“See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. 12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 For even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh. 14 But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16 Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God. 17 Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brethren. Amen.” (Galatians 6:11-18)
Thus Paul concludes his message to the church in Galatia, in what is often referred to as Paul’s ‘angry letter’.
Indeed, it is a passionate letter, brimming with frustration and strong language that at times seems downright crude, and that passion is on full display here at the very end of Paul’s message as he grabs the stylus from the person he has been dictating to and completes the letter in his own unmistakeable scrawl – “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand …” (Galatians 6:11).
Lest anyone should doubt that these words come straight from the mouth and heart of the Apostle, Paul puts his hand into the production of the letter as he completes it, just as he’d put his heart and soul into it from the very first line!
This is Paul’s angry letter – his passionate letter – and it should not surprise us that the matters under discussion had Paul so worked up because the whole existence of the early church was at stake. Even in its infancy, the church was divided, and Paul believed that the church was going to die in its infancy if it didn’t get some key things right, and, as crazy as it might seem to us now, the crucial issue at the heart of all the grief Paul experienced was, of course, circumcision!
Crazy! That’s how the debate appears to us now, though of course it’s easy to be wise in retrospect, especially when there’s a good twenty centuries of retrospective wisdom between us and this letter. Even so, I don’t think St Paul would disagree that circumcision, in and of itself, was a trivial issue, but behind that specific issue there was a far broader issue at stake, and that broader issue did indeed threaten to divide and destroy the early Christian community.
Some things change. Some stay the same. We too live at a time when a specific issue threatens to divide and destroy the Christian community as we know it – the global Anglican communion most especially. The issue at the moment isn’t circumcision but gay marriage – a completely different issue, of course, or, at least, it seems to be a completely different issue.
Not everybody here may have followed the events that took place at the beginning of last year when Anglican Primates from around the world met in London and voted to suspend the Episcopal church of the USA from full membership in the global Anglican Communion because they had chosen to act unilaterally in authorising same-sex marriages.
If you did follow that event you will no doubt remember Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry – a powerful African American church leader – speaking passionately of his desire to maintain unity with those he had been in conflict with, saying “We are part of the Jesus Movement, and the cause of God’s love in this world can never stop and will never be defeated.”
This 2015 suspension of the Episcopal church did not, of course, appear suddenly out of a vacuum but rather reflected divisions in the Anglican Communion that became explicit at the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) of 2008, which met in Jerusalem in response to the emergence of a ‘false gospel’ that was said to emanate from a certain sector of the Anglican Communion that “promotes a variety of sexual preferences and immoral behaviour as a universal human right.” Our own Archbishop of Sydney at the time, Peter Jensen, was elected General Secretary of GAFCON in 2008, and I believe he remains so to this day.
The specific issue, not explicitly mentioned in the GAFCON statement quoted above but assumed to be at the basis of the controversy, was the US Episcopal church’s 2003 consecration of the openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson. However we understand the evolution of the issue though, what is clear is that we (Sydney) were involved from the beginning, and hence it should come as no surprise that we (the Sydney Anglican Diocese) took a very deliberate stance in the current election on the issue of the projected plebiscite regarding gay marriage.
It’s probably high time I confessed that I was in fact encouraged to make an announcement to the congregation on either of the last two Sundays, instructing parishioners as to the positions taken by the major parties on the issue of same-sex marriage, so that each of us might be fully informed as to how our votes might affect the issue. The assumption was that we would be united in our opposition to same-sex marriage and that I would be doing us all a service by helping us all to mobilise in support of our common cause. This, of course, is not our reality.
I did indeed let the bishop know that I wouldn’t be making the announcement on the week the task was given me, most obviously because we had a gay activist preacher giving the sermon that Sunday. Of course I didn’t make the announcement last Sunday either, and I probably would not have mentioned it at all except for the way in which today’s Epistle reading from the final section of Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia seems to me to connect to the very issues addressed in the announcement, though probably not in the way that the authors of the announcement might have envisaged.
“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” (Galatians 6:15)
I actually changed my mind about the issue of gay marriage some years ago, along with my judgements concerning issues of sexuality in general, and the change for me came while I was reading Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia! I don’t remember if it was this exact passage, but if not this one it was one just like it.
The key insight that I felt unlocked Paul’s thinking for me, not only in this passage but throughout this letter and throughout so many of St Paul’s writings, was that the Apostle wasn’t really interested in circumcision as such, but rather with the bigger question that the issue of circumcision raised – namely, ‘who is welcome in the church of Jesus Christ?’
Of course, if you were to ask any church leader or any church member that question in that or in any other period in the history of the church, I suspect the answer you’d get would always be the same – namely, ‘everybody is welcome!’ – but, in truth, there is normally a fair bit of fine-print attached to that welcome. We have never really been very good in making everybody welcome.
We are pretty good at welcoming people who are just like us. This is the way we naturally work. I spend a lot of time, as you know, with members of the Muslim community, and I often wonder how we’d go if some of those dear people expressed a desire to join our church. I suspect we would be very welcoming initially but that it wouldn’t be long before someone said to one of the new members “why don’t you stop wearing that hijab now? After all, it’s a symbol of your oppression and you don’t need it!” She might respond “but I don’t see it as a symbol of oppression” to which we might respond with “well, I do!” and the battle-lines would be drawn!
