Father | Proper 12

Luke 11:1-13

1 Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

2 Jesus told them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, uphold the holiness of your name. Bring in your kingdom.

3 Give us the bread we need for today. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who has wronged us. And don’t lead us into temptation.'”

5 He also said to them, “Imagine that one of you has a friend and you go to that friend in the middle of the night. Imagine saying, ‘Friend, loan me three loaves of bread 6 because a friend of mine on a journey has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 Imagine further that he answers from within the house, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to give you anything.’ 8 I assure you, even if he wouldn’t get up and help because of his friendship, he will get up and give his friend whatever he needs because of his friend’s brashness. 9 And I tell you: Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.

11 “Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish? 12 If a child asked for an egg, what father would give the child a scorpion? 13 If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (CEB)

Father

Prayer is something that we learn. We all have a prayer history. My earliest memories of prayer are of my mother helping me recite the nighttime prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take. God bless Mommy, Daddy, Eric, Stephanie, my grandparents, all my aunts and all my uncles, all my cousins and all my friends. Amen.”

We also had our mealtime prayers. If we were at home or with our Methodist Romain family, we’d pray: “I fold my hands, I bow my head, to thank you God, for this good food. Amen.” Or, if we were with our Catholic Millay family, we’d pray: “Bless us, O Lord, for these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, amen. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.”

Those lessons stuck with me. I prayed every night, and I prayed before every meal; even at school. In college, I was part of a prayer group that met on Fridays at 5:00 p.m. Later, I discovered other ways of praying. Lexio Divina, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Breath Prayer, to name a few. Did you know there are short orders for daily prayer and praise on pages 876 and 878 in our United Methodist Hymnals? Methodists have a tradition of prayer, too, which is linked to the ancient traditions of the church.

We all have our prayer histories, but the Lord’s Prayer goes back to the very foundation of Christian prayer. The text from Luke begins by telling us that Jesus was praying. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is always praying. He constantly withdrew to deserted places or to mountains to pray. He spent nights in prayer. He prayed before choosing the apostles. He prayed before going to Jerusalem. He prayed before his Transfiguration. He prayed before he fed the 5,000. He prayed the night before he was killed. He prayed while hanging on the cross in tortured agony. He prayed with his disciples after his resurrection.

So, when his disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray as John had taught his disciples, it’s easy to see how their request to learn wasn’t some theoretical, disconnected inquiry, but it came from actually watching Jesus pray all the time.

When I was a student at The University of Findlay, I remember attending an event put on by Campus Ministry. One of the speakers told us about the first time she visited Calcutta, India, to volunteer with Mother Teresa. She noticed how, throughout the day, the nuns kept stopping their work to pray. So, she asked Mother Teresa why they did that. In her practical mind, she imagined the nuns could get a lot more work done if they didn’t stop to pray all the time. And Mother Teresa responded by saying, “How could we get anything done if we did not stop to pray? How could we care for the sick, diseased, and dying without prayer?”

So, the pattern Jesus gives us is prayer all the time. The disciples saw Jesus pray that way, and they wanted to learn how to pray like Jesus. First, the prayer in Luke’s Gospel is shorter than Matthew’s version. In either gospel, the prayer is short, which fits with Jesus admonition that we not “pour out a flood of empty words” (Matthew 6:7 CEB). Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is only five sentences long.

Our address to God is Father. But, fathers in any age and culture parent quite differently. Some of us are or were fortunate to have wonderful fathers who are or were nurturing and loving. Others among us are not (or were not) so fortunate and had fathers who really could have been better. For these persons, the address to God as Father does not provide happy or pleasant thoughts. So, the address to God as Father can’t be detached from the rest of the text. It’s the rest of the text which describes God as nurturing by giving us the Holy Spirit.

The first two sentences of the prayer are confessional. God, our Father and Mother, has indeed shown God’s name to be holy, and God upholds the holiness of God’s name. In Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the kingdom of God has been brought near. At the same time, we yearn for the full realization of God’s kingdom: that all people would honor God, and that God’s reign would be completely realized. We hope for God’s dominion because it’s the only way justice can truly prevail for everyone.

The next three sentences of the prayer address three essential needs that we all have. The word that we usually translate as daily is somewhat problematic because it doesn’t appear in any Greek literature before the Gospels. So, it’s difficult to know exactly what it means. It could mean daily, tomorrow’s, or necessary.

