipped up, whether in response to foreign occupation forces on one side or the fear of terrorism on the other, society becomes increasingly intolerant of any divergence from the values, norms and lifestyles that are seen as expressing our national identity. The zealots would have been sending out the fridge magnets with a number to call to report any suspicious un-Jewish behaviour among your neighbours. In such a climate, Jewish Christians were not going to be in for an easy time if they began associating freely with gentile Christians and tolerating the idea that Christian faith superseded rather than reinforced compliance with jewish law — much of which served as identity markers for the Jewish community. So when Paul says that the people who are trying to get the Galatian Christians to be circumcised — to become law-abiding Jews — were doing it to try to avoid persecution themselves, and to put themselves in a better light, there may well have been something in his accusation. If the Jewish Christians could convince the Jewish nationalists that they were not only upholding Jewish values and identity themselves, but that through their Christian missionary work they were producing more people who upheld Jewish values and identity, then they would not be targeted as gentile collaborators and a threat to Jewish identity and security.
Now it is important to recognise that we only have access to Paul’s description of his opponents. No doubt they would have seen themselves quite differently, and more than likely we would have found them to be deeply sincere and well-meaning people were convinced that they were fighting for what was good and right in the eyes of God. And because of that, we need to recognise that had Paul been looking at the world we live in, he may well have directed his assault at sincere and well-meaning people like us. He may well have seen us as the ones who were trying to domesticate the gospel and make it look like it was the new ally of traditional middle class western family values and aspirations. And the uncomfortable truth is that we are horribly horribly susceptible to exactly this.
There are churches not far from here where you could be forgiven for not being able to tell the difference between the gospel and social agenda of the Melbourne Club. The old school tie, a working knowledge of opera, and being able to spot the difference between real pearls and fakes appear to be the criteria for acceptance among those who gather around the Lord’s Table. And before we scoff too loudly at them, let’s look at the dominant culture in our own free-church evangelical circles. Unfortunately it is all too common to find the churches with which we have been mostly associated making it sound like the contemporary Australian middle class nuclear family living in its own house fenced off from its neighbours is actually the vision of what all the world would look like if the gospel really took hold and everyone lived by it. Anything that diverges far from that is seen as somewhere on a spectrum from unfortunate to outright sinful. And that is despite the fact that such a model was unheard of and unimaginable, and almost certainly undesirable to the first generation of Christians. Such a model would have not only been deemed as to isolationist, greedy and non-communal, but I think we’d have heard Paul saying it was too narrow and exclusive, and was therefore just as much a form of cultural imperialism as were the attempts to Judaise the gentile Christians.
If you want a good slogan for a fridge magnet, we should be very suspicious and on our guard whenever we hear people, Christian or not, asserting the view that allowing some other group the right to express and live freely by their values would threaten the values and lifestyle we hold dear. Anytime you hear that, and especially if you hear it said in the name of “Christian” values or “family” values, come back and read Galatians again, and substitute the named issue for the circumcision issue and see if it doesn’t make just as much sense and for exactly the same reasons. Whether the pitch is that we should not let asylum seekers have freedoms to establish themselves in this country because we will be swamped by people who don’t share our values and lifestyle; or whether it is, as it is being argued in France at present, that we shouldn’t allow Moslems to freely identify themselves by their religious symbols because it will fragment our cultural homogeneity; or whether it is that we should legislate against any acceptance of gay marriage in society and allow only a celibate lifestyle to gays who belong to the body of Christ; or whether it is some other issue that is based on a defined and exclusive vision of “our” values and lifestyle; we should be very much on our guard, lest we incur the wrath of the Apostle and the wrath of our Lord. For as soon as we begin asserting the cultural or moral superiority of “our” values and lifestyle, and seeking to convert others to it, we doing exactly what these judaisers were doing. With Paul may we never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to us, and us to the world.
And if you think I’ve been plugging the cause of homosexual Christians a bit much lately, let me point out that the lectionary has been giving us a series on Galatians, and the more I look at it, the more it looks to be the closest parallel issue facing us now. Even down to the picture of people boasting “in the flesh” of the converts: how often do you hear the examples of those few who have apparently be cured of their homosexuality proudly paraded as examples of the “success” of “our” gospel in bringing people into life with our “Christian family oriented” values and lifestyle. And yet I’ve never yet met one of these boasters who would be happy to have his daughter marry one of these “success stories”. That’s how much they believe it!
Such approaches are almost always an effort to press the gospel into the service of a domestic agenda. But the cross of our Lord, the only ground of our boasting, is the demolition of such domestic agendas. It is the fundamental separation of those who are in Christ from the concerns with the values and lifestyle of the world around us. Paul’s idea of boasting in the cross is deliberately bizarre, although it is hard for us to hear that now, because we are so used to the cross as a tame enough symbol to turn into a pair of earrings. Boasting in the cross of Christ is like suggesting that you would boast that your leader was put through a meat mincer in the public square. The cross is an object of disgust, a repulsive and shameful image. But the cross of Christ is also the image of the world’s final rejection of Christ. Execution is always such. It says that there is no place for this person in the world, for they are a threat to our security, our freedom, our lifestyle. But, as Paul says, the crucifixion of Jesus is also the crucifixion of all those who are in Christ – at the cross we are executed and removed from the world, and the world’s cherished values and lifestyles are executed and removed so far as we are concerned.
And instead, we live as those whose sole allegiance is to the new creation which rose from the dead with Christ. A new creation which is governed by values of reconciliation which are considered outrageous and offensive to the world. For in this new creation, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision mean anything. Neither male nor female are any cause for pride or shame. Neither slave nor free are any cause for pride or shame. Neither black nor white are any cause for pride or shame. Neither gay nor straight are any cause for pride or shame. Neither single nor married with 1.8 kids and a two story house in the suburbs make any difference to your acceptance in the new creation, the realm of God. For in the new creation all will be seated together at Christ’s table, all will be reconciled in Christ. Bosses will be seated next to labourers. Black next to white. Feminists next to unreconstructed Ralph readers. Gays next to family values advocates. Sudanese Moslems next to fundamentalist white supremacists. And those who are there offended and unable to accept the radical reconciliation of all in Christ will unfortunately exclude themselves from it. But all who accept the overwhelming and outrageously extravagant mercy and acceptance of God will sit down as one and feast on the grace of God forever. Such is the offence and the scandal of the cross, so let us not get ourselves sucked in to boasting in anything else, lest the gospel be turned into the lap dog of our social niceties and we forfeit the grace and love Jesus suffered so much to make known to us.