Circumcision and Other Cutting Edge Issues (a Sermon on Galatians 5:1-12)


“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law … For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you… I wish that the people who are upsetting you would go all the way and castrate themselves!”

(Galatians 5:1-12)

Cicero’s first rule of public speaking was, “render your audience benevolent”. We preachers tend to follow that rule by opening our sermons with a joke. But what do you do when the passage you’re preaching on includes a statement from St Paul such as the one we find in Galatians 5:12:

“I wish that the people who are upsetting you [with their talk of circumcision] would go all the way and castrate themselves!”

Where do you go from there? No opening joke seems necessary! Paul’s risque barb is best left to stand on its own, I think, for the only jokes that come to mind are hardly appropriate on a Sunday morning! So instead of sharing a joke with you I’m going to share an email that I received yesterday. It comes from a member of our online community who lives in the USA:

The state of Arizona here in the United States has passed a strict anti-immigration law which will give local law enforcement in that state to act as immigration officials and arrest, detain and deport any one deemed “undesirable”.That has created tensions in this country between ethnic groups and prejudice in particular towards Muslims and Hispanics

Even though I’m not Muslim and I’m now Anglican, even so, I’m ethnically still Hispanic and even though people can change their religion, no one can ever change their ethnicity. In spite of the fact that I was born and raised in America it hurts to see when even people who I thought were my friends change towards me and not for the better either. The prejudice seems to be perpetrated by the white and believe it or not black American community.

My family and I are considering leaving the country in order to get away from the prejudice and perhaps the possibility of the persecution to come. Before I was standing up for Muslims but right now I’ve been too busy lately standing up for myself, my family and my ethnicity. A couple of days ago, My dad, my brothers, a friend and I were eating at a restaurant. My father was speaking to a waitress friend of ours who is also Hispanic and they were talking in Spanish. Well, this elderly white couple said, “Speak English!” and I said, “This is a free country and we can speak whatever language we choose!”,the lady retorted, “This is America!” and I said, “That’s right!” and she said, “Go back were you came from!” and I told her, “You too!”.

Now that’s a brief and rather depressing insight into the life of one of our online friends who paints a grim picture of the way things are developing in his part of the world. And I’m sure that you (like me) find this story most concerning. What might have you puzzled though is what possible connection this story could have with Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, but there is a connection and the connecting point is this. They both concern prejudice.

In the case of the email this is obvious enough. In the case of Paul’s issue with the church in Galatia it might not be so obvious, for he seems to be arguing over a specifically religious issue – ie. circumcision.

Of course in this country most people would regard circumcision as a medical issue (and as an unnecessary and unwanted one at that) but for Jews in the first century, as for Jews in every century, circumcision was and is a fundamentally religious issue, as it was and is the basic way in which you identify yourself as a member (at least a male member) of the people of God!

“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” (Genesis 17:10-11)

This is God speaking to Abraham, and so you can appreciate that the children of Abraham took this practice seriously! This was their God-given sign through which they demonstrated that they were inheritors of the promise of God made to Abraham. This was how they showed that they were the followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Yet in Paul’s understanding a distinction had to be made between the ethnic children of Abraham, who traced their ancestry back to Abraham, and the children of the faith of Abraham, who shared their spiritual father’s faith but who may or may not have been Abraham’s literal physical descendants.

Paul came to see that the Spirit of the God of Abraham was at work within people of all races – both Abraham’s physical descendants and the rest of us – and he came to the conclusion that the sign of circumcision was relevant only to Abraham’s physical descendants – ie. to the Jews. Circumcision was fundamentally a sign of their ethnicity then and not of their faith, and so it was not relevant to members of the community of faith who were not Jewish.

Christ is the one who brings God to us and us to God, and the physical act of circumcision can’t add anything to that process. To suggest that circumcision is necessary for all members of the household of faith is therefore both to detract from the significance of Christ and to force Jewish cultural practices on other cultures. In other words it’s an act of cultural imperialism or prejudice

That’s a mouthful, and you don’t have to follow the logic as Paul spells it out in Galatians (and even more extensively in his Letter to the church at Rome) but you do need to appreciate that St Paul’s position, and the position of the entire church universal since Paul, is that circumcision is a cultural issue, it is an ethnic issue, it’s a Jewish issue, but it is not what the life of faith is about.

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”

And that, I think, is one of St Paul’s great summaries of the life of faith: that it’s not about circumcision because it’s not about your ethnicity because it’s not about the rules. It’s about faith working through love.