Maybe it’s intentionally ambiguous because it’s suggesting all three. On one hand, we are praying for God’s dominion to come in its fullness, so the word could suggest that we hope for tomorrow’s bread: the bread of God’s dominion, and our hope to participate in the messianic wedding banquet. Yet, on the other hand, it’s also an acknowledgement that God provides our daily sustenance. God gives us what we need—our necessities—to live each day.

The next need which Jesus mentions is forgiveness. We ask God to forgive us of our sins. But, God’s forgiveness of our sins serves as a reminder that we also need to forgive those indebted to us. Not only those who sin or trespass against us, but those who are indebted to us. Our request for God’s forgiveness is in a Greek tense (aorist imperative) that expects that forgiveness from God to be definitive. But the tense for our forgiveness of others (present) suggests that our forgiving is a never-ending process. Forgiving others is something we must do all the time. Sometimes, we have to remind ourselves that we’re trying to forgive others for what they’ve done. Forgiveness isn’t easy for us, and the prayer subtly acknowledges that.

The final petition is about preservation. The “don’t lead us into temptation” (CEB) is misleading because God doesn’t lead us by the hand to temptation’s door. The NRSV provides a better translation by rendering it: “do not bring us to the time of trial.” In any case, it’s not about temptation as we normally think of it, which is an enticement to do evil. What we’re really asking for is protection and preservation from circumstances that test or imperil our faith.

We’ve all experienced situations where our faith has been deeply tested. For some of us, it was the death of a family member. For others, it was an unwanted transition. For others, it was the loss of a job and the security that disappeared with it. For some Christians around the world and throughout history, it’s been persecution, violence, or warfare among nations. Those moments, those times of trial, are troubling and full of stress. They can test our faith in God and make us wonder if God really cares about anything or anyone.

That’s probably why Jesus continues his lesson on prayer with the story of the friend at midnight. Jesus means to describe an unlikely scenario by asking, essentially, Could you imagine something like this happening? And the question—as asked in Greek—expects a negative answer. No one of Jesus day would have expected a friend to say, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to give you anything” (Luke 11:7 CEB). An answer like that would violate the conventions of hospitality and bring shame on the one who said it.

So, what Jesus presents is an absurd scenario in which even the important social and religious obligations of friendship and hospitality can’t compel a friend to get out of bed and respond to the need. But, even if a friend won’t do that, the friend will respond to the persistent pounding on the door. God, unlike the friend, is an eager giver. But, we still need to ask ourselves what God gives.

Jesus tells us that we should ask, and it will be given; search, and we will find; knock and the door will be opened. Yet, I think what God gives us is what we actually need, not necessarily what we want or desire. God gives us what is necessary and beneficial, like sustenance, forgiveness, and preservation. More than that, the direction we receive from Jesus in this prayer tells us that the establishment of God’s reign should be the primary focus of our prayers. Like a good and attentive parent, God gives us what we need. Most of us aren’t cruel enough to give our children snakes or scorpions when they’re hungry. (I mean, maybe you’re into those things as pets, but as a meal, I have my doubts).

One of my seminary professors, Geoffrey Wainwright, liked to use the terms Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: what we pray is what we believe. What we pray—especially the prayers of the church, like the Lord’s Prayer—both reveals and influences what we believe about the one to whom we pray. But we can also swap those phrases around. What we believe can improperly influence what we pray. If we think of God as a divine vending machine who dispenses whatever we ask for, then we’re going to be disappointed. That’s not what God is, and that’s not what the promise that God will answer our prayers is about.

Christians should not pray for whatever we want and expect to get it. Christians should pray for God to bring in the fullness of God’s reign and realm. That’s what it’s all about. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he stated what he wanted, but he also prayed for God’s will, not his own.

God is committed to accomplishing the establishment of God’s dominion. Those who pray as Jesus taught should expect that God intends to use us as a means toward that goal. Remember what Jesus said: “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13 CEB). It’s the Holy Spirit who helps us become instruments of and participants in God’s reign. In that sense, the Holy Spirit is the ultimate answer to our prayers.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Advertisements

My Neighbor | Proper 10

Luke 10:25-37

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (CEB)

My Neighbor

When a parable becomes a cliché it’s easy to gloss over the meaning because we think we already know it. We tend to take it out of its historical context and turn it into a morality lesson. Most of us know stories of how a “Good Samaritan” came to our or another person’s aid. If Jesus only meant that we should help people when they’re in trouble, I doubt he would have wasted words by telling a parable, especially in the way he told it. It’s supposed to shock us, not make us feel good about ourselves. But, familiarity breeds contempt, so we tend to reduce this parable so that it points to us as the hero of the story every time we do a random nice thing.