Of course it might not happen exactly that way, but the truth is that we don’t find it easy to accommodate people whose dress and language and lifestyle are different from our own, especially when those points of difference are fundamental to our identities as individuals and as a group!
This was the issue for Paul – who was welcome in the church of Jesus Christ? Paul and the Apostles and the entire first-century church would all answer with one voice “everybody”, but there was regularly some fine print attached!
Joining the church meant becoming a member of the people of God – the people of Israel – and while everybody was invited to join Israel, being an Israelite meant adopting certain practises and lifestyle choices and dress-codes that marked you out as one of God’s people, and most fundamental of all it meant entering into the age-old covenant of circumcision, such that all the males in your family – young and old – would physically mark themselves in this way so as to identify themselves as members of the nation of Israel, the people of God.
It’s interesting that Paul, in this letter to the Galatians, doesn’t challenge the idea that to be a joined to the people of God means becoming an Israelite. Instead, what Paul does is to redefine Israel as a spiritual concept rather than as a nation state!
Did you pick that up in this passage? Galatians 6:16: “Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God.” The ‘Israel of God’ is here redefined as an open community that includes all who ‘walk by this rule’.
Paul doesn’t disagree that we all need to be Israelites (in a sense). All who ‘walk by the rule’ are Israelites by definition! What he does challenge is that in order to be Israelites (in this new spiritual sense) we need to adopt the lifestyle and the dress-code and the practices of that ancient Biblical people. Paul came to the conclusion that all of those symbols and practices were nothing but superficial tribal markings that could be happily discarded by members of spiritual Israel who weren’t genetically connected to people of the Old Testament.
Paul’s thinking is beautifully summed up, I think, in Galatians 6:15: “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”
Paul recognised that the circumcised and the uncircumcised were distinct ethnic groups, and I don’t think he really wanted to trivialise ethnic and cultural difference. Even so, what he recognised was that, in the eyes of God, those traditional symbols of ethnic identity counted for nothing!
“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” Yes, there are real and tangible things that divide us ethnically and humanly, but before God these differences count for nothing. It’s the new creation that counts, and that is something far deeper and more mysterious than circumcision or ethnicity or status or gender or, I think Paul would say, sexual orientation.
As Paul says earlier in this same letter, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
What counts is neither ethnicity nor status nor gender nor anything else. That’s not to say that each and all of these things aren’t important. Indeed, they define who we are! Even so, in the eyes of God they don’t count for much in the sense that they don’t help qualify us for membership of the people of God any more than they disqualify us. These things in themselves are irrelevant to our spiritual identity. All that matters at that level is our openness to the Spirit of God and our willingness to be transformed!
If you’ve never read the spiritual adventures of St Paul as he argues for this position of inclusiveness throughout his apostolic career, you get a lot of it right here in this letter to the Galatians.
In chapter two Paul details how we had a stand-up argument with no less a character than the Apostle Peter in Antioch because Peter had taken a compromise position with the non-Jews there. Peter had been happy to welcome the uncircumcised into the community but, according to Paul, he accepted that they should nonetheless eat separately from the Jewish members of the church, thus making them, for all events and purposes, second-class citizens (Galatians 2:11-13).
This all sounds very familiar – welcoming everyone into the church but denying certain groups full status. That’s not to say that we don’t eat with them, but we probably don’t allow them into positions of leadership. We certainly don’t consecrate any of them as our bishops!
The specific issues change – circumcision, the consecration of a bishop, a proposed change in the Marriage Act – but the basic question remains the same: ‘who is welcome in the church of Jesus Christ?’ Paul’s uncompromising response was always the same – ‘everybody!’… really, no fine-print, everybody – Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, rich and poor, male and female, straight and gay, sinner and saint, everybody!
It’s hard to be open to everybody. We are always feeling a need to put people into categories and draw lines around those who are acceptable and those who are not. And we who like to think of ourselves as being at the open-minded, liberal end of the spectrum can be just as intolerant as anyone else. Our intolerance just tends to focus on those we consider to be intolerant! We are very open-minded, except when it comes to dealing with people that we don’t see as being open-minded!
True inclusiveness is not easy, and yet it is our calling. As one spiritually mature person put it to me recently, ‘whenever we draw a line between us and them, we can be sure that the Lord Jesus is on the other side of that line’.
St Paul saw this, I believe, and he was right too when he saw that the future of the infant church depended on how they dealt with this issue. Humanly speaking at least, had Paul lost the battle for inclusiveness, we can only imagine that the church would have remained a small sect within greater Judaism, most likely to disappear completely when Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans in the year 67, if not before!
What kept the fire of Christ burning in the church, and what continues to keep it burning, was the radical proclamation of the Gospel, upheld by St Paul, that all people are loved by God, all are of equal value, everybody is welcome!
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:15-16)
sermon delivered at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, June 2016