Paul was trying to liberate the early church from what he considered to be the cultural baggage of his forebears. The problem he had though was that the issue he was struggling with didn’t look like an issue of prejudice. It appeared to be religious issues. Of course, prejudice rarely shows its true face openly.

Our experience in campaigning for Sheikh Mansour over recent months is a case in point. Nobody admits that they are having a go at him because he is Iranian or because he is a Muslim! No! They talk of ‘National Security’ and of ‘the interests of the broader community’ and all such twaddle but, as I said at our Town Hall rally last weekend, so I say again here today: we who know Mansour personally know full well that if he were a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, we would never have had this problem!

In a similar vein, I spent lunch yesterday at the Villawood Detention Centre, where I had the privilege to help serve lunch to about eighty prisoners.

I think ‘prisoners’ or ‘inmates’ is the right term? Certainly I’ve visited many of the gaols in this state and the only real difference I could notice between the Detention Centre and one of Her Majesty’s Correctional Facilities is that the Detention Centre seemed to be a bit more honest because it wasn’t pretending to be trying to correct anybody!

I listened to an elderly man there tell me (through an interpreter) about his six-month struggle to get residency here since his escape from Iraq. And then I listened to his cell-mate tell me (though the same interpreter) how the old guy couldn’t sleep at night because of his excruciating stomach cramps, and yet he didn’t seem to be able to get a doctor to attend to him!

I met others there who had been in detention much longer than six months. Indeed, one of my fellow visitors (now a citizen) told me that it had taken him 12 years to get residency! And so we served lunch to about 80 of the prisoners, and by the way some of them stacked high their plates with chicken and homos you would think these guys hadn’t seen a meal like this in quite some time!

And I’m sure that there are excellent political reasons why all these people all need to be locked up, as I’m sure we can’t afford to share our resources with these poor people, lest us rich people all become a little less rich through sharing, and yet I could not escape the sense yesterday that the real reason that these people were treated the way they were had little to do with national security or economic necessity and everything to do with prejudice. And indeed, the preferential treatment I received from the Detention Centre staff (being the only white, non-Arabic-speaking member of our group) was an ongoing reminder of the real issue that was never far below the surface.

Now I’m sure that some of you will say that these are complex political issues and that we can’t just allow all these asylum seekers into our community just as we can’t be dismissive of the security assessments of ASIO just as we can’t expect my mate in Arizona to get away with speaking Spanish in a restaurant without copping a bit of flack, but I do believe that in the end we are struggling here with the same forces that St Paul was struggling with – forces that try to separate and divide people into opposing racial groups and class groups – forces that resist the great truth that St Paul proclaimed so loudly and so often, that in Christ there is no Jew, no Greek, no rich, no poor, no slave, no free, no male, no female, but that all are one as Christ is one!

Prejudice is a spiritual malaise, deeply embedded in our systems of business and government, where it is fed, I believe, by dark forces of a spiritual nature that act to corrupt and distort and pervert and divide, which is why it is so particularly painful when we find these workings of prejudice too be so active still within the church.

Next week I believe our indigenous brother, Pastor Ray Minniecon, will be here as our guest preacher – a man who could tell us lots of sad stories about the way in which the church in this country was involved in stealing the stolen generation, and it’s a sad story for the church indeed.

Of course prejudice takes many forms, and I’m loathe to even mention the problem of prejudice against women that seems to be embedding itself ever more deeply within our own ecclesiastical structures, to an extent that is both painful and embarrassing! And what is particularly sickening in that process is the way in which religious rhetoric is used, as ever, to mask the real issues!

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”

It’s not about circumcision because it’s not about ethnicity, just as it’s not about gender any more than it is about education or class or sexual orientation. It’s about faith working through love.

When are we going to learn – we who have oppressed our indigenous sisters and brothers in the name of Christ, we who use religious rhetoric to keep women in their place and gay people on the other side of the church door, we who have so often stood idly by as visitors to our shores are treated as criminals when their only crime is that they look different, speak different, dress different and pray different from the majority of us here?

When will we change? The answer, I think, is simple. We will change when we allow the Spirit of Christ to flow through us richly, liberating us from the cultural baggage of our forebears, and empowering us to proclaim, alongside St Paul, that in Christ there is no Jew, no Greek, no black, no white, no rich, no poor, no slave, no free, no male, no female, no Iranian, no Australian, no Arab, no Persian, no European, but that all are on in Christ as Christ is in all!

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill June 2010. 

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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