At the heart of this parable is the relationship between the law and the gospel. For some of us, and for the majority of Jesus’ contemporaries, the law is the gospel. When we think this way—that the law is the gospel—we view our personal obedience to the law as our behavioral proof of faith in God. We can tick the check boxes on the law’s list of demands: I did this one, I did this one, thank goodness I didn’t do this one, check, check, check. With our list of boxes checked, we can declare ourselves righteous.

But, when we understand the law as gospel, we end up making our personal understanding of the law equal to God’s Divine revelation humanity in order to justify ourselves. The law effectively becomes the means by which we arrive at God’s ends.

For Jesus, the gospel is law, which is different from the law as gospel. We’ll get into this more in a bit, but first, let’s look at the scene Luke gives us. We’re told that a scribe or legal expert stood up to test Jesus. Now, when we read this, we usually read antagonism into the scribe’s action. But this was people often did when they got together. They would pose questions to each other to see how the person being questioned would answer. And it wasn’t necessarily antagonistic. Sometimes, it was entertaining.

Another point to note is that, as this scene unfolds, Jesus is already on his way to Jerusalem. His journey there begins this way: “As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem. He sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?’ But Jesus turned and spoke sternly to them, and they went on to another village” (Luke 9:51-56 CEB). A scribe asks Jesus what he must do to have life while Jesus is on his way to death.

That little piece of Luke 9 also highlights the strained relations between Jews and Samaritans. The disciples wanted to call fire down from heaven to consume a Samaritan village that didn’t welcome Jesus. Clearly, the disciples still didn’t get this whole gospel thing Jesus was teaching. So, keep that in mind as we get to the parable itself.

Instead of answering when the legal expert asks his question, Jesus asks him how he would interpret what the law says. So, the legal expert responded with two texts of the Hebrew Scriptures that were widely seen in ancient Judaism as the hooks on which the whole law hung. One part, Deuteronomy 6:5, focused on devotion to God with one’s whole being. The other part, Leviticus 19:18, focused on the love of one’s neighbor. The two go hand in hand. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus continually connects devotion to God with actions representative of God’s love and mercy for humankind.

It’s a good answer. It’s the right answer. It’s what the law requires: love God and love your neighbors. And Jesus says as much.

But the legal expert couldn’t leave well enough alone. He needed to justify the way he had heretofore applied his personal understanding of the law in his life. He wanted to prove that the way he lived out his interpretation of the law’s demands was, indeed, righteousness. So, he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29b CEB).

Jesus sets the parable up by saying, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death” (Luke 10:30 CEB). The first two people to encounter the man on the roadside passed him by. Now, through the years, I’ve heard people try to give reasons for why the priest and the Levite—the clergy of Judaism—crossed over to the other side. The prevailing theory is that the priest and Levite would have been concerned with maintaining their ritual purity and encountering a dead body would have defiled them.

But, the hole in that theory is that the priest and Levite were both going “down” the same road. Anyone going “down” that road would have been traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. If you were going the other way, you’d be going “up” the road. The elevation of Jerusalem’s old city is 2500 feet above sea level. The elevation of Jericho is about 846 feet below sea level. So, you were either going up to Jerusalem or down to Jericho. Or, as Jesus put it, “down from Jerusalem.” If the priest and the Levite were on their way to Jericho, then there wouldn’t be much concern for maintaining ritual purity because they weren’t heading up to the temple.

The priest and the Levite are not allegorical representations of the failure of the law or what was wrong with Judaism. They only represent two people who didn’t demonstrate mercy. We don’t know why they didn’t. Their inner moral reasoning isn’t provided, and neither is the Samaritan’s, for that matter. All we know is that two people who presumably share the religious and cultural identity of the man who was beaten and left for dead did not express concern. Whatever their reasons for passing by, nothing can excuse their refusal to show mercy. In fact, the presence of these two characters in the story acting as they did—refusing to show mercy—would have shocked those who listened to Jesus words.

Yet, it’s not an indictment against Israel, Judaism, the clergy, or any such nonsense. Two people who were expected to show mercy didn’t. Their crossing to the other side of the road would have been heard by Jesus’ listeners as shocking. I know we like to see ourselves as the Samaritan in the story, but if we’re honest in our own self-reflection, we probably have more in common with the priest and the Levite than we’d like to admit. Other people’s problems are always inconvenient.

As for the Samaritan, I’m sure the man who got beaten up was just as much of an inconvenience for him as for the priest and the Levite. Certainly, the Samaritan’s introduction into the story—and especially his acts of mercy—jolted the audience. His disciples were probably scratching their heads. After all, he just passed through a Samaritan village full of people who refused to welcome him, who refused to extend the least bit of hospitality, let alone mercy.

The Samaritan is not like the presumably Jewish man who fell victim to the robbers. Yet, it’s the Samaritan who approached the man. It’s the Samaritan who bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. It’s the Samaritan who put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn. It’s the Samaritan who arranged for the wounded man’s continued care after he left. It’s the Samaritan who promised to return and pay for the cost of the man’s care if anything else were owed. It’s the Samaritan who treats the man not as an enemy but as one dear to him, which is shown by the spectrum of care he provides to the injured man. The Samaritan’s demonstration of mercy shows us how far love ought to go. Authentic love doesn’t discriminate. Authentic love creates neighborly relationships because, by love’s very nature, it meets the needs of others.

In this parable, though, the Samaritan doesn’t necessarily represent us. We don’t get to read ourselves into the story as the triumphal hero who did what was right. Rather, we should read ourselves into the story as the one who was beaten up and left for dead. The Samaritan, in fact, represents the person or group of people whom we would not want to help us. Maybe, we would rather die than have this person help us.

Who might that be for you? Think about it. Might it be a Muslim? A refugee from Central America? A drug addict? A homeless person who hasn’t bathed in three weeks? Who would that be for you? Amy-Jill Levine, who wrote the book, The Misunderstood Jew said that, as a Jewish woman, for her the Samaritan is a member of Hamas who showed mercy. In a lecture to a group of people who had witnessed September 11 first-hand, she suggested the the Samaritan was a member of Al Qaeda who showed mercy.

The point of Jesus’ parable is to remind us in our self-righteous certainty of our sincerely-held definitions of good people and bad people that mercy can come from unexpected places; that neighbors can be found in unexpected places. The legal expert wanted to narrow the scope of who he might have to count as his neighbor, but Jesus blew the definition so wide open that we don’t get to exclude anyone.

There’s probably a bit of the legal expert in all of us. Some of us find the law-as-gospel mindset comforting. When the law is gospel, we know where we’re going. We seek refuge in rules. We glorify boundaries. We enumerate norms, and we codify discipleship. We ask about definitions and try to set limits. We want to know, precisely, who I must love as myself.

When the law is gospel, I am the actor, and my actions need to be justified by my personal understanding of the law and obedience to the law as humanly defined. To ask questions that seek answers that limit or define is to view the law as gospel. It’s an attempt at maintaining control over the wildly uncontrollable love and mercy of God. It’s to continue the presumption that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is primarily knowing the difference between good and evil instead of knowing only God and God’s mercy and showing God’s mercy to our neighbors.

You see, it’s not necessarily the law that fails to meet the standards of the gospel but, rather, it’s our human failure at interpreting it. If the legal expert had read a little farther, he would have found the place that says, “When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34 CEB).

Neighbors are people we don’t know. Neighbors are even the people we hate. Neighbors are people we fear. Who is my neighbor?

When the legal expert realized that he was the one being tested, not Jesus, he managed to say that the one who showed mercy was a neighbor to the man left for dead. It, too, is a good answer. It’s the right answer. Because, it’s not a person’s similarities to us that make them our neighbor. Those who show mercy are neighbors. And those who show mercy are the ones who fulfil both the law and the gospel. Jesus tells us to go and demonstrate mercy to the world. Are we willing to let love move so deeply in us that we dare to demonstrate mercy to people we hate and, therefore, become neighbors to those we’d rather die than love—or allow to love us?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Reap and Sow | Proper 9

Galatians 6:1-16

1 Brothers and sisters, if a person is caught doing something wrong, you who are spiritual should restore someone like this with a spirit of gentleness. Watch out for yourselves so you won’t be tempted too. 2 Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are important when they aren’t, they’re fooling themselves. 4 Each person should test their own work and be happy with doing a good job and not compare themselves with others. 5 Each person will have to carry their own load.

6 Those who are taught the word should share all good things with their teacher. 7 Make no mistake, God is not mocked. A person will harvest what they plant. 8 Those who plant only for their own benefit will harvest devastation from their selfishness, but those who plant for the benefit of the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit. 9 Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up. 10 So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith.

11 Look at the large letters I’m making with my own handwriting! 12 Whoever wants to look good by human standards will try to get you to be circumcised, but only so they won’t be harassed for the cross of Christ. 13 Those who are circumcised don’t observe the Law themselves, but they want you to be circumcised, so they can boast about your physical body.

14 But as for me, God forbid that I should boast about anything except for the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through him, and I have been crucified to the world. 15 Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation. 16 May peace and mercy be on whoever follows this rule and on God’s Israel. (CEB)

Sow and Reap

Paul’s letter to the Galatians has been called the Magna Carta of Christian Freedom. It was written to an entire region of the Roman empire, Galatia, which is the central part of modern Turkey. We don’t know much about the region or even of individual churches in Galatia, but it was populated by Celtic peoples known as Gauls. Paul passed through parts of Galatia on his second and third missionary journeys. On the third journey, he “traveled from place to place in the region of Galatia and the district of Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples” (Acts 18:23 CEB).

When it comes to books, my Aunt Jan is one of those people whose habit is to always read the last pages of the book first. I don’t know why, but I guess she wants to know the end so she can decide whether she wants to spend the time it’ll take to get there from the beginning.

Paul’s whole letter includes all the categoric sections of typical Greco-Roman literary style. So, what we have in chapter six includes some exhortation about expected behavior (1-10) and a summary of the letter’s main points (11-16). So, if you’re one of those people who, like my Aunt Jan, always read the last pages first, you’re in luck. We haven’t read the entire letter to the Galatians in our worship service today, but the last page tells us all the main points of the letter.

We know that this stuff was so important to Paul that he didn’t dictate the letter through a scribe, but he wrote it by his own hand, in his own style. He even calls attention to his large letters so the Galatians know it’s really Paul writing a personal letter to them.

So, here are Paul’s main points. We know that Paul has opponents. Jewish Christians—possibly from Jerusalem—have followed in Paul’s footsteps and called the Gentile believers in Galatia to turn to a gospel that was different from the gospel Paul preached to them (c.f. 1:6). These Judaizers impressed upon the Gentile believers that they had to be circumcised—they had to become Jews—before they could really be saved because the promises of God were only for the Jews. The Gentiles had to become like them.

They not only tried to change the gospel of Christ into something within the confines of rigid Jewish law, but they attacked Paul’s character and undermined Paul’s apostolic authority. According to them, Paul was a charlatan who presented his version of the gospel message as a commercial enterprise for his own economic gain. They argued that Paul wasn’t preaching a message that was in accordance with the Spirit of Christ.

The Judaizers were certainly sincere. They certainly were concerned for the Gentile believers in Jesus and wanted to “save” them from what they thought was an abomination. Paul’s gospel message of freedom from the law—extrication from the framework of religious rules—was, to them, horrendous and dangerous. The Judaizers probably questioned: How can people be saved when they don’t follow the right rules? How could the freedom Paul preaches, which allows believers to ignore the very laws God provided, originate from God?

Yes, the Judaizers were certainly sincere. But one’s sincerity does not make one correct. The Judaizers are proof that sincere belief can be misguided belief. Sincerity and correctness are not the same thing. So, early in the letter, Paul defends his ministry by telling his story: how he had advanced in Judaism beyond even these Judaizers because of how militant he was for Jewish religious traditions. But God set Paul free by revealing Jesus to him and calling Paul to preach to the Gentiles. Paul’s apostolic authority came directly from Jesus.

Some of this should sound familiar to us because there are those in the church who still engage in legalism and rigidity instead of freedom. We face the Galatian dilemma every day. We want to define who can sit at the table of grace. We want to test others to make sure they believe just like us, act just like us, think just like us. It’s so tempting to turn our personal experience of truth into the singular experience of God’s truth. A.J. Conyers wrote, “All religion, and every practice of religion, and in fact all of human life is in danger of being marshaled into the service of the human ego” (in Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol.3, pg. 211).

What Paul was trying to impress upon the Galatians—and upon us—is that the gospel of Jesus Christ produces a church that incorporates unity with remarkable diversity, and his ministry—the gospel he preached to the Galatians and every other people he encountered—stands in opposition to anyone who would categorize other believers and judge that they are either in or out because of some distinguishing characteristic.

Paul made it clear in chapter five that “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter” (Galatians 5:6 CEB). That statement would have been a challenge to the very Jewish religious tradition in which Paul was steeped before he encountered Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road. It was certainly a challenge for some Jewish Christians to accept that faith works through love, not through the law or cutting of flesh.

It was a radical idea then, and it’s still a radical idea today, especially for those Christians who would insist that other “potential” believers must accept the same parts of the law to which they subscribe, and Christians who would question the validity of the faith of those believers who don’t subscribe to the law as they do. We do tend to pick and choose the parts of the law we think are vital even as Paul tells us that the law is no longer our custodian (c.f. Galatians 3:25).

Paul’s counterargument to the Judaizers is that their motives are not for the glory of the cross of Christ Jesus, but for their own glory. They want to be able to boast about the Galatians’ flesh by saying, Look! Now God can save you because I’ve made you just like me! Paul’s opponents sincerely believed that they were the standard of the standardized test. Yet, Paul argues, the Judaizers themselves were unable to keep the very law to which they were insisting the young Galatian believers submit.

Paul hits his point again when he writes: “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation” (Galatians 6:15 CEB). A new creation is every believer who faith and life are known by the fruit of the Spirit. And, I want us to note that Paul does not say the fruits of the Spirit are… as if there are many fruits. We don’t get to pick through the basket of spiritual fruit and choose only what we want. No. Paul says, “The fruit [singular!] of the Spirit is [IS, not are] love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 CEB). There is one fruit of the Spirit, and that fruit is a new creation—a new life—that exhibits all of these attributes.

We can take Paul’s statement, “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything,” and fill in our own words. Being white or black. Being European brown or Asian brown or Hispanic brown. Being a citizen or a refugee. Being straight or gay. Being evangelical or mainline. Being conservative or liberal. Being male or female. Being rich or poor. Paul had his own list: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 CEB).

What really matter, says Paul, is how we serve one another through love. If we can’t to that, then we’re the ones with the salvation problem. The warning that we reap what we sow is tied to judgment. The measure we give is the measure we get. The judgment we give is the judgment we receive. We can’t deny that distinctions exist, but we don’t need to make our distinctions matter. Distinctions should not lead to separation.

Paul offers a blessing for those who follow the gospel he preaches. It’s a gospel where believers are no longer bound by past definitions of faith and faithfulness because something new has been brought to our attention through the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul insists on viewing religion from the inside out, not the outside in. It’s about our faith, not our distinguishing characteristics. It’s about how our faith is exhibited in the fruit of the Spirit, not how we follow certain rules.

One of the more difficult parts for us to accept is where Paul writes that we should “work for the good of all” (Galatians 6:10 CEB). The word all is so dreadfully all-encompassing; so shockingly all-inclusive. I think the reason that word all is so difficult is because we like our safe divisions. We find comfort in separation. We find safety in the wedges driven into the center of what should be our common life. Those wedges are nothing less than new nails piercing the body of our crucified Lord.

All includes people of other faiths. All includes people of other races and cultures. All includes people who are not citizens of our nation. When Paul says, we should work for the good of all he means we should work for the good of all. But the opposite of all is deeply embedded in our mentality. The opposite of all has produced some of the most appalling tragedies in human history.

Paul insists that there’s a better way, and that better way is the only way for those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ. The better way is a religious faith that transcends boundaries. It’s a faith that is moved and motivated by compassion for all—even those who are “other” from us. It’s a faith that sees all people as beloved children of God. It’s a faith that seeks to exhibit God’s love by feeding all whom we encounter with the fruit of the Spirit that God produces in us.

What matters, Paul insists, is a new creation. “May peace and mercy be upon whoever follows this rule and on God’s Israel” (Galatians 6:16 CